FestivalYA – Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Redacted by Astrid Dudian

Originally, Benjamin Alire Sáenz wanted to be a poet. Instead of pouring his emotions into verses and stanzas, he chose to be a poet of prose and use his metaphors and lyricism to write one of the most beautiful love stories of contemporary literature. Sáenz named his award-winning novel “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe”. His book is not only a touching romance, but also a reassurance to everyone who has experienced the unfairness and pain of racism and homophobia that they are not alone and that they will, eventually, learn to accept themselves and find the right people to surround themselves with.

On the 15th of May, 2021, Benjamin Alire Sáenz revealed “all the secrets of the universe” to the young readers of Romania. It may surprise you that these can apparently all be summarised in a single word: love. Unconditional, universal, unapologetic love. The kind of love you have for yourself and for every living being on this earth. In the span of only one hour and a half, Sáenz managed to talk about war and love, anger and finding yourself, family and acceptance. And it is his lessons that we should have a conversation about.

The first page of “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” tells you this book is going to be great. The last line tells you this book has changed your life. The same can be said about Sáenz’s discussion: he started by recalling his childhood and ended up explaining where emotion comes from.

“When I was fifteen, I was miserable.” Sáenz used to share a room with his brothers and would often read to escape the dreaded feeling of the small space. This is actually how he came to create his two most beloved characters: Ari, short for Aristotle, and Dante, the teenage boys who grow up together and fall in love with each other. Although Sáenz relates more to Ari, he is both Dante and Ari. At this point in the conversation, the author opened up about his own experience with sexual abuse and coming out as a homosexual. After having been sexually taken advantage of by a man, Sáenz found it particularly difficult to accept himself as gay and was uneasy thinking about being touched by another man. So how did he overcome this difficult period in his life? He found his courage in writing. He wrote a tender, gorgeous love story that helped thousands of young people share their own story. Even Sáenz’s loved ones noticed the true scope of his novel: “Ah, Ben, you wrote a book for yourself!” Only it wasn’t him alone that Sáenz had written for. It was for an entire community, for the unheard voices of teenagers all over the world. “Books can bring us together.”

Photo taken by Astrid, a long-time fan of Sáenz’, during the event.

“Stop hating yourself.” These are words Sáenz would say to his younger self. “Look at yourself through your mother’s eyes.” And what would she say? “Benjamin, let yourself be loved.” Sáenz touched upon parenting, stating that good parents don’t lie to themselves about who their children are. In fact, the author was very close to his mother, saying that she taught him how to be a man. He talked a lot about toxic masculinity and how it pains him to see many aggressive, arrogant and violent young men in today’s society. It’s easy to give in to all these negative emotions and get carried away by this destructive tide, but it is our vulnerability that grants us the power to be human. The world can be very cruel and will try to take away your kindness and generosity. Sáenz, however, wants his writing to “give young people their hope back”. You have to “learn how to be tough enough to get hurt again and again and again” without letting go of your ability to love, to forgive.  “We have one life and the only thing that matters is that we have lived and loved.” Being gay has made Sáenz ask himself “what kind of a man does he want to be”. The answer is simple: virtuous and kind. 

When asked how to fit in as a member of the LGBT+ community, Sáenz brought attention to the unwanted separation of the sexual orientations: “You aren’t who you’re sexually attracted to.” We are firstly humans and secondly anything else we want to be, and we have the choice of becoming whoever we wish. “Don’t be angry at straight people. […] We have a right to be angry, but let’s not live in anger.” Because living in anger is a waste of the beauty that comes with living. Because true power comes from forgiveness and love, while “anger comes from hurt” and anger births wars and hate. One thing that Sáenz would really like to spread is peace. Wars and death don’t solve problems. We must realize that we all have the same origin: humanity. 

So, in the end, it all comes down to one primal feeling: love. By now, everyone was in tears. Sáenz’s lesson was so simple, the secret so obvious, and yet, it moved everybody present. Perhaps because it is only when somebody lays it all plain and simple for us that we truly see the world. Everyone has a different love language, but peace is universal. For Sáenz love is writing and “writing is breathing.” His novels are not only his way of showing his love for the world, but also his way of loving himself. We are all grateful to Sáenz for sharing his wisdom with us and thank him from the bottom of our hearts.

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