Just This Side of Tragic: An Interview with Benjamin Alire Sáenz
By Daniel A. OlivasMay 6, 2013
BENJAMIN ALIRE SÁENZ IS A QUINTUPLE THREAT. He has been recognized for his novels, short stories, poetry, young adult novels and children’s books. Published by large New York houses (HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster) and smaller, independent presses (Copper Canyon Press and Broken Moon Press), he also chairs the Creative Writing Department at the University of Texas, El Paso. He is a creature of the border, and his writing often reflects and examines life on la frontera.
In Sáenz’s most recent short-story collection, Everything Begins & Ends at the Kentucky Club, published by El Paso–based Cinco Puntos Press, he delves deeper into the harsh realities of border life as well as what it means to be Chicano and gay. The book has recently been honored with a PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and is a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award in the Gay General Fiction category.
Booklist observed: “Sáenz writes prose that is tender, occasionally fierce, and always engaging.” I agree but would add that very few writers can capture the brutal, beautiful duality of life on the border with such authority and sincerity.
DANIEL OLIVAS: How did you come upon the idea to use the Kentucky Club as the hub for your stories? Is there a real Kentucky Club?
BENJAMIN ALIRE SÁENZ: After I’d written the first story, which is the first story in the collection, I wanted to tie the stories together not because I had to, but because I wanted the reader to understand that all these characters were related to each other. They all are denizens of the border, and even if they are separated by time, they are all part of the same struggle. And then the idea hit me, and I went with it. I was afraid, of course, that it would be interpreted as a gimmick. But I don’t do gimmicks. And yes, the Kentucky Club is a real place. It’s almost as if that club belongs to the people living on both sides of the border.
DO: There is such a delicate melancholy about these stories. Does this say anything about your current view of life?
BAS: Yes, I suppose it does, or better, I was certainly in a melancholic mood when I wrote the stories. Delicate? I don’t know if that’s the word I’d use. James Baldwin has been a real role model for me. He was elegant in the most beautiful sense of that word. I don’t know that I can ever come close to accomplishing what he accomplished, and I haven’t earned the right to be mentioned in the same sentence as a giant like him.
My vision of life is just this side of tragic. But I think I’m much more optimistic about life than my stories suggest. I’m not writing autobiographies; I’m writing fiction, and I want to make my stories feel as though they might very well be memoirs. That’s the fun thing about writing in the first person. The thing that was important to me in this collection was to write about characters who live in the shadow of the headlines: violence, drug dealing, drug addiction, sex. Those are not just “issues”; those are realities that people live. People are destroyed by drugs and their own pain. People in pain are often self-destructive. Yet sometimes they transcend. We, on the border, want to live. I write stories of survival. The teller has survived to tell the tale. I am one of those survivors.
DO: Your characters live both physically and literally at the border between the United States and Mexico. They cross back and forth from El Paso and Juárez and are almost transformed. Do you see la frontera as having this kind of power over a person’s identity?
BAS: Absolutely. We are defined by our physical landscape. We’re shaped by it. And Juárez is omnipresent in El Paso and El Paso is omnipresent in Juárez. The two cities are an inescapable part of each other. Whatever side of the fence we live on, the “other” is defining and reshaping our world, our psychology, and the way we think about the world. I do not speak the language of the border — the language of the border speaks me. I am utterly powerless in the face of the cruelty of our nationalisms.
DO: Did any other authors influence or inspire you in writing Kentucky Club? Did you have any friends read early drafts?
BAS: I never let anyone see my work until after it’s done — well, except my editors. I’m very guarded that way. I’ve had to learn to be my own editor — and that’s the way it should be. I’ve already mentioned Jimmy Baldwin. A lot of writers have inspired me. Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio has been a very important influence. And the usual suspects, Juan Rulfo, García Márquez, Faulkner himself, even Hemingway. My colleagues, Luis Urrea, Rubén Martínez, Daniel Chacón — they inspire me not only through their writing but with how they live their lives. And Lee and Bobby Byrd [of Cinco Puntos Press] who so enthusiastically wanted to publish my book and literally pushed me to finish it, even though I wasn’t exactly in the best emotional space. I was going through a lot of emotional turmoil during the period that I was writing this book. The stories were painful to write. On the other hand, everything I write is painful. I guess for me there isn’t any other way. I wish I were more dispassionate. I’m not British. Too much subtlety would kill a man like me. Irony is another matter.
DO: Kentucky Club has recently been honored with a PEN/Faulkner Fiction Award, and it’s a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award in the Gay General Fiction category. What do these honors mean to you as an author who is Chicano and gay?
BAS: Awards. They mean so much, don’t they? And maybe they shouldn’t. Chicano and gay. Those are important identities. And it’s a lovely thing to be claimed by the communities you belong to. But in the end, I’m just a man. I want to be allowed to be a man just like any other man. To love and to breathe and to be allowed to pursue happiness. And, I want my writing to be taken seriously because being a writer is the most important identity I have. Awards mean recognition. Yes, they do. But I want to put this into a context: When my mother was in the ninth grade, she was given a medal for her outstanding academic performance. That’s the year she dropped out of school to help a mother who was sick. My mother was the most intelligent human being I’ve ever encountered. And she taught me the meaning of sacrifice. She’s gone now, my mother. The medal she won is in my possession. It is the most precious “award” I have. And, in some ways nothing has changed. Love and friendship, if they’re true, love and friendship matter more than any accolade. And damn me to hell if I ever forget that.
DO: Do you believe you have any responsibilities to readers as a Chicano writer? As a gay writer?
BAS: Of course I do. It takes a village to raise a writer. I’d be an ingrate if I didn’t believe I owed my communities something. And I just don’t owe them something — I owe them everything. Who do you think gave me my voice? I didn’t invent language. I didn’t invent words. Words were given to me. I don’t believe in the ideology of the gifted individual. I believe that we belong to each other and that we should never forget that. And I intend to give back. I intend to live my life with gratitude. I am proud to be the son of the Mexican-American community that has helped make this nation great. And I am no longer ashamed of my desire for other men. I’ve learned that desire is a complicated matter. The problem, of course, with being gay is that I have to date men. My gender has a lot to answer for.
DO: Have you been doing public readings of Kentucky Club? If so, what excerpts have you read, and what has been the audience reaction?
BAS: I haven’t read publicly from the Kentucky Club. But I’m about to do some readings and I don’t know which excerpts I’ll read from and I have no idea how the audience will react. But it’s not something that worries me. I’m very relaxed when I read. I’m used to public speaking, and it’s second nature. You’d never guess that there was a quiet, private side to me. And I love being alone without the pressures of public interaction. I’m not always interactive.
DO: What do you hope readers get from Kentucky Club?
BAS: I hope that my readers gain some insight into the human condition — the human condition as it is lived out on the border. As Sherwood Anderson put it, some of us must live our lives in uncertainty. Perhaps, through my characters, a person or two will understand that there is grace and dignity in learning to bear pain and hurt. I can’t conceive of a world without pain, just as I can’t conceive of a world without hope. I think that’s it. Writing this book gave me back my hope. It would be lovely if some of my readers would get some of that hope, too. Despair is unacceptable. Everyone should reread Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
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