The Oyster Review
February 2, 2015
Justin Torres’s debut novel We the Animals is slim. But within its brief 144 pages, Torres tells a rich story he knows well: three brothers raised by teenage parents in an tiny, poor upstate New York town, a mother who works the graveyard shift at the local brewery, and a Puerto Rican father whose energy is both drumming and terrifying. The narrator, whose connection to his family is deep but defective, claws his way through childhood, becoming aware of the limited nature of his tribe’s violent love.
In person, Torres is light, witty, and a smart dresser (he wore a topcoat). We met for black coffee (me) and almond chai (him) where we took a moment to discuss race, class, and other literary taboos brought up in We the Animals.
The Oyster Review: I’d like to start with a quote by you. Something you said in an interview with Daniel Olivas for the LA Review of Books: “I had no expectations when I started writing, I wrote out of passion, or obsession. I wrote to break my own heart.” Just last week I was workshopping with some writing friends, and we were talking about how hard it is to really write something. And how it requires so much emotional hashing up. And literal depression and tears. And yet it’s where the best writing comes from. There’s often part of me that wonders why I do this to myself. Why any writer does this. I mean, your book is so emotionally charged and so visceral. Why do we do it? Tell me why!
Justin Torres: That’s a good question. I think that with [We the Animals] specifically, I was at a point in my life where I don’t think that I could ignore the kind of deep questioning that was going on with me in regards to the world. I had to make something of it, or else it was going to destroy me. I had to make art of a lot of troubling questions that I had. Because otherwise I think I would have fallen into despair. So I think one answer might be that creating art, especially creating art out of personal experience, can rescue you from a certain despair. Or it can make useful a certain despair. I don’t know if it’s actually cathartic. I don’t know if you actually rid yourself of any of that, but you can make it useful. You can kind of turn it around to your own ends. I think that’s a kind of answer.
OR: I do too.
JT: I mean, a more personal answer is that I was obsessed with the themes that I wrote about. I was obsessed with the themes of family and belonging, race and class and sexuality, and I wanted to write a book about it.
OR: Yes. In fact, in that same interview with the LARB, Olivas brought up Rigoberto González’s review of your novel, specifically the part that says, “It’s sad indeed that We the Animals—like most literary works with homosexual content, aside from Greek mythology—will not make most high school reading lists without controversy, if at all.” You responded by saying, “Adolescent sexuality is generally considered dangerous material for high schools to address in literature, which makes queer adolescent sexuality near toxic.” But you also brought up that there have been high school English teachers using your book in class. And the topics of gender and sexuality do seem to be becoming more appropriate to discuss with adolescents, slowly. But there are multiple taboos at play in your book, not just sexuality, or queerness. There is also ethnicity, teenage pregnancy, growing up poor. I was trying to think of a contemporary novel, I mean, I’m sure there is one, but I couldn’t think of one that would be on a high school reading list that deals with poverty that’s not East of Eden or something. I don’t know. It’s so great that you wrote this book because they are such underrepresented narratives in literature. Especially the idea of poverty. I don’t know if it’s just out of fear or blindness that we don’t talk about it more as a society.
JT: Yeah, I mean, as far as the high school element goes, it’s interesting because it is taught by a number of high school teachers. And what they’ll do is they just won’t teach the whole book. They’ll stop before the book reaches the adolescence of the narrator. Because there’s a big time jump at the end. And it’s odd because this is adolescence, and this is what they can’t see? Even if it might be directly relevant to their lives.
OR: How do the teachers even do that?
JT: They just photocopy it. They give them the excerpts. I think some people teach the whole book, I don’t know. But sex is a great taboo, and I think the idea, the squeamishness about sex and adolescence, is that somehow they can’t handle it or somehow they will be exposed to something that will titillate them. But of course they’re having sex. Teenagers are having sex, they’re around sex, they’re aware of sex. And I think it’s the same thing with poverty. The reason it’s so taboo is that it makes the teachers uncomfortable. It makes the adults uncomfortable. It’s a fact of capitalist society that poverty will always exist. There will always be class differences. It’s kind of intrinsic to our economic system. And you have to talk about that. Or you have to acknowledge that. The easier thing to do is to pretend that we’re all middle class, pretend that these aren’t issues that we have to engage with. And I think that might be the driving desire.
OR: And you would think that if a teenager was in a home life situation like that it would be so freeing to read about someone else’s experience.
JT: Yes, I remember reading Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina when I was an adolescent and it being a major major book. [James] Baldwin, and the way that he talks about race and class. I mean, it’s interesting. I don’t think of the characters in this book, I mean, I consider them working class, but these definitions or these gradations are a little bit silly. There’s definitely a lot of economic pressure on this family, and it’s exerting its influence on the household, for sure. Why is it taboo? It’s a good question.
For certain middle class people, for a lot of middle class people, for a lot of people who aren’t middle class but would like to think they’re middle class, they often don’t want to talk about class. People might be working class, and they don’t want to acknowledge it. The thing about high school in the city is there are so many teachers who realize they need to teach material that is relevant and speaks to the lives of the kids they are teaching. And they do a really good job. Building curriculum that has diverse perspectives.
OR: New York is good for that. I often feel really appreciative of being able to live in a city that’s so accepting of so many things. I think about moving to a small city, and I would hope to choose a more liberal one, but still. There are things that are taboo.
JT: Totally. God, I hate… (sighs) I’ve recently become old enough and brave enough to consider leaving a major metropolitan area. Like I’m considering it.
OR: It’s almost as if you go to a place like New York to figure out, What do I really think? You let yourself be exposed to everything, and once you figure that out, then maybe you’ve been armored, you have a breastplate on you, and you can approach the world after that. Not to put New York on a pedestal because it’s certainly a hard place to live in many ways.
JT: Yeah, that’s one kind of New York experience, right?
OR: Yes, it’s true.
JT: But what is true I think is that it’s inflicted on you if you’re not protected. If don’t have the resources—cultural, economic—if you just don’t have the resources to see outside and beyond your obscure, small little town, it can be really devastating. Because of the homogenous thought. Because of the homogenous culture. Because it feels like there aren’t options. That can be so stifling. I think it is for a lot of kids. They feel like they don’t belong.
OR: Talking about writing family history. In an interview with Jenine Holmesou for The Brooklyn Rail, you said, “I had to get outside and understand the motivation of the parents in the book.” It made me think about writing my book, and how since I finished grad school in 2012, I’ve had a hard time going back to it. I think it’s because I’ve realized that I’m really young, and what that means in this moment is I feel it’s really hard to get people. To understand people. To get somebody as a character. Which is another reason that perhaps it would be easier for me to consider approaching it as fiction because then I could flesh out characters without being afraid of getting them wrong, you know? It made me wonder what your approach to writing this story was, and if you felt there was a more true way of telling the story.
JT: I think the problem you bring up is a very real one. I think that whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, but especially nonfiction, writing is an exercise of power, and you want to exercise that power legitimately and justly. You could—if you have a facility with language—you could do a lot of damage. You control the narrative. And you’re putting it out into the world. And the people you’re representing might not have that same facility with language so it’s like having an unfair advantage in a certain way. So I think it’s important to interrogate your motivations and make sure that you’re operating with as much empathy as you’re capable of.
OR: Because you can tell immediately when someone’s writing out of anger.
JT: True. That said, writers also betray people. That is just the nature of it. And I think that it’s kind of inescapable. And you have to hope that there’s value in that willingness to betray for the sake of the art that you’re making. It’s tricky. It’s a tricky moral, ethical conundrum. And I think that everyone resolves it in their own way. But in my case, I’m very protective of my family. It’s one of the most difficult things because the book is so close in certain, obvious ways. I have two brothers, my parents were teenagers when they started having kids.
OR: The mother worked at a brewery.
JT: The mother worked at a brewery. Yeah, yeah. My father’s Puerto Rican. But what I wanted to do was use that, write something that was mythical or archetypal about family and notions of belonging and identity. And of course they got hurt. Because of course they’re going to take everything personally. And I just have to live with that. There’s no Hollywood ending to it. In certain ways it brought to light things and allowed me to have conversations with my mother and my father that I never would have had otherwise if they hadn’t read the book. In other ways it just hurt. So I don’t have an extremely redemptive answer. You’ve just got to do it.
OR: And to be completely aware of what you’re doing at all times because it is such a sensitive thing. Unless you’re writing some sci-fi set in another world, whenever you’re writing about anybody you know it’s hard.
JT: But when I’m teaching, the advice I always give my students who run into this problem, is: You don’t have to publish it. Write it in the way that it is the most powerful. Write it in the way that is the most artistic. Write it in the way that works for you and allows you to write, and just do not think that anyone is ever gonna read it. Because that’s the thing, when you start thinking, Oh, I have to make sure that this is empathetic. I have to make sure that this is a fair rendition, then you can’t get into it. So judge it at the end. Judge it when you’re done. But first I think you have to allow yourself to be angry. You have to allow yourself to write a vendetta. To write to settle scores or to break something into the open that is a secret, or to betray. I mean, at first all of those other, darker motivations that get us to sit down and write, they need to be indulged.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photos by Simon Koy.
For original link, click here.