Award-winning author, poet, and essayist Benjamin Alire Sáenz thinks librarians will save our country.
“You are the gatekeepers of American culture. You are what this country needs even though it doesn’t know it needs you. And you do it anonymously,” he said.
Sáenz, a New Mexico native, welcomed a standing-room-only crowd to the Third National Joint Conference of Librarians of Color (JCLC) in Albuquerque on September 27. The Opening General Session keynote speaker had effusive praise for the “gatekeepers” in attendance.
“You know why I have readers? Because you give them my books,” said Sáenz, who has won American Library Association Stonewall, Michael L. Printz, and Pura Belpré awards for his YA novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.
He thanked librarians for being on the front lines of readers’ advisory and recommending stories about marginalized people: “It does take a village to bring a book into being.”
He also recognized the challenges that information professionals and educators are currently facing in schools.
“When we tell our children we love them, they know we’re a bunch of liars because we don’t invest in education,” he said. “We’ve created a culture where we think a football field is the heart of the school, and it isn’t—it’s the library.”
Sáenz’s emotional and oscillating talk covered a lot of ground: his career path, his relationship with his mother, politics, his craft, and his optimism for the future.
He said of unexpectedly becoming a YA author: “It’s a strange trajectory, but I found a vocation within a vocation—to give young people hope. Because it seems like the world, by design, wants to take their hope away. And I’m going to fight that.”
He gets that fight from his mother, whom he described as a “fiesty” woman who “not once ever voted for a Republican.”
“She was brilliant, hardworking, humble, and generous,” Sáenz says. “I find very little of those qualities in our public officials, and it makes me angry that we don’t demand those qualities from the people who represent us.”
Still, Sáenz believes the younger generation—people like his audience—will help us “find our hearts” in the current political climate. “I want them to grow up to be voters,” he said. “I want them to grow up and realize they have a responsibility to make the world a better place.”
“I do not believe hate is more powerful than love,” he added. “I do not believe stubbornness and hardness of heart is more powerful than vulnerability.”
Sáenz has great affinity for his fans (“sweet dorks,” he affectionately called them) but said he is quick to rebuff their claims when they tell him that his books—which have featured Latinx and LGBT characters—have saved their lives.
“I did no such thing,” he tells them. “You saved your own life by being open.”
He was also quick to rhapsodize on pain and how it manifests in his work.
“The beauty of being a writer is not having to be afraid anymore. I can talk about my pain and share it with you,” Sáenz said. “It’s painful to write, if you want to write something real. If it doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t matter.”
Sáenz shared that his pain is vast. He has lost many friends and mentors to AIDS. He has struggled with traditional masculinity as a gay man, admits to a tenuous relationship with Catholicism (says the ex-priest: “I can’t bring myself to betray my mother’s God”), and acknowledges an “emotional austerity and loneliness” that comes with being a writer. But he sees himself as fortunate.
“I am the luckiest of men. I get to do what I love. I get paid to write.”