Benjamin Alire Sáenz lives on the safe side of a violent line. His response to this is to blur the line, to acknowledge that there is privilege in his safety, and to embrace not his side of the line, but the line itself as an essential piece of who he is. Ben was gracious enough to allow us to interview him for the fall issue of Hot Metal Bridge, which is astounding, given the fact that we cannot imagine when he has time to sleep, let alone answer questions from pesky M.F.A. candidates. Our theory here at HMB is that the person we corresponded with is secretly only one of the Ben Sáenzes out there, engaging with the turbulent border, embracing it with words. He is a poet, a painter, and a writer of fiction. He is Chair of the Creative Writing Department at the University of Texas at El Paso, where he cohosts the NPR show Words on a Wire. His most recent book, Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club, is the 2013 winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award.
Hot Metal Bridge: When I moved to Pittsburgh, I immediately felt at home, despite how very different it is from El Paso. Over time, the reasons came to me: We sit at the crossroads of the East Coast, Appalachia, and the Midwest. Pittsburgh’s identity is a culmination of cultures that have to constantly grapple with one another’s quirks and customs. It wasn’t the first time I’ve noticed this type of symmetry, this way the universe seems to have of letting me know I’m somewhere I can call home. I think about the people in Juarez, who will never see Pittsburgh, and I wonder why the universe chose me over them, and I can’t write about it. I’m too angry, too guilty, too privileged to even try. Everything Begins & Ends at the Kentucky Club speaks about the city and citizens of Juarez so lovingly and thoughtfully. I wonder, do you pull away in order to write about Juarez, or do you immerse yourself in it?
Ben Sáenz: For a guy like me, pulling away isn’t an option. I immerse myself in the psychology of a place. I can’t even say I really write about Juarez. No, that’s not quite right—what I do is write about it from a perspective from this side of the border. I am not a Juarense, but I am a fronterizo. I cannot imagine living anywhere else. I love this ecotone called the border, this liminal space where the two cities of Juarez and El Paso blend and crash and clash and embrace. El Paso could not exist without Juarez. These two cities are knotted to each and I am in the middle of it. I love this borderland passionately, and I am immersed in this whole damned beautiful, detestable, horrifying moment in history. I am utterly a man of my times.
HMB: Do you believe in magic?
BS: I’ve never been asked that. I guess I don’t know. I don’t believe in wizardry. I think things can be magical. I believe that people sometimes transcend and accomplish something beautiful when the circumstances tell us that it is impossible. Yeah, if you define doing the impossible, then, yes, I believe in magic.
HMB: How do you feel about e-readers, and the increasingly pixelated, more easily copied, quality of written words? Are we headed toward a literary bankruptcy, or a contemporary renaissance?
BS: We are headed toward both. Books will always exist. In many ways, our culture has been headed toward literary bankruptcy. Famous writer in America has always been something of an oxymoron. We are an incredibly anti-intellectual country. Hell, even writers buy into anti-intellectual discourse. In our public schools we’ve managed to create and nourish a sports culture and to hell with book culture. That irony is not lost on me. E-readers are not the enemy. A lot of people download my books. I don’t care how people choose to read books—so long as they’re reading them. In fact, I think e-books are helping to save literary culture. I think, for instance, that young adult literature is creating a lot of new readers out there. Those readers will become adult readers. This is very good news. I know a lot of people are suspicious of young adult literature, but the truth of the matter is there are a lot of very fine books being written in that “genre”—literary books. It’s not all vampires and wizards. The world is changing and we need to change with it. Nostalgia for the past will do us no good. I’m fond of saying that the future will not look like the past—and thank God for that.
HMB: What suggestions or guidelines would you recommend to a young writer figuring out how to write in two (or more) languages?
BS: I think we need to write in the language(s) that live inside us. Every writer has to find his or her voice. Sometimes that voice comes in more than one language, but a writer must be true to the words that live inside him. We only use the words that we know, that we believe in, the words that we have made our own. We have to trust ourselves and stop censoring ourselves. We need to learn how to be unafraid and take risks—and this on many levels. We need to take risks on a linguistic level. We need to take risks on an aesthetic level. We need to take risks on an emotional level. We can’t be afraid of alienating readers (which is not to say that we should push readers away).
HMB: Your work has been translated into French and German. How does Chicano literature (if you accept the label) get translated into another language?
BS: Actually, my work has also been translated into Italian, Dutch, Thai, Polish, Turkish, and Portuguese. I do embrace a Chicano identity and therefore consider Chicano Literature to be much more than a label. I don’t think the translation of a particular marginal cultural space poses any greater problems for a translator than a translation of a work that represents a more mainstream cultural experience. If a translator “gets” the work, then the translation is at least going to have some passions behind it. It’s a matter of getting the voice down. How do you translate a border experience? Well there are borders everywhere. I think that actually, borders are a pretty universal experience. The particulars may be very different, but there is a very translatable experience that we can all wrap our heads around. Yes, yes, something will always be lost in translation. I have no idea how to judge the translations of my work. I have no idea what is being lost. And yet, something of the original is still going to be there.
HMB: For whom do you write?
BS: I write for me. I write because I have to. I write because writing has time and time again saved my life. And yet, I write for my readers though my readers aren’t sitting on my shoulder as I write. (Thank God!) I’ve always gone my own way when it’s come to my writing. I write what I need to write. I don’t write to please other people. It’s a terribly selfish answer, I know, but it’s true.
HMB: What writers should we all read, and what qualities do you admire in them?
BS: J.G. Ballard because his stories are so weird and unique (I loved Empire of the Sun, though Spielberg managed to rob the story of its pessimism). Gabriel Garcia Marquez: he makes American writers look linguistically and emotionally bankrupt. Oh, you know, all the usual suspects: The Russians: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky for their tragic sensibilities (Americans aren’t tragic enough). Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison (Americans don’t have to be so white. White isn’t just a matter of skin color—it’s an attitude.) Henry James (to counter Hemingway’s macho crap—though I love Hemingway in my own way but his vision of life, well it led to suicide). And everyone should read William James as well. The Varieties of Religious Experience is something every writer should read. Faulkner who is the least American of writers (The New Yorker would never publish him.) I could go on and on. I think I won’t. But, there are certain books I think everyone should read: The Book of Job; The Grapes of Wrath; Winesburg, Ohio; Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Love in the Time of Cholera (best love story ever); Shakespeare’s tragedies plus A Winter’s Tale. The thing with Shakespeare’s tragedies is that we know the endings. The inevitable death of the tragic hero. In that way, they’re very predictable. So what? I think that the predictability factor can help a story. I don’t think American writers believe that. It’s the journey. Before this turns into an essay, I’ll stop.
HMB: Writer, poet, painter, professor, Chair, radio show host. You wear a lot of hats. How does one lead a successfully busy life?
BS: With great difficulty. It used to be easier. I’m giving up my role as Chair because I need to be more focused. I want to get rid of some of my hats. I frankly don’t know how I’ve managed. I do know that I want to continue to write and I want to paint more and I want to continue teaching. But at some point, something’s got to give. I don’t take days off and I’m going to start. But that’s easier said than done for a guy like me. I mean, my idea of a day off is to paint or to write for eight hours. Maybe it’s because writing and painting don’t feel like work to me. You know, maybe I should make time for a relationship. There’s a thought.
HMB: Are your thought processes similar when beginning a poem, a story, and a painting?
BS: No. They’re all so different. Painting is mercifully free of words. I can listen to music when I paint. In fact, I need to listen to music when I paint. But I can’t have any music on when I write. Well, maybe a little classical music—but even then I need to be focused. My poetry is more associative, filled with non-linear logic that wraps around and eventually lands. There’s a lot of discipline involved but also a lot of freedom, but it’s also emotionally wrenching for me to write poetry because so much of my work is so close to the bone. When I write a story, I suppose you could say I fall in love with my characters—though some readers would say I have a funny way of showing that love since I beat the hell out of them. Maybe because I’m something of a damaged man, that damage shows up in my characters. I don’t think I’m normal—not that I’ve ever gone for normal. My characters aren’t normal either. What all three genres have in common for me is that they all begin with an idea and with each project I have to learn to express that idea in such a way that it matters. I don’t play. Art is too serious for me. It all has to matter.
HMB: Have you ever given any thought to collecting your talents in one work, and perhaps writing a graphic novel?
BS: I have. But not in a graphic novel. Something else altogether. I have something in mind but I don’t want to jinx it.
HMB: Do you show and/or sell your paintings?
BS: I’ve shown a few paintings in group shows. I do sell my work here and there, but I’m mercifully free of the marketplace because I don’t paint for a living. Someday soon, I’d like to pursue this aspect of my career in a more serious manner. But for the moment, I still have some books I want to write. I don’t think I’ve written the book I was born to write yet.
HMB: Is there anything you haven’t been able to find the words to write about yet?
BS: I haven’t found the words to write my memoir. And I hope I never will.