Benitez, Sandra 1941–
Benitez, Sandra 1941–
(Sandra Ables Benitez)
PERSONAL: Born March 26, 1941, in Washington, DC; daughter of James Q. (a diplomat, road builder, comptroller, and writer) and Marta A. (an executive secretary and translator; maiden name, Benitez) Ables; married second husband, James F. Kondrick (a writer and game inventor), May 25, 1980; children: (first marriage) Christopher Charles Title, Jonathon James Title. Education: Truman State University, B.S., 1962, M.A., 1974.
ADDRESSES: Home and office—6075 Lincoln Dr., No. 210, Edina, MN 55436. Agent—Ellen Levine Literary Agency, Inc., 15 E. 26th St., Ste. 1801, New York, NY 10010-1505.
CAREER: Gaunt High School, Affton, MO, ninth-grade Spanish and English teacher, 1963–68; Northeast Missouri State University, Kirksville, teaching assistant, 1974; Wilson Learning Corporation, Eden Prairie, MN, freelance Spanish/English translator, 1975–76, marketing liaison in international division, 1977–80; fiction writer and creative writing teacher for The Loft and the University of Minnesota, Duluth, Split Rock Arts Program, 1980–. Loft Inroads Program, Hispanic mentor, 1989–92. COMPAS Writers-in-the-Schools Roster Artist, St. Paul, MN; member of the National Writers' Voice Project Reading Tour, 1994–95; University of Minnesota, Keller-Edelstein Distinguished Writer-in-Residence, 1997; University of San Diego, member of Knapp (chair, 2001).
MEMBER: Authors Guild, The Loft, Poets and Writers.
AWARDS, HONORS: Loft Mentor Award for fiction, 1987; Loft-McKnight Award for fiction, 1988; Jerome Foundation Travel and Study Grant, 1989; Minnesota State Arts Board fellowship, 1991; Minnesota Hispanic Heritage Month Award, 1992; Loft-McKnight Award of Distinction for prose, 1993; Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Award, 1993, and Minnesota Book Award for fiction, 1994, both for A Place Where the Sea Remembers; Edelstein-Keller Writer of Distinction, 1997; American Book Award, Before Columbus Foundation, 1998, for Bitter Grounds; Bush Artists fellowship, 1999; Book Sense '76 Pick, Star Tribune "Talking Volumes" selection, 2002, both for The Weight of All Things; All-city book read award, 2002, for A Place Where the Sea Remembers.
A Place Where the Sea Remembers, Coffee House Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1993.
Mickey Pearlman, editor, "Home Views," A Place Called Home: Twenty Writing Women Remember, St. Martins Press (New York, NY), 1996.
Bitter Grounds, Hyperion (New York, NY), 1997.
Marilyn Kallet and Judith Ortiz Cofer, editors,"Fire, Wax, Smoke," Sleeping with One Eye Open: Women Writers and the Art of Survival, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1999.
The Weight of All Things, Hyperion (New York, NY), 2000.
Night of the Radishes, Hyperion (New York, NY), 2003.
Work has been published in British, Dutch, German, Spanish, and French.
Work represented in several anthologies. Contributor of numerous English and Spanish articles to periodicals.
SIDELIGHTS: Sandra Benitez draws upon her experiences living in Mexico and El Salvador to craft novels that reveal how domestic life is compromised by politics in Latin America. In Benitez's novels, political discord dissolves family and friendship ties, it leaves young children orphaned and vulnerable, and it infects generation after generation. The larger social framework of Latin America becomes understandable when presented from the viewpoint of so-called "ordinary" characters with whom the reader can develop a rapport. To quote a Publishers Weekly writer in a review of The Weight of All Things, Benitez—who published her first novel at the age of fifty-two—"gives voice to the silenced."
Benitez's first novel, A Place Where the Sea Remembers, was published in 1993. The book reveals the aspirations and disillusionment felt by people living in the Mexican village of Santiago. Candelario Marroquin is fired from his job one afternoon and, upon returning home, discovers that his wife is pregnant. Now Candelario is unable to keep his promise to his wife's sister to take in her baby that was conceived as the result of a rape. A quarrel between the sisters ensues which triggers a series of events that touches the lives of many of the residents of Santiago. Some reviewers complimented Benitez on her ability to create a distinctive society by interweaving the stories of her characters. "Throughout A Place Where the Sea Remembers, Ms. Benitez's descriptions of people and places are crisp, and the staccato rhythms of her prose are just right for this dark fable of a story. She has built a little world … and filled it with people we care for, we root for, and whose flaws we are willing to forgive," wrote Chris Bohjalian in the New York Times Book Review. Cristina Garcia of the Washington Post Book World felt that A Place Where the Sea Remembers "is a quietly stunning book that leaves soft tracks in the heart." The work won Benitez the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Award in 1993, as well as a Minnesota Book Award for fiction in 1994.
In 1997 Benitez published Bitter Grounds, a story that follows two connected Salvadoran families through the political events of the 1930s through the 1970s. One family owns a coffee plantation; the other works in their employment. Benitez keeps her focus on the women of these families through three generations and shows despite their disparate circumstances, how they are linked by a complex mix of servitude and friendship. The author gives a careful sensory picture of their combined experiences, such as the making of sweet and salt tamales, and a ubiquitous radio soap opera called "Las Dos." The story concentrates on individual experiences, but the violence of continuous political upheaval in El Salvador is inescapable, beginning with the flight of Nahuat-descended Mercedes from the massacre in her Indian village. Political allegiances and class divisions threaten to end the generations-old relationship between the families, as each generation produces daughters who rebel against their places in the world.
Bitter Grounds received enthusiastic reviews and was admired for its cultural and social nuances, as well as for its careful treatment of a controversial political situation. Writing for Booklist, Grace Fill called the novel "a beautiful work of fiction that reveals the complicated roots of human drama and lays bare the truth of a troubled nation." Suzanne Ruta commended Benitez in Entertainment Weekly, admiring her "savory details … comic touches … [and] delicate, domestic look at violent history." A Publishers Weekly reviewer found the work "surprisingly free of propaganda" and commented that the "Spanish-sprinkled, elegant prose is mesmerizing in its simplicity and frankness." Mary Margaret Benson noted the book's "rich and fluid" prose in her review for Library Journal and called it a "welcome addition to the growing body of Latina literature."
The Weight of All Things offers a chilling portrait of a young boy caught up in an incomprehensible war. Nine-year-old Nicolas de la Virgen Veras accompanies his mother to the funeral of a martyred Catholic hero, Archbishop Romero. Soldiers fire on the large crowd, killing Nicolas's mother, who has tried to shield him from the flying bullets. Unaware that his mother is dead, and not just wounded, the bewildered boy makes his way home to his grandfather—only to discover that the war has arrived in his rural town as well. According to Michael Porter in the New York Times Book Review, through Nicolas's eyes "we see the war as a morass of fear and confusion, punctuated by acts of brutality and selfless kindness." In Book magazine, Mimi O'Connor praised the work for its "straightforward and evocative prose" that offers "a deeply affecting and startling portrait" of a country caught in the throes of war. In Publishers Weekly, a critic noted that the novel "seamlessly blends fact with imagination, evoking the trauma of war more vividly than any newspaper account." And Andrea Caron Kempf concluded in the Library Journal: "With its deceptively simple narrative, The Weight of All Things tells a powerful story."
Benitez once told CA: "I came to writing late. I was thirty-nine before I gathered enough courage to begin. When I hear other writers talk about writing, I'm amazed by those who say they always knew they had to write. When I was a girl, I never wished to do it. Being a writer was something magical I never dreamed I could attain. But while growing up, I frequently had a book in my lap, and so I was linked, even then, to writing and to the spell that stories cast.
"Over the years, I didn't know a writing life was lying in store for me. I had to live and grow before I caught the faint call at the age of thirty-nine. Since then, I've worked hard at being faithful to the call. For writing is an act of faith. We must keep faith each day with our writing if we want to be called writers.
"Since I've been writing, I've searched what's in my heart and it's from that core that I write and not from what seems marketable. I am a Latina American. In my heart are stored the stories of my Puerto Rican and Missourian heritage and of a childhood lived in Mexico and El Salvador. When I write, I have to suppress the knowledge that mainstream America often ignores the stories of 'la otra America.' Over the years, I've learned to write from the heart, to persevere despite the setbacks of a host of rejections.
"In the end, I've learned these things about writing: it's never too late to begin; we know all we need to know in order to do it; persistence and tenacity will take us all the way; and there are angels on our shoulders. Be still to catch their whisperings."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Book, January-February, 2001, Mimi O'Connor, review of The Weight of All Things, p. 79.
Booklist, September 15, 1997, Grace Fill, review of Bitter Grounds, p. 207.
Boston Globe, December 29, 1993.
Christian Science Monitor, January 21, 1998, Kathleen Kilgore, "Mayan and Modern Worlds Vie in El Salvador Tale," p. 13.
Entertainment Weekly, October 31, 1997, Suzanne Ruta, review of Bitter Grounds, p. 100.
Hispanic Times Magazine, May-June, 1997, Robert Kendall, review of A Place Where the Sea Remembers, p. 39.
Library Journal, September 1, 1997, Mary Margaret Benson, review of Bitter Grounds, p. 214; December, 2000, Andrea Caron Kempf, review of The Weight of All Things, p. 184.
Los Angeles Times, October 28, 1997, Kevin Baxter, "Rediscovering Roots through Her Writing," p. E3.
Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine, November, 1999, Alicia Fedorczak, "The Stories of Her Life," p. 50.
New York Times Book Review, October 31, 1993; March 25, 2001, Michael Porter, review of The Weight of All Things, p. 22.
Publishers Weekly, August 11, 1997, review of Bitter Grounds, p. 384; December 11, 2000, review of The Weight of All Things, p. 64.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 7, 1997, Susan C. Hegger, "Melodrama with Latin Accent," p. C5.
Washington Post Book World, September 5, 1993.
Women's Review of Books, June, 1998, Barbara Bele-jack, review of Bitter Grounds, p. 100.