Caleb Rainey | Out on the Page
Borders. Borders can keep things out and keep things in. Borders help define a shape or purpose and are inherently exclusionary. Borders tell us what something is by telling us what something is not. National borders are the most potent and aggressively defended borders in the modern world.
The latest “crisis” regarding our national borders is concerning Latin American children who are crossing to escape the oppression that the racist and colonial politics of the Reagan administration sowed in Latin America during the 1980s. So borders have been on my mind quite a bit lately.
It was during this period of time I happened to pick up “Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club” by Benjamin Alire Sáenz; an innocuous enough title for a collection of short stories. What initially drew me to the book was that it won the prestigious Pen/Faulkner award for fiction, making Sáenz the first Latino/a ever to win the prize. Sáenz also happens to be gay.
While most of his early work was silent or timid regarding LGBT issues and identity, lately Sáenz has been, dare I say, flaunting this aspect of himself in his work.
He recently published two gay young adult novels in addition to “Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club” and has become a rising star in the world of LGBT literature, not an easy feat for any author of color.
Upon reading this collection of short stories, I was taken aback by how prominent borders were in Sáenz’s work. He explores the border between El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico, the borders that define what family is, the sexual borders that give shape to the meanings behind gay and straight, the border between addiction and sobriety, and the racial borders that separate comrades from each other.
I was deeply moved by this beautiful collection. The title refers to a bar in Juarez, the Kentucky Club, where each of the seven stories in this collection either begin or end. The collection begins with the majestic story, “He Has Gone to Be With the Women” which features two gay Latino men in the throes of love who are separated by the El Paso/Juarez border. As they struggle to come to terms with this aspect of their relationship, the man who lives in Mexico is abducted and murdered in the desert of Juarez. Juarez is also the site of the “femicide” that has been going on since the 1990s. Estimates of how many women have been murdered vary widely but it is agreed that the lowest number possible is several hundred. In the story, the abducted man literally goes to be with the women in the desert, the same desert that his mother disappeared into many years before. It is worth noting here that the character who ends up being murdered loves Mexico and fiercely defends his country from racist suggestions that Mexico is inherently violent or chaotic.
“The Art of Translation” features a heterosexual male protagonist whom is struggling with the traumatic after-affects of a hate crime where the assailants literally engrave hatred into his skin.
“The Rule Maker” is a beautiful story about what makes a family, with a special focus on fathers and sons. Sáenz has written eloquently about addiction before and in this story he returns to that theme. Sáenz is extremely careful not to paint the addict or dealer in an evil light but rather lets the reader experience these people in all their complications and messy humanity.
Another stunning piece towards the end of the collection is titled, “Sometimes the Rain” and it follows three boys as they struggle with abusive families, burgeoning sexual identities, and the backdrop of the Vietnam War.
Do yourself a favor and buy this book. Sit with it and savor the deep wisdom that Sáenz is imparting to us through these beautiful stories.
—Caleb Rainey recently graduated with his master’s degree in cultural studies. He is a long-time activist, and the founder executive director of the San Diego Multicultural LGBT Literary Foundation. Contact him at email@example.com.