Benjamin Alire Sáenz is not just a YA author, but a poet, painter, and long-time teacher. Here, the author of the prize-winning Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (2012), spoke (via email, because he’s on a movie set) with PW about why writing the long-awaited sequel was so difficult and so necessary, the importance of friends—and teachers, and how “it was a blessing not to have to play by the rules of heterosexuals” when deciding what kind of man he wanted to be.
Fans of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe have been waiting a long time for the sequel. Did you always plan to write one? What was hard about it and what felt familiar about being back with these characters?
I didn’t plan to write a sequel. But I realized, after some time, that I’d left too many things unsaid in Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. I couldn’t quite forgive myself for not having included the AIDS pandemic. It was personal. I lost a mentor, one of my closest friends, and my oldest brother. And I felt, too, that the novel was turned inward. I wanted very much for the novel to turn outward, for Ari and Dante to turn toward the world in which they lived to make sense of their lives. After I decided to write the sequel, it took me five years. It was one of the most difficult challenges I’ve ever faced as a writer.
I just couldn’t find my way into the book. And I hated that the book would be compared to the original. Finally, I found my footing and I just wrote. And it was during the pandemic that I wrote most of the novel. For about eight months of my life, nothing else existed accept finishing this novel—nothing else except for Chuy, my Yorkie, who happens to be the love of my life.
Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World is about romantic love, of course, but it’s also about Ari learning to be a friend. What made you want to make this such a big part of the book?
Friends have been a very important part of my life, and this was true for me beginning in grade school. I don’t think I was all that different than most young people. I wanted to have friends and a life that was not centered around my family. We form our identities by looking at people we identify with or people our own age that we admire. My friends gave me a different perspective on myself, and they taught me how to be generous, taught me that kindness mattered, taught me how to forgive, and also taught me how to ask for forgiveness. My friends expanded my universe, taught me words, gave me a sense of self-worth. I still have friends that I’ve known since I was in seventh grade. I have friends that I met when I was 16. I have friends I met when I entered college. My friends are not like my family—they are my family. It isn’t just parents who give you your values. Our friends do that too. Learning how to be a friend is one of the most important lessons I have ever learned.
Another key theme in the book is being a good man, but it’s within the context of a love story. Do you see the two as connected, and if so, how?
Yes, being a good man is in the context of a gay love story—but the larger context is a world that has very strong narratives about what being a man is. To be a man is often treated as more important than being good, being decent, and being respectful. Men aren’t expected to be kind. Men are always proving to each other that they’re “real” men, not good but real. Gay men were, and still are, out of that picture. Even within that context, though, some men seek and desire to be good and decent and honorable. Ari’s dad is such a man. And he understands that his son’s journey toward becoming a man closely resembles a war—his son will have to fight to be allowed to enter the country of manhood. I have always believed that being gay has offered me the opportunity to decide what kind of man I wanted to be. I didn’t have heterosexual entitlement, but I had to find a space for myself and come to my own definition of what it means to be a man. It was a blessing not to have to play by the rules of heterosexuals. Ari’s father offers Ari a piece of advice: never do anything to prove to yourself—or to anybody else—that you’re a man, because you are one.
Ari changes so much over the course of this book, particularly in terms of his ability to open up to others. What do you attribute that to?
Ari evolves into being an honest man. He struggles to be honest with himself, and for the most part, he succeeds. For example, when he realizes that he is in love with Dante, he knows that to be the truth—and there is no turning back from there. Honesty leads to more honesty. He realized that he thought he’d made himself invisible—and yet making yourself invisible is impossible. Many will see you whether you like it or not. And to be seen by others and to see others—that recognition of our common humanity is essential for one’s survival and one’s happiness. Ari’s lucky, because he has a mother who loves him, a mother who is wise. And she gives Ari a perspective on life that he’s never had. Ari has stopped running. He has become the kind of person that is open to the possibilities that the universe offers him.
Often teachers and classes are invisible or just a backdrop in YA books, but here they’re a key thread. Why was that important to include?
Because teachers are not backdrops—they are an essential part of our lives, and an essential part of our growing up years. I admire educators a great deal. I don’t have to look at them all as heroic—though often they are. I disliked a good many teachers when I was in high school, and I thought some others were generous and virtuous and caring people. And some teachers, well, I just got a kick out of them. Some of them were real characters. And most—but not all—had a genuine concern for their students. I’m baffled as to why there aren’t more teacher characters in our young adult novels. I was a professor of English and creative writing for 23 years. My students meant a great deal to me. I respected my students, and they gave me their affection and gratitude in return. The love that exists between students and some of their teachers is so tender and moving. Teachers are people—and as people, they play a crucial role in the lives of young people, and I feel strongly that they be represented in young adult literature.
Activism, both national and local, is another through line in the book. Was that always there, or was it inspired by world or U.S. events?
I have been an activist in one form or another all my adult life. I wore a black armband to protest the Vietnam War when I was in high school. I supported the farmworkers boycotts in the late ’60s and early ’70s. In the ’80s I helped refugees from El Salvador file for political asylum by interviewing them, writing out their testimonies and translating their final applications. I have been involved in local political campaigns for progressive candidates and have done everything from writing television and radio ads to walking door to door. In my years as a professor, I advocated for changes in the curriculum and was involved in hiring more professors of color. Lately, I have joined local organizations to advocate for equality for the LGBTQ+ community and was on the committee that helped organize the local Women’s March. I have never been shy about speaking out on matters that I believed would make the world a better place.
A movie version of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is being made. How has it felt to see the book adapted to film?
It’s all so new and so eye-opening and so amazing. We have been trying to make Ari and Dante into a film for what seems like a long time. I met Aitch [Alberto], who wrote the screenplay and is directing the film, about five years ago. When I read her script, I thought it was brilliant. And it’s so interesting to see all the steps it takes to make a book into a movie. So many people are involved. To be a part of this kind of translation is a real honor. I very much admire the people who committed themselves to making Ari and Dante into a film because they so strongly believed in its message. Writers and filmmakers often have the same values. Many writers and many filmmakers see their roles in society as being catalysts for change. Art, for many of us, exists not merely to entertain, but to change the shape of the society we live in.
What projects are next for you?
I’m working on a book of poems entitled In a Quieter Time Than I Have Never Known. Poetry was my first love, and it remains my favorite genre both to read and to write. I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without the things I learned about language through writing poems. I’m also working on a book of nonfiction for young adults—but I don’t want to say a lot about that. I am also an artist and I’m setting up a virtual gallery on my web page. I really love to paint, and I almost became a painter. I didn’t because I felt my writing was my stronger suit. But that didn’t make me give up on my art. Sometimes, writing wears me down, and I must take a rest from it. I turn to art that is wordless and forces me to communicate in other ways. Painting gave me a form of communication that writing could never give me. And I get to listen to music when I paint. I love music. That makes me happy.
Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. Simon & Schuster, $19.99 Oct. 12 ISBN 978-1-5344-9619-4