The latest young adult novel from Benjamin Alire Sáenz, The Inexplicable Logic of My Life, is an outstanding tale of an adopted teen and the friends and family that surround him. We contacted Sáenz to learn more about these unforgettable characters, the ways in which we fail to talk about love with our children, and what a family can look like.
You’ve spent many years in El Paso, Texas, which is but a few miles from the Mexican border, and you currently teach at the university there. How has life as a Mexican American helped you dive deeper into the story you’ve told here? What unique and multiple perspectives did it allow you to breathe life into?
El Paso is not a few miles from the Mexico border, it is on the Mexican border—and my border, on the surface, has nothing to do with this particular novel. And yet, inevitably, place becomes a character in all my work, so much so that a reader cannot imagine that the story could have been told from any other geographical setting. I normalize the border instead of sensationalizing it. The border may be murderous at certain times, but there is a helluva lot of living going on. The border isn’t simply a nightmare, conjured up by the two countries it glues together. The border isn’t simply a metaphor, nor is it simply a place where two countries meet and clash and embrace. The border can be seen as an economic, social and cultural safety valve for both the United States and Mexico. But for those of us who live here, the border is home. It does not stand for apocalypse but for normalcy. Mexican Americans who live here understand that, in some ways, they belong to two countries and yet belong to neither.
For your central characters, you’ve crafted the young, complex and introspective Sal, Sam and Fito. In the face of all their struggles and harsh realities, what is it about them that enables them to retain—and evolve—their individual humanities?
When the novel begins, Sal has never had to face any harsh realities. He has lived his life with his father, who is nurturing and protective, and with his extended family; he is a young man who is clearly adored. All his life, Sal has felt comfortable and safe, and he feels perfectly fine right where he is. His father is affectionate and decent, and Sal has never been confronted with the complexities or inconsistencies of life. And then, all of a sudden, he has to deal with events he is not fully prepared to deal with. But precisely because he is so deeply loved and grounded, and precisely because his identity has been forged by a profound love, he is able to grasp that he is not and has never been alone. With the help of Sam and Fito and his dad, he finds the strength to deal with the changes that life, in its unpredictability, throws at him.
In contrast to Sal, Sam and Fito have always had to deal with some harsh realities. Sam and her mother have always had a difficult relationship, and in essence, she is an absent mother both in the literal and emotional sense that those words imply. Sam’s situation forced her to learn very early on in her life to be tough, to be independent and to make her own way in the world. It is those very gifts that help her not only to survive, but to become the kind of person she wants to become. She does not run away from what she feels, but neither is she in control of her emotional life. In the end, she learns to accept the things that befall her with a kind of dignity and grace without sacrificing the most treasure qualities she possesses.
And then there’s Fito, who has lived his entire life in survival mode. Coming from a family of addicts, he has essentially raised himself, and he uses his intelligence to get by on the streets. But he also uses his intelligence toward more intellectual pursuits. And while Fito can survive on the streets, he has a difficult time accepting why anyone would ever want to love him. He feels unworthy of love, and yet he finds he is up for the fight. Many young men like Fito would run from stable situations, sabotaging all his human relations. But since he has tapped into another kind of world, the world of reading and of writing (he keeps a journal), he has discovered that there is something far more beautiful out there in the world that he has neither seen nor tasted.
“It’s important to me that my readers see my characters as representations of themselves and not just for their Mexicanness or their gayness. I have said this many times in my career: I refuse to perform my own ethnicity on the page. And I have lived by that rule as a writer. Why would that be any different with regards to my characters? They’re men. That is what matters.”
Of all your characters, I found Sal’s father, Vicente, to be the most intriguing. Who did you have in mind when you dreamt up Vicente—one of the most caring and understanding characters I’ve ever encountered? How much of yourself is in this character?
Vicente is a projection of who I have always wanted to be. I am an artist, but I am not a successful one (I am speaking of my paintings here, not my writing). Vicente is a successful painter, and yet he remains unfazed by his success, a truly humble man. I do not share Vicente’s humility. It is one of my regrets that I never had any children of my own and never adopted. I love children and I love teenagers. I adore them. I know very well that it takes a lot of sacrifice and patience to raise a child. I’d like to think that I would endeavor to teach any child of mine to think for himself and be generous with other people. I’d like to believe that I would nurture in him the qualities I thought were the very definition of decency. All I had to do to write this character was ask myself not what I would have actually done, but what would I like to have done in the situations Vicente faced.
As an author who’s out as openly gay, how important is it to discuss and normalize LGBT issues and questions of sexuality your characters are facing? How have the stigma and struggles of being gay changed?
That is exactly what I do in my work: I normalize what it means to be gay. It is normal. It’s normal for me. But I’ve had a lot of practice: I’ve been normalizing on the page what it means to be a Latino for the last 20-some odd years. It’s important to me that my readers see my characters as representations of themselves and not just for their Mexicanness or their gayness. I have said this many times in my career: I refuse to perform my own ethnicity on the page. And I have lived by that rule as a writer. Why would that be any different with regards to my characters? They’re men. That is what matters. I do not deny the importance of the fact that some of them are gay. But they cannot be gay characters if they do not feel like flesh and bone real characters, which is to say real men. In my opinion, novels are supposed to be a reflection of our humanity. I want my readers to think of my characters as real people. If I cannot accomplish this then the novels I write are all failures.
The stigma of being gay has left the spotlight on the stage, but it has not left the theater. Yes, it is easier to come out in this present moment in history, but easier does not mean easy. We romanticize too much about what it means to be young. We too often forget the pain that comes with an awareness of ourselves, an awareness that tells us we are no longer children but have not yet learned how to become an adult. I get emails and letters all of the time, all of the time, from young men and women who tell me their stories and how grateful they are to me for having lightened and enlightened their journeys toward self-acceptance. Adolescence can be very confusing time in life for anyone. It is, and always will be, more difficult for those who are sexually different to come to terms with themselves and see themselves as fitting in to their communities. And we must not and cannot forget that there is still great deal of hatred and animosity towards our community. Our children are very much aware of that fact, and it is part of the reason that gay, lesbian and transgender children often internalize that hatred, and it becomes part of the reason why it is still so difficult for teens to come to terms with such an important part of who they are.
“We do not have frank discussions about love, not because we wish to spare our children but because we wish to spare ourselves from that discussion. If we love our children, then our love demands that we talk to our children about the many facets of love, including the sexual aspect of it.”
As I read your novel, I kept thinking back to the famous line from The Perks of Being a Wallflower, “We accept the love we think we deserve.” Why do all your characters seem to devalue themselves? Why do they (almost) always accept less love than they’re worth?
That’s easy. We’ve communicated that very message to our children on so many levels in our society—that they do not deserve to be loved. We are not the loving, family-oriented culture that we claim to be. We love our children but we have not, as a society, learned how to communicate that love. We too often love on our terms, and this is antithetical to what love is. When we love, we listen, and yet I do not believe we have learned to listen to our children and the things they are saying to us. Even in the best of families, teens are left to figure out who they are, what they deserve and how to go about having healthy relationships.
And by the way, we should teach our children that love has little to do with the word “deserve.” Love is not something we can earn as if we were exchanging our labor for an income. Who is to say what we deserve? And just as love is not an exchange for our labor, love cannot be reduced to a simple emotion. Love is a commitment and a decision that requires forgiveness. I do not believe that the culture created by our political culture teaches our children anything about forgiveness. We do not have frank discussions about love, not because we wish to spare our children but because we wish to spare ourselves from that discussion. If we love our children, then our love demands that we talk to our children about the many facets of love, including the sexual aspect of it. But we have cowered in the face of the bullying from the Christian right. Those voices have hijacked all discussions regarding the nature of love, as if God himself had appointed them to be his sentries. But the offices they hold are mostly self-appointed, and I can say with certitude that Conservative Christians have no copyright on Christianity and we have allowed their voices to take over our political culture, which has damaged our ability to love. Who decides who “deserves” God’s love? It is not only the immediate families of our children that affect their self-image, it is the greater culture around them. Our children cannot have a healthy sense of what love is without communication, affection and honesty. Certainly honesty is in short supply in this county.
Simply put, children often devalue themselves because we devalue them as a society. All of our lip service to children and to families is just that: lip service. Perhaps it’s time to put our money where our mouth is. Whatever we tell ourselves, our values are where we put our money and our time. We don’t really spend a great deal of our wealth on educating our children. Why? Because, whatever we may say, we don’t believe in spending our money in educating our children.
As an author and poet with a long literary career, what other works also influenced your characters and narrative in The Inexplicable Logic of My Life? What other writers and poets did you draw upon for inspiration and direction, and why?
Obviously, To Kill A Mockingbird, though my novel does not have the obvious gravity in so far as the subject matter is concerned. It does, however present the role of a single male parent, which helped me think about that issue as I wrote the book. But that which most influenced me in the writing of this book Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me Ultima, a novel about the passing of the torch from one generation to the next (along with its attendant religious and social customs) that has greatly influenced me as a writer. We don’t talk about faith in YA novels, or at least we don’t deal with it enough, and this novel, as much as it is about anything else, is about the passing of a holy woman and what she leaves as a legacy, but also the vacuum she leaves in regard to her relationship with God.
Throughout your novel, you use a narrative style that’s a simple prose, almost like a journal form of storytelling. Why choose this particular voice and style to tell this story? What did it enable you to do or say that you couldn’t have otherwise?
I tend not to be as minimal in my adult fiction as I do in my young adult fiction. And this is not entirely so because younger readers tend to have a vocabulary that is not yet fully in bloom. I have become more than a little enamored of a simplicity in language that does not announce its sophistication. I like the simplicity of language that is unadorned and pure and reaches the reader directly, and also conjures and implies and suggests much deeper meanings. The kind of language I employ here is quiet and perhaps its sincerity on its sleeve, and I have been accused of making people cry, and I don’t see anything wrong with that. My novels aren’t cheap dime-store cards, and the sentiment in them is earned, and I have to write in a style appropriate to what I am trying to accomplish.
Other than Sal’s Mima (grandmother), there seems to be an absence of strong, positive and caring female figures throughout your novel. How come? Was this to show that strong, caring, male/father figures can be unique and varied, as well as exhibit softer and more “feminine” characteristics?
I think you’ve partially answered your own question in the way you asked it. I suppose I wanted to turn the idea of absent fathers on its head. I don’t believe that all women are nurturing and loving, just as I don’t believe that all men are incapable of expressing affection. Perhaps women are conditioned to be more nurturing and men are conditioned to be more emotionally aloof. In any case, I firmly believe that gay men are perfectly capable of raising a family as heterosexual men and women. Children’s courts are teeming with children who were raised by their straight parents in conditions no child should have to endure. I suppose there are those who suspect that there is predatory aspect to a gay man who adopts a male child despite the fact that we know that it is most often heterosexual males who are pederasts and a danger to children. The myth that a gay man should be sexually suspicious is a lie that society often perpetrates, if only under its breath. Yes, I wanted to write a novel where the nurturing parental figure was a man (though in this regard, his own mother could not be out-nurtured).
With so many YA novels seemingly determined to have their characters fall in love, I genuinely appreciated that Sam and Sal’s sibling-like relationship never became anything more than platonic. What led you to make this narrative choice?
Because it felt right. Sam, is in fact, a tribute to my sister, Gloria. My younger sister has always been fully and beautifully alive, and she doesn’t know how to be anybody but herself. Sam and Sal met in kindergarten, and they formed a special bond not often found between members of the other sex (I don’t want to use the term “opposite sex” because it makes it seem that women and men are destined to be on opposing sides). I didn’t want sexual tension to be at the center of this novel. I wanted this novel to be around family and the ways we create and expand on our notions of family. And also, with their relationship, I also wanted to open up a space for them to think about a greater emotional intimacy between their siblings of the other sex. I treasure the relationship I have with my sisters. My oldest sister died of cancer almost two years ago. But I still have my sister, Gloria, my Sam. And I would also like to add that we don’t nurture or encourage friend relationships between young men and young women, preventing perhaps a greater understanding between the sexes.
With Sal being adopted, and Sam and Fito coming from “broken” homes, what’s the modern meaning of a “normal” family? Does it really only matter that you have an adult who loves you and builds you up in life, no matter who they are?
In a perfect world, we would always be born into families where our parents had the capacity to love and care for us. But this is not the case, and it is incredibly important to have a parental figure in one’s life. Supportive adults are necessary if our children are to reach their full potential. Unfortunately, some families are absolutely toxic, making it impossible for a young person to turn to their parents for any kind of help, whether that help be emotional or financial. Many children in this nation, in this world, are forced to create some sort of support system. And really, we all create alternative families—isn’t that what friends are? Aren’t friends the family that we choose? It is terribly important for all of us to create some kind of community where we feel we truly belong. If we do not create spaces of belonging then we are condemned to live in exile. Fito, in the novel, survives mostly on his own, and he represents too many children in this nation. Fito is tough and he is a survivor. But there is a heavy price to be paid for living your life in survival mode. He only begins to thrive when Sal and Sam become his family. Through the great miracle of friendship, he moves from exile to belonging.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Inexplicable Logic of My Life.
Author photo credit Cybele Knowles.
Justin Barisich is a freelancer, satirist, poet and performer living in Atlanta. More of his writing can be found at littlewritingman.com.