By Xánath Caraza
Mid-September showers in Kansas City announce the coming of the new season, el otoño, with them the arrival of Benjamin Alire Saénz. Kansas City was honored to welcome him for two readings.
First, before delving into Saénz’ literary activities in Kansas City, allow me to point out some of his literary accolades.
Benjamin Alire Saénz is a novelist, poet, and writer of children's books. He was named one of the "Fifty Most Inspiring Authors in the World" by Poets & Writers magazine. His latest collection of short stories Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club is the winner of the prestigious 2013 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, as well as a Lambda Literary Finalist for Gay Fiction.
The settings of a good deal of his writing are along the U.S.-Mexico border and are in many ways a celebration of his roots. Sáenz was born in Old Picacho, a small farming village outside Las Cruces, New Mexico, forty-two miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border.
His publications are by nature of special mention. His 2012 novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (Simon and Schuster) is an Honor Book for the Printz Award, and the winner of the Pura Belpré and the Stonewall Awards. His young adult novel Sammy & Juliana in Hollywood, a staple in many high school curricula, was a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize, a Top Ten Best Book for Young Adults, and winner of the Américas Award. His bestselling bilingual children's books include: A Gift from Papá Diego, Grandma Fina and Her Wonderful Umbrellas and A Perfect Season for Dreaming. Sáenz is the author of a previous book of poetry, Calendar of Dust, which won an American Book Award. Cinco Puntos published two of his other books of poetry called Elegies in Blue and Dark and Perfect Angels.
Within, thus, the border context, his university education had its beginning. As an adult student, he entered the University of Texas at El Paso. He later received a fellowship at the University of Iowa. In 1988, he received a Wallace E. Stegner Fellowship in poetry from Stanford University. In 1993, he returned to the border to teach in the bilingual MFA program at UTEP.
Back to the Fall showers of Kansas City--for Saénz’ recent visit, the first reading was on September 12, 2013 at 7 p.m. at The Writers Place as part of the Riverfront Reading Series, and I had the privilege to be invited, as one of the local writers, to read along with him. The second presentation was on Friday, September 13 at 1 p.m. at the Student Union, University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC). Both presentations were co-sponsored by the Latina/Latino Studies Program at UMKC, the Bernardine Haskell Fund, The English Department at UMKC, the Association of Latin American Students (ALAS), Riverfront Reading Series and The Writers Place.
What a joy to have welcomed Saénz in Kansas City. Both his presentations were breathtaking, moving, and full of energy. When he speaks to his audience, he connects with each person in the room with a beautiful smile, which I will certainly remember. His kind personality and passion for literature are reflected in every word I heard from him. He inhales and exhales words.
Another detail of prominence for me was Saénz’ approachable personality. In addition to listening to Saénz during his presentations, one of the highlights of his visit to Kansas City was when he graciously met with students. Norma Cantú organized an informal meet-and-greet with students on Friday, September 13 from 10:00-11:30 a.m. Students were expecting his arrival anxiously and were excited to meet with him. “Mr. Saénz is the real deal. I cannot believe I was sitting next to him”. He understands students’ needs and answers in a very approachable manner. Saénz lights up when he is in the classroom.
To finish his Kansas City tour, a visit to The American Jazz Museum and the The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum at the 18 & Vine, the historic jazz district could not be missed. I truly enjoyed seeing him stroll in Negro Leagues Museum among the bronze sculptures of base ball players. “Kansas City Here I Come” was playing just minutes before I said good-bye to him. Benjamin Alire Saénz, it was a truly honor meeting you; las lluvias de otoño have started. A new season is here.