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Justin Torres, the queer writer who has reached the pinnacle of American literature

The American author recently won the National Book Award with ‘Blackouts,’ his second novel

Justin Torres
Novelist Justin Torres at his home in San Francisco, California.Liz Hafalia (EL PAÍS)
Luis Pablo Beauregard

The National Book Award-winning novel was born in a box full of books. Justin Torres, the author of Blackouts, was working at Modern Times, a defunct San Francisco bookstore, when he had to unpack a donation. “It seemed like they were the books of someone who had recently died. Almost all of them were novels, and then this random sexology book, this medical text that simply blew my mind,” says Torres, who will read a fragment of his work this Thursday at a free event at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. That document was Sex Variants, a study published in 1941 in which researchers George Henry and Jan Gay published one of the first treatises on queer identity in the United States and several years before the famous reports by Alfred Kinsey saw the light of day.

The discovery made Torres, a 44-year-old queer writer born in New York, wonder about the mysterious reader, whose collection included this research done on 40 men and 40 women that began in 1935 and that must have been very sought after, as it was barely available even to members of the medical community. “It was fascinating to come across this and meet people who willingly exposed everything about themselves, their sex lives, their bodies. Their desire was to change the narrative that existed around queerness, although some of them wanted to be cured,” says Torres. Sex Variants was an empirical test of the clinical history and criminalization to which part of the LGBTQ+ community has been subjected.

This is how Juan, one of the characters in Blackouts, was born. He is an old man withering away inside a nursing home in an unnamed desert city. His life takes place between memories, which are brought to the present by an anonymous narrator who has shown up at the scene to try to question Juan about the two mysterious volumes that rest on an old radiator. They are two volumes of Sex Variants that have been censored with many parts blacked out, which gives the book one of the meanings of its title.

Torres’ prose is charged with erotic energy and permanent sexual tension. This is a stance on the peaceful times that exist, where sexual joy is a repressed pleasure. “I want to see more depictions of sex. And especially sex that isn’t safe or sanctioned, or doesn’t have that stamp of approval by the would be censors, whether they’re coming from the right or the left. I hope the next generation realizes how strange these times have been and brings back free love,” the author, who is not afraid of controversy, says laughing.

The book won the 2023 National Book Award at a particularly conservative time in the United States. Although Torres has always moved through the liberal poles of the country, the American media is full of news about censorship of literary works and authorities trying to legislate the bodies of women and trans people. Torres received his award in a ceremony in which a great political moment took place. The winners read a joint message about the war between Israel and Hamas, which has left thousands of innocent victims inside the Gaza Strip. “I think it was very balanced. And if I had said something on my own, I think I would have focused much more on the disparity of violence. I would have focused much more on the long history of Israeli occupation. And I think I would have said something perhaps more controversial,” he says.

The National Book Award jury has highlighted the “aesthetic complexity, multiplicity, and beauty” of the images created by Torres. The author crafts a story that corrects the erasure that queer people have suffered for decades. Not only does he do it through the character of Juan, but also through the American Jan Gay, one of the authors of the treatise and a disciple of the sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld at the Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin, a center that developed knowledge until the Nazis looted the place and burned all the books. “The research began entirely thanks to Jan Gay and her activism and her desire to try to replicate what she learned from Hirschfeld, about liberatory sexology and changing the negative societal attitudes, but a committee took everything from it against her [...] She hated the final result despite having been a central part,” says Torres through the Zoom chat.

Blackouts is Torres’ second book and comes 12 years after his literary debut, We the Animals (2011). The novel, which was based on his childhood memories and his parents’ toxic relationship, was very well received by critics. It also had a film adaptation that premiered at the Sundance festival. It also meant a break from a past full of economic burdens and menial jobs. It was the beginning of his tours through the United States writers’ circuit, where he was presented as one of the most interesting new Latin voices, publishing in Granta, The New Yorker, Harper’s, and other prestige magazines. Jobs in bookstores are over. Torres moved on to the world of academia, where he became a fellow at Stanford and Harvard universities. Today he is an associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The long period between books allowed him to prepare for what was to be a long-awaited second novel. “I needed to take time to develop a writing style and my literary references. I just needed to expand myself,” says Torres. Among the debts he settles in Blackouts are the influences that have helped him explore his path as a writer. His characters quote Rimbaud, Pedro Páramo, Jean Genet, Tennesee Williams, Anna Freud, and Oscar Wilde.

The jury has recognized the enormous influence the novel Kiss of the Spider Woman, the 1976 classic by Argentine Manuel Puig, where a militant against the dictatorship and a homosexual talk at length inside a cell. Torres also recognizes the great debt he owes to Juan Rulfo’s most famous book. “One of the reasons why Pedro Páramo has stayed with me for so long is because of his way of narrating through a polyphonic vignette. The story is voices that are constantly breaking and I think that puts a huge emphasis on community. Although the narrator tries to tell his father’s story, you get the story through the way he affected others,” says Torres.

In his search for style, Torres redoubles his commitment to telling a story in fragments. The vignettes allowed readers to peer into their childhood in a poetic way in We the Animals. Now they allow you to collapse time. “You are not reading to find out what happens later, you are constantly reading to find out what is happening now. It is a very different relationship with time, and so past, present and future are often layered in the vignette,” says the author. From here other meanings of the book emerge: the memories that appear in mind after a time in the dark. “You have a moment that leads you to the next moment, but they are not associated in time or chronology, but it is the next one that pops up and rises to the surface,” Torres adds. The memories that the book’s two main characters recall have a dialogue against oblivion.

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