Ashley Hope Perez's debut What Can't Wait was one of my favorite books last year and I am honored to be a part of her blog tour. Today I have the pleasure of hosting the author, as we talk about her newest release The Knife and the Butterfly. My review
Hi Ashley, can you tell us a little about The Knife and the Butterfly?
Of course! It follows two teens through the aftermath of a gang fight, but it also cuts back into what happened in their lives leading up to the day they met. Actually, I’m in awe of how well my publisher framed things, so here’s the jacket copy to get you all intrigued.
I must confess after reading the book blurb my first thought was “oh, no, a gang novel.” I was still going to read it but didn't have high hopes. I can say this all now because I've already read and really enjoyed The Knife and the Butterfly. I know it’s still early, but have you heard similar confessions?
Yours is the first confession, but I was very aware of how problematic writing about gangs can be. I didn’t want to glamorize or demonize Azael or his gang. MS-13 has been called “the deadliest gang,” and it’s definitely no joke. But at the same time, most of my research pointed to the fact that, in Houston at least, lots of youths involved with gangs like MS-13 are not highly organized or militarized like their counterparts in South America.
But this is not just an issue of veracity; it’s one of tone and balance. I think the reader learns how to filter Azael’s portrayal of his experiences, taking into account the bravado in his words when he describes his affiliation and past “accomplishments” with his gang. And I think the reader detects the sincerity in his desire to start anew and keep the people he loves clear of MS-13.
One of the first things I noticed is while Azael is in MS-13, he has the qualities of a leader and is not defined by his gang (even though he believes otherwise). How does this Azael compare to the Azael of the first draft?
Azael has pretty much been Azael since I first started imagining him. (Lexi was another story; she evolved a lot from draft to draft.) At first, I knew most about the Azael of the “Now” sections, and he could really piss me off (the way he thinks about women, for example). But I kept asking myself, who was he before he was this Azael? Where are the traces of those other selves, and what are the memories that he clings to—or that haunt him?
That process of discovery—and the boy I found under all the swagger—was what made me want to save Azael and give him the closest thing to a second chance that’s possible in his world.
Azael is a graffiti artist, using empty walls or trains throughout Houston as his canvas. Before you wrote the Knife and the Butterfly, what did you think of graffiti art (if you thought of it and all) And did your opinion change when you finished the novel?
I had noticed graffiti and spray-painted stuff in my environment while living in Houston, but I could never have told you the difference between a tag, a throw-up, and a piece. Nor would I have labeled myself a serious appreciator of street art.
I’m still firmly in the camp of “Don’t Mess Up Other People’s Stuff,” but as I learned about canning, I came to understand what making a mark on the city’s face might mean to a teen like Azael. The most powerful aspect of that discovery was that my own reasons for writing mapped pretty well onto Azael’s reasons for canning. Go figure. There is tons of graffiti inside the metro tunnels here in Paris, and as I commute, if I’m too tired to read, I watch it roll pass and try to imagine the need to be seen behind it.
Why did you decide use a real gang ?
A couple of reasons. The most obvious is that the novel was inspired by an actual event that involved MS-13. So I let reality take the lead in that respect. Going with MS-13 gave me a clear direction in my research: I knew I needed to learn about their hand signs, the “rules” of initiation and involvement, linguistic patterns, and so on. One reader living in Houston emailed me recently and described how, driving around, she kept thinking about “the other Houston” that the characters experienced. I don’t think you can get that kind of grounding with a fictional gang. At least, I don’t think I can do it. I like particularity.
There's an ease to your use of street vernacular (unlike some novels where it comes across has forced). Did your students give you any helpful feedback in regards to Azael’s slang?
Thanks for the compliment; I’m glad the language felt natural. I know there were kids in gangs at the high school where I taught, but I never knew who. Perhaps it was willful ignorance... I just didn’t feel equipped to deal with that knowledge. My students did tell me about the hostility between Salvadoran and Mexican-American immigrants. (Readers get a few tastes of this, like when Eddie complains about how “Mexicans never flush” their toilet paper or when Azael and Pájaro complain about Tejano music.)
I spent a lot of time reading first-person gang narratives and interviews with MS-13 members to pick up the right slang. Learning how street writers talk about their work (heaven spots, throw-ups, pieces, fat tips, skinny tips, buffing…) was another job.
Were there any words or phrases that you thought were current but were sadly dated?
It’s funny, it was actually kind of the opposite. I never would have thought to use the word “rumble,” for example, to describe a gang fight. To me, that word just screams The Outsiders and sounds totally forced. But it was all over the place in these interviews, so I learned how it fit into Azael’s speech.
Midway in, the reader is introduced Lexi, who like Azael finds herself thinking about past choices. What do you believe was harder for both characters, the remembering of deeds done or the actions themselves?
Definitely the remembering. Part of why Lexi and Azael struggle with what they’ve done is how little those past choices “weighed” when they made them. It scares me—and this is an inspiration for Azz and Lexi—that really bad decisions often don’t even feel like decisions. It can feel like something that “just happened.”
But we still have to own these actions, finally. This is a big theme in the book, which is probably why the rockstars at Carolrhoda Lab put this bit from Azael on the jacket:
“So I draw. I draw without worrying about what difference it’ll make; I draw because the pencil is in my hand. I draw, and I feel all the Azzs I’ve been, all my choices nested together inside me like the layers of an onion. My pencil is flying because that’s how it is: you choose and you choose and you choose, and that’s your life. That’s what you are.”
I really like the book cover and had a greater appreciation for it once I finished the story. Who was the cover artist?
The designers at my publisher are in charge of the cover work, but I don’t know which of the amazing artists came up with the exact design. I do know that the concept evolved considerably. Check out my guest post at Sarah Laurence's blog on for the inside scoop on the cover art and some of the designs that didn’t get chosen.
The cover is such important part of a novel and I love when I can learn more about it, so I can't wait to check that out.
I've enjoyed a few of your blog entries about living in Paris. After all the delicious food, your arrival post about adjusting to living in a new country is my favorite.
It's been a little over three months since you wrote that; does Paris feel less foreign yet?
Oh, absolutely. We feel like Paris pros now; we have our little routines and our familiar places. When we buy groceries, for example, it’s a whole ordeal, but it’s also a lot of fun. We have our baker, our chicken guy, our fish vendor, our salad and mushroom guy. Liam knows exactly who will give him a free banana or a slice of baguette. Sometimes I think about how weird it will be to return to the States and not get to buy all my groceries without ever getting into the car.
Some things are still mysterious to us, like the point of a strike if it’s announced weeks in advance, or why a government that prides itself on being rigidly secular still has Christian federal holidays. But we’ve learned not to lose sleep over these details.
Does your son know more Spanish, English or French words?
This question made me laugh out loud because the truth is that Liam knows more animal sounds than anything else. He is really good at them! He can do (in order of preference): dog, cow, lion, tiger, elephant, chicken, frog, owl, pig, monkey, sheep, and horse. My favorite is the lion because it comes with a paw swipe. The other day we were coming off the metro; usually, Liam waves bye to everyone, but this time he decided to ROAR! at everyone.
He does have words, too, and they are pretty balanced between the three languages. One thing that is fun to see how he’s already paying attention to who speaks what language. When he skypes with an English speaker, he says “bye-bye,” but when we leave his nursery school, he says, “au revoir.” When I leave the house, I usually get “adios.”
If you could have one thing imported from Houston to Paris for you, what would it be?
Oh, Lord. Just one thing? It would be a warm breakfast taco with a homemade tortilla, eggs, potato, cheese, and tomatillo salsa. Preferably from the Stripes gas station on Howard Drive. (I know that sounds gross, but they have ladies who make the most delicious food, and it’s right by where I used to teach.)
Do you plan on doing any Skype Q&A's for The Knife and the Butterfly?
I haven’t scheduled any yet, but I would love to! Book clubs, classes, the possibilities are endless! So anybody who’s interested should give me a holler.
Ashley, as you know the skype question was originally the last one. And it truly breaks my heart that this couldn't end there but I would be remiss not to mention Tuscon's recent decision to ban the Mexican American Studies Program and removing Latino related books from the classroom curriculum. I've been following Debbie Reese's excellent coverage and the more I read the less I understand. I am totally baffled as to how this could happen and the reasoning behind it.
Are you having any better luck processing this decision? Do you think or worry that Houston the city you call home would ever do the same?
I am still trying to wrap my brain around these actions. They are a blatant attack, not just on Mexican American Studies, but on a view of the world in which there are multiple stories that constitute a given history. The supporters of the house bill that ultimately justified the Tucson action (I have heard from some that Tucson resisted the shut-down; others seem to think they were thrilled to have an excuse to kill MAS) want to deny the complexity of the fabric that makes up the US. They are fine with curricula that "advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals"--so long as the ethnic solidarity promoted is a sanitized version of whiteness, that is, itself, nothing but a myth. When the Irish came to this country, they were often treated in much the same way as recent brown immigrants. That, too, is part of our history. To teach it--or to teach about the oppressive treatment suffered by Mexican Americans and others--is not to incite dissent but to inform of fact.
We cannot address errors of the past by denying them; healing comes through broadened knowledge and dialogue, and the texts that have been recently removed from Tucson schools are powerful tools in that effort. That's why opponents are so keen on getting rid of them. But they know that that isn't enough; the truth is any text can be explored from an ethnic studies perspective (as the example from The Tempest demonstrates), so now district leaders are micromanaging the classroom practices of their teachers. That is scary stuff. I cannot imagine the same happening in HISD, where the success of the district depends on the success of Hispanic students, but who knows. At any rate, I know my teaching would wilt in such an environment, and I would have to think long and hard about what to do--how far to go in my resistance of censorship.
I want to make one last point to bring home the importance and relevance of ethnic studies for all of us. For my third novel, I have done a lot of research about the experiences of Mexican Americans in schools in the 1930s. What stunned me most in reading about the logistics of segregating Mexican-American students in Texas (and I bet the situation was similar in Arizona) was that they were essential forced out of school by sixth grade. Enormously overcrowded classrooms in the "Mexican" schools made learning difficult, putting the students further behind their white peers. On top of that, the school districts in Texas often divided elementary grades into two years ("lower first," "upper first") in "Mexican" schools, causing students to be told that they were "too old" for the grade they should have been able to join in the (white) middle school.
In Houston in the 30s, for example, only a handful of Mexican-Americans (usually lighter skinned) graduated from high school at all despite a significant Hispanic population in the area. They faced discrimination in white schools, and there was no "Mexican" public high school as an option.
I also discovered that, unlike African-Americans, whose teachers--also African-American--were usually committed to helping students use education to combat their circumstances, Mexican-American children were almost invariably taught by white teachers, some of whom found theirs an "undesirable" placement and were quick to underestimate the abilities of their students.
I couldn't have been more sympathetic to the challenges of my Mexican-American students, but--back when I was teaching in high school--I had NO IDEA that this was in our history. There is no way that you can tell me that these events--experienced by parents and grandparents of my students--had no impact on my students' own attitudes toward school. If I'd had the good fortune to take a class like the MAS courses recently axed in Tucson, maybe I would have been more informed.
These stories and experiences matter because they've shaped our shared history. We need to keep talking about them--in Tucson and beyond.