He was born at Old Picacho, New Mexico, the fourth of seven children, and was raised on a small farm near Mesilla, New Mexico. He graduated from Las Cruces High School in 1972. That fall, he entered St. Thomas Seminary in Denver, Colorado, where he received a BA degree in humanities and philosophy in 1977. He studied theology at the University of Louvain in Leuven, Belgium from 1977 to 1981. He was a priest for a few years in El Paso, Texas before leaving the order.
In 1985, he returned to school, and studied English and creative writing at the University of Texas at El Paso where he earned an MA degree in creative writing. He then spent a year at the University of Iowa as a PhD student in American literature. A year later, he was awarded a Wallace E. Stegner fellowship. While at Stanford University under the guidance of Denise Levertov, he completed his first book of poems, Calendar of Dust, which won an American Book Award in 1992. He entered the PhD program at Stanford and continued his studies for two more years. Before completing his PhD, he moved back to the border and began teaching at the University of Texas at El Paso in the bilingual MFA program.
His first novel, Carry Me Like Water was a saga that brought together the Victorian novel and the Latin American tradition of magic realism, and received much critical attention.
In 2005, he curated a show of photographs by Julian Cardona.
Sáenz came out as gay in the late 2000s, at age 54. He has acknowledged in interviews that he had difficulty coming to terms with his sexuality due to having been sexually abused as a child, and that he began to explore LGBT themes in his writing in part as a way to help himself work through his own issues with being gay.
In The Book of What Remains (Copper Canyon Press, 2010), his fifth book of poems, he writes to the core truth of life's ever-shifting memories. Set along the Mexican border, the contrast between the desert's austere beauty and the brutality of border politics mirrors humanity's capacity for both generosity and cruelty.
He continues to teach in the Creative Writing Department at the University of Texas at El Paso. He is the co-host, with Daniel Chacón of the KTEP-produced radio and online show on writers and writing, Words on a Wire.
He won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 2013 for Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club, the first Latino writer ever to win the award. He also won two awards at the 2013 Lambda Literary Awards, in the categories of Gay Male Fiction for Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club and Children’s/Young Adult for Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.
Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club might be the best new work of fiction I read in 2013. It's chief competition are two books that haven't been published yet, and Saenz's own YA novel, "Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe." He's an amazing writer. --Christopher BramFurther Readings:
Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club by Benjamin Alire Saenz
Paperback: 180 pages
Publisher: Cinco Puntos Press; First Edition edition (October 30, 2012)
Amazon: Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club
Amazon Kindle: Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club
Winner of the 2013 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction!
Benjamin Alire Sáenz's stories reveal how all borders—real, imagined, sexual, human, the line between dark and light, addict and straight—entangle those who live on either side. Take, for instance, the Kentucky Club on Avenida Juárez two blocks south of the Rio Grande. It's a touchstone for each of Sáenz's stories. His characters walk by, they might go in for a drink or to score, or they might just stay there for a while and let their story be told. Sáenz knows that the Kentucky Club, like special watering holes in all cities, is the contrary to borders. It welcomes Spanish and English, Mexicans and gringos, poor and rich, gay and straight, drug addicts and drunks, laughter and sadness, and even despair. It's a place of rich history and good drinks and cold beer and a long polished mahogany bar. Some days it smells like piss. "I'm going home to the other side." That's a strange statement, but you hear it all the time at the Kentucky Club.
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