Q&A with Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Benjamin Alire Sáenz is an award-winning author of poetry and prose for adults and teens. His last YA novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, which tells the story of a life-changing friendship between two teenage boys living in El Paso, was a Printz Honor Book, winner of the Stonewall Award, the Pura Belpré Award, the Lambda Literary Award, and a finalist for the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award. Now Benjamin returns with The Inexplicable Logic of My Life, which centers around Salvador, his father Vicente, his best friend Samantha, and their new friend Fito all going through major life changes over the course of senior year.

Benjamin’s books are always overflowing with gorgeous, lyrical language, and he creates vivid characters who accurately portray that confusing time between childhood and adulthood. Some of his characters grapple with coming to terms with their homosexuality, some deal with the loss of a parent, others with the pressure of gaining an amazing best friend. Benjamin writes sensitive, thoughtful teenage boys who battle toxic masculinity, and well-rounded young women who are smart, strong, and just a tiny bit boy-crazy. His YA books are truly a staple for every reader of any age who enjoys beautiful writing that explores the most important issues we all deal with: love, friendship, family, identity, grief, joy, and so much more.

We were fortunate enough to host Benjamin for some school visits and a signing at the store, and Eugenia Vela, our kids’ event coordinator, took the opportunity to ask him a few questions.

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E: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe spoke to me deeply the first time I read it. There were so many moments that described my experience as a Mexican immigrant pretty accurately. What books did you have when you were a teenager that you felt represented you? Did you see yourself in any books you were reading?

B: Yes, but they didn’t need to be Mexican American. I read Great Expectations and I saw myself in Pip. The one positive side about me growing up with literature that didn’t represent me is that it taught me to be a generous reader. I think when people are angry about books that don’t represent them I get that, and I understand they felt left out. And they were left out, frankly. On the other hand, we have to learn to take any book and open ourselves up to it. So it didn’t need to be about me. But I did get excited when I read Bless Me, Ultima, I did. And so, it does matter. But I also think as Latinos we need to read books not just about Latinos, but what about black people? What about gay people? They were left out, too. We should be in solidarity with the people that were left out. I know that when I came out, I started writing books that wereI don’t think my books are about gays, I think they’re about people who are gay, but they’re not “gay themed”, whatever that is. But people don’t read them because, you know, “It doesn’t interest me”. Why not? You sure as hell were interested in my books when they were just about Latinos. But now, this doesn’t interest you? It’s kind of like saying, “I don’t have to admit to my homophobias in an honest way” but that’s what it is. And I do normalize the gay experience, and I normalize the Mexican American experience, just as when I write the border. If you want to sensationalize it, go ahead, but it’s my home, I normalize it. That’s my job.

E: Speaking of identity and representation, in both Aristotle and Dante and The Inexplicable Logic of My Life, your characters repeatedly discuss “being a real Mexican”. Specifically in Inexplicable Logic, Sal responds violently to being called a “gringo”, feeling like it distances him from his adoptive family, who is Mexican American. Is this an identity issue you personally experienced growing up?

B: Yeah. I can’t imagine that any Mexican American kid growing up here didn’t experience some of that. We get confused about things because we feel American and we don’t, or we’re made not to feel American. My mom would say, “Somos Mexicanos, somos Mexicanos, se casó con un Americano.” But what does that mean? I would ask, “‘Se casó con un Americano’, what does that mean? Mom, we’re American.” And she’d say, “No. Yes, but no.” Because she thought of herself as a Mexicana always. And that would confuse me. My parents would speak in Spanish, and then we’d adopt English. And then my father would say, “Porqué no me contestas en Español?” and I’d say, “Dad, you speak English, and sometimes to me.” They preferred not to speak English, but they did. And so there was all this linguistic thing going on, and the gringos didn’t accept you. All the kids I went to school with, we got along fine in school, but who did I hang out with? Nothing but a bunch of Mexicans. We weren’t integrated in that way. I didn’t hang out with the gringos. I went to school with them, and we got along fine, but I didn’t go to their parties, and they didn’t go to ours. The only time that we’d get integrated sometimes were the keg parties in the river, because everyone was invited if you paid your buck or two bucks for the keg. But that wasn’t in anybody’s home. So it was odd, but you internalized that and you’d have to make your own way. I lived the Chicano movement, and that was perfect for me. I’m a Chicano, which to me, was a politicized Mexican American, and I got into it. I’m very comfortable using the term “Chicano”. The term seems to be unknown now, or passé. Intellectuals use it still, but they don’t use it as an identity anymore, except for people of my generation.

E: I’ve read you use a lot of autobiographical elements in your books and in your characters. Samantha and Vicente (from The Inexplicable Logic of My Life) are two of my absolute favorite characters. Where did they come from?

B: People always ask me, “Who are you, Ari or Dante?” I’m both. I’m every character in my books, it’s a side of me that I use to create characters. Samantha came from my sister. And Vicente I never had kids of my own, so he was exactly the kind of father I would have liked to have been.

E: I think that’s true for all of us! He’s a role model for everyone.

B: Yeah, and he’s also an adult in the sense that whatever turmoil he has, he sets it aside. He puts everything ahead of his own pain, and his son gets a glimpse of it when he sees his father and his boyfriend Marcos argue, and when he sees Marcos comforting him. And he’s not privy to that, because his father is the opposite of Sylvia, Samantha’s mom. She puts her emotional life first, ahead of her daughter, and Vicente doesn’t. He’s like his mother in lots of ways. But the problem with that, with Sal, is that in theory he wants his father to have a boyfriend. But when the boyfriend comes along, he’s uncomfortable with that. Because then his father’s not just his father, his father’s also a man.

E: I think you describe pretty accurately how we feel when we start seeing our parents as people.

B: And that’s an important step to adulthood, it really is.

E: What do you hope readers will find in The Inexplicable Logic of My Life?

B: In this book, I would hope that we realize that even the Young Adult category is false. I think this book is also for adults. And so is Aristotle and Dante. And in fact, a lot of adults read my books. We can rediscover ourselves through young people. We can relate to them no matter what age we are, and remember what it was like to be growing up and the difficulties that we went through. We can also remember the journey of the self never ends. It doesn’t stop when we’re 21, it never stops. And when we realize that, that in some ways we are forever young, that’s really important. When there is no growing left to do, then, if you’re not dead, you might as well be.

E: I recently read Elizabeth Bluemle’s blog post on PW ShelfTalker in which she told a story of you asking a group of people over dinner, “What books made you fall in love with books”? So, I want to ask you that same question. What books made you fall in love with books?

B: The Little Prince. The Grapes of Wrath. Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin. Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. I fell in love with a book called Johnny Got his Gun by Dalton Trumbo. I fell in love with books by reading The Exorcist and Jonathan Livingston’s Seagull. It’s so cheesy, but I fell in love with that book. I fell in love with To Kill a Mockingbird. The first book of poems I fell in love with was Lorca’s Poet in New York. And then I fell in love with poetry, and I fell in love with so many poetsWilliam Carlos Williams, Denise Levertov, C.K. Williams, all these poets, I can’t really name them all. They made me fall in love with poetry. And I think on any given day, I can name another book. That’s why if it’s a book I’ve read before in the past and I loved it, even if it was just a little fling, I keep the book in my library. Otherwise I don’t keep it. Sometimes, I remember something and I reach for it. I need that. And I always pick up a book, particularly poetry books, I leave them on my nightstand so I can reach for them before I go to bed, and read a couple of poems. That’s what I do. You know, I’ve thought, what if there was a fire? And I lost all my books? I would be so sad. So sad. I think of these things, right? But you know, books have been such a part of my life for so long, that I can’t imagine my life without them. I can’t. And people say that when they walk into my place, they know me. And when I walk into someone’s house and they don’t have any books, I’m thinking, “I gotta go!”

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