Updated: Tonight’s reading at 21C has been canceled due to Hurricane Sandy-related flight cancelations. Sarabande Books is working on rescheduling the event for 2013.
Justin Torres’ surprising and haunting debut novel “We the Animals” introduces us to three near-feral brothers and their young parents, a white mother and Puerto Rican father from Brooklyn who marry when the mother is only 14 and pregnant with the oldest boy. They move to a small town in upstate New York, where they are outsiders even among the other poor families, and struggle against the limitations of their poverty, lack of education and youth.
“They’re these city kids, this mixed-race couple, in this tiny little town,” says Torres. “There aren’t many supporting characters in this book. There are the boys, and there’s Ma and Paps, and it’s very essential in that way. I wanted it to be, to emphasize the claustrophobia of the family, how much they rely on each other and how much they can’t escape each other.”
Torres will read from “We the Animals” Monday at the Sarabande Books reading series at 21C Museum Hotel. Poet Daniel Khalastchi, author of “Manoleria,” will also read at the free event, which starts at 7:30 p.m. in the downstairs atrium.
The brothers of “We the Animals” play together and rough each other up, and together they face the sink-or-swim parenting approach of their unpredictable Ma and Paps, who are loving and passionate, but also neglectful and violent at times. The boys are as physical and as close to each other as puppies in a box, not yet aware of how they are separate individual beings. The youngest boy, the one Torres doesn’t name, is the narrator.
“I wanted him to be completely submerged in the family and in the identity of the brothers. I think that can happen with siblings, with three boys very close in age,” says Torres. “I think they can be able to communicate non-verbally, to understand each other so completely, and also their desires are all the same, they want a little more of everything, more food, more attention. Slowly, that all changes.”
The Economics and Poetics of Style
The style of the book is fiercely poetic, a muscular lyric compressed into a tight, economical package (the novel clocks in at a brief 125 paperback pages). Torres says he knew he and his editor clicked when (unlike other editors who had seen and liked his manuscript) she didn’t ask him to write another 100 pages.
“I knew it had to be a short book,” says Torres. “The way that it’s structured, it’s very fragmented and kind of episodic. Every chapter, little episode, is like a flash of memory.”
“When I sent it out I thought, this is very unconventional, I wonder if anyone will publish it,” he adds. “I’m really glad that I didn’t [make the book longer]. It’s hard when you’re a first-time novelist, because you want to be published, but you also want to stick to your guns, stick to your principles. I knew the book needed to be short and function the way it does, but, you know, it was tempting to do what the big shots wanted me to.”
Fact and Fiction
Sticking to his guns worked out for Torres. He’s one of this year’s Five Under Thirty-five, the National Book Foundation’s high-profile short list of promising young authors selected by National Book Award winners and finalists.
Torres says he never anticipated his novel, which he calls semi-autobiographical, receiving much attention as it has.
“I knew I was making fiction, and I knew I needed that kind of distance, but I didn’t think too much about how similar this family that I was creating was to my own,” he says. “I just assumed that’s what all writers did? I assumed you borrow from your life.”
Torres says while some of his family members were upset about parts of the book, ultimately, explaining to them why he wrote a novel so closely tied to their actual experiences helped him explain the need and desire to himself.
“It’s been fascinating. My family has reacted in a way that has shocked me in their grace,” says Torres. “It took a lot of conversations about why I was doing this and why it was important for me to make art and make fiction from my personal experience. But I think that they get it now and that’s wonderful.”
One of the novel’s most arresting chapters depicts the family swimming in a lake at night. The youngest boy and Ma can’t swim, and Paps, who has been holding them up, decides to abandon them to it in the middle of the lake, to literally sink or swim. Ma panics; the boy first sinks, then breaks triumphantly through to the surface. It’s a scene that makes an impression on readers.
“That’s the one chapter that people always come up to me and are like ‘oh my God, when you got thrown in the water and you swam, were you so scared?’ That’s not me,” says Torres. “That chapter is a metaphor for a parenting style I was very familiar with, but nothing like that happened to me.”
“I am very protective of my family. Although it might not seem like that, I am very protective of them. And this is not my family, this is a fictional family. I made myths out of family,” he adds.
Torres is also experiencing the peculiar pains of a first book that becomes a runaway success—lots of reviews and critical conversations about his work. He’s working on his second book, but progress is slow.
“All those voices need to quiet down significantly before I can do something new, and I want to do something new and different and fresh,” he says.