A molecular-biologist-turned-Buddhist-monk says altruism is the answer to many of the world's most pressing challenges. Can concern for others help solve wealth inequality, climate change and world hunger?
A first novel by 31-year-old author Justin Torres is getting the sort of reaction writers dream about. Michael Cunningham calls it “a dark jewel of a book.” Marilynne Robinson describes the writing as “brilliant, poised and pure.” The book is a semi-autobiographic portrait of three brothers, their white mother and Puerto Rican father. Living in upstate New York, they deal with abuse, racism, poverty and hunger. They love one another deeply, even as they threaten to destroy each other. Torres joins Diane to discuss the joys and heartbreaks of family.
- Justin Torres author
Read an Excerpt
Excerpt from “We the Animals:” A Novel by Justin Torres. Copyright 2011 by Justin Torres. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved:
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. Justin Torres was raised in upstate New York. His white mother and Puerto Rican father were parents of three boys before they were 19. In a new novel, Torres, draws on his own experiences to explore a close complicated family and the struggle between brotherhood and becoming an individual. The title of his new book, which has already received great praise, is "We The Animals."
MS. DIANE REHMJustin Torres joins me in the studio. I look forward to hearing your questions and comments. Call us on 800-433-8850, send us your e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, feel free to join us on Facebook or Twitter. Justin, it's good to have you here in the studio.
MR. JUSTIN TORRESThank you, I'm delighted to be here.
REHMYou know, reading this, I couldn't help but think that you either have the most creative, imaginative, almost wildly imaginative mind or most of this has got to have come out of your own experience.
TORRESYeah, I mean, when I wrote the book, I definitely kind of mined from my life. The hard facts mirror my own autobiography. I have two brothers, my mother worked in a brewery. My parents were not quite as young (laugh) as you mentioned in your introduction, but they were teenagers when they started having children. And so in that way, the characters in this book mirror my family a great deal.
TORRESBut the incidents, I was making myth of family and so I was inventing and imagining with all the incidents and it's fiction and these characters are different than my own family members.
REHMYou titled the book "We The Animals." There are three figures. Are you just talking about the three brothers or are you talking about the whole family as you title your book?
TORRESYeah, I’m definitely talking about the whole family. They're kind of an intense pack. I think that when (laugh) I -- I went with animals because I wanted to, kind of, like, telegraph to the reader or send a signal to the reader, like, this is, you know, this is a wild...
TORRES...it's a wild family (laugh), yeah.
REHMIt's a wild family, it's a wild description of life within a family where the three brothers realize that their parents are totally passionate about each other and that passion can take very dangerous turns. Would you read for us from that very first chapter? It's titled "We Wanted More."
TORRESYeah, I'd love to. "We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls, we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We wanted more music on the radio, we wanted beats, we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms.
TORRESWe had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet, we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more. When it was cold, we fought over blankets until the cloth tore down the middle. When it was really cold, when our breath came out in frosty clouds, Manny crawled into bed with Joel and me. "Body heat," he said. "Body heat," we agreed.
TORRESWe wanted more flesh, more blood, more warmth. When we fought, we fought with booths and garage tools, snapping pliers. We grabbed at whatever was nearest and we hurled it through the air. We wanted more broken dishes, more shattered glass, we wanted more crashes. And when our Paps came home, we got spankings. Our little round butt cheeks were tore up, red, raw, leather-whipped.
TORRESWe knew that there was something on the other side of pain, on the other side of the sting. Prickly heat radiated upward from our thighs and backsides, fire consumed our brains, but we knew that there was something more, someplace our Paps was taking us with all this. We knew, because he was meticulous, because he was precise, because he took his time. He was awakening us, he was leading us somewhere beyond burning and ripping and you couldn't get there in a hurry.
TORRESAnd when our father was gone, we wanted be fathers. We hunted animals. We drudged through the muck of the crick, chasing down bullfrogs and water snakes. We plucked the baby robins from their nest. We liked to feel the beat of tiny hearts, the struggle of tiny wings. We brought their tiny animal faces close to ours. "Who's your daddy?" We said, then we laughed and tossed them in a shoebox.
TORRESAlways more, always hungrily scratching for more. But there were times, quiet moments, when our mother was sleeping, when she hadn't slept in two days and any noise, any stair creak, any shut door, any stifled laugh, any voice at all might wake her, those still, crystal mornings, when we wanted to protect her, this confused goose of a woman, this stumbler, this gusher, with her backaches and headaches and her tired, tired ways.
TORRESThis uprooted Brooklyn creature, this tough talker, always with tears when she told us she loved us, her mixed up love, her needy love, her warmth, those mornings when sunlight found the cracks in our blinds and laid itself down in crisp strips on our carpet, those quiet mornings when we'd fix ourselves oatmeal and sprawl onto our stomachs with crayons and paper, with glass marbles that we were careful not to rattle.
TORRESWhen our mother was sleeping, when the air did not smell like sweat or breath or mold, when the air was still and light, those mornings when silence was our secret game and our gift and our sole accomplishment, we wanted less, less weight, less work, less noise, less father, less muscles and skin and hair. We wanted nothing, just this, just this."
REHMJustin Torres, reading from the first chapter of his new book, it's titled, "We The Animals." Justin, that chapter provides a perfect arch from the loud banging of the forks and the banging of the feet and the demanding and the noise and the more, more, more, all the way down to nothing. It's a beautiful, beautiful chapter. Did you begin with that chapter?
TORRESYeah, that chapter definitely came early on, for sure. I remember, I was -- had just started taking this writing class with this amazing teacher in New York, Jackson Taylor. And I was riding home from the train and I was really, like, revved up to get writing. And I was on the subway platform and I was writing this in my head and I was just chanting it over and over to myself. And the repetition was there because I needed to remember kind of this list that I was making.
TORRESAnd then, when I got home, I just sat down and just wrote it. And I think it does kind of set up a dynamic that's throughout the book and that is that there is a lot of striving, there's a lot of chaos, there's a lot of running around, smashing things, but kind of in each chapter, there's a moment of, like, deep satisfaction or deep wonder or deep love and -- with this family. I mean, this is a flawed family, but there are moments when they just really appreciate what they have.
REHMThere is such extraordinary love of mother exhibited in this chapter. Is she truly white and is your father truly Puerto Rican?
TORRESIn my own parents...
TORRES...are -- yeah. My mother is Italian and Irish and my father is Puerto Rican. My mother is wonderful and deeply supportive of the book. I think that it was a little bit scary for her when she found out first what I was working on, but she's really come around to realize that, you know, this is fiction and that, you know, there are liberties that you can take and that -- you know, that there is a great distance between her as a person and the mother in this book.
TORRESBut she also said something the other day that really touched me. She said that she had reread the book and she said that it reminded her to kind of slow down and appreciate the moments of laughter. And even when she looks back on our own family and our experiences, that to remember, you know, while she was so busy kind of putting food on the table, that we did have a lot of fun.
REHMYou know, it's interesting, we've gotten some criticism from using the terms white versus Puerto Rican because as one individual, Barbara, e-mailed, she says, "Puerto Ricans consider themselves and are, in fact, white." How would you describe your mom and your dad?
TORRESYou know, I think that that is true, that there's a rainbow in Puerto Rico just like there's a rainbow here. My father, I don't think, considers himself white. My father grew up in Brooklyn and he, you know, didn't have a lot of money growing up and he's definitely talks about white people.
REHMHe talks about white people.
TORRESAs separate from because, you know, he's had that American experience.
REHMInteresting. Justin Torres and the book is titled "We The Animals." Short break and right back.
REHMJustin Torres is with me, his book "We the Animals" has been called brilliant, ferocious by Michael Cunningham. And if you'd like to join us, we were having a discussion, Justin, during the break about the criticism that we've gotten regarding characterizing your mother as white and your father as Puerto Rican. And as I said earlier, some have said Puerto Ricans consider themselves and are, in fact, white. You are very light skinned. What about your brothers?
TORRESI mean, I think that throughout my family, there is such a range of color -- you know, I've got tons of cousins. I mean, this -- I mean, it's a cultural distinction. That's the distinction that I'm making is that these parents come from different cultures. And I don't think it's true that all Puerto Ricans consider themselves white at all. There's a lot -- there was a lot of slaves that were brought to Puerto Rico. There's a lot of black Puerto Ricans who consider themselves black and then there's mixed Puerto Ricans who consider themselves mixed.
TORRESAnd I think when you get to New York and you're -- you know, it becomes a way to self-identify and it's a shorthand, Puerto Rican, but sure, there's a lot of complexity behind that.
REHMI read this book less as a novel than a series of chapters, a series of essays about how a family interacts happily at times. For example, in the chapter titled "Heritage," when everyone is dancing led by the father, to part of that first chapter you read when these boys are being beaten. I mean, it's a total family dynamic.
TORRESYeah, and I think that what you said about it not being a traditional novel structure and not having that traditional narrative arc is very true. And I had kind of the entire John Rove coming of age stories (laugh) to work against. You know, I'd read a lot and I wasn't quite interested in just doing that again myself, so I thought a lot about how could I kind of fracture this, how could I break it up and how could I, in that way, kind of mimic my own experience because I think I had moments of understanding.
TORRESAnd I think that each of the chapters in this book are kind of, like, a surfacing. You know, this moment where you've kind of separate from the family, separate from the pack, from the brothers and you realize that you have a different sensibility and that you're an individual. Then the next moment you sink right back down into family submerge. And so I wanted to somehow capture that in the structure of the book.
REHMWere you growing up as close to your brothers as the narrator is to Manny and Joel, his two brothers?
TORRESYeah, I think that that is something that is just straight up similar (laugh) between the characters in this book and, yeah, my brothers and I were -- yeah, we were so tight. And we -- yeah, we ran around and caused a lot of havoc. And it was joyous and sometimes it was scary, but as we moved into adolescence, I think that -- because we had -- because we communicated nonverbally as -- we just understood each other's intentions. You know, we could just play games for hours and, you know, there wasn't too much explanation of why our motivations, we just got each other. But in adolescence, we started to kind of pull away as it became clear that we were...
TORRES...you know, different, yeah, yeah.
TORRESWell, I mean, I was as the, you know, queer child, it's like you don't conceive of yourself that way as a child, but you're very aware that there's a lot of machismo in my home and that I just personally (laugh) didn't respond to that or, you know, didn't kind of possess that, so -- so that was something that moving into adolescence it's not that my brothers were intolerant. I mean, my brothers are wonderful, wonderful young men, but it was just a difference that I didn't know how to express or talk about.
REHMWhat about your own situation through junior high, high school, how you felt about yourself?
TORRESYeah, it got kind of progressively (laugh) more difficult. You know, I think that -- you know, I had an amazing, amazing high school English teacher who kind of saw, you know, the spark of potential in me and really -- I mean, she was one of those teachers they make Hollywood movies about (laugh), you know. She really went the extra mile. When later on in life when I was hospitalized, she came and brought me books and, you know, I mean, she was just above and beyond.
TORRESOther than that -- you know, and I had amazing friends, but other than that, I was in a really, you know, isolated small town in upstate New York. And this was, you know, over a decade ago, so it was difficult. It was difficult, yeah (laugh).
REHMWhy were you hospitalized?
TORRESIt's similar to a development in the book, so I don't want to, you know, ruin -- I don't want to be a spoiler, but it was a misunderstanding between myself and my parents and -- yeah, I think that I'll leave that.
REHMYou professed yourself as being gay?
TORRESI did not. They found out for sure and -- yeah, and then so I was kind of outed in that way. It was -- it was a time of a lot of upheaval, I was making a lot of bad choices and bad decisions.
TORRESI was using drugs, I was, you know, kind of running away from home a lot. I was trying to understand myself. I had -- I think I was really angry and, you know, resentful and, I don't know, isolated, but I think that -- I mean, I think that my parents made the decision that they made and it had -- you know, it had intense consequences for me going forward.
REHMTo put you into...
REHM...a psychiatric hospital.
REHMAnd how long were you there?
TORRESI was there about three months all together and then I got out. I was an out -- I mean, what happened was when I got in, everybody there was, you know, well, I was 18 when -- I was 17, but they're, like, I was your age when I first got committed, you know. And there's these professionals who are telling you that, you know, you are diagnosably crazy and, you know, you start to doubt, you know -- you're kind of...
REHMYour own sanity.
TORRESYeah, your own sanity, your own integrity and worth as a person. So while I don't think that I was going to harm myself before I went in, after the first time that I got out, I was ready and hopeless. And then I did have a suicide attempt, I was in a coma for a while, just for, like, a couple days, but then I had to go back, obviously, (laugh). Then I turned 18 and I realized that they couldn't hold me and I just had to prove that I wasn't a danger to myself or others and I did that and, you know, I've never -- I've never had anything else like that happen again in my life. I just needed to, you know...
REHMFind a way to express yourself.
TORRESTo find a way to express myself, find a community that was supportive and I did. I made it to New York eventually. I mean, it took a while. I had this scholarship to NYU and I ended up dropping out after a month because, you know it's...
TORRESWell, it's hard to have this really disruptive experience (laugh) your senior year of high school and then get to somewhere like NYU and everybody there was very privileged and wealthy. I mean, I met some amazing people, but we were coming from such different places and.
REHMWere there times -- as these characters were in that first chapter, were there times when you were actually hungry?
TORRESNo. Hunger in this -- I mean, for these kids, I think is -- I mean, I think little boys are always hungry (laugh) and I think that, you know, they're theatric about this -- you know, this endless hunger. It's a metaphor, you know. There's a line in the book where it says, you know, every night we died of hunger. And it's, like, yeah, 'cause they could never get enough -- there was something essential that's being withheld, you know, and...
REHMWhat do you think that something is, was?
TORRESI mean, I think it's, like, time and energy and attention. I think that there's a lot of stress. These parents are very young, they're -- they've got their own intense dynamic that's causing a lot of friction. And they have to work hard to stay afloat and so they're -- yeah, they are starved a little bit for attention and, you know, a certain kind of consistent parenting.
REHMYour mother does currently continue to work?
TORRESYes. My real-life mother?
TORRESYeah, different from the mother in this book, yes. She is great. She's a guidance counselor, which is a great, great job for her because she -- you know, she gets to interact with, you know, teenagers in duress, you know, and she's expert.
REHMBut she did, at one time, work in a brewery.
TORRESShe did work in a brewery, yeah.
REHMAnd your dad, what is his profession?
TORRESNow, my father is a New York State Trooper. Yeah, he -- when I was a kid -- he got that job when I was, I don't remember, maybe nine or 10, something like that.
REHMAre they still together?
TORRESNo, no, no, they're not.
TORRESNo. My mother lives in San Francisco now, actually, which is where I am now, which is nice.
REHMAre you close to her?
TORRESYeah. You know, we had a very difficult period after kind of the mental hospital and, you know, kind of years of upheaval. I think that writing this book, I was kind of writing my way back to my family. Now we're very, very close and...
REHMYou and your mother.
REHMWhat about your brothers?
TORRESAnother one of my brothers actually lives in Oakland in the Bay area and my other brother lives here on the East coast. He lives in New York. We are close in the sense that we're fiercely loyal to one another. I think about them a lot and I'm sure that they think about me a lot. We don't talk too often.
TORRESYou know, I think that we kind of went off into the world and we -- and all three of us struggled for a while and we all had to find our way. You know, the -- we're all doing better now, but we struggled and we weren't able to support each other in that struggle. And we had been -- that's the one thing that we'd been really good at as kids was protecting each other and supporting each other.
TORRESAnd as kind of adults, I don't know, it's difficult when you have nothing (laugh) that you can really offer. And, I don't know, it's just sometimes I feel like we know each other too well to -- it's intense, you know. It's just really intense to be around each other, yeah.
REHMJustin Torres, the book we're talking about is titled "We The Animals." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We have a number of callers. We'll take a few now, 800-433-8850, send us your e-mail to email@example.com. Let's go to Raman in Syracuse, N.Y. You're on the air.
RAMANCan you hear me?
TORRESYes, I can.
RAMANHey, how you doing? You know who this is, right?
TORRESI do. How are you doing?
RAMANGood, how are you?
TORRESGood, good. This is my father's second wife's son.
RAMAN(laugh) It kinda goes along with what's being said. I miss you a lot, Justin.
TORRESOh, thank you, thank you.
RAMANAnd I really -- I haven't had a chance to read your book yet, but I'd really like to look at it. I'm sitting here at work and I listen to NPR every day and I hear Justin Torres and I was, like, wow, this is amazing. This is such a small world. So I just wanted to call and give my love and, you know, my thoughts to you. And I feel, you know, from the bottom of my heart, everything that you have said and what you're going through or what -- you know, what you wrote in the book and what you're talking about, I was there, so (laugh) I feel you, you know what I'm saying?
TORRESWell, thanks, Raman, I really appreciate that and I send you love and I'll see you. I'm coming up to Syracuse to give a reading, so I hopefully I'll see you then.
RAMANOkay. Well, get a hold of me on Facebook, Justin.
REHMAll right. I'm glad you called, Raman. That must be a very touching thing for you to hear from him.
TORRES(laugh) Yeah, really, really shocking.
TORRESI haven't -- well, my father, you know, they divorced, so now he's married to another woman, so I haven't -- you know, I haven't heard from Raman in a number of years and I didn't have the best relationship with my father during the time that he was a father to Raman, so yeah, yeah (laugh), yeah, it's kind of bewildering.
REHMDid your two brothers have a hard time when it was learned -- when they learned that you were gay?
TORRESYou know, really what happened was that I, you know, was kind of immediately institutionalized, so I don't -- I wasn't there for their process of, you know, coming to terms with it or anything like that. I think that they probably knew and...
REHMThey thought you were different somehow.
TORRESYeah, yeah, for sure, for sure. But they both -- but both of them -- one of my brothers is very religious, so I think he struggled more than the other, but both of them have both come up to me and expressly let me know that, you know, they accept me and, you know, that they'll always love me and that -- yeah.
REHMAnd your father?
TORRESMy father, I think, probably struggled as well, but similarly, he has -- I remember one time he said to me (laugh), you know, even if you had purple hair, you'd still be my son (laugh). I was, like, oh, thanks, Dad. I think that means (laugh) you're okay with my sexuality. I think that that's where you're going with that, yeah.
REHMSo you think and you hope and you write and that's what's important. Justin Torres, the book is titled "We The Animals." If you'd like to join us, 800-433-8850.
REHMAnd for those of you who may have just joined us, Justin Torres is with me, he is the third son, that is the youngest son of a woman who is part Irish and what was the...
REHM...and Italian and whose father is Puerto Rican. A mixed marriage indeed. And some of the characters in your book are quite white, others are darker. And I mean that both figuratively and literally. Talk about your father's anger and how it affected your family.
TORRESI think that the father in this book, like my own father, had an explosive temper. I think that I'm in the book, I ran with that and the way that it kind of, you know, terrorized these boys. He's -- you know, the father in the book is a very passionate, passionate man (laugh). And sometimes lets those passions run away from him for sure.
REHMPassionate both sexually and in terms of his exhibition of brutality.
TORRESYeah, absolutely. Yeah, yeah, he's -- Paps is the character and he's a very dominate, dominate, dominate man and needs to kind of rule over this family and needs to feel like he's in control, I think because there's a lack of control, you know, otherwise.
REHMDid your mother work nights as the mother in this book does?
TORRESYes. She does. She -- my mother worked shift work at the brewery, so, you know, she worked (unintelligible).
REHMShe must have been exhausted.
TORRES(laugh) Yes, yes.
REHMShe had her -- your oldest brother when she was 16?
TORRESYes. Yeah (laugh), yeah, she did.
REHMAnd your father was about the same age?
TORRESHe -- yeah, he was a little bit older, I think he's, like, a year or two older. These are things I should know (laugh) more solidly, but yeah, they were both -- she was in high school and they met in high school and.
TORRESAnd did they both drop out of high school?
TORRESThey did. They both dropped out and they went and got married. They had to go to Texas, I believe, because of her being so young. And then they -- you know, they did everything they could. You know, she worked at a grocery store first and, you know, my father had a -- had had a series of jobs and -- I mean, it's -- it's amazing because in -- you know, in a certain sense, they're a success story.
TORRESThey were married for 17 years and we are all -- you know, we have all of our limbs (laugh) and we're alive and functioning in the world and they never -- you know, they didn't have support, you know, financially from, you know, their families or anything like that. You know, they just did it on their own, so.
REHMDid their families play any role?
TORRESOh, sure, sure. You now, I mean, it was complicated, I think, in the beginning for my parents to -- you know, to have come from these different cultures and, you know (laugh), reconcile their family -- reconcile both families, but I think that, yeah, yeah, they -- my grandparents on both sides are wonderful people.
REHMI'm glad. Let's go to Marlboro, Md. Good morning, Olivia.
OLIVIAHi. I was just calling in to say about the comment that you made earlier about when Diane asked you about, you know, the culture of your father and Puerto Rican. I just wanted to really congratulate or just, you know, appreciate how the way you answered it, you didn't really focus on, you know, racism and you really thought of, like, a cultural thing. And, like, I see, like, the way you think, like, I really appreciate how it's not -- it's not really, you know, straightforward, you know, black and white, it's -- it's there's a culture behind it, it's not just race. And yep (laugh).
TORRESWell, yeah, thank you. It's a complex thing to talk about for sure and, you know, yeah, well, I appreciate that. Thanks.
REHMAs you said, it's self-identification.
REHMAnd how you choose to present yourself. Thanks for calling, Olivia. And to Kate in Kansas City, Mo. Good morning.
KATEHi, thank you for taking my call and I'd like to say thank you so much for this book that's been written, I'm definitely going to get it. And I just wanted to state that I'm one of five siblings and right in the middle. I'm 60 and my little brother, Jack Reynolds, he was born in 1959 and he died at the age of 24 of Kaposi's (unintelligible).
REHMOh, I'm sorry.
TORRESSorry to hear that.
KATEAnd he -- he was -- he graduated North Hollywood High School -- North Hollywood, Calif. High School at the age of 17 and by then, he had lived a -- it was pretty violent life and so he was the last of the five siblings, my mom and dad were divorced and there was no authority figure, so it usually happens in families where there's not control, the rest of the siblings turned on him.
KATEAnd so he was -- however, he was the only one of five of us that graduated high school with honors and then he moved out of the house because my older sibling was really cruel to him and so she put upon him and was -- she called him sissy, fat boy and all kinds of terrible names that -- and accused him of being gay and she wasn't nice to him. But when he finally moved out and got his own place, he got a great job at a bank and he sought love.
KATEOf course, it was love that he sought and he tried several different men and, of course, in the -- it was in 1986 when he died of Kaposi's because he contracted it during those years and nobody knew what...
KATE...AIDS was, we were just learning, so he died in '86.
KATENow, I want to tell you, I've been trying to find a reason or a way to write a book about him or write a story about my little brother 'cause he deserves it.
KATEWell, thank you very much.
TORRESThanks for calling.
REHMI'm so sorry, Kate, about your brother and I hope that you will find a way to write about him. I think it will be a way to honor his memory and to help you in your grieving for him. Thanks for calling. When you think about the fact that your parents' marriage ended after 17 years and you were hospitalized around the same time, do you think that the two things were in any way connected?
TORRESNo. My parents had divorced before. That that happened about, I think, five years before, so I -- yeah, they came back together (laugh) in -- you know, they saw me as crisis -- as in crisis to -- they came together and, you know, made this decision to get back together, yeah, yeah.
REHMI see, I see. And are they still communicating with each other?
TORRESI that whenever there is an issue with any of the three of us, yeah, they talk. Otherwise, I don't -- you know, I don't think they talk very much at all, but, yeah.
REHMYeah, yeah, yeah. All right. Let's go to Mason in Charlotte, N.C. Good morning to you.
MASONOh, good morning. I was just going to ask I guess this is sort of a generic question, but what your inspirations were growing up, just what you read and everything 'cause I enjoy writing and I hope to someday get something published. I mean...
REHMWell, how much do you write, Mason? That's always the first question.
MASONI write every day.
MASONJust -- I just keep notebooks and things, but yeah...
TORRESThat great, that's great.
MASONI really like your style of writing, I guess. I haven't read your book, but from what you read, it sounds a lot like what I like. But what were your inspirations growing up?
TORRESGrowing up, I read anything that I could get my hands on. I mean, I read the encyclopedia (laugh). I read -- yeah, I mean, it wasn't the kind of house where, you know, there was, like, a ton of books or a lot of guidance and what should be read.
REHMWhat kind of books were around? Were there books?
TORRESThere were, there were. My parents were kind of putting themselves back through school, you know, as, you know, you know, at night, kind of over the kitchen table or whenever they could find a moment. They did kind of college by mail when I was a kid, so there were books coming in. I remember there were some, like, Shakespeare plays and stuff like that.
TORRESThe first book that I -- that really made me think about being a writer and inspired me and kind of saved me was "Bastard Out of Carolina" by Dorothy Allison that I read when I was, like, a teenager and it's another book that draws on her own autobiography, but is a work of fiction and it was just candid and honest and just really, really lovely and beautiful.
REHMMason, awful lot of people say, write what you know and then there are others who say, go for it, whatever it is, so good luck to you. Let's go to Manny in Sunrise, Fla. Good morning to you.
MANNYGood morning, Diane, I enjoy your show very much.
MANNYYes, Justin, I'm curious why you called it "We The Animals" and I don't know. First of all, I love the style.
MANNYI don't know, almost seems like a repetition, a beat. It has a beat to it.
MANNYAnd I want to get the book to read it all to see if I'm correct or just the part that you spoke was almost like a Martin Luther King thing, that it was there's a rhythm to it.
TORRESWow. That's a huge compliment (laugh).
MANNYAnd -- but -- and in a way, I don't know if this is an out and out autobiography...
MANNYOr a novel.
MANNYAnd if it's not an autobiography, why not? I mean, your life seems to be interesting and it somehow -- I'm Puerto Rican and I understand whereas you had it in one home, the idea of being bicultural, so to speak, and what choices you must make...
MANNY...in being bicultural because there are different elements you can take from either culture. And I wanted to -- I don't know the question of the title and I don't know who you wrote it for.
TORRESWell, yeah, there's a lot there to answer. It's not autobiography and I didn't want to write an autobiography. I mean...
TORRESOne, because I'm protective of my family. Two, because it was more interesting to me to, like, make myth out of this. It was just I wanted the freedom that fiction allows. I wanted to, like, you know, use the tools of fiction and I think that you get caught up a lot in, like, a kind of like, gotcha, you know, is this factual, is this completely factual game that I just was just wanted to avoid.
TORRESI think that the family I invented is more interesting on the page than my own family (laugh) would've been. And as far as the title goes, I definitely want the reader at the end to maybe challenge the title and say, you know, no, these people are so fully human and -- but at the same time, I wanted, you know -- yeah, I wanted a little incentive or enticement to the reader to figure out why they're being called animals.
REHMJustin Torres, the book is titled "We The Animals." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." It's interesting that the young narrator doesn't have a name.
TORRES(laugh) Yeah. I think that I really wanted to draw attention to the we and the I dynamic that happens throughout the book, so the majority of the book is written in a collective first person we, you know, we wanted more, we we we we. But there are these moments of I and individuation and, you know, this, like, separate identity. I wanted that to be the focus. I wanted, you know, a kind of universal entry point for the reader so that they could feel, you know, part of the we and then part of the I.
TORRESAnd I didn't want to get too specific by -- by naming that narrator. And I also think that -- you know, the town is not named, either, you know, and again, it all goes back to, like, myth making and making it kind of as universal as possible.
REHMDo you think that every family has a certain amount of dysfunction to it?
TORRESYou know, I really bristle at the word dysfunction. I think that it implies that families (laugh), like, have this function, that there's, like, a normal family and that it's, like, you know, kind of in the business of producing (laugh), like, normal people and I think there is no norm. I think that, you know, each family finds its way. Families, you know, I don't know. Dysfunction, it just, it always kind of raises the hair on my neck. You know, I think that the characters in this book are flawed. I think that they fail in their roles often and they succeed in other ways.
REHMI love that in your acknowledgments, you say, my favorite hobby is finding teachers to admire. Tell us about Laura and I'm not sure how to pronounce her last name.
TORRESYeah, she's the English teacher that I was talking about earlier, you know, the kind of Hollywood heroic English teacher (laugh). You know...
REHMShe really supported you.
TORRESShe really did and to this day, we're in touch. She sent me an e-mail this morning with an Anne Bradstreet poem about having a first book come out and she's -- she is -- yeah, yeah, she -- she -- and you know what she did for me was that she showed me that I could communicate with people kind of through words and based upon intellect -- intellect and that they are mentors who will take that so seriously that they'll go the extra mile for you. Yeah.
REHMJustin Torres, the book, "We The Animals." Congratulations.
TORRESThank you so much, Diane.
REHMThanks for being here.
REHMThanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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