Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Three years ago, Benjamin Alire Sáenz established himself as an exceptional author in the world of Young Adult fiction with the publication of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (2014). Sáenz not only received various awards such as the Stonewall Book and Michael L. Printz Awards, but also won the adoration of a passionate and dedicated audience. He secured our hearts with this story and while we continue to wait on the next book in Ari and Dante’s love story, Sáenz’s other long-awaited novel, The Inexplicable Logic of My Life (ILMY), entered bookstores three weeks ago and is quickly becoming a favorite for young readers. Drawing on his background in poetry, Sáenz composes a work of beautiful, rhythmic language about an adopted boy, Salvador (Sal), whose story centers around queerness, Mexican-American identity, death, the complexity of parent-child relationships, and, most importantly, love.
Sáenz’s exploration of Mexican-American identity, particularly what it means to be Mexican on the northern side of the southern US border, provides a narrative that illustrates the inherent complexities identified by Chicana cultural theorist Gloria Anzaldúa three decades ago. In Borderlands: The New Mestiza (1987), an important work in Chicana Feminisms, she explains that “Deep in our hearts we believe that being Mexican has nothing to do with which country one lives in. Being Mexican is a state of soul–not one of mind, not one of citizenship” (84). Today in 2017, Sáenz offers words that parallel Anzaldúa’s in an interview about identity in ILMY. He explains that “Anyone who lives on the border, because we live on the border we’re always reminded of it… There’s always going to be someone who’s going to remind you that you’re not Mexican really, because they are from Mexico, and other times I’ll think, ‘I’ll never be American.’… We cannot rely on nationalism to give us our identity.”
In many moments throughout the book, Sal and his friends grapple with the same questions and doubts, but ultimately reach the same conclusions that Anzaldúa and Sáenz express. The characters’ connection to their Mexican culture becomes open for inspection as they prod and question each other, trying to gauge just how “Mexican” they are. For Sal’s friends, Sam and Fito, the tension in their identity lies in the fact that they were born and have always lived in America, so far removed from the nation that they believe will validate their identity. Yet, for Sal the complexity of his identity arises from another source. Born to two white parents and adopted into a Mexican-American family, he is left with an external whiteness and an internal cultural Mexican American identity. The novel forces the question of whether Sal, with full benefits of his white privilege, can claim this identity and deny his identity as a “white boy.”
Sal says, “And I couldn’t stand anyone calling me a white boy because I belonged to a family, and when people called me that, all I heard was that I did not belong to that family. And I did belong to them, and I wasn’t going to let anybody tell me otherwise” (440). While it is certainly a question of identity, it is also one of family and belonging, another central theme to the book. Sal, who never met his biological father, only the man Vicente who he calls “father” and his family, his identity lies more with the people that he grew up with and loved than the man he never met. Questions and denial of his Mexican American identity, even when they come from himself, pushes against not only what he considers his ethnicity, but also on his sense of the relationship and belonging to his family.
And for Sal, his family and friends are the people that hold him together, that are there to remind him that he belongs to a family and to a culture. Thus, when death makes its presence known through cancer and other events, directly on the people that he cares about, Sal is left trying to understand how and why life would take so many people away from him. Sáenz draws directly from his own life, as he says in an interview with Entertainment Weekly that on the exact day that Aristotle and Dante was first published, his own mother died. Though he initially didn’t think it would affect him as strongly as it did, writing this story was a process of getting through this loss. It may be for this reason that the depiction of death and loss is told so truthfully, read as though we too lived with the abueula Mima, as if we too shared that same memory out in the lawn as Sal did.
Weaving emotion in between words, Sáenz leaves his readers reflecting on the relationships within the book and our own relationships, wondering how life will continue to shape and alter them and how some relationships will continue to endure even after death. We turn towards our fathers and ask whether we did or can have a relationship of communication and love without restraint as Sal and Vicente did. We wonder whether we have turned away from our own families because we thought they would not accept us. On top of this all, we wonder whether we have underestimated the love of those who care for others, had not appreciated and tended to the relationships that keep us whole.
Featured image courtesy of Brandon Torres’18.