Dominican writer Viriato Sención died yesterday from complications of diabetes. Best-known from his 1992 novel Los que falsificaron la firma de Dios, Sención’s work was marked by its commitment to historical truth and cultural engagement. Viriato, who was born in 1941 in the town of San José de Ocoa in the Dominican Republic, was 71.
I met Viriato in the early 1980s, at a period when I was starting my teaching and scholarly career and he was exploring writing as a vocation. He was a student at Lehman College (CUNY) and I was a freshly minted PhD and inexperienced faculty member—way-too-young, in retrospect, for the responsibilities teaching implied.
Viriato was older and infinitely wiser and we developed a beautiful friendship from which I gained experience and understanding. He would bring to my office hours his early writings (poems, short stories, chapters from later-discarded novels) for critique and discussion. And he would critique my teaching by telling me, with charming honesty, what I had done right in class and what I had done wrong. We forged a friendship that I remember fondly for its mutual respect and comradery. Our conversations helped me become a better teacher.
As with all students, at some point they go their way, and I didn’t hear about Viriato again until news of the scandal surrounding his winning of the National Prize for the Novel (the Manuel de Jesús Galván Prize) for his roman-à-clef about the Trujillo dictatorship, Los que falsificaron la firma de Dios, broke in 1993. The unanimous choice of the judges (a panel headed by fellow writer Diógenes Céspedes), he was denied the prize by the office of the Secretary of State for Education, Culture and the Arts because of political dissatisfaction with the novel’s approach to recent Dominican history. The Prize was declared void.
The move happily backfired, as the notoriety propelled the novel into best-selling status in the Dominican Republic and beyond.
I saw Viriato again at the presentation of the translation of his novel at the Americas society following the scandal and was touched by his including in his remarks an allusion to the importance to him of our conversations during those office hours a decade before. That was the kind of guy he was—generous to the core. I went on to translate some of his short stories into English and that engagement with his work gave me a deeper sense of the wealth of talent he brought to his craft.
The tributes that the news of his death has brought forth are a measure of the esteem in which he was held. He will be missed.