Justin Torres on the Tricky Line Between Fiction and Non-Fiction
In Conversation with Maris Kreizman on The Maris Review Podcast
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from the episode:
Maris Kreizman: I want to start out by asking for your guidance for how to talk about this book, starting with the idea that someone is telling us the story. Are we calling this person the narrator? Is it you? Does it matter?
Justin Torres: It is a bit of a puzzle of a book and one of the things that it’s drawing attention to is this blurring of fact and fiction. And what goes into writing about history in fiction, and in a fictional way, and how it’s drawing attention to a certain kind of artificiality. And I think that it also clearly points towards me. I mean, I think it’s not, it’s not like a question that surprises me that you would ask. It is fiction. It is fiction.
MK: But it contains your piece about buying a leather jacket for a dog in The New Yorker.
JT: Yeah, exactly.
MK: And that’s nonfiction, so.
JT: Yeah, exactly. There is an explicit kind of pulling in of nonfictional things that I’ve written and also fictional things that I’ve written. And then there’s these endnotes at the end that further seem to kind of muddy those waters about what exactly this is. But, yeah, I think that with my first book, there was so much attention on my own biography and the way that it overlaps with the novel, and I think I wasn’t really prepared for that. I was green, I’d never had a book in the world, I didn’t know what it was going to be like. And this time I knew that that was going to happen, and I was like, well, let me have some fun with it.
Let me hope that people ask, well, does it matter? Right? I’m glad that that was the last question you asked. Does it matter?
MK: It seems like one of the things that we’re told over and over in this book is that ambiguity is okay. We have to learn even as readers to be okay with what we don’t know, because we don’t know if we don’t know it because it was never written down, or because the author simply didn’t want to tell us, or doesn’t know themself.
JT: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And I think that that is kind of like Keats’s idea of negative capability. Where it’s like, you’re able to sit in this place of ambiguity, and you’re not trying to like, desperately reach for some kind of decisive conclusion either way. And I think that this whole idea of blacking out and, and having incomplete pictures. It’s a book about looking at the past and especially looking at the queer past and looking at histories that were never meant to be recorded. And what you find is there are a lot of gaps and how do you, how do you sit with those gaps and not rush it?
MK: So the narrator of the novel is presented with this book, Sex Variants, which of course I googled right away and found for $45 on AbeBooks. (I wonder if that will change next week when your novel comes out.) But the copy in the novel is blacked out. In many ways it felt like it could be blackout poetry, but it also could be a FOIA request about Donald Trump.
JT: Yeah. I was really interested in this idea of redaction, a kind of erasure that is frustrating but there’s also creative potential for blacking out as well. You can make poems out of these kind of documents. And that was my experience of reading the original Sexperience book, which my book is a lot about. This study happened in the 1930s of all these queer people, and it was a very kind of pathological study. They’re thinking about how to cure this social disease.
But that’s not how the study started. It actually started by this woman. And so there’s this overlay of the pathological language on these first person testimonies. I was like, how do I engage with all the things that are happening in this book, all the different kinds of agendas and voices? One of those ways was to just start to black out the text itself. Blackout is a kind of productive, protective act versus just a redaction or erasure or something.
MK: And it kind of creates this counter narrative.
JT: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, there’s this third narrative, because I didn’t feel like I could recuperate the original intention of somebody like Jan Gay, the lesbian activist who started this. Like, I didn’t feel like I could get there. I didn’t want to just let the kind of damaging medical early sexology language sit by itself. And so there’s this third thing that very much points towards an intervention of some kind.
MK: There are two things that we should know about the DSM for the sake of this book, which Juan calls the biblia loca, which feels just about right. I think I knew that, until very recently, homosexuality was a condition that you could find in there. But what I didn’t know is that there was a thing called Puerto Rican Syndrome.
JT: I know, it’s wild. It’s absolutely wild. I mean, I didn’t know this either until very recently. A friend of mine, a colleague at UCLA, recommended that I read this book called The Puerto Rican Syndrome, and yeah, yikes! It’s by this woman who’s a Lacanian psychoanalyst and she does this amazing job of thinking her way through where did this diagnosis come from.How can you come up with this diagnosis, and what its relationship to colonialism is. I highly recommend reading that book.
And for the purposes of my novel, I was really interested in studies of deviance and how much of identity formation comes out of a reaction to stigma. And I think that it’s something that oftentimes, people just want positive stories and they want to reclaim history. They want to be proud and they want to amplify what is ennobled and dignifying about their culture.
And that’s great. And look, we need to do that. Like, absolutely. But I’m also really interested in stigma and shame. And this book is really interested in stigma and shame and how we’re seen and perceived by the majority culture. And so, Puerto Rican Syndrome is fascinating.
It’s absolutely fascinating. And it’s a lot like hysteria. Like, this idea that women somehow have this mental illness that is related to their anatomy, their physiology. That there could be something about Puerto Ricans themselves that’s inherently symptomatic.
Justin Torres is the author of We the Animals, which was translated into fifteen languages, and was adapted into a feature film. His short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, Granta, Tin House, and The Washington Post. He lives in Los Angeles and is an associate professor of English at UCLA. His new novel, Blackouts, has made the shortlist for the National Book Award for Fiction.