Monday was a very good day for Benjamin Alire Sáenz. His sensitive young adult novel, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (S & S, 2012), was named for three of the American Library Association’s coveted Youth Media Awards, distinctions that left him both stunned and grateful, he tells School Library Journal.
Future editions of Aristotle and Dante will display merit seals for the Pura Belpré Author Award for excellence in depicting and celebrating the Latino cultural experience, the Stonewall Book Award for literary excellence in depicting the LGBT experience, and a Michael L. Printz Honor for the best writing in teen literature. Likely, the novel’s cover will have to be slightly redesigned to incorporate these various honors, “a great problem to have” for an author, Sáenz jokes.
SLJ caught up with Sáenz in between his meetings as chair of the MFA bilingual creative writing department at the University of Texas at El Paso for a revealing chat about his reaction to the YMA wins, his personal inspirations for Aristotle and Dante, his writing process, and his next YA project.
How do you feel about being selected by three very different YMA committees?
It was like a mirror of me! It made me very happy in a profound way. It was all the communities that I claim: the gay community, the Latino community, and the mainstream community. I’m part of the mainstream. I was educated and integrated into America by going to school, and when I went to college in the 1970s there were no Mexican-Americans. But I didn’t feel left out; my friends loved me. I was integrated. So even though I’ve always claimed the Mexican/Chicano community, and I’ve been aware of racism, I have not lived a segregated life.
What inspired you to write Aristotle and Dante?
I was married for 15 years, but I really had to come to terms with my own sexuality at the age of 54. One of the things I had to come to terms with is that I was sexually abused as a boy. It’s not that I didn’t remember; it’s that I didn’t want to think about it. The thought of being with a man was unappealing, so it took me a lot of therapy and time to come to terms with my life, and me.
So I thought I wanted to write a gay-themed book, I thought that I wanted to write a book about a young boy who really didn’t know that he was gay. I mean Ari really doesn’t know it. That’s the theme—what does he know? So I created this situation, and I thought about what names I would give them, and I love the name Dante and I teach the Inferno a lot. And “Ari” is not uncommon among Latinos, or at least Mexican Nationals. So I just started to write this story and I wanted it to be set not in the present time, because I think it’s easier now for boys to admit they’re gay. In the 1980s I don’t think it was so easy, and I didn’t want to have all this texting stuff in the book.
And the first thing I wanted to write about was the relationship between Ari and his mother.
How have your experiences shaped the story?
I wanted to represent two very different Mexican-American families. These are families that I knew—there are working class families like Ari’s, and professional Mexican-American families and it’s not a phenomenon. There are professional families and they’re never portrayed; there’s lots of anti-Mexican rhetoric that says we’re all illegals, all recent immigrants. None of this is true. I just wanted to portray a normal Mexican-American family—and they’re very American. I wanted that contrast because I wanted my audience to know that there is a wide variety of Mexican-American experience in this country. But I also wanted to make it feel real. They are real people. I really fell in love with both the mothers. I always fall in love with my characters, but I know women like this. They love their sons and just because they aren’t always wise in the way they love you doesn’t mean they don’t love you. Ari’s mother is very loving but also very controlling—in a loving way, but controlling nonetheless.
Was it a conscious choice to include so many caring adults in the story?
I think that young men need father figures; one way or another they’re going to find them or get them, and (hopefully not) suffer for it. I’ve mentored a lot of young men that have had terrible relationships with their fathers and I’ve been a stand-in, albeit an academic one. But it’s been a privilege for me to be in their lives and I think that impacts my writing.
Maybe too much young adult fiction is about teens that are in a world apart from adults and that’s just not true for a lot of teens. And Mexican-American teens have good parents—it’s just not true that you are ostracized if you are gay. It’s true in a lot of Latino-American families but it’s also not true in a lot of Latino-American families. My novels are so hard, all of them. I wanted to write something tender. I thought, “I don’t want to write something hard.” Part of it is that I’m such a sentimental man and you wouldn’t know it from my work. And I’m afraid of being sentimental and I was afraid of making this into a sentimental novel, but I thought I could do it. I could make it feel real and make the characters feel real. That was the hard part for me. I like to think I pulled it off.
What is your writing process like? As a college professor, how do you find the time?
I write on Fridays, and I get up early and I write in the mornings, because once office hours begin, I’m just busy busy. Luckily, where I live the walk literally takes 7 minutes. I like being department chair actually; I’ve grown into it. But I’m just a really old-fashioned teacher. I don’t teach online. I’m not against it—a lot of MFA programs have online classes—but it’s not something I do.
I love what I teach and I like young people. I know some writers feel that the teaching takes time away from their writing, but quite frankly it’s never hurt my writing. And my students read the books! And my nephews and nieces read them and analyze me. I get a big kick out of it.
What are you working on now?
The novel I’m writing is about a young man who is adopted (his dad is a Mexican-American gay artist) but he doesn’t feel adopted at all. One of my nephews is adopted, and he doesn’t wonder about his real family at all. So this kid is telling a story about how he came to be and the rest is how he watches this family as they go through this crisis; the matriarch of the family, his grandmother, is dying. He is in pain but he is a watcher, watching his father deal with this loss. We also learn how he came to be adopted in this family. In one of the opening chapters, his father asks him once if he ever thinks of his real father, and he says, “Yes. You’re my real father, and I think about you all the time.”
It’s going to be a painful novel in some ways with the automatic story line of the grandmother dying, but it’s the journey of him watching. Like Aristotle and Dante, it’s a love story between this young man and the family that he’s been adopted into, and how his love for them and their love for him is so profound. And of course I need to write that novel because my mother died a year ago.
I’m very excited about it. I love to write and I love to figure it out. It’s like you’re learning your craft all over again; each project is new and you learn something new. And I just sold a book of short stories for adults and those are not tender. Those are hard. That’s my world. I think I live between violence and tenderness. I think we all do. So I just try to incorporate that somehow into my art.