Recently I read Ashley Hope Pérez’s gut-wrenching historical novel, Out of Darkness, which was one of the most critically acclaimed YA novels to be released last year. It garnered several starred reviews, praise in the The New York Times Book Review, and was awarded a Printz Honor. Sometimes I read critically acclaimed books and wind up wondering if I missed something because I don’t understand why they were so highly praised. This was not the case with Out of Darkness. The more I read, the deeper I fell into the story that Pérez was telling, and the more certain I was that this novel deserves every accolade it has received. Out of Darkness reveals itself, page by page, to be deeply committed to exposing the reality of life in East Texas in 1937. It is by turns hopeful, horrifying, passionate, tragic, and unflinching. The last section of the novel is a downhill skid into a nightmare that is inescapable, heartbreaking, and powerful. It has stayed with me, as it should.
The novel is about a Mexican American girl named Naomi, who has been forced to move to New London, Texas, to live with her white stepfather, Henry. He is the father of Naomi’s half-siblings, the young twins Beto and Cari. Naomi, Beto, and Cari all have the same mother (also Mexican American), who died after giving birth to the twins. Naomi, as a brown girl in a community segregated between black and white, doesn’t fit in. Henry has abused her and continues to be disturbing, at best. At school, she is sexualized by the white boys and ostracized by the white girls, although she does befriend a few more open-minded people.
The one person she truly connects with is Wash Fuller, a black teen who does odd jobs in the community, saving money so he can go to college. An interracial romance between Wash and Naomi is forbidden, so as the two fall in love with each other, they keep their relationship a secret, meeting in the woods nearby. Both Naomi and Wash know their romance is doomed, but they are two teens in love. They could be almost anyone in that situation, and that’s part of the tragedy. They are every one of us who has experienced the sweetness and joy of first love.
But the racism of 1937 East Texas is impossible to escape. It seeps into every corner of Naomi’s life, in all of its blunt and contradictory ways. It is obvious from the beginning of the novel that racism — as well as sexism — is going to play a brutal role in Naomi’s story. I could feel it coming as I approached the end, and at one point I found myself hoping: This book is called Out of Darkness, so they’re going to emerge from this hellish place, right? But Out of Darkness pulls no punches, and that’s why it succeeds.
In the Author’s Note at the end of the novel, Pérez writes:
“An understandable protective impulse sometimes inspires efforts to conceal, diminish, or disavow such painful histories. The work of this book, however, was to bring to light experiences and narratives that might otherwise go unacknowledged. I have tried to balance the heartbreak, cruelty, and ignorance of my characters’ world with a profound attention to the forms of kindness and connection that are also possible in it.”
This “understandable protective impulse,” especially in books for young people, is one of the most insidious ways that racism continues to be institutionalized in our literature.
It is natural to want to protect young people from horrible truths, but all too often we forget to question who exactly are these young people we want to protect? Typically, they’re white. Young people of color have already experienced racism; they are beyond this kind of protection. Hopefully, today’s young people of color have not experienced racism in the way that Naomi and Wash experienced it in 1937, but believe me: You can’t be a person of color in the United States today and never experience racism. It is still here, every day, ranging from microaggressions like the kind Naomi experiences when her classmates make ignorant comments about dirty Mexicans, to much more macro aggressions like police shootings of black teens.
Not every novel about minorities needs to grapple with racism, but when racism is one of the subjects of a novel, it should be faced directly. It does a disservice to those who have been hurt by racism to do otherwise.
Yes, racism is devastating to feel. It bristles with unfairness. I have never felt the horrors that Naomi and Wash feel in Out of Darkness, but I know what it feels like to be taunted for your race. I know what it feels like to stand in the same room with so-called allies who toss out ignorant assumptions about people like me. I know what it feels like to be muzzled because I don’t want to upset the white people. At the same time, I know that I am extremely fortunate. I am an Asian American lesbian, but I am also privileged by my education and financial status.
Partly because of novels like Out of Darkness, I can imagine what it must be like for people who don’t have my privileges. Can you?
The last line of Out of Darkness is an exhortation to all of us to climb out of the dark world that racism has built. In order to do that, first you have to look around and see it for what it is. It hurts. It’s meant to hurt.