If you haven’t yet heard of Benjamin Alire Sáenz, a queer author from El Paso, it’s about time you do. The 57-year-old Sáenz has been penning novels and poems, along with painting, for 35 years. But his biggest hits have come with the recent publication of the Dante and Aristotle series, which recount the stories of two gay, young men who seek to develop their relationship along the Texas-Mexico border. The first book in the series, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, has drawn international acclaim, earning top honors in the young adult category and being optioned as a movie starring Eva Longoria and Reese Gonzales.
The second installment in the series, Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World, was released in October. Narrated by Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame, the book charts the two protagonists’ continuing course through a complicated world. The novel explores the idea of belonging—a complicated concept for two youths struggling with their sexual and national identities. With anti-Hispanic sentiment and homophobia front and center in Texas (and nationally), the book arrives at an especially relevant moment.
Sánez spoke to the Texas Observer this month on young adult literature, the El Paso book scene and what it means to truly belong.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Texas Observer: Which books did you gravitate toward when you were Aristotle and Dante’s age? Did any give you a sense of belonging?
Sánez: I was all over the map when it came to my reading habits. I liked popular stuff like Jonathan Livingston Seagull, [William Peter Blatty, who wrote] The Exorcist, some Harold Robbins stuff. I secretly read Jacqueline Suzanne’s Valley of the Dolls, The Catcher in the Rye and everything else by J.D. Salinger, The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, The Hardy Boys [by Edward Stratemeyer], and more serious stuff like A Separate Peace by John Knowles, Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo, which made me doubt all wars and all of their justifications, and of course, Rudy Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima. A lot of the works of James Baldwin, and the Diary of Anne Frank. I also loved Great Expectations.
It’s an odd thing to say but every book gave me a sense of belonging because I felt so at home reading a book. I didn’t have any expectations that the characters in a book reflected my own experiences. Interestingly enough, I found more of myself reflected in Great Expectations than I did in Bless Me, Ultima. I think I read books to escape from the world. I lived in and wound up reading books that showed me the world in all its beauty and cruelty.
Were you surprised by the critical reception to the first title in the Aristotle and Dante series?
I’m somewhat baffled by the acclaim, somewhat delighted, somewhat embarrassed, and extremely grateful. Many people express to me that all this acclaim is well-deserved. I’m not so sure about that. Maybe it’s like love. I never feel as though I deserve all the love I’ve received throughout my lifetime. Lucky for me, love has nothing to do with the word deserve. Maybe, like love, it’s a gift. When you receive a gift, the only gracious thing to do is say, “Thank you.” Ari and Dante was that rare book that somehow survived an abysmal sales record and became something of an international sensation.
How do I handle all the acclaim? By seeing it for what it is. I remind myself that the acclaim is for my book—and not for me. Yes, I’ve worked hard to get to where I am and so have a thousand other writers. And a lot of those writers may well be much better writers than I am. I’ve been writing for 35 years in an industry that can be heartless. And I’m still here. I’ve had some very painful failures and I’ve seen some very dark days. And I’m still here. While it took me a long time to have this kind of success, success and notoriety are not things I am entitled to—it can all be as fleeting as a rainstorm in the desert. At least I have learned who I am. And when all this acclaim fades into memory, I will still be here, reading a poem by a poet I admire and trying to get my little Yorkie, Chuy, to stop chewing on my books.
Have you had conversations with Lin-Manuel Miranda about his narration for the book?
Lin-Manuel and I have never had a face-to-face conversation. He did Direct Message me on Twitter a couple of times and he was very gracious to convey that he loved the first Ari and Dante book, and he has tweeted about the book several times. And it was through Twitter that he found out that Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World was being published, and he sent me a Direct Message on Twitter addressing me as Maestro [“teacher” in Spanish], as he has always done, and congratulated me on finishing the sequel. He said that he had loved the first book and told me how much he had enjoyed narrating the audio book. He added that he’d love to read the second book, but that he was too busy to do it, then ended by saying that he would do it anyway. That made me very happy. Lin-Manuel is a very kind and committed human being. Had it not been for his interest in the book and his enthusiasm for the movie to be made, the process for the deal to close would have taken much longer. The fact that he was willing to become the executive producer of the film and brought in Eva Longoria and Eugenio Derbez made a huge difference. And the film is being directed by a new talent, Aitch Alberto. We will be hearing a lot from her in the future. She also wrote the screenplay, which I thought was brilliant. We have been seeing this project along for five or six years together. I’m very proud to have her as a friend.
Is El Paso literature overlooked in Texas?
Everything that happens in El Paso is overlooked in Texas—except Beto O’Rourke and Cormac McCarthy, who no longer lives in El Paso. And neither one is Mexican-American. That’s not a criticism—it’s an observation. Texans in general have a negative opinion of El Paso. You’d think that there’s nothing to do here except eat our exceptional food. And even then, the food critics from the rest of Texas get it wrong. Benign racism is still racism.
Which El Paso authors do you think we ought to be reading?
I’m going to single out one overlooked author because he’s gay and Mexican-American and from El Paso and also because he’s brilliant: John Rechy, who was perhaps a gay writer born too soon to gain the wider readership he deserved. He wrote Sexual Outlaw, a book that has been an underground gay classic for many years. David Bowie credited the book as being essential to his self-understanding.Rechy’s book deserves more visibility. Of course, if you don’t like or approve of David Bowie, then his endorsement might be the kiss of death. It’s certain that the Texas Legislature would have the book burned, but then again, the Republican politicians who run this state always carry a book of matches in their briefcases should the need arise. I refer you to Marcia Hatfield Daudistel’s Literary El Paso for anyone who’s really interested in discovering the wealth of writers who reside in El Paso. You can read Literary El Paso as you sit at a table in La Tapatia in Ysleta, a restaurant that does not appear on any visitors’ guides.
For you, what’s the appeal of writing young adult fiction? Do you think YA audiences are more sophisticated than people give them credit for?
Writing for young people provides me with a challenge: it makes me stop writing tragedies and pushes me to write novels that give young people hope. There’s a pervasive darkness in my poetry and the novels I write for adults. I don’t worry about an audience when I write for adults. But everything changes when you write for young people, and I feel a sense of responsibility. And that makes the process more difficult. It’s not that I censor myself. I don’t condescend to my audience. Some teachers complain about my “language.” I don’t have any patience for that. I don’t equate the use of curse words with morality. Any teacher who wants to “protect” young people from the sin of cursing doesn’t know his or her students and hasn’t walked down the hallway of the school she or he teaches in.
Before I started writing for young adults, I never wrote anything in the first person and that seems to be not only common in YA literature, but a necessity. I find it a very confining and restrictive point of view. But I have become comfortable writing from the first person.
To what degree has the world has become more accepting of homosexuality since the late 1980s? Do queer young men still struggle with feeling like they don’t belong, and of facing hatred, just as much as they did back then?
Yes, the world has become more accepting of homosexuality. Yes, we’ve made some progress. But let’s not congratulate ourselves too early. Heterosexuals still consider themselves superior to homosexuals. I always feel like I’m expected to congratulate people who tell me that my sexuality has no bearing on how they view me as person. I have never told a heterosexual that their sexuality had no bearing on how I viewed them as people. I have an online company, Benjamin Ink, that sells merchandise, including T-shirts. My favorite: When exactly did you decide to become a heterosexual?
There are still parents who send their children to be turned “back” into heterosexuals when that is medically and psychologically impossible. Judging children, and trying to make them be who they are not, is to torture them. If anyone thinks “torture” is too harsh a word, try being a young woman whose family insists she is a young man and won’t accept her true self. Children are not property. And I have nothing but disdain for adults who would sacrifice their children’s actions and minds in service to their ability to control.
Yes, we still have a long way to go. We should never forget that as young people take their journeys into discovering who they are, the minute they realize that they’re different—at that moment, they feel as alone and lost and confused and heartbroken as they have ever felt. My job as a writer is to remind them that they are not alone, that there are people who have come before them that understand and love them. I may not have any children, but I have always believed that all the children of the world belong to us—to all of us—and it is our job to love them and take care of them.
What does it mean to belong?
To belong is to feel safe, to feel that your presence does not threaten others. To belong is to feel that you do not live in danger. When in the hell are we going to stop exiling each other off the land? We have to stop giving credibility to the lie that America belongs only to a certain group of white people who believe that only they are entitled to this land.
What advice do you have for queer young men growing up today?
From time to time, you may need to apologize and ask forgiveness from those you hurt with your actions and your words. Forgiveness is the greatest of virtues and it is your duty to at least work towards acquiring that virtue. But never apologize for who you are. Never be ashamed of yourself. Never feel shame over whom you love.
What are the unique challenges faced by gay teens who are also Mexican-American?
I don’t think that Mexican-American families reject their children because they are gay any more than their white counterparts. Toxic masculinity is to blame for Americans’ attitudes about what a man is. And that toxic masculinity is hardly exclusive to the Mexican-American community in the U.S. In fact, I believe [homophobia] is more pervasive and more violent and more closed-minded among white people.
Why live in El Paso, in a state where the elected leaders are so overtly xenophobic and homophobic?
You want that I should move? I wouldn’t live anywhere in America except El Paso. El Paso doesn’t need Texas as a last name. We live on the border and we understand that one’s nationality does not define our humanity. Austin prides itself as being the most progressive city in Texas. But let’s scratch the surface a bit: The residents of Austin can remove themselves from staring at poverty every day of their lives. We do not have that luxury. We make our peace with an enduring poverty, which is created by two countries that don’t give a damn about paying people a living wage. We breathe in this knowledge simply by living on the border. We know a little something about economics and compassion. Xenophobes and homophobes in public office don’t scare me—it’s the people who vote for them who are frightening. They are the collaborators that keep them in power.
But I’m not moving anywhere. Texas is as much mine as it is anybody else’s. I am not about to cede this state to a club made up of mediocre, entitled white males who hold onto power by manipulating the political landscape through gerrymandering and who run this state with an empathetically challenged attitude and who, on top of that, are equipped with brains that have atrophied through lack of use.
Last and looking forward, how do you plan to chart a course for your future?
I have lots of plans. There’s an old Mexican saying: el hombre propone—y Dios dispone. Roughly translated: We make plans—and God unmakes those plans. I keep painting. I keep writing. I am one of those few people who has lived my dream. I don’t want to get greedy. I may very well die tomorrow, but if I do, I’m going to die with a smile on my face. I hope I’ve earned some enemies for all the right reasons. For the enemies I’ve earned because I’ve been just plain ornery and a big pain in the ass, forgive me. And for the rest, you’ll get no apology from me. You’re welcome to come to my funeral just to make sure I’m dead. Dance on my grave if you want. Enjoy yourselves. There will be plenty of tequila. The last round’s on me.