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Benjamin Alire Sáenz Archive Comes To The Wittliff

Photo of Benjamin Sáenz
Benjamin Alire Sáenz

The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University have acquired the complete archive of internationally acclaimed writer Benjamín Alire Sáenz. A major literary voice from the US-Mexico borderlands, Sáenz is the author of nearly 30 books and his works have been published in 25 languages worldwide.

Sáenz, who lives and works in El Paso, has said, “I hope that my readers gain some insight into the human condition—the human condition as it is lived out on the border.” Sáenz has spoken out throughout his career for the rights of Latinos, immigrants, women and the LGBTQ+ community. 

“Ben Sáenz is an essential and uniquely inspiring writer,” says Wittliff Literary Curator Steven Davis. “His beautifully-written books nurture wonder and compassion even as his voice burns for justice. He is one of the great ones.”

Wittliff Collections Director David L. Coleman adds, “Sáenz is one of the most significant writers to come from Texas. We are profoundly honored and grateful to be chosen as the home for his papers. His archive will delight and inspire visitors and researchers for generations to come.” 

“There is nothing about me that speaks TEXAS,” Sáenz said upon placing his papers at The Wittliff. “For decades, being a part of Texas felt like living in exile and I felt no sense of belonging in a state that seems incapable of ridding itself of a cruel legacy of exclusion. And yet, it is this sense of exile that compelled me to write and to speak and to remind myself and others, that the denizens of the border were as Texan as anybody else. Being gay and Latino and living in Texas made me who I am and made me the writer I became. It is a surprising and beautiful thing that The Wittliff has generously offered to become the guardian of my literary legacy. Born out of passion and discipline and struggle, my life’s work has come to rest in the heart of Texas. Exile has given way to belonging. The only thing left in my heart is a sense of peace and gratitude. My cup runneth over.”

Sáenz is the first Latino - and the only Texan - to win the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award, given for his 2013 book of stories, Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club. His first published book, a collection of poems, Calendar of Dust, received an American Book Award in 1992. In Texas, Sáenz has won a unique triple crown of top honors: the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Texas Institute of Letters, the Texas Writer Award from the Texas Book Festival, and the Texas Medal of Arts for Literary Achievement. 

Regarded for many years as a major Latino poet and a prominent fiction writer, Sáenz gained worldwide acclaim in recent years with his breakout novel, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. The book tells the story of two El Paso teenagers in the 1980s who are coming to terms with being gay. “I don't think it's easy to come out at any age, during any era,” said Sáenz, who came out as gay at age 54. “I wanted to write a book to support them.”

Aristotle and Dante, first published in 2013, won 28 literary awards and has become an international phenomenon, breaking down publishing barriers across the globe even as the book has faced bans in parts of Texas. In the US, the book is widely regarded as a modern classic and is often ranked as one of the best teen novels ever written. A film adaptation was released in 2023.

Sáenz’s literary papers comprise some 50 boxes and include manuscript drafts for all his published books. The files also contain personal journals, unpublished writings, screenplays, hundreds of photographs and extensive correspondence with editors, writers, friends and fans. There are also publicity materials, artifacts, and awards.

The archive also includes several large paintings made by Sáenz, who is a talented visual artist and whose works are represented in an El Paso gallery. I really love to paint,” Sáenz said. “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.” 

Benjamin Alire Sáenz was born in a small farming village outside of Las Cruces, New Mexico in 1954. Ordained as a Catholic priest in 1981, he worked for the Diocese of El Paso before leaving the priesthood to pursue a literary career. He earned his master’s degree in creative writing at the University of Texas at El Paso. He was awarded a prestigious Wallace Stegner fellowship at Stanford University for his poetry. While at Stanford, he studied under the celebrated poet Denise Levertov, who became a notable champion of his work. Sáenz returned to the border and became a professor and then chair of the nationally-recognized Creative Writing program at UTEP. He retired from that position in 2016 to concentrate on his writing and painting full-time. 

Once the Sáenz Papers are archivally preserved and processed, they will become available to researchers and selected highlights from the collection will be exhibited at The Wittliff. "We are excited about the opportunity to facilitate much additional research on this significant American author," says Wittliff Director Coleman.

The Wittliff Collections, located on the top floor of the Alkek Library at Texas State University, holds the major literary papers of Cormac McCarthy, Sandra Cisneros, and many other important writers associated with Texas and the Southwest.


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