We the Animals
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011)
We the Animals is well-crafted like a great martini, coming in smooth with a potent punch. The semi-autobiographical portrait of three young brothers, raised by tragically young parents in an upstate blue-collar town, emerges in a compact 128 pages. Family discord and dysfunction detonate under the watchful eye of the youngest son, the narrator. Jenine Holmes sat down with Torres—a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and current holder of an esteemed Stanford University Wallace Stegner Fellowship—over lunch at Gramercy Tavern, to discuss the début novel.
Jenine Holmes (Rail): From the first page of We the Animals, like Toni Morrison’s Paradise or Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground, the narrative hits the reader with an incredibly impactful start, “We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against our empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more violence.” Why did you decide to begin the book with the collective “we?”
Justin Torres: I wanted to capture the kind of collective identity, the pack mentality that brothers can have, especially brothers without a lot of supervision, just that kind of ferocious energy. I felt that my brothers and I were able to communicate non-verbally. We just knew energetically what was going on and where we were going to run to next, what we would do next, you know? Obviously that became much more difficult into adolescence when you kind of need to——
Rail: Segment off and discover your real self, your true self?
Torres: And you need to talk about things.
Rail: In the chapter entitled “Niagara,” the father has left the narrator, his youngest son, in a movie theater. There, the boy comes alive—into his true self—as he creates a private, soulful, interpretive dance against the image of rushing water. What was your goal in that scene?
Torres: I was writing against the coming-of-age story, a slower, gradual initiation. The book doesn’t really have too much of a traditional narrative arc. I wanted to capture that in a kind of photo album, a snapshot. But in that scene you mentioned, it was very important to show that there’s a different sensibility that this younger brother had. And he was going to kind of lose his family in a way because of this sensibility, this queer sensibility.
Rail: Because he was completely in tune with his environment in a different way.
Torres: Yes, and that’s something that I think is really interesting. If your family struggles a lot and there’s a lot of violence and passion, it can destroy you, but it can give you the ability to see past behaviors and look at motivation.
Rail: Does your family view the novel in the same way?
Torres: I hope so. I hope that it’s been a compassionate enough portrayal and complicated in that portrayal. My mother loves it, but it took her a while to separate fiction from memoir. But once we had those conversations, now it’s like the only book she reads. I don’t think she’ll ever read another book in her life. But my brothers, I think, do reject some of the representations and it’s hard because it ends in a moment, you know—they’re wonderful people and we’re not that super close but we’re loyal to each other. I think that will be interesting when I hear from my father. He’s a very macho man. He’s said that much.
Rail: Were you aware of having an eyes-wide-open childhood, like James Baldwin or Dorothy Allison?
Torres: At the time, you don’t think of that. The circumstances you have are the circumstances you have. Children don’t have an adult vocabulary to talk about their childhoods. And as I grew up, people started using words like dysfunctional and abusive about my experiences—this adult vocabulary that didn’t exist when I was a kid. And I think what exists in the absence of that is wonder and imagination. I wanted to capture that. So when I was a child, I slowly did become aware that my parents were behaving differently—my parents were much younger than the other parents around us. We were kind of marginalized in that way.
Rail: You start to narrow down the focus of what you shared with friends.
Torres: Exactly. [Laughs.] And then you simplify, and you end up saying things like, “I came from a dysfunctional family” and what does that mean? And so I wanted to go back in and just blow that up and get back as close as I could to that kind of magical, wondrous way of just being.
Rail: The descriptions within scenes were really quite evocative. Beautiful details of imagery are woven in very intense moments of conflict: “the pealing tongue of paint dangling down from the ceiling,” “a toenail clipping of the moon,” are all set within violence.
Rail: It takes the reader out of that moment, where you know something bad is coming. The dad will explode, again, but you take a moment and appreciate the details that help shape this very chaotic environment.
Torres: But it’s all there. That’s the thing. In the moment, it is all there.
Rail: The last two chapters, “Deep Night” and “Dawn,” expand from the compression so prevalent throughout the majority of the book. Why?
Torres: I wanted the ending to kind of come out of nowhere, so it kind of lulls into this vignette, an episodic thing and I wanted it to—boom, everything changes from the way I had been writing, like I said, against this traditional narrative arc. Also there’s been a time jump, there’s been an age jump, so the way that you conceive of the world and the way you kind of take survey of your surroundings also changes—the kind of immediacy of that child narrative where you don’t have a lot of explanation, you don’t have a lot of understanding of people’s motivations, you’re just in the moment. As the narrator’s comprehension of his world changes, he changes. All of a sudden this narrator is way more tuned into his world and can describe in much more detail every moment, and every moment’s consequences. So, just the style of the writing changes, so therefore it becomes a little bit more expansive.
Rail: The telescoping out of the scene—as if the narrator is now almost like rising above the scene.
Torres: Exactly, which is the most important thing for me to do as a writer because there were certain experiences that mimic my own. I had to get outside and understand the motivation of the parents in the book.
Rail: And you may not have known what those events meant as they were happening but you certainly stored those memories so you could tap back into them.
Torres: [Laughs.] I might be too modest to run with that. But sure, I was definitely aware and searching and even aware of my own searching from a very young age. I read every book that ever came into the house, and I knew that other people weren’t doing that.
Rail: And then came that dark period of your life.
Torres: The mental hospital. My high school English teacher brought books and students and held a class there, for me—I honestly don’t know how many years of self-abuse, how many years of making bad choices Laura saved me from. She was always there for me, always this kind of light post. I’ve been in touch with her all through the years. You need somebody to remind you, “Make this a priority.” I had that again with Jackson Taylor later on.
Rail: We the Animals is a kind of soul-expanding, semi-autobiographical fiction, very much like Baldwin in Go Tell It on the Mountain and Allison in Bastard Out of Carolina. Did you have those books in mind when you began to write?
Torres: It’s funny that you bring up both those books. I think they saved me with their fearlessness. I read them in my adolescence. I’ve read everything they’ve written since then and the interviews. They were fighters, they were activists—everything about that informed the kind of book I wanted to write. I think that they’re more expansive writers. This book is kind of stylized and it’s fragmented in a condensed way but intention is what I took from them.
Rail: From my perspective, you achieved what Baldwin always set out to do. He believed, “Writers need to tell as much truth as they can bear.”
Torres: That’s all that we have to do. I write so, so, so slowly but I feel that I can stand behind every word because I contemplated and mined it for its proof. You can really break it down to that level—it’s got to be true in a big way but it’s got to be true in all the small ways, too. It’s fiction, it’s mythic, it’s exaggerated, it’s dramatized, but the emotional truth behind it is real.
Rail: Do you believe your biracial background provides some unique insights into your work?
Torres: I do. I always say my father’s Puerto Rican and my mother’s white because that’s the way they see it themselves, that’s the way I’ve always described my family. I have access to a lot of worlds. I grew up a different class than my parents were. My father is from the projects in Red Hook. I grew up in the world expecting me to be straight so I think I have access to that mentality but I’m not. I’m queer. And then there’s Puerto Rican and white and mixed. The more you can poke your head into different experiences and look around and know it, the better off you are as a writer. Can anybody do that? Yes. You don’t have to be biracial. And that’s why Baldwin could write Giovanni’s Room about an Italian in Paris and nail it! He brings it to every single moment. He’s on fire.
Rail: Do you plan on writing essays?
Torres: I could. But I enjoy fiction so much … I think I could write some essays down the line. I’m pretty angry about a lot of things.
Rail: “Anger and fear are a great place for a writer to start from,” Dorothy Allison said.
Torres: You’ve got to start but then you’ve got to try to form it—it’s easier for me to be honest in fiction right now.