Justin Torres, an author, expressed his discomfort with the idea of de-sexing queer art and stated that he does not want to be associated with it. He also discussed his interest in gothic themes.
It is currently morning in New York City and Justin Torres, a 43-year-old writer, is still in bed with his head resting on one hand. He moved to the west coast ten years ago to teach English at UCLA but stayed out late last night, enjoying a night out with friends from his previous life in New York. “I haven’t even gotten dressed yet,” he says in a groggy voice.
The image of Torres using video chat while surrounded by disheveled pillows seems fitting, given that his new book, Blackouts, is narrated from a sweaty bed. The novel takes the reader on a journey through the lesser-known aspects of queer history: in its search for hidden cultural gems, sex is a prominent theme. During his book tour, Torres has been taken aback by its availability in airport shops (“There are so many depictions of male genitalia in it!”) and did not anticipate its release in today’s climate of book censorship. “That wasn’t something I had considered,” he remarks. “I was more focused on resisting self-censorship. There’s a tendency for queer art to present itself as polite and devoid of sexuality, and I do not want to be a part of that.”
In the fictional novel, elderly queer man Juan Gay is on his deathbed at a secluded desert sanctuary. He is being cared for by a younger unnamed narrator. Before passing away, Juan gives the narrator his papers on real-life lesbian writer and sexual scientist Jan Gay. Jan’s groundbreaking interviews with queer individuals in the 1920s and 30s were the basis for her two-volume report, “Sex Variants: A Study of Homosexual Patterns” published in 1941. “Blackouts” serves as a way to reclaim Jan’s work, which was not given proper credit by the report’s author, George W Henry. The book also includes bits of biographical information, some of which are factual, such as Jan’s connections to artist Andy Warhol and anarchist Emma Goldman, and some of which are made up. Author Torres weaves together Jan’s life with the memories and fantasies shared between Juan and the narrator.
The structure of this story is vastly different from Torres’s first book, We the Animals, which was based on his own life and focused on the wild childhood of three boys with a white mother and Puerto Rican father in upstate New York. This book was later made into a dreamlike film in 2018. While the first novel had a disjointed feel, it still had a passionate energy running through it. In contrast, Blackouts is frequently interrupted by old photographs, images from children’s books, and other miscellaneous items.
According to Torres, the process of researching involves attempting to complete missing pieces in the historical records. The challenge lies in creating a coherent story when dealing with suppressed histories, which can be both intriguing and exasperating. Torres aimed to convey this feeling in the reading experience. He also notes that frustration can have its own unique satisfaction.
The most impressive aspect of the book is its incorporation of excerpts from the Sex Variants report, which Torres has playfully edited by covering certain words and phrases, resulting in erasure poems. By leaving some words unchanged, new interpretations are formed; previously critical language has been revitalized and made more provocative. The black bars that hide lines of text give the impression of a peep show or the blinds in a film noir.
Torres states that they wanted to infuse some sensuality back into the text. They received a lot of input from individuals who spoke with Jan Gay about their sexual experiences, but unfortunately, it was then transformed and mixed with the medical jargon of the era, making it seem like proof of an illness. Therefore, it was a thrilling experience to bring back the beauty of language.
It’s undeniable that it has been a long-awaited arrival. “My second book has been overdue for many, many years,” he grimaces. What caused the delay? “I didn’t feel deserving of the attention I received after We the Animals. I was frequently asked about queer and Latinx literature, which are both interests of mine, but I felt I needed to read more. I wanted to challenge myself to become a different type of writer.” In what way different? “As an individual, I have always possessed a dark sense of humor. However, my writing was often melancholic and sincere.”
He realized that his problem stemmed from his immature notion of how a writer should sound. He had been adopting a specific voice for his novels, similar to how people change their tone when on the phone. As he worked on Blackouts, he incorporated ideas from his unfinished second novel, Yesterday Is Here, which told the story of two hustlers in different time periods. The character of Juan transformed into a tool for Torres to reflect on his younger and inexperienced self. While the narrator shares tales of sexual exploits, Juan interjects to criticize elements such as the use of flashbacks or voiceovers. Torres admits that this is his way of adding a touch of humor to his writing. Without it, he questions whether he would continue writing.
One of the things he took away from We the Animals was how to handle personal and intimate experiences being shared publicly. He recalls feeling financially and emotionally struggling when he wrote his first book. The publicity team asked if he was comfortable discussing the similarities between the book and his own life. He agreed without realizing that it would become the main topic of discussion surrounding the book.
The beginning of Torres’ career involves a dramatized event in which his parents found his personal journal at the age of 17, containing his fantasies and desires. He has referred to this as the “first steps of a fiction writer.” Although he struggled with his sexuality in his teenage years, he had a promising future after receiving a fellowship to NYU. However, his journal was discovered by his family, causing him to be seen as troubled. His father, who he was estranged from, took him to a psychiatric hospital where he learned that his entire family had read his journal. In 2012, Torres shared that having a breakdown in a psychiatric hospital is not ideal.
When he was admitted, he did not have suicidal thoughts, but that changed after his release. He intentionally took too much medication and fell into a coma. This series of events is now reflected in the narrator of Blackouts, who even repeats some of the phrases Torres has mentioned in interviews, such as feeling strangely proud to be put in an adult ward because he was “too mature for juvenile detention.”
With Blackouts, he has protected himself a little better. “I knew there would be this confusion between my own biography and the narrator’s, so I decided to play with the ambiguity.” Both have a compulsion to misplace their possessions. “It’s incredible how good I am at losing things,” he says. “It’s as if I rehearse these fundamental moments in my life where something hugely important was taken from me, and I’m recreating that all the time to master my own response.”
He misplaced a portion of Yesterday Is Here when he accidentally left his laptop on a train. This loss is clearly more significant and emotionally impactful than previous ones. When inquired about the feverish scribblings that were discovered by his parents, he takes a few moments to contemplate before responding, “I am not sure.” The experience of losing his journal and the resulting conflict with his family has left a deep scar that cannot be fully healed. While he now has a positive relationship with his mother, there remains a lingering sense of betrayal. He initially attempted to retrieve the journal, but ultimately gave up due to the intense argument it caused.
During our conversation about queer archives, Torres admitted that he does not plan on leaving his personal documents for future use. He explains, “That’s probably why I constantly delete everything. I’ve witnessed the consequences of not doing so. My journal was a record of my inner thoughts that I left behind and was discovered.” He looks away, the morning sun shining on the side of his face. “By deleting it, I eliminate the possibility of anyone using it against me.”