This is the fifth stop of The Knife and the Butterfly blog tour. I am beyond happy to host Ashley for a guest post. I am a fan of Ashley's and loved her debut novel What Can't Wait. (my review here) Her new novel is just as eye-opening and thought-provoking as her first and I will be reviewing it tomorrow.
The Knife and the Butterfly
Azael Arevalo wishes he could remember how the fight ended. He knows his MS13 boys faced off with some punks from Crazy Crew. He can picture the bats, the bricks, the chains. A knife. But he can’t remember anything between that moment and when he woke behind bars. Azael knows jails, and something isn’t right about this lockup. No phone call. No lawyer. No news about his brother or his homies. The only thing they make him do is watch some white girl in some cell. Watch her and try to remember.
Lexi Allen would love to forget the fight, would love for it to disappear back into the Xanax fog it came from. And her mother and her lawyer hope she chooses not to remember too much about the brawl—at least when it’s time to testify. Lexi knows that there’s more at stake in her trial than her life alone, though. Azael needs the truth. The knife cut, but somehow it also connected.
Making Stereotypes Undo Themselves
by Ashley Hope Perez
Let’s get one fact about The Knife and the Butterfly out of the way. My protagonist, Azael, is Hispanic. He’s also a gang member. And he’s been in jail.
I know what you’re thinking. How can somebody with the last name “Pérez” be ready to go along with a damaging stereotype like this?
Picture the cliché like a loosely woven sweater laid out on a bed—you think you know what it is, right? But pull on that dangling piece of yarn and watch it unravel. Watch as the yarn shows its promise for being reshaped into many other forms.
Sorry about the lame knitting analogy. Here’s my point: sometimes the cliché is just waiting to be undone. The Knife and the Butterfly starts off with a familiar scenario—jail, a Hispanic teen, a gang fight, a girl—and dares the reader to discover all the other dimensions of the story. Of the situation. Of the speaker. Of the world he lives in.
In fact, the reader is in good company because Azael himself has to overcome a number of stereotypes that he’s bought into, stereotypes that come through in his bragging and bluster—and in his sexist attitude toward women.
One of the things I loved best about writing The Knife and the Butterfly is that I got a chance to dig into a world that I had known only second-hand. And I discovered that, even in the world of gangs and petty crimes, everyday realities cast a wider shadow than the stereotypes that pretend to contain them. Azael’s life is full of contrasts, love and loss, loyalty and recklessness.
Yes, you will see Azael’s brother, Eddie, get jumped into MS-13. But you also see the two of them learn to become caregivers for their little sister—and for each other. Yesterday I blogged about the physical items Azael carries with him over at YA Outside the Lines. Here’s a memory he carries with him, one that I hope starts the process of unraveling a stereotype of who Azael is and what he is capable of.
This excerpt comes from Chapter 16 of The Knife and the Butterfly:
The last time I saw my mom was at the hospital the day Regina was born. I was six years old. Eddie was almost eight. Papi had to hold the baby up because Mami’s arms weren’t strong enough. The blanket on the bed was yellow and covered with fuzz that came off when you pulled at it. Eddie kept grabbing my hand away, but I liked the fuzz so much I didn’t care if he called me stupid. I played with the blanket, and Mami started singing real soft, Duérmete niñito, no llores chiquito. She was singing for the baby, but I liked it all the same. Then the nurse took Regina away in a little cart, and Mami called me and Eddie to come up closer to her. I had all the blanket fuzz balled up in my hand, but it didn’t matter because she just reached out to brush my hair back out of my eyes. Her hand was so light touching my forehead it made me think of a little bird, this gray one with a curved beak we used to see pecking around for bugs in the dirt of the Bel-Lindo parking lot.
“You need un corte de pelo,” she said real soft, trailing her fingers through my hair. “You, too,” she told Eddie.
He was biting his lip to keep from crying, but he swallowed hard and said, “I’ll get Mrs. Guzman to cut it, Mami. Por seguro.”
Papi came over, and he cried, too. He put his hands on the back of our heads and pulled us in close. It felt strange to be pressed against Papi’s body because it was always Mami who hugged us. I wanted to pull away and wipe my nose, but I didn’t want to make him mad. I also didn’t want my fuzz ball to get wet.
And then we were going back down the long hall with Papi. Nobody talked about what was happening because Mami already told us how the doctors said something else was growing inside her, something bad, but that they couldn’t fix it without hurting the baby. What she didn’t tell us then was that now that Regina was here, it was too late to fix it. Nobody told us that.
Mami lasted two more days. She passed while me and Eddie were at Mrs. Guzman’s watching cartoons. Papi was at the hospital when it happened. Mrs. Guzman answered the phone, and after she told us and hugged us for a long time, I asked Eddie if the birds in her hands were what carried her up to heaven when she died, but he just kept staring at the TV like the stupid happy music was all that mattered.
Sad memories aren’t my only tool for cliché busting. I worked hard to find ways to express complex insights in Azael’s voice. And the ultimate challenge for Azael is figuring out what he can do now—from inside this crazy lock-up he finds himself in—to make sure the story of his life doesn’t land him in a pile of stereotypes.
Check out an author interview with The Happy Nappy Bookseller for further insights into the writing of the novel. More excerpts, guest posts, and secrets (including two truths and a lie) coming throughout Ashley’s The Knife and the Butterfly blog tour. See the full tour schedule here
Ashley Hope Pérez is the author of two young adult novels, WHAT CAN'T WAIT and THE KNIFE AND THE BUTTERFLY. She also is a passionate teacher and student working on her PhD in comparative literature. At the moment, she lives in Paris with her husband and son where they enjoy culture, croissants, and cramped living quarters.