Sunday, November 29, 2015

On Writing and Discovering the Secrets of the Universe: An Interview with Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Olga García Echeverría

If you haven't yet read Benjamin Alire Sáenz' YA novel, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, I highly recommend it. It's been one of my favorite reads of 2015.
Sáenz' YA novel is a story about two teenage Mexican-American boys, Aristotle and Dante, who are coming of age in the late 1980's and who embark on a friendship that propels them into a journey of self-discovery. What does it mean to be young, brown, and awakening to one's gayness? The question prompts a multiplicity (a universe, perhaps) of possible responses. The secrets Ari and Dante yearn to tap into appear at times to be "out there," somewhere in the abstract universe, viewed from the eye of a telescope, but they are really, as the narrative makes evident, residing inside the body.
The body in this book is brown. It's bilingual. It's in the process of awakening to desires that are pure yet too many times socially/culturally forbidden. Ari and Dante have to figure out how to navigate the internalized shame and silences around their sexualities, but they are not the only characters haunted by shame and silence. Ari's father, a Vietnam veteran, can't seem to talk about the survivor's guilt he carries. And no one in Ari's family wants to talk about the son/brother Bernardo, who is serving a life sentence in prison. The need to "come out" and grapple with truth is not only a necessity of the teenage protagonists in this book but also that of the middle-aged adults who surround them. 

There is much more to say about this book, but I don't want to spoil the plot and its many surprises. Plus, we are honored to have Sáenz with us today at La Bloga, so we'll let him share some of his insights on the novel.

Despite that fact that Benjamin Alire Sáenz drove from New Mexico to California for a family reunion this past week, a sack of dry chile colorado as his driving companion, and despite the fact that upon arrival to his brother's he rolled up his mangas and made a large batch of cuernitos, raw apple cake, and participated in a family tamalada (we know how much work that takes), he still managed to correspond with me via email and Facebook (con cariño y gusto) and answer all my interview questions. Thank you, Ben, for being so generous with your time and words.

Ben Laughing at My Interview Questions (foto pirated from FB)

Welcome to La Bloga, Ben. I never tire of asking authors this initial question. When did you first start writing and why?
I first started writing in junior high (it wasn’t middle school back then). I wrote some story about a cat who found its way back home. The teacher read the story out loud to the students which embarrassed the hell out of me. And then, when I was in the seventh grade, I wrote this speech because I decided to run for Vice-President of Lynn Jr. High. Good speech. I was elected—even when I ran against two of the most popular gringos in our school. I think it was then, I realized that words were really powerful. And maybe there was a little pandering to the Latino vote. We were, after all, the majority.

In high school, I had a teacher who liked to assign us to write stories. She told me I had talent. She also told me I used too many cuss words. The truth is I always felt more comfortable around words than I did around other people. I was something of a fraud. I was miserable in high school—but I don’t think anyone around me would have gotten that vibe from me. It seemed like I was a happy guy. I wasn’t. I had some serious acne going on and some guy called me pizza face once. Who could be happy? I was more or less waiting for my life to begin—and I sure as hell knew that high school was not where life began. I left for college and my acne cleared up and life did in fact begin.

Was reading an early influence as well?

This was the thing: I really liked to read. And I didn’t come from a reading family—and the neighborhood I grew up didn’t value books. I was suspect from the very beginning. That’s why I started smoking. It helped me to fit in. The interesting thing is that I wasn’t all that interested in fitting in. I wanted to be me. But I didn’t know how to go about being me. Not knowing how to be me, I think I read mostly to escape. And then I started running into books that threw me back into the world in a very fierce and beautiful way. So reading went from a place of escape to a place where I could meet the complicated, cruel, and confusing world I lived in. Eventually, I encountered pieces of myself that mattered. I have too many favorite books, but here are a few: A Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera, Absalom! Absolom! The Grapes of Wrath, Johnny Got His Gun, Great Expectations, The Sun Also Rises, The Great Gatsby . . . okay, I’m going to stop. I won’t mention living writers but there are a lot of great living writers I admire. And I won’t even begin to mention poets. Oh, and my favorite Shakespeare play: A Winter’s Tale. It may be his most flawed play. But it’s so fucking beautiful.

Humor me, what’s your astrological sign?

I’m a Leo. I’m a Leo through and through. I am incredibly loyal. But when I’m hurt, when I’m really, really hurt, well, maybe you don’t want to be in the same room.

Some people know from very young ages that they're queer or sexually different from the "norm." For me, it wasn't like that. I often say I evolved into my queerness (very slowly actually) and in many ways I am still discovering it. Can you share a little about your own journey of self-discovery?

I wasn’t in touch with myself to understand my own sexuality—and wouldn’t be for years. That people know at a young age. I think that is truly great. And if that’s the way it is for some people, well, it saves them a lot of grief. I’ve always managed to take the long road towards anything that really matters. (I didn’t start writing seriously until I was thirty). I think, because of my abuse, I didn’t really want to think about the fact that I had a body. I had an uncanny ability to shut that part of me off. I could write a book about how I finally came to terms with my sexuality—but I won’t. The reflective life is one thing. There’s enough of me in my work already—especially in my poetry.

Oh, you know, I have this thing with “Queer.” Never liked the word. I know our peeps have reclaimed the word as a verbal sign of empowerment. But, well, I’m old school. And really, I’m not pretending to be a gentleman that I’m not. Never went for the gentleman scholar thing. But queer left a bad taste in my mouth. Maybe it’s a function of my generation. Joto leaves the same bad taste in my mouth. I’m not the least bit offended when younger gay writers use the word. They’re just not words that I often use in my vocabulary and I certainly don’t use those words in reference to me.

Your character Dante seems to know who he is and what he likes (kissing boys), whereas Ari exists in a bit of a neblina; he's in an in-between, feeling his way through a difficult yet transformative time in his life. Can you share the inspiration behind Ari and Dante? Are they completely made up?

Nothing is completely made up. Everything a writer places himself/herself on the page with every word s/he writes. This is inevitable. When I started writing Ari and Dante, I had gone through a very long and painful healing process. I wanted to write a book about a boy who discovered who he was. (I love writing YA books, by the way). And so, I started writing the book. There was no thought of a Dante in the beginning, but that character arrived in my head very soon. When I am writing a book, I don’t think about the fact that part of the impetus for writing it is that I’m healing myself. All I can think about is that I want to write a good book, a book where the characters are believable and that their actions are the plot. What happens in the books I write are always secondary to the characters I create.

I’ve come to the conclusion that Ari and Dante are both me. They are the young men that I wanted to be—and never was. When my comadre, Lynn, read the book, she said, “Awwww, Ben, you wrote a book as a gift to yourself.” She was right—only I didn’t know it at the time I was writing it. How beautiful it would have been for me if I had actually been one of these two characters. I suppose you could say that (at least in my YA books) I write boy characters that are more virtuous versions of me. They are not who I was. They are who I wished I had been. But, again, that’s a reflection after the fact. A therapist once told me I should re-read my own books. I didn’t take his advice. I mean, I have better things to do with my time than to re-read my own books.
Oh, now as I look back, I guess you could say I “came out” with the publication of Ari and Dante and Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club. They both won Lambda’s. Isn’t that incredible?

I was interested in your depiction of the parents of both Aristole and Dante in your book because they surprised me in a positive way and they also seem to break a mold. Many times parents (especially Latino ones) are seen as having strong reactions towards gayness. This can sometimes be attributed to "traditional" values, religion, or just plain homophobia. Los padres Latinos, I can hear them saying, "Ni que lo mande Dios!" (My mother actually said this to me). They may guilt trip. They may pull out the, "¿Qué hice para merecer esto?" card. They may kick teens out. They may disown them. Can you share a little about your decision to make these parents different? They are incredibly understanding, loving, and gentle. They seem to have no issues with gayness at all.

Everything you say happens a lot. But it doesn’t happen all the time. And my experience has taught me that a lot of Mexican-American families adjust very, very quickly, no matter what their initial attitudes may have been. Latino’s are so often depicted as being incredibly homophobic—and I’m not going to minimize this bigotry within out community. That said, I think Mexican-Americans in particular understand (if it’s not articulated) the sufferings of discrimination and they are American enough (in the most open sense of American) that, at the very least, we should live and let live. I didn’t want to represent the parents in the expected way that the dominant culture thinks we behave. We are as diverse as any other people. (And on that topic, I didn’t want to represent Mexican-Americans as having only certain kinds of professions. Dante’s parents had totally white collar professions (a little like the author of the book). I’m not into performing my own ethnicity on the page. I don’t have to prove I’m the real thing. I am the real thing. I suppose I could drag out my street creds if I wanted to (Did I tell you I grew up using an outhouse?)—but I want turn myself or my characters into expected folkloric figures who work the fields and come home to home made tortillas (though that’s exactly how I grew up! But hey, I was also went to grad school at Stanford).
Back to the parents. The parents may have had issues, but the book is not told from their point of view. The story is told from Ari’s point of view. And what really matters is that his parent’s already knew what it was like to lose a son (to prison) and they were wise enough to understand that a son was a precious gift. They may not have wished this for their son—but they understood this thing called love. I have lived first-hand the love and acceptance of a family. My parents are dead, now, may they rest in peace. But my brothers and sisters and my nephews and nieces have no issues with me being gay. (My brothers and sisters, by the way are working class people, not college educated and incredibly open minded. Not necessarily what most people think of when they think of our people). We’re real. (Can I say, Fuck Donald Trump here?) Maybe not, I should exert some discipline.

Oh yes, Fuck Donald Trump sentiments are totally permissible here at any time. I think he embodies the true and full meaning of the word "Pendejo." But getting back to your book, it has received several important awards—Lambda Literary Award, Pura Belpré Narrative Medal for Latino Ficiton, Stonewall Book Award, and the Michael L. Printz Award. Felicidades! How do you feel about this?

Can I be a kid here for a moment? Are you kidding? Sweet! It’s really a beautiful thing.

And it has been translated into many languages. Can you help me out here. ¿Cuántas? ¿Cuáles?

The book has been translated into fourteen languages: Swedish, Polish, French, Portuguese (Brazil), Spanish (Spanish!), Hebrew, Italian, German, Czech, Hungarian, Korean, Thai, Turkish and Slovakian. I get fan male from kids about this book to this day and they say incredible things to me. Coming out if never easy and somehow, they tell me, I’ve lightened their journeys. But the most beautiful e-mails come from men who are older than me who tell me I’ve helped to heal the boys inside them that they still carry around. Okay, call me sentimental, but I cry when I read some of these e-mails. (Intellectuals have feelings too). I have the gift of tears. I get that from my mother.

You have published across genres--poetry, fiction, children's books, and now young adult. Do you have a preference?

Actually, poetry remains my favorite genre—though you wouldn’t necessary come to that conclusion from my literary output. (I just finished a new book of poems, by the way). Poetry is the closest I get to arriving at a pure emotionally disciplined and honest art. I’m very conscious of my craft when I write poetry and I love the experience of writing poetry. I never have believed in art for art’s sake—which doesn’t mean that I don’t love art. My house is full of books and art and photographs and Mexican folk art. But, art, to me, is essential to taming our (my) basest instincts. It’s important to be compassionate and kind and generous. It’s important to be forgiving. We have to nurture those beautiful instincts and we have to do that through discipline. For me, that discipline is writing and painting. Writing has changed me. Writing has made me a better man, a better human being. Writing has made me understand that I am part of a universe that is so much larger and vaster than any of us can imagine. Somehow, writing brings makes me aware of my smallness—and that’s a lovely thing. I do love writing fiction and short stories. And writing for young adults is a real challenge and it’s a wonderful thing to reach young people—they are after all, the future. In all of my writing, I try to infuse any sense of nostalgia (though I sometimes fail). Nostalgia makes for bad art and for bad politics. We should, at every turn, endeavor to create a more compassionate future. I know that my work can, at times, be very dark. But the darkness and confusion are not the point. I don’t like the aestheticization of (male) violence. Violence isn’t beautiful. And I don’t want to create an art that’s emotionally anorexic. But neither do I want to be an emotional exhibitionist.

The short answer to your question is that I just love to write. It’s painful work. Sometimes, it really hurts. So what.

What about the memoir genre? Is this something we can expect from you at some point?
No. To say I’ve had an interesting life would be something of an understatement. That said, the memoir is a dangerous genre. It necessitates that the author become the hero of his own narrative. Writers are self-involved already. No thanks. I’ll stick to poetry and fiction. I’m allowed to lie in those genres. And anyway, I’m not honest enough to write an honest memoir.

Photo by Danielle Levitt (from the Out website)
If you look back at your writing career, can you identify any critical shifts or experiences that helped foster your current success as a writer? Can you give us some tips or share some wisdom on keeping the fire burning and building a body of work?
No one is more surprised than me that I’ve become a successful writer. But how do you measure success, anyway? My favorite novel never got published. In fact, I have two unpublished novels. Both rejected by every major publishing houses in the country. (Beautiful rejection letters, by the way). Was I disappointed? I was devastated. What did I do? I kept writing. And what I also did—and what I have always done—is go my own way. I’ve done that in the way I live my life and I’ve done that in my writing. I’ve written through failure and I’ve written through success. Writing through success can be even more challenging than writing through failure. I’ve spent very little time pushing my work, very little time networking. I don’t like hustling. I’m too proud. (Yeah, I know, that’s a sin. But so is being gay). I have a lot of writer friends but I’ve come by those friendships honestly. I didn’t seek them out to further my career. They were just good people that I was attracted to. I won’t name names.

Publishing is punishing, punitive and unforgiving. I have no idea how I’ve survived. It makes me sad that the writing culture forces so many young and talented writers to spend so much time getting themselves “out there.” I never really had to do that. I just figured if I kept writing, I’d eventually write something that was worth publishing. I just write. I write and I write and I write. I get obsessed with a project and I do my damnedest to finish what I start. I commit myself to my writing projects and I see them through. I’m very hard on myself. I expect a great deal of myself. I don’t settle. I don’t write about easy things and I never take the easy way out. I’d rather write an imperfect interesting poem that says something than an easier “successful” poem. I’d rather create a flawed piece of art where I stretch myself than a perfect story where I’m not learning anything about myself or my art or the world around me.

I’m sixty-one years old. And I still feel like a young man. I nurture my curious mind. I take risks. I’ve learned that I don’t create merely to entertain and I don’t create to please anyone (which is not to say that it’s not a lovely thing to make other people happy). I’ve learned how to be vulnerable on the page. And, along the way, I’ve actually learned how to write.

I asked Lorna Dee Cervantes this same question when I interviewed her a couple of years ago. You are having a dinner party and can invite 5 writers/artists of your choosing (alive or deceased). Who do you invite and what do you feed them?
I love this question. I would invite Albert Einstein, Frida Kahlo, June Jordan, Karl Marx, Pablo Casals, James Baldwin, Pablo Neruda, Pablo Picasso, Susan B. Anthony and Denise Levertov. That’s ten. I know. I’m cheating. I don’t always like rules. It would be a long evening and I would serve Tortilla soup, but before that, I would serve elotes. We would all stand aroud (no sitting), peel back the husks of the elotes and season them with butter and powdered chile and it would be a little messy but I think these folks would enjoy a “little messy.” The main course would be a made-from-scratch mole, Mexican rice with carrots and peas, and black beans. Hand-made corn tortillas (I’d have to practice). And for dessert: home made sweet tamales: ingredients in the masa: pecans, raisins, cinnamon, pine nuts, brown sugar wrapped around a nice strong cheese. I’d pour cajeta over the warm tamale on each plate. (Can you tell I like to cook). After dinner, James and Denise and June and Neruda would read a poem or two. And then we’d listen to Casals play his cello and we would all cry. The sun would rise with all of us talking politics. I mean, a good political argument is better than a good wine. (Oh, and at dinner, I’d sit next to Einstein. I seriously need to learn something about physics. And I would have to sit across from Denise Levertov because I would give anything to look into her face again). God, doesn’t that sound incredible. It’s like intellectual pornography.

Benjamin Alire Sáenz is an author of poetry and prose for adults and teens. His books for adults have won the PEN/Faulkner Award and the American Book Award. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a Stonewall Book Award winner, a Pura Belpré Award winner, a Lambda Literary Award winner, a Printz Honor Book, and was a finalist for the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award. His first novel for teens, Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood, was an ALA Top Ten Book for Young Adults and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His second book for teens, He Forgot to Say Goodbye, won the Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children's Book Award, the Southwest Book Award, and was named a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age. He teaches creative writing at the University of Texas, El Paso.


Unknown said...

What an incredible interview. I adore him. Liz

Unknown said...

What an incredible interview. I adore him. Liz

Sofía Olguín said...

Me encantó la entrevista! Estoy enamorada de la pluma de este autor. Ojalá traigan a Argentina más obras suyas.