Blake Sanz is a Denver-based (by way of Louisiana) writer who was chosen by Brandon Taylor as the winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award for 2021. His debut collection, The Boundaries of Their Dwelling, is set in American South and Mexico and explores immigration, family, and geography. It’s exquisitely written and eye-opening.
Debutiful asked Sanz to answer the reoccurring questionnaire A Life of Books so readers can get to know him better.
Is there a book or series that, when you think back, helped define your childhood?
Leo Lionni’s children’s books come immediately to mind. I’m thinking of books like Frederick and A Color of His Own and Inch by Inch, beautifully illustrated modern fairy tales about animals. His hand-drawn and colored creatures—Swimmy the Fish and Frederick the Mouse and the chameleon who wants a color of his own—were so wondrous to me when I was young. I thought about those stories for years and years, all the way through adulthood. Sometimes they had a tidy lesson, but sometimes not, even as they were written in a style that mimicked Aesop, and I always found myself left to wonder as I fell asleep at night, “What would it be like, to get to know any of those unforgettable animals?”
There’s another book I sped through one slow afternoon in fourth grade, a book for which I don’t remember the author or title. I got it from the shelf at the back of the classroom, read it in one sitting right there in class, and it’s killing me that I can’t remember more, but it was about a kid who was no good at baseball who was feeling bad about himself because of it. To cope, he learned to bunt so that he’d have a thing that made him valuable to the team. Essentially, I feel like the thing that kid was doing is what I was trying to do for so much of my childhood—just learning a few basic skills to make me feel like I was a part of something. And frankly, that’s what I’m still doing as an adult.
Would you want any children in your life (yours or relatives’) to read those too? Or what’s your philosophy on what children read?
Oh, sure! My partner has two kids, and as I’ve grown into the role of step-dad, I’ve been thinking about this more and more. At 8 and 5, they’re both big readers with tons of unread books on their shelves, so they don’t need much direction from me on that front. But I do read Leo Lionni’s fables to the youngest one, and she loves them.
As far as a philosophy on what children read, I’d say that all parents want books with a worldview that affirms the values they want their kids to grow up with. For my partner and me, that means having books that depict cultures other than their own, ones where they can see themselves reflected in the experiences of others. I’m thinking of Junot Diaz’s Island Born or Nonieqa Ramos’s Your Mama, in which every page is a “your mama” joke turned into a warm bit of praise about what mothers do that a kid might not realize. It’s fun and funny, but also works toward a certain affirmation for kids of those who care most about them.
Also, funny is good. And though I mean funny like Judy Blume and not Michael Che or Maria Bamford, I do have a secret aspiration of getting these kids to like weird, adult kinds of funny. It strikes me that kids gravitate to stories where humor is a pivot point for something empathetic about a character that they can relate to, and it also helps them remember the stories more vividly.
Moving to your school years: what book did you read in high school and hated (or skipped reading at all) that you learned you loved later in life?
We had this fantastically progressive teacher in my high school who, for example, assigned us Sula by Toni Morrison before she was a household name. But he also taught what he had to teach for the curriculum, like Puritanical poetry from colonial American times. “Upon the Burning of Our House” by Anne Bradstreet is one I remember vividly. I still remember how that teacher said once in class, with a smirk and a sarcastic summing up of that poem’s general sentiment: “THANK YOU, God. Thank you for burning down our house.”
And the poetry itself was all so formal and rhyme-heavy, and I didn’t yet know at that age that there were actual living, contemporary poets who do amazing things with rhyme. Only much later, when I met and became close friends with David J. Daniels—a modern poet who’s a master of rhyme—did I think to go back and look at those old poems with new eyes. And when I did, I found myself older and more open-minded, more able to see not only a mastery of form and language, but a genuine set of emotions connected to her move from her home nation to a whole new land (take, for example, “A Dialogue between Old England and New), something that I also write about. That rediscovery was so affirming in how it reminded me how writing can travel across time to make meaning for generations that an author could never have imagined.
What about the opposite way? One you loved in your teens, but realized you didn’t love it so much later on?
I had an unexplainable affinity for Ayn Rand as a college freshman. I still remember with a cringe how earnestly I told an English class at Loyola about how much I loved Fountainhead. “Because,” I think I said, “I, too, thought that architecture was revolutionary and bold.” And wasn’t it a great trait, to buck tradition and be your own person? Oh, man.
Are there any books that you read while writing your debut that helped shape the direction you took your own book?
Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth. I wrote the stories in my debut both years before and after that beautiful collection came out, but it wasn’t until I revisited that book around 2016 that something clicked. Unaccustomed Earth literally helped shape my book, in the sense that I found its structure to be so simple and elegant that I took it as a model. That book is split into two parts, one that’s a collection of Bengali immigrant tales, and another that follows two such characters across multiple stories. Noticing that structure as I curated and arranged my own stories, I realized a similar structure could work for me. My collection was also about people from another country, and I also had a pair of characters with a thru-line over multiple stories. It was kind of a “duh” moment. Once I had that structure, the process of deciding what stories to include and not to include, what order to place them in—that all became immediately clear.
What is a book you’ve read that you thought, Damn, I wish that was mine?
The Foreign Student by Susan Choi. It’s her debut novel, set at Sewanee University in the 1950s, where a young Korean man named Chang (who goes by Chuck in Tennessee) has arrived on campus following a harrowing set of experiences surrounding the Korean War. It also follows Katherine, a young woman who’s suffered abuse at the hands of an older professor who teaches Chuck, and the book explores how Katherine and Chuck dance around their interest in each other.
I’m jealous of Choi’s ability to so precisely describe the inner mind of her two main characters. At the same time, this is a novel that moves. You’ve got a war plot, which I wish I had the guts to attempt, and you’ve got elliptical scenes from each character’s younger years, which is tricky to pull off but which I love trying out in my own fiction (it never works for me as well as it does in The Foreign Student). Also, the book’s so well paced, especially for a debut. And, like the stories I’m most interested in writing, it confronts questions of displacement and otherness in the South in totally interesting and fresh ways. I mean, what’s not to like and be jealous of?
What have you been reading / do you plan to read during your debut book tour?
Oscar Cásares. In his collection Brownsville, his writing about life on the border is spare and beautiful, and I’m enjoying getting know those characters’ consciousnesses as I hit the road. Also, recent books like Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You and Danielle Evans’s The Office of Historical Corrections, other stunning works of fiction that came out in the last year or two. I’m suddenly more attuned to books of the moment now that I have one out myself. I’m not typically someone who immediately reads the newest stuff, as there’s always so much on my backlist to get to. Which is why I love your site so much!
And, finally, I have to ask… I’m sorry. What’s next? But wait! Only use three words.
The Interior Castle.