Sunday, June 06, 2010

Interview with Young Adult author Alex Sanchez

by Guest Blogger Andrew J. Peters

Alex Sanchez has blazed a trail in YA fiction with honest, fresh and matter-of-fact portrayals of American gay teenagers. His début novel Rainbow Boys (2003) was selected as a "Best Book for Young Adults" by the American Library Association. His subsequent novels have been bestowed with the Myers Outstanding Book Award (Getting It, 2006) and the Florida Book Award Gold Medal (Bait, 2009).

While attitudes toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people remain a polarizing force in the adult world—California's Prop 8 and the Pentagon review of 'Don't Ask Don't Tell' for example, young people increasingly accept teenagers declaring themselves gay, starting Gay/Straight Alliance clubs and attending prom with same-sex dates as benign, inspirational or even commonplace events. Accordingly, YA has changed, broadened to include an LGBT fiction niche, and seen a squall of critically-acclaimed publications such as Peter Cameron's Some Day This Pain Will Be Useful To You (2007), Brent Hartinger's Geography Club (2003) and Leanne Lieberman's Gravity (2008).

With seven books published in as many years, Sanchez stands out as a singularly steady YA voice, and his books have become a sort of anthology of the contemporary gay teen experience. Coming out, with all its internal and external challenges, is his standby theme, but his stories reach beyond into many topics – dating, divorce, AIDS scares, which have resonated for young readers, gay and non-gay, for nearly a decade. For older readers, there's the added draw of the subversive. Imagine Judy Blume with all the main characters gay and a sprinkling of non-gay characters on the periphery.

As a longtime advocate for LGBT teens, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to talk to Alex about his work.

Andrew Peters: Alex, thanks so much for stopping by La Bloga. I think of you as a real pioneer. You're one of the first YA authors to launch a successful series with gay teen characters front-and-center. Given the conservative tendencies of the publishing industry, many gay-themed stories have not been embraced so whole-heartedly in the mainstream. What do you think made the difference for your books?

Alex Sanchez: I think much of my initial success came from writing the right book for the right time. Rainbow Boys, my début novel, portrayed characters dealing with issues that so many young people—both gay and straight—face in high schools today: safe sex, HIV, homophobia, along with the perennial teen struggles of figuring out identity, love, friendship, trying to fit in... I think that combination of timely issues and perpetual themes appealed to publishers.

AP: Your parents are Cuban and German. You were born in Mexico and moved to the United States when you were five. In past interviews, you've talked about the challenges of growing up in the States as a non-English speaker, receiving anti-Mexican taunts, and the ability to blend in as a light-skinned boy. How have these experiences shaped your personal sense of cultural identity?

AS: On one hand, I feel lucky to have two cultures—Latino and Anglo. I think that creates more empathy and an ability to see situations and issues from different perspectives. On the other hand, I never feel completely Latino or completely Anglo. Sometimes I have to work to feel I fully belong to either group.
AP: Fear and stigma push many gay people to lead double lives. For gay people of color, that push is often even harder, and it can also be more difficult finding a place within the gay community, or culture, since it's so dominated by White folks. I notice this splitting of identities in the work of gay authors of color as well, maybe more so in the older generation--James Baldwin and John Rechy, who more-or-less separated their "gay" stories from their "black" or "Latino" stories. This is a long lead-in to a question, but here goes: Do you see that split changing? Did you ever feel pressure, internally or externally, to de-emphasize the ethnicity of the people you write about in your gay-themed work?

AS: Up till now, my writing voice has focused on sexuality. To keep that focus, I’ve deemphasized ethnicity. I haven’t really written any “Latino” stories. But I think that reflects how American culture has changed. For many Latino young people today, the central story of their lives isn’t their ethnicity. Their struggles are with those universal themes of love, friendship, and sexuality. They just happen to be Latino people.

AP: You're received a lot of praise in the LGBT literary world including a Lambda Literary Award and multiple-year nominations. What's been the response of Latino readers?

AS: It’s been tremendously gratifying to meet and receive emails from so many Latino readers. It was also an honor for my novel, Getting It, to win second place at the Latino Book Awards.

AP: One of the things I really enjoyed in your Rainbow Boys series was the revolving narratives. You give readers a chance to see three young gay men handling coming out very differently. One of the issues that comes through, via the Nelson/Jason foil, is the acceptance of gay teens who can "pass" vs. the hardships of those who can't. Do you think the dynamics are changing for gay teens? Are gender non-conforming celebrities like Mark Indelicato on Ugly Betty paving the way?


AS: The dynamics are definitely changing. Whether on TV or in my books, gender nonconforming portrayals show alternatives for what it means to be male or female. That can raise society’s comfort level—but not for everybody. Some people feel challenged and respond negatively. When real life young people challenge traditional gender stereotypes, they’re able to experience a lot more freedom and acceptance by being openly themselves, but they also risk making themselves targets for bullying and harassment.


AP: You worked professionally as a teen counselor. I currently work with teenagers as well, so I can imagine that giving visibility to gay teens in YA lit is tremendously rewarding but sets up a tremendous responsibility. Do you feel a sense of responsibility to portray gay characters a certain way?


AS: The responsibility I feel is to be as honest and truthful as I can. Honesty entails examining situations from different—often conflicting—viewpoints. I feel comfortable presenting a character like Nelson, who embraces the so-called “gay stereotype,” because I also present other gay characters that dispel the stereotype.

AP: Another responsibility I imagine is setting real life issues like sexual, drug and alcohol experimentation in a context where choices can be looked at critically and even modified with education. Your books include a list of LGBT teen resources as an appendix, which I think is a really important thing. On the other hand, in writing a narrative, the characters are just living their lives, sometimes without any introspection. Where does the reflection and education about these choices come in for you? While writing the story or during an editorial process?


AS: We learn through stories. Every good story offers lessons about life, about love, about who we are. For example, think of Shakespeare’s plays and the lessons they reveal about pride, jealousy, love, greed… Or take Don Quixote’s quests and what he and we learn through them… That being said, when writing, I try to avoid determining beforehand what lessons may be contained in the story. Rather, I focus on creating characters in conflict, and let the outcome of the conflicts reveal the lessons.

AP: You've said your inspiration for Rainbow Boys was wanting to write books you would've liked to read when you were young. I also would've liked to have read them as a teenager but found myself skulking through the library stacks and picking out books with any sort of gay content, which turned out to be books by William Burroughs and Paul T. Rogers where the gay characters were hustlers and/or entrenched in a drug sub-culture. What did you read as a teenager?

AS: I loved high-passion stories like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and adventures like Robinson Crusoe. It wasn’t until college that gay friends introduced me to books like Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy and Christopher Isherwood’s novels. Around that time I also discovered those hustler/druggie/alcoholic/being-gay-is-so-depressing-why-not-just-slit-your-wrists-now books. I think part of why my novels strike a chord for both younger and older readers is because the characters move beyond being victims.

AP: One of the Rainbow Boys Jason Carrillo struggles a bit more with coming out due to his status as a jock and his father's machismo. I found that portrayal really honest and moving, and I also really enjoyed Xio, the 13-year old Chicana who realizes her "boyfriend" is gay in So Hard To Say. Are you planning to write more stories about Latino/a teens?

AS: Absolutely. The central characters in my subsequent books, Getting It, The God Box, and Bait, have all been Latino teens.

AP: What are you working on currently?

AS: My newest manuscript, Boyfriends with Girlfriends, comes out spring of 2011. It delves more deeply into bisexual themes. And, of course, it includes a Latino central character.

AP: Thanks for the interview Alex, and best of luck with your future projects.

AS: Thanks! For more info about all my books, readers can visit http://www.alexsanchez.com/.


Andrew J. Peters is a writer and a social worker for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in New York City. His blog and a description of his projects can be found at: http://andrewjpeterswrites.com/

6 comments:

Janet said...

I'm a huge fan of Alex Sanchez's books. I've read them all, and as a librarian I've shared them with teens many times. Thanks for this terrific interview! Would love to know what Alex is working on now!

Anonymous said...

Fantastic interview. Thanks for highlighting this author.

Olga said...

Thanks Andrew. Great questions. I really enjoyed learning about Alex Sanchez and his work.

Andrew said...

Thanks Janet, Anon & Olga!!

Janet - I didn't ask him about current projects beyond Boyfriends & Girlfriends coming out in 2011. Maybe I can coax him to drop by La Bloga to let us know if he has anything else underway.

tatiana de la tierra said...

Really dug this interview as I've read (and enjoyed) several of his books. Gracias!

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