"Some boys just know they're gay," writer Benjamin Alire Saenz tells NPR's Michel Martin. "I don't know how that happens. And I think other boys don't know, and then they start discovering that. And that's the book."
Saenz's young-adult novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe was a big winner at this year's American Library Association awards for children's literature.
Despite their grand names, Aristotle — who calls himself Ari — and Dante are teen loners who are trying to find their place in the world. "I think when you're 15, you kind of are a philosopher, you are a thinker," Saenz explains. "And I wanted to give their names some weight."
On coming out
The story follows Ari's journey to the realization that he is in love with his friend, "and he's so afraid of that," Saenz says. "He's so afraid of loving him. And Dante isn't." Saenz hopes that "a lot of Latino young men find this book ... I don't think it's easy to come out at any age, during any era."
Writing this story was therapeutic, Saenz says. "I think I needed to write this book because I had such difficulties coming to terms with my own sexuality," he says. Saenz's coming out happened much later in life, when he was 54. "I was abused as a boy, and the thought of being with a man was not very appealing, to say the least."
But one of his friends saw this book as a way for Saenz to come to terms with this identity, he says. "After she read it, she said, 'Ben, you gave yourself a gift.' "
On fighting stereotypes with stories
Like Saenz, Aristotle and Dante are both Mexican-American. He points out that he started to write the book at the height of what he felt was "anti-Mexican rhetoric" happening across the country. "I was really enraged by many things ... and I think hopefully we're coming out of what was a horrible, racist time," he says.
It was important to him to challenge the idea that Mexican-Americans are recent immigrants. "We have a long history in this country, and we're not all workers with our hands. There are a lot of professional Mexican-Americans, and it's just not presented in literature," he explains, "and I wanted very much to do that."
On the response to the book
Saenz has written a number of books but says he's overwhelmed by the reaction that this novel has received. "I've never had a book with this kind of response, not ever."
The reaction surprised him, especially because at one point, Saenz nearly abandoned the project.
"I'm like Ari; sometimes I'm afraid and I have to stop being afraid," he says. "I've spent so much of my life being afraid."
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. You might have noticed that this is the season of awards, the Grammys in music, the Oscars in film. The literary world does the same. This is the time of year when the American Library Association hands out awards for excellence in literature aimed at children and young adults, so over the next couple of weeks, we will meet some of the award winners for this year and hear about their work.
First up is a book that tackles that delicate confusing time between boyhood and manhood. It's called "Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe" and if you're expecting a look at how two great philosophers take on those age old questions, you're close except, in this story, Aristotle and Dante are teenaged boys. They are both Mexican-American, both loners trying to find their place in the world and, in doing so, they find and help each other.
The book has already won a Stonewall Book Award and a Pura Belpre Award, which honors Latino writers whose work best sums up the Latino cultural experience. The Stonewall Award honors excellence in young adult LGBT literature.
Its author is Benjamin Alire Saenz and he is with us now. Welcome and congratulations on the honors you've received so far.
BENJAMIN ALIRE SAENZ: Thank you very much, Michel. It's a pleasure to be on your show.
MARTIN: How did you get the idea for this story?
SAENZ: There have been gay characters in some of my stories, but I never really focus in on that issue and I wanted to very much write a story about two Mexican-American young men who are coming to terms with this issue and they're very confused about it, especially Ari, who's telling the story. Aristotle doesn't like his name because his real name is Angel Aristoteles and he just thinks that's just way too much and he doesn't like - he's never met anybody who's named Angel who isn't a screw-up and so he doesn't want that name, so he just calls himself Ari.
And I thought of his character and what he's like when I wrote this sentence when he says, if I change the letters around, Ari becomes Air. I could be the air. Everyone would need me, but I would still be invisible.
MARTIN: I was going to ask you about the name, so it's funny that you went right there. I was going to ask, why did you name those characters Aristotle and Dante? Why those two names? Why those two great heavyweight names?
SAENZ: Because I think, when you're 15, you kind of are a philosopher. You are a thinker. You think of - you're miserable and you live in your head and I wanted to give their names some weight, but also names that are common enough and names that I liked. And I thought a lot about it and I thought it was perfect and I write scenes to get to know my characters and, sometimes, I throw the scenes out, but in this case, I didn't.
And I just started to write this novel and these boys just came into my head and it was really easy for me. I think I needed to write this book because I had such difficulties coming to terms with my own sexuality. It was - I've had a kind of difficult life in some ways and painful in some ways.
MARTIN: Well, you came out when you were much older than many other people are used to coming out these days, if you don't mind my putting it...
SAENZ: Yeah, 54.
MARTIN: You were - yeah. If you don't mind my saying that.
SAENZ: Yeah. And there was many reasons for that. I was abused as a boy and the thought of being with a man was not very appealing, to say the least, and other difficulties. But I finally came to terms and I think just wanted - I'll put it this way. A friend of mine who read the book - after she read it, she said, oh, Ben, you gave yourself a gift.
MARTIN: So you see it as kind of a gift to yourself, in a way?
SAENZ: I do. I didn't know that, but I think that's absolutely true.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with author Benjamin Alire Saenz about his award-winning book, "Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe."
I want to talk a little bit more about the book. First of all, like you, both boys are Mexican-American, but they come from two different types of families. Ari's parents are working class. In fact, Ari's dad is a veteran, which becomes kind of part of the story - is a part of the story - and Dante's are professionals. And I was interested in what you were trying to say about the fact that both these boys come from Mexican-American backgrounds, but they're very American, but they're different.
SAENZ: Yeah. I started to write that book at the height of all that anti-Mexican rhetoric that was happening in Arizona and in the country and I was really enraged by many things during that time, and I - hopefully, I think we're coming out of that, that I think what was a horrible racist time. And I was really angry about it.
And one of the things that that rhetoric sort of produced is a kind of idea that Mexican-Americans are recent immigrants. That happens not to be true. My grandparents were born in this country. And my parents and me - and, in fact, on my mother's side, they've been here for generations. They were land-grant New Mexicans. So they lived in New Spain, and then it was Mexico, and then it was the United States. So we have a long history in this country, and we're not all workers with our hands. There are a lot of professional Mexican-Americans, and that's just not presented in literature. And I want very much to do that.
MARTIN: I was noting that if you look at a lot of kid TV, for example, the parents are nowhere to be found. I mean, there are some examples of that. Like, you know, "Hannah Montana" the dad was very present. But in a lot of literature aimed at kids, a lot of media aimed at kids, the parents are nowhere, like the kids are kind of raising themselves. And one of the things I noticed about this book is the parents are very present. Do you want to talk about that?
SAENZ: Sure. I did want to make the parents very present in this book because I think that sometimes, teenagers are going through hell, their own hell because they're teenagers, because they're 15. And it isn't - it doesn't have anything to do with their parents. These parents love their children. They love their sons. They made mistakes. You know, Ari's parents silence really hurts him. It doesn't mean that they don't love him. They're just people, and I wanted to present them as people, and as people who truly love their sons and they were going to stick by their sons. And one of the things that both Ari and Dante discover is that - is how much their parents truly love them.
MARTIN: You also touch on a subject that might be a little touchy for some people, which is skin color. The boys tease each other about that all the time, and also who's more Mexican. Can you talk a little bit about that?
SAENZ: Yeah. Almost similar to the black community, there are fair-skinned Mexicans and there are dark-skinned Mexicans that are more indigenous-looking, and they're darker. Sometimes you can tell someone's Latino and sometimes you can't. And so I - and that's normal in the Latino community, and so I just wanted to put it in the book.
MARTIN: You talked earlier about how the boys are on a journey. I mean, I have kind of touched lightly on how sexuality fits into the story. But talk a little bit about the journey that they're on.
SAENZ: Well, Ari's very kind of sullen and miserable, and he's a loner and he's a tough guy and he likes - he gets angry and he likes to fight. And he meets Dante who is just the opposite. He's gregarious. He's an artist. He likes poetry. And he seems to be very comfortable in his own skin, and yet Dante has his own discoveries to make about himself.
MARTIN: And I think the biggest universe in a boy's life is his body, actually. He gets to know his body. I think girls do this in a different way than boys. And they're growing into their bodies and into their sexuality, and Ari's so afraid of all of that. He doesn't like that he has to shave, and his body changes and he has all this hair everywhere and he just can't stand it. He doesn't want to think about. He's uncomfortable around other boys. He just wants to be alone. He doesn't have any friends, except he meets Dante.
SAENZ: And Dante is so - such a wonderful guy, and he really is drawn to him. And Ari doesn't know anything about his own sexuality at all, and I think a lot of boys don't. Some boys just know they're gay. I don't know how that happens. And I think other boys don't know, and then they start discovering that. And that's the book. That's Ari's journey. He discovers that his love for Dante isn't just as a friend, and he's so afraid of that. He's so afraid of loving him. And Dante isn't. Dante discovers his sexuality. He discovers it. He says I'm OK with it. I'm gay.
MARTIN: Who are you hoping will find this book?
SAENZ: I'm hoping that a lot of Latino young men find this book. I don't think it's easy to come out at any age, during any era. I think it's easier now, but I think it's a difficult journey for all gay young men - especially Latino gay young men - to really come out and feel comfortable with themselves, because there is the norm in this country, and that is heterosexuality. And maybe that's the way it should be. I don't know, but that's just the way it is, and they know it. And as I say in my dedication: To all the boys who've had to learn to live by different rules. It's difficult.
MARTIN: Presumably, though, I don't think it's just for Latino boys who are gay or who think they might be gay.
MARTIN: What is it that you think other readers are responding to?
SAENZ: I think that the reader's responding to my writing, and I'm very grateful for that. I've been writing for a long time, Michel, and I've published almost 20 books. And I've never had a book with this kind of response, not ever. And I'm so grateful for that, you know, because I think it's my writing that's being recognized. You have to want to make people listen to what you're saying, and I'd like to think that this book is a work of art.
MARTIN: But, to that end, in your acknowledgments, you say: I had second thoughts about writing this book. In fact, after I finished the first chapter or so, I almost decided to abandon the project. Why is that?
SAENZ: I'm like Ari. Sometimes I'm afraid, and have to stop being afraid. I have to learn not to be afraid. I've spent so much of my life being afraid, and then I realize that, literarily, I was outing myself, and that was a little scary.
MARTIN: What has been the response to the book?
SAENZ: It's just been great. And I get letters from boys. And it's just - they're so lovely, Michel. And I want to write back to them, because they tell me, they say I'm Dante. Or they say I'm Ari. How did you know? Thank you for writing this book. And one young man told me: I'm going to make my dad read it. And I love that.
MARTIN: Benjamin Alire Saenz is the author of "Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe." It was a big winner at this year's American Library Association Awards for Children's Literature and Literature for Young Adults. And he was kind enough to join us from El Paso, Texas.
Thank you so much for speaking with us, and congratulations once again.
SAENZ: Thank you so much, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.