Novelist and Professor of English at University of California, Los Angeles, Justin Torres comes to Dartmouth this weekend to read from his book We the Animals and discuss its eponymous film adaptation, being screened at the Hop this Saturday, April 20, 7 pm. I read the book this past summer in a stuffy sublet with a creaky table fan and no AC, and remember the dense lyric chapters through the memory of humidity and my sweat. The scenes in the book too are saturated with the stickiness that comes with three wild boys growing up in a small household, their bodies stuck together, pleasurably and sometimes in annoyance, panic, and frustration. Torres’ book describes this tender and difficult brotherhood, and gives rhythm to the unconventional coming of age story of not just the protagonist but also his two brothers. In anticipation of his visit, I asked Justin Torres some questions via email:
MJ: I first wanted to ask about the book: How did you settle on the “we” narratorial voice? In many other queer narratives I read, there is a strong sense of the “I”, which in your book only occurs at the very end. Why did you choose to spend most of your time writing in the “we”?
JT: I used the first-person plural because I was writing about belonging and brotherhood. The narrator is so immersed in family that, often, he doesn’t really have a sense of where he ends and his brothers begin. When the book switches to the first-person singular, that’s when you know some kind of separation is happening, that he is coming into his own individuality and that there’s been rupture of some sort with the pack.
MJ: Why did you write your narrator as a child, when most coming of age narratives focus on teenage years?
JT: I didn’t really want to write a conventional coming-of-age novel, so you’re right, the focus is much more on childhood, and then the book jumps quite a bit into the future at the end and becomes a different sort of book. By the time this narrator reaches puberty he’s going to know he is queer, separate, different from his brothers, but I wanted to write about a time before that, when the sense of belonging was greater than the sense of difference. I wanted to write about a time of magic and wonder.
MJ: What was your involvement in the film? How do you see the film in relation to your book?
JT: I was super involved in every step of the film. I gave notes on the script, I talked with the art direction, I was there for castings, there for the entirety of the shoot, and even in editing and post-production the director had me around for notes and feedback. I think the film stands alone as its own artwork, related to the book, but not dependent on the book. I love the film – much more than I initially expected to, because we all know adaptations rarely stand up to the novel.
MJ: In your introduction to the Lambda Literary Fellows Anthology you write about being educated against calling yourself to be a queer writer. For you “becoming queer” seemed a deeply personal act. I am wondering how you think of centering queerness as you tour with your work, and how important visibility and representation are for you.
JT: Hmm..it’s been a while but I think I know what you’re referring to. I was describing the generational tensions between certain older gay men for whom the sting of the insult in the word queer is still too strong – men who don’t see value in reclaiming the word. And more generally I think I was writing about a conservative impulse, an impulse toward respectability and assimilation within the community and the movement, versus a queerer, more radical impulse which isn’t interested in validation from the mainstream or imitating patriarchal/heterosexual/traditional structures. “Becoming queer” is both deeply personal and deeply political – and the point is that is an active process.
As for the second part, I don’t have to think about centering queerness when I am out speaking about work – that’s like acting a zebra how he thinks about bringing attention to his stripes. The queerness is there, head to toe, in my person and in my work. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
MJ: Who are you reading? Who should we be reading?
JT: I’m constantly reading books for blurbs (to the point where I can’t blurb about 95% of the books sent to me) but there have been some great ones lately: Bryan Washington’s Lot; Angie Cruz’s Dominicana, Shannon Pufahl’s On Swift Horses, Juliana Wang’s Home Remedies…these are either just recently out or coming out very soon.