Sáenz, Benjamin Alire 1954-

views updated

SÁENZ, Benjamin Alire 1954-

PERSONAL: Born August, 16, 1954, in Old Picacho, NM; son of Juan Villanueva Sáenz (a cement finisher) and Eloisa Chavez Alire (a cook); married Patricia Macias, 1994. Education: St. Thomas Seminary, B.A., 1992; University of Louvain, Belgium, M.A. (theology, 1980; University of Texas at El Paso, M.A. (creative writing), 1988; also attended the University of Iowa and Stanford University.

ADDRESSES: Office—Department of English, University of Texas, El Paso, 500 West University Ave., El Paso, TX 79968-8900. E-mail—[email protected]

CAREER: Writer. University of Texas, El Paso, assistant professor of English, teacher of creative writing.

AWARDS, HONORS: Wallace E. Stegner fellowship, Stanford University, 1988-99; American Book Award, Before Columbus Foundation, 1992, for Calendar of Dust; Lannan Literary fellowship, 1992; Best Children's Book, Texas Institute of Letters, 1999, for A Gift from Papá Diego and Grandma Fina and Her Wonderful Umbrellas, 1999.

WRITINGS:

Flowers for the Broken (short stories), Broken Moon Press, 1992.

Carry Me Like Water (novel), Hyperion, 1995.

The House of Forgetting (novel), HarperCollins (New York City), 1997.

A Gift from Papá Diego/Un Regalo de Papá Diego, (juvenile), illustrated by Geronimo Garcia, Cinco Puntos Press (El Paso, TX), 1998.

Grandma Fina and Her Wonderful Umbrellas/La Abuelita Fina y sus sombrillas maravillosas, (juvenile), illustrated by Geronimo Garcia, Cinco Puntos Press (El Paso, TX), 1999.

(Author of story) Que linda la brisa, photographs by James Drake, poem by Jimmy Santiago Baca, University of Washington Press (Seattle, WA), 2000.

POETRY

Calendar of Dust, Broken Moon Press, 1991.

Dark and Perfect Angels, Cinco Puntos Press (El Paso, TX), 1995.

Elegies In Blue, Cinco Puntos Press (El Paso, TX), 2002.

Contributor to periodicals.

WORK IN PROGRESS: A third children's book, titled The Dog Who Loved Tortilla.

SIDELIGHTS: Benjamin Alire Sáenz is a poet and fiction writer who has won particular praise for his expressions of Mexican-American life in the United States. Theresa Meléndez, writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, noted that the author's "work is set firmly in the tradition of Chicano literature of displacement, utilizing American themes of questioned identity familial conflict, reverence for place, and class conflict." She also noted, "The strengths and weaknesses of Chicano family life are perhaps the strongest undercurrents in all Sáenz's work."

Sáenz's first publication was Calendar of Dust, a collection of poems that articulate, as Roberto Bedoya stated in Hungry Mind Review, the "experiences of injustice, both personal and social, specific to Native American and Mexican-Americans." Among the subjects of Sáenz's poems are childhood, the mistreatment of Native Americans by the U.S. government, and the human capacity to overcome adversity. This debut volume includes the poems "Ring of Life," which concerns the author's vision of the birth-deathrebirth cycle, and "Walking," a complex work integrating a hymn to the earth with a chronicle of one individual's self-illuminating journey.

Calendar of Dust signified Sáenz as an ambitious new poet. Bert Almon, writing in Western American Literature, cited what he saw as shortcomings in the author's style, but also declared that Sáenz "appears to be an author with important, interesting stories to tell." Bedoya, in Hungry Mind Review, observed that "the momentum of Sáenz's poems never escapes the predictable sadness that resounds throughout [Calendar of Dust]," but he also described Sáenz as a poet whose work "is honest, economic and keen in the shaping of a poetry of lament."

In 1992 Sáenz produced his second volume, the short-story collection Flowers for the Broken. These tales, set largely in the contemporary American southwest, concern Mexican Americans, but the themes of the stories are essentially universal. "Obliterate the Night," for example, is the story of a wealthy woman who regrets having rejected an impoverished but loving student in favor of a wealthier, but emotionally shallow man embodying the Anglo-Saxon cultural ties that she desired. And in the title tale, a young woman spends a day delivering flowers and comes to realize that she must break free from the influence of her man-hating mother and make her own decisions.

Paul J. Ferlazzo, writing in Western American Literature, acknowledged the title story in Flowers for the Broken as "a good example of Sáenz's ability as an effective and moving storyteller," and added that "the same awareness and honesty about the complications and contradictions of life are present in every story in the volume."

Sáenz followed Flowers for the Broken with his first novel, Carry Me Like Water, which depicts a host of characters inhabiting the border town of El Paso, Texas. Included among the characters are Maria Elena, who has rejected her Mexican-American culture and moved to California but who later returns home to find Diego, her deaf-mute brother; Diego himself, a poor laborer endlessly rewriting a suicide note; Elena's husband, Eddie, who is searching for his own long-lost brother, Jake, who has, in turn, been driven from the home of their wealthy but abusive parents; and Maria Elena's friend, Lizzie, who has been misled by her shamed adoptive parents into thinking she is Anglo-Saxon instead of Mexican American. Lizzie is able to leave her body periodically through astral projection. These and other characters, as Melita Marie Garza wrote in Tribune Books, "run around trying to figure out who they really are at the risk of losing something more dear than their country of residence: their souls."

Garza further described Carry Me Like Water as "at once epic and fantastic in tone." She added that the novel is "strange and hot, but it is never dull, desolate or poor." Another reviewer, Norma E. Cantu, was likewise impressed, writing in the Washington Post Book World of Sáenz's "evocative prose" and his "ability to tell a story using not one voice, but many." Cantu hailed Carry Me Lke Water as "a significant addition to the growing body of Chicano literature and to American literature in general."

In 1995 Sáenz published a second verse collection, Dark and Perfect Angels. In this volume, the author once again writes of clashing Anglo-Saxon and Mexican-American cultures in the American southwest. "Family history is interspersed with national wars, border conflicts, racism, viral disease and alcoholism but is treated with affection, humor, spirituality, strength, and grace," wrote Meléndez in the Dictionary of Literary Biography.

In The House of Forgetting Sáenz tries his hand at genre writing in the form of a psychological thriller that also delves into the relationship between oppressor and oppressed. It revolves around the kidnapping of Gloria Santos at age seven by a respected professor of humanities at a local university. The professor holds her prisoner for the next twenty-three years yet provides her with an upbringing that includes a broad education and other upper-class trappings. Gloria finally escapes from the professor when she is thirty years old, and the novel goes on to explore Gloria's efforts to come to grips with her ordeal and her love-hate relationship with her one-time captor.

Sáenz next wrote two bilingual books for young readers, A Gift from Papá Diego/Un Regalo de Papá Diego, and Grandma Fina and Her Wonderful Umbrellas/La Auelita Fina y sus sombrillas maravillosas, both illustrated by Geronimo Garcia. In A Gift from Papá Diego, Sáenz tells the story of a young boy living in the United States who, despite the obstacles, wants to visit his grandfather, Papá Diego, in Chihuahua, Mexico. A contributor to Publishers Weekly called the book "engaging" and an "emotionally satisfying family story." Annie Ayres, writing in Booklist, commented that the book was a sensitive and honest portrayal of the lives of many Mexican Americans and that it "bridges the borders that separate all families who must live far apart from their loved ones."

Sáenz's third book of poems, Elegies in Blue, continues with his primary themes of politics and the Mexican-American border community, including ruminations on history, family, and death. In the book, he unites his efforts in novel writing and poetry by composing poems that are, for the most part, in prose form. "Sáenz casts a tone of lament, sometimes subtly and sometimes overtly, over most of the subject matter," wrote Lawrence Olszewski in Library Journal. In Booklist, reviewer Ray Olson said that the verse and prose poems are "distinguished by simple mellifluousness, clear imagery, and effortless balancing of the oracular and the personal voices."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

BOOKS

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 209: Chicano Writers, Third Series, Theresa Meléndez, "Benjamin Alire Sáenz," Gale (Detroit, MI), 1999, pp. 256-260.

PERIODICALS

Booklist, September 1, 1991, p. 24; April 1, 1995, pp. 1378-1379; May 1, 1998, Annie Ayres, review of A Gift from Papá Diego, p. 1522; February 15, 2002, Ray Olson, review of Elegies in Blue, p. 986.

Horn Book, July-August, 1998, Elena Abos, review of A Gift from Papá Diego, p. 478.

Hungry Mind Review, fall, 1992, pp. 56, 59.

Library Journal, July, 2002, Lawrence Olszewski, review of Elegies in Blue, pp. 85-86.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 23, 1992, p. 11.

Nation, June 7, 1993, pp. 772-774.

New Advocate, spring, 2001, review of Grandma Fina and Her Wonderful Umbrellas, p. 177.

Publishers Weekly, January 23, 1995, p. 43; April 24, 1995, p. 57; July 31, 1995, p. 74; January 19, 1998, review of A Gift from Papá Diego, p. 378.

School Library Journal, October, 1999, review of Grandma Fina and Her Wonderful Umbrellas, p. 125.

Tribune Books (Chicago), August 20, 1995, p. 5.

Washington Post Book World, September 17, 1995, p. 10.

Western American Literature, November, 1992, pp. 275-276; February, 1994, pp. 366-367.

ONLINE

University of Texas at El Paso,http://www.utep.edu (January 27, 2003), "Faculty Profiles."*