Thursday, July 18, 2013

What We're Reading: New Gay Fiction

The year 2013 has been an annus mirabilis for author Benjamin Alire Sáenz. Earlier in the year his groundbreaking young adult novel, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, was honored in three different genre categories that are awarded annually by the American Library Association, something that is unprecedented in the history of the ALA’s awards. It was chosen as a Printz Honor Book for young adult literature, as the winner of the Stonewall Book Award for young adult literature for gay teens, and as the winner of the Pura Belpre Award, which is presented annually to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator “whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.”

In March he became the first Latino writer to win the prestigious Pen/Faulkner Award for his collection of short stories for adult readers, Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club. In June that same book won the Lambda Literary Foundation’s award for best gay fiction while his young adult novel, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, won Lambda’s award for children’s and young adult fiction. Sáenz is a previous American Book Award winner for his book of poetry Calendar of Dust, and has been the recipient of numerous literary awards and fellowships in his career. He has published five novels, books of poetry, books for young adults, children’s books, and two short story collections.

Benjamin Alire Sáenz was born in 1954 in Old Picacho, a small farming community outside of Las Cruces, New Mexico , and was the fourth of seven children raised in a traditional Mexican-American Catholic family. He entered the seminary in 1972 and, after concluding his theological studies at the University of Louvain, was ordained a Catholic priest. He left the priesthood three and a half years later. At age 30, he entered the University of Texas at El Paso, and did postgraduate studies at the University of Iowa and at Stanford University. In 1993 Sáenz returned to El Paso to teach in the bilingual MFA program at the University of Texas. He is currently the chair of the writing department there.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe and Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club, although they have thematic affinities, are curiously different in tone. Juxtaposed, they comprise a kind of novelistic equivalent of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. In an interview for National Public Radio, Sáenz said, “I think I needed to write this book because I had such difficulties coming to terms with my own sexuality...I was abused as a boy, and the thought of being with a man was not very appealing, to say the least.” Sáenz’s coming out did not happen until much later in his life, when he was 54 years old. When you know the author’s personal history, and also read the very different stories in Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club, you realize that in some sense Aristotle and Dante is for Sáenz the story of a missed and alternative youth, an idealized coming of age story and adventure of self discovery that we might hope someday could be the unremarkable and common experience of both straight and gay youth. There is an innocence, a sweetness, and a romantic edge to the story of Aristotle and Dante that you know was missing in Sáenz’s own young life. Aristotle and Dante is a book of hope: It presents a positive image not only of gay youth but of gay Mexican-American youth. In the same NPR interview, Sáenz says that he started to write Aristotle and Dante at a period of time when he thought there was a heightened amount of racism and anti-Mexican rhetoric in American culture and politics. He felt it was important to challenge stereotypes of Mexican Americans as recent immigrants and as unskilled labor, “We have a long history in this country, and we’re not all workers with our hands. There are a lot of professional Mexican-Americans, and it’s just not presented in the literature.” In Aristotle and Dante Sáenz gives us a portrait of such a family of “professionals,” and he tells a story that shows us that the socio-economic and educational differences between Dante’s family and Aristotle’s family do not transcend the cultural affinities of the two families or their ability to be friends. The two female parents that Sáenz creates are both remarkable Mexican-American women and challenge common stereotypes. The male parents are supportive, open-minded, and nurturing.

The people we encounter in the stories of Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club are the dark negatives of these characters: distant and abusive fathers who seem to detest their children, mothers who abandon their children, and their now-middle-aged sons who seem to carry around a permanent burden of hurt and social isolation from the hard experience of gay youth, an experience that Dante and Aristotle have managed to evade in the refuge of Saenz’s imagination. The difficulty of love between sons and fathers is a recurring theme in these stories. All of them are set in El Paso, Texas and the nearby Mexican border town of Ciudad Juárez, where the notorious drug trade and violence of the region often shadows a deeply personal story. Borders, rules and boundaries figure as important tropes for lives built on the business of mitigating hurt and seeking survival. It is in the nature of short stories that they are evocative and symbolic, literary devices that are a shorthand of the form used to suggest depths and secrets that would be drawn out in detail in the more prodigal economy of a novel. The major themes of this collection are revisited in variations from story to story, the voice of each individual narrator sounds familiar from one story to another. These continuities give the collection a uniform texture and consistency. The spell remains unbroken. In all of these stories, at some point, the characters find themselves at the Kentucky Club bar in Juárez, the place that in each story seems to be some point of stasis at a beginning or an end, the place where the characters for a brief moment find the human connection and peace that seems to elude them in their quotidian lives. But the great and memorable image that connects both Aristotle and Dante and Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club is that of rain in the desert. Whatever the light and dark opposing tones of these two volumes, the rain sweeps through each of them with the same meaning and resonance in Saenz’s hands, a phenomenon that seems to transcend both sorrow and promise in a present and enduring moment of blessing. If you want the whole sad and softly beautiful story Saenz has to tell, read both of these books and wander the space between them.

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