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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Border Talk BY FARID MATUK F ormer roofer, onion picker,jan itor, theologian and Catholic priest, Benjamin Alire Saenz is now a prize winning essay ist, novelist, poet, and activist passionately in love with El Paso and its people. I was drawn to his most recent collection of poems Elegies in Blue it is fundamentally a work about creating communities across boundaries of race, class, region, sexuality, and even history itselfa daring proposition at a time when our sense of a national coin!nullity is being created at the expense of a hated “other” an evil doer, a foreigner, a Muslim. For the past several months Saenz and I have maintained a conversation about poetry and the varied communities in his hometown of El Paso. What _follows are excerpts from that correspondence. EM. Farid Matuk: In your essay, “Notes from The City In Which I Live,” you write, “I am a writer. Somehow, by some great miracle, I have become a possessor of the word. I have learned, that through words, you can gain a small piece of the world.” Did education give you the word, did your family push you to search for it, or did the word find you? Benjamin Mire Sienz: I was born in 1954. My parents were not educated and our circumstances were humble, to say the least. Not one house I ever entered while I was growing up had libraries or books. Everyone worked hard, lived from paycheck to paycheck, had too many kids, too many debts, drove cars that were always breaking down. Needless to say, I do not have the same background as a W.H. Auden or a T.S. Eliot. This is not to say that I was not surrounded by civil and intelligent people. The community that taught me languageEnglish and Spanish and Border Talkthat community gave me the word. It pains me to say this but the educational system in this country does not give people “the word.” We cannot use words if we do not know how to thinkand that is the one thing that a standardized test cannot measure. And while education can and does open doors, it cannot give you a center from which to critique the dominant discourses and cultures around you. FM: Where do you ground your work who do you imagine as your audience or audiences? BAS: My work is grounded in the material world in which I live. I examine that world through literary genrespoetry, for instance. But I have as much allegiance to my subject matter as I do to a literary genre. I live in El Pasoand the desert and the border and its people are what I care about. I am sick to death of parachute journalists and sensationalists, and even other Chicanos who use the border as a subject to further their careers. The border is primarily a place and not a metaphor. It takes a long time to learn the complexities, the subtleties, and nuances of our lives and our situations. It takes a long time to speak and know our language. But writers come in for the “Big Story.” Something terrible happens and they come.They ask questions, they take notes, they write something, they leave. And mostly their stories are shallow and not worth the paper they’re written on. I no longer speak to people who wish to come and speak to native informants so they can sell a cheap magazine article featuring the poor or so they can sell a glossy book to New York editors filled with drug lords and murders. FM: Maybe because I’m an immigrant or because I grew up next to Disneyland or because I read too much post-modern theory in college, but it difficult for me to experience any place as “primarily a place and not a metaphor.” The idea that El Paso is the last “real” city in the United States, a comment rumored to have been made by the novelist Cormac McCarthy, kept ringing in my head while I visited your city. This is a particularly interesting time to be questioning ideas of real and metaphoric places since the Bush administration seems to have successfully traded a wholly metaphoric vision of the globe, a globe of good and evil, for our understanding of geography. BAS: I don’t know whether Mr. McCarthy said that or notalthough I’ve heard that particular quote attributed to him many times. I think it’s a rather backhanded compliment. It’s a romanticization of a space that is completely inappropriate. The border is a hard place to live.There is a great deal of poverty in El Paso/Juarez and I can’t imagine softening the great difficulties people have to endure just to survive day in and day out. I love El Pasobut I refuse to turn it into a nostalgic, romantic space inhabited by unsophistidenizens. And, anyway, every city is real. Labeling something “real” is a shorthand that tells me very little. I do love this city. I love it because I understand it. I love it because it’s my city, and because I belong here. I realize that living in a space as difficult and poor and complicated as El Paso makes people want to run toward their nearest metaphor, but we must resist the temptation. If we are merely a metaphor then our problems are not real \(there’s or peoples or entire cultures into stereotypes and metaphorswe cannot place them all into the category of “evil.”The people of the Middle East are real. They are not monsters. If there are reactionary radicals in that space \(and I’m not preincumbent on me, even if only out of pure self-interest, to find out what 24 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 3/28/03