- A Narrative of a Future Past:Historical Authenticity, Ethics, and Queer Latinx Futurity in Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
Set in El Paso, Texas, during the late 1980s, Benjamin Alire Sáenz's Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe represents the romantic developments between its queer Latinx titular characters.1 Aristotle and Dante might be described as a Bildungsroman set in the not-so-distant past, yet the narrative seems curiously familiar and contemporary, making it relatively easy to overlook the fact that it is set in 1987. Aristotle and Dante is not only vague in terms of its spatial and temporal logics, but it also conflates a historical narrative with contemporary affective and ideological frameworks. Is the merger between ideologies of the past and present-day sensibilities necessarily a problem? To what extent does a Young Adult (YA) novel situated in the past have an ethical responsibility to prioritize frameworks that incorporate current sociopolitical and affective perspectives when representing minority thought and experience?
In this article, I highlight the challenges and contradictions present in YA narratives situated in the past, focusing on the uneasy conflation of historical narrative with contemporary ideologies of queerness and current sociopolitical sensibilities. I then examine Aristotle and Dante's temporal and reparative frameworks to demonstrate how it artfully negotiates the tensions between historical authenticity and ethical contemporary engagement through the use of queer affective and temporal frameworks. I explain how Aristotle and Dante deliberately exploits the seams between the historical realities of a 1980s US context and the potentialities of queer fiction to imbue a past-oriented narrative with optimistic discourse and positive affect, thus offering readers a story that challenges our expectations of historical and queer Latinx representation in YA novels. More specifically, my discussion examines how Aristotle and Dante toys with temporality in order to provide emotional sustenance to minority people and communities—readers who often have difficulties obtaining this sustenance from YA literature in the first place, given that narratives set in the present often implement tropes such as parental authority and machismo to foreclose the overlap between Latinx and queer identity.2 [End Page 30]
This discussion makes a case for how Aristotle and Dante challenges the expectations of queer Latinx narrative through its approach to time, in that it uses the past as a temporal mode that activates new and unprecedented avenues for kinship. Furthermore, I show how this novel subverts YA expectations for historical precision to challenge our understanding of Latinx representation in queer YA literature. Sáenz's novel creates a recuperative temporal framework through its narrative conventions, providing readers an opportunity to contemplate how historical narratives can offer a reparative representation of the past in which queer Latinx characters can thrive in ways that they do not in other genres and narrativizations centered on adolescent experience. By exploiting the ontological seams between reality and fiction, Aristotle and Dante not only repairs problematic tropes commonly found in queer Latinx stories, but it also aspires toward contemporary ideological frameworks while being mindful of the ways in which certain people and communities are still haunted by historical and cultural damage.3
Several scholars have pointed out the temporal and narrative inconsistencies that emerge in YA historical narratives, particularly since authors must deliberate the tensions between offering an "accurate" representation of historical facts and channeling present-day ideologies and attitudes. Joanne Brown and Nancy St. Clair suggest that a quintessential feature of YA historical fiction is its tendency to offer "a revised perspective of the past" in which authors imbue a past-oriented narrative with current developments and outlooks on society, culture, and identity (13).4 YA historical novels are Janus-like in their temporal scope in that they focus on the "before" in order to make claims about the "after." In addition to offering a take on historical representation, the genre also informs readers "about the period in which the fiction was written, revealing writers' concerns about and attitudes towards the cultural tensions of their own times" (14). Brown and St. Clair consider this aspect to be a valuable strength of YA historical fiction, not only because it...