Q&A: Justin Torres on creating ‘sustained and deep engagement’ with literature

Published: October 3, 2023
JJ Geiger (Torres); Farrar, Straus and Giroux (book cover); Trever Ducote/UCLA (composite)

Lucy Berbeo | 

UCLA professor discusses his new novel, ‘Blackouts,’ and the writers inspiring him today


Justin Torres was just 31 years old when his first novel, “We the Animals,” caused a literary sensation. Narrated by a young boy of mixed heritage who is finding his way amid family struggles and a budding queer identity, the novel received the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award and became a bestseller as well as an award-winning film.

Since its publication more than a decade ago, Torres has experienced the kind of broad, enduring recognition that eludes many authors. The literary landscape has also changed significantly in the last decade; today, literature by and about Latinos continues to gain ground. Torres, a professor of creative writing in the UCLA Department of English since 2015, is a leading voice in bringing more of these works to light for his students and for all readers.

“I recently taught a seminar called ‘The Latinx Now,’ where we looked at works published in the last five years — and the syllabus could have been three times as long,” said Torres, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. “And these are books worth discussing: literary, challenging texts.”

His second novel — the experimental “Blackouts,” which has been named a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction — will publish next week. Torres, who will participate in a book launch featuring a discussion, Q&A and book signing at Skylight Books on Oct. 9, spoke with us about his latest work, some authors past and present that everyone should read, and why progress is about more than visibility.

Your new novel, “Blackouts,” incorporates vignettes, imagery and poetry in service to storytelling. Can you share more about the book and the inspiration behind it?

The book largely takes the form of a dialogue between two characters: the narrator, who is in his late twenties, and a much older man named Juan Gay, who is on his deathbed. They make up movie plots and narrate them in the dark. They tell one another stories about their pasts, their families, their lovers — but Juan also explains to the narrator the history of a major study of homosexuality that took place in the 1930s. This is a real-life clinical study which resulted in a medical text called “Sex Variants: A Study in Homosexual Patterns.” As you can imagine, this kind of early sexology was rife with pathological language and disturbing pseudoscientific practices — but, still, the testimonies of the participants in the study make for fascinating reading.

Anyway, Juan keeps a copy of the book in his room, only the pages have been blacked out into little erasure poems. Images of those blackout poems and other historical and personal photographs are interspersed throughout the novel. It’s a bit of a puzzle of a book, but intentionally so — one of its themes is historical erasure, and the messiness and confusion of looking backward.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading “Blackouts”? How is it different from or related to “We the Animals”?

I hope they’ll come away curious — about what histories may still be recovered or uncovered — and I hope they feel moved by reckoning with all that’s been lost.

To answer the second question, I’d say that whereas Juan is a very literary character (he’s seemingly read everything, and he’s funny, wry and very patient with the narrator), the narrator is a bit of a hungry ghost, drifting through his own life. A reader who’s read “We the Animals” will notice a lot of overlaps between the young, unnamed narrator of that book and the narrator of this one, and I think the character could easily be read as a grown version of the boy from “We the Animals” — but it’s not essential to read him that way or to have read “We the Animals” to understand the dynamics driving “Blackouts.”

You’ve seen outstanding success as a young author. What are your thoughts on how the visibility and reception of Latino literature have been changing?

Young, you say? Ha, I’ll take it. On the one hand, I’m delighted by the plethora of Latinx books being published these days … as I’m writing this, I’m about to do an event with John Manuel Arias, who’s written a wonderful debut. You’ve got folks like Manuel Muñoz, Angie Cruz, Javier Zamora and so many more writing literary works that are bestsellers and winning awards. And, of course, a lot of excellent work is coming from smaller independent and university presses. Rigoberto González, a brilliant writer himself, edits a series called Camino del Sol, publishing Latinx voices and stories.

On the other hand, I think “visibility” is overemphasized in the culture at the moment — and, when it comes to literature, perhaps too low a bar. The question is more about whether there’s sustained and deep engagement. What is Latino/Latinx/Latine literature? (I’m agnostic about the naming conventions.) What are some of its traditions? Many readers would be able to name some of the canonical writers, but who are the iconoclasts and outsiders? How does Latinx literature relate to other traditions and aesthetic movements in American literature, Latin American literature, postcolonial and European literatures, etc.?

I’m hopeful that more overlooked works of the recent Latino past will be reissued … or reexamined. Books like Tomás Rivera’s “…y no se lo tragó la tierra” / “And the Earth Did Not Devour Him” or Jesús Colón’s “A Puerto Rican in New York” have so much to teach, not just about how to understand the history of Chicano migrant workers or the Puerto Rican diaspora, but they were both brilliant stylists as well. They have much to teach about how to get the story down; how to write.

At UCLA, you’ve taught innovative courses like “Queering Latinx Literature: From Machismo to Feminism and Beyond.” What are you excited to teach next?

I want everyone to read Luis Negron’s “Mundo Cruel” (hilarious, irreverent) and Rita Indiana’s “Tentacle” (dystopic, electrifying). Both are set in the Caribbean and originally in Spanish with excellent English translations. I want everyone to read Jaime Manrique, like his entire corpus, but most especially “Eminent Maricones.” John Rechy’s “City of Night” is recognized for being a “first” in a lot of ways — a landmark, pre-Stonewall book about hustling and queer culture — but it’s also brilliant in form and style. I’m always excited to teach Emma PerezCarla TrujilloAchy Obejas.

Gil Cuadros’ “City of God” is one of my favorite books of all time, and that’s not hyperbole; it’s just a book I read in the right moment, that has stayed with me, and that I return to again and again. He died from AIDS-related complications at 34. I thought I’d only ever have that one book from him but then recently, my colleague Rafael Pérez-Torres alerted me that he was one of the editors working to bring out a new book of Cuadros’ uncollected writing. He asked if I’d want to write a foreword, and I jumped at the chance. It’s called “My Body is Paper,” and it’ll come out next year. It’s excellent. I am excited to read it and teach it for years to come.

What do UCLA and Los Angeles mean to you and your work?

It took years to research and write “Blackouts,” and UCLA and the English department in particular have been spectacularly supportive throughout. Everyone in the department is trying to get research and writing done — whether that’s scholarly work or creative — and as a junior colleague, I’ve felt guided and encouraged and just generally boosted. It’s a trip to come to work and know that everyone is passionate about literature. Colleagues recommend books; grad and undergrad students share with me what novels they’ve been enjoying. And I love reading the short stories my students come up with for my workshop — a peek into the soul of the next generation.

As for L.A. in general, well … I’m from the East Coast. I still feel like a recent transplant, even though I’ve been living in L.A. for coming on a decade. I set “Blackouts” near, but not quite in, Southern California. The novel takes place in a single room in the desert — a long stopover on an even longer journey, as the narrator migrates from East to West Coast. I suppose, geographically, “Blackouts” is something of a transitional novel; I wasn’t yet ready to write about Los Angeles. Now I feel more ready, and my next book is set here; I’m doing my best to capture what I’ve come to know of this remarkable city — and always very aware of how much I’ve yet to learn.