Justin Torres

At the 74th National Book Awards, author Justin Torres swiftly thanked his cherished circle for their support in helping him win the fiction award for Blackouts. He then handed the microphone to a fellow writer to advocate for a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza.

Torres solidified that his writing wasn’t just bringing queer history to the forefront of culture but that his conviction was to be remembered on the right side of it for all people, no matter how controversial.

Although the nominees had agreed to use the platform for a cause greater than literature, it almost felt too on-brand for Torres. Throughout his career, he has crafted poignant lyricism and daring, insightful prose to envision a better world.

The 44-year-old Puerto Rican understands all too well the nuances of hardship and marginalization and the importance of bridging the gaps between the past and the future.

Such is seen in an essay he wrote for the New Yorker, in which he assists his homeless, Trump-supporting brother at the laundromat before checking him into a cash-only motel for a week. He admits relief to be able to escape his sibling as a presidential election looms, harboring hope that even a small correction to the greed and ugliness in the world is not impossible. 

Torres knows how to skillfully capture the paradox of morality and existing in a capitalist, often misguided society.

His highly celebrated novel Blackouts transmutes his ability to convey the stark, poetic truth into a radical queer phenomenon that blends history, fantasy, and the experimental. A multi-dimensional story about race, class, friendship, sexuality, and who gets to be remembered.

Certainly, on a mission to reinvent himself as a novelist, he weaves a compilation of dialogues, images, bowdlerized source texts, and imaginary screenplays.

The novel was inspired by a real-life study from 1941 titled Sex Variants: A Study in Homosexual Patterns.

The original report examined the lives of 40 gay men and 40 lesbian women, which Torres condensed for more straightforward storytelling. However, it was a revolutionary queer educational artifact preceding the likes of Alfred Kinsey’s groundbreaking research into human sexual behavior.

Exactly twelve years passed between Blackouts and his semi-autobiographical debut novel, We the Animals, which catapulted him to literary stardom, being translated into 15 languages and adapted into a feature film.

“One of the reasons for the time gap between the two books is because I didn’t love feeling so exposed. I wasn’t expecting it, and I did not love it,” he told the New Yorker

The seeds for Blackouts had been planted when he was working at a co-op bookstore in San Francisco during his 20s, and he came across Sex Variants, finding the clinical writing style dehumanizing.

He told the LA Times, “If you look in queer history, so much is involved in this kind of medical, pathological readings of queerness itself,” Torres said. “You can’t look at our history and pretend that homosexuality wasn’t [considered] a mental illness until the ‘70s — you can’t ignore that.”

The novel manifests as a potent tale about the erasure of queer history, especially timely in a progressive era that has made younger LGBTQ+ generations forget the fragility of rights and identity.

It’s only fitting that Torres’s foothold in the world is through creating pivotal stories, as his life has been anything but by the book. It took him ten years to get his bachelor’s degree.

@fsgbooks Justin Torres reads “My Autobiography” by Jaime Manrique for #NationalPoetryMonth. The poem was translated from Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden. Torres is the bestselling author of #WeTheAnimals and the novel BLACKOUTS, coming from FSG on 10/10. #justintorres #jaimemanrique #poetry #blackouts #poetryreading #fsgbooks ♬ original sound – Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Yet the author living life on his own terms hasn’t stopped his relentless pursuit to merge truth and purpose with outstanding storytelling. 

In an interview with NPR’s Ari Shapiro, he said, “I hope that there’s this curiosity that gets sparked. And that, I think, is what fiction can do, right? It can give you this kind of sense of being deeply enmeshed in the narrative potential of the past and the way that the past is speaking to the present moment.”

Blackouts might’ve been years in the making, but honoring, preserving, and perhaps most importantly, resurrecting queer history has never been more necessary. 

Torres is a role model for all queer people, demonstrating that the best path to success is forged with hope, patience, and “Here, with grace, we come.”

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