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'We the Animals' author Justin Torres: Latinos are 'dehumanized,' but literature is an antidote

"My wildest hope is that someone leaves the theater determined to take whatever struggle..and mold it into art, beauty, a meaning that can be shared."

Justin Torres took the literary world by storm in 2011 with the publication of his novel We the Animals, which became a national bestseller and was eventually translated into 15 languages. Seven years after its release, the novel has been adapted into a feature film directed by Jeremiah Zagar. It was recently awarded the Next Innovator Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and is scheduled to appear in theaters on August 17.

The novel, which takes place in upstate New York, follows three brothers as they navigate childhood in an impoverished household that’s also burdened by the volatile marriage of their parents, a Puerto Rican father and a white mother.

The youngest son, the most vulnerable and sensitive of the brothers, begins to stray from the close-knit trio in order to seek answers about his budding sexuality, forcing the entire family to confront the boys’ unconventional—and sometimes magical—but dysfunctional upbringing.

Torres continued to add to his extensive list of literary accolades, which included an NEA grant, A USA Rolón fellowship, and the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award.

We spoke briefly with Torres, who is currently an assistant professor of English at UCLA, about the state of Latino literature, his current role as an academic, and the excitement around the film version of his beloved debut novel. Below is a condensed version of the interview.

RG: Congratulations on your continued success, Justin. It’s been exhilarating watching you reach heights in a profession in which very few Latinos receive such notable recognition. That is changing, of course, and you’re part of that important shift. What do you think accounts for this growing interest and attention on the works by Latino authors?

JT: Thanks, Rigoberto. I wonder if part of it is the historical moment we are living through, in which Latinos are being rhetorically villainized, dehumanized, and scapegoated in order to drum up support for the present administration and its right-wing policies. The worst of this is directed at the most vulnerable—recently arrived immigrants—but the wider Latino community is awake and alive, and injured, and angry at the injustice. I’m talking about children being forcibly separated from their families and locked in cages, or the abandonment of Puerto Rico, allowing the island to remain in darkness for months after a hurricane.

I wonder if the emotionally literate response is to invest further in Latino stories and culture, to assert loudly that these lives, these people, are cared for, indispensable, and that there is joy and value in their stories.

Of course it will be a while before the contemporary moment gets captured in literature, but there are so many powerful stories already in existence. Literature can work as antidote to dehumanizing rhetoric, and familiarizing yourself with the literature of a politicized culture (your own or another) is an excellent way to live the world.

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It seems equally important to look back to the roots—to the hard work, activism, and agitation of folks like Gloria Anzaldúa, who theorized and articulated new ways of thinking about Chicano Literature and the Borderlands, or Miguel Piñero, one of the founders of the Nuyorican literary movement.

In many ways, the two couldn’t have been more different, but both of them tackled the marginalization of their communities in language that was original and urgent. They and other writers forged a path, or planted a seed—or how about a less agricultural metaphor—dreamed into being a future for Latino literature. We are all benefactors of that brilliance.

RG: Not too long ago you also accepted a teaching position at UCLA, with one of the most prestigious English departments in the country. What opportunities does this new role offer you as an artist and a literary citizen? What has been your experience balancing your commitment to your creative work with the obligations of an academic job?

JT: Yeah, the UCLA job is so good I’m constantly suspicious it might evaporate! I get to teach creative writing, but also literature courses of my own design. I regularly teach a course which I’ve given the rather lengthy title, Queering Latinx Lit: From Machismo to Feminism and Beyond. It’s always over enrolled—which is just lovely that there’s such demand for a course—but it’s over enrolled with just the best students. The large majority are Latinx, a lot of them are first generation, every single one has worked incredibly hard to get to UCLA and they make the most of their education.

We read the writers I’ve already mentioned and others like Carla Trujillo, John Rechy, Gil Cuadros, you. Lately I’ve been teaching a class about queer book-to-film adaptations because, you know, it’s captured my interest. Whatever I’m teaching I learn from our discussions. I can’t overstate how much I enjoy these young minds. It does feel like a privilege.

Novelist Justin Torres attends the "We The Animals" Premiere during the 2018 Sundance Film Festival at Park City Library on January 20, 2018 in Park City, Utah.Ernesto Distefano / Getty Images file

RG: There’s already plenty of buzz about the film adaptation of We the Animals. Have you seen the film and what are your reactions to seeing your characters come alive on the screen? I’m particularly curious what you think about its handling of the main protagonist’s struggle with his sexuality and the decision to name him Jonah—he remained nameless in your book.

JT: I love the film. I truly do, which, I’m told is odd for a novelist to feel about an adaptation. I think other authors often feel ambivalence, or resignation, or something worse—but I think that’s because once they sell the rights, they’re often shut out of any further decision making.

I was lucky that the director, Jeremiah Zagar, wanted me as involved as I was willing to be—and I ended up being very, very, involved. I was there for much of the casting, I read infinite drafts of the script and offered notes, I was on set the entire summer the film was shot, and I gave notes as the scenes were edited and the movie was assembled. I even found the songs that Josiah—who plays Joel in the film—sings during the opening and closing credits.

I’ve seen the movie; there are a bunch of scenes that didn’t make it in that I loved. There are choices I may have disagreed with, but nothing is in there that I didn’t ultimately sign off on, which was important because the material is so personal to me, which is kind of a nice segue to your second question, about the name Jonah.

They insisted the film wouldn’t work if he remained nameless as he is in the book—this is one of the things I disagreed with but not so much that it bothered me—so I was like, fine, name him. Then when they sent me the very first draft of the script. I saw they had named him "Justin" and I panicked. I called the director and threw a little fit: 'This is fiction! We talked about this! Absolutely not!'

But it turned out it was just a placeholder because they were having a hard time coming up with a name. In the end, I suggested something biblical to match the names of the other brothers Manny (Manuel) and Joel.

Honestly for me Jonah is bit much, if you know your bible, and I personally wouldn’t have used it in a book, but I didn’t want him to have a name (beyond “I” and importantly, “we”) so I didn’t object.

RG: What are you hoping the film will offer to young people in particular who are also dealing with their own struggles over issues around family and identity?

JT: One of the things I tried to do in the book, and one of the things I think the film does exceedingly well, is to portray a family that is as full of love as it is trouble.

Childhood and adolescence are fever dreams and afterward we spend so long trying to figure out, 'What the hell was that? What happened back there?'

Childhood lasts a long time, I forget who said that, my boyfriend is always quoting that to me, he’ll kill me for not remembering the source, and I think he says it to remind me that some of the dynamics of my life now—preoccupations and stumbles, even desires— are echoes of things I longed for and failed to receive, in the past.

I know that when I encounter representations — art and film and stories and poems that feel honest, and slightly dangerous—where the love and trouble is all mixed up with the awe and grace of being alive—I feel returned, in a good way, to hard times, or times of wanting, and then maybe I feel inspired to go and make my own art, my own meaning.

That’s what Jonah does in the film: he makes art out of the fever dream, out of everything exploding around, and inside him.

I guess I hope something like that happens for young people who see the film. A spark of recognition can help if you’re feeling isolated in your struggle, sure, and I hope for that reason, the film connects with audiences who rarely get to see characters like themselves in film.

But I suppose beyond that, my greatest ambition, my wildest hope is that someone leaves the theater determined to take whatever struggle, whatever hurt, they have on their hands and mold it into art, beauty, a meaning that can be shared.