By Jessica Rodriguez
Words can be a window into other worlds. Justin Torres, a writer and UCLA professor, used his words to let people view a version of the world he experienced in a biracial family of five in a tumultuous environment.
What started as a “jotting pages down” between shifts from his job became a life changing experience for the New York native. His debut novel, “We the Animals,” was published in 2011.
"I don’t think we need to travel very far outside our own experience to find 'big ideas' at play in the world."
The novella style book recounts the tale of three brothers raised in a rural New York town, caught between their parents’ volatile relationship, clashing cultures and the brutal ramifications of a lower-income existence topped by the narrators discovery of his sexuality—and you have a universal coming of age story readers can relate to. Torres’ ability to capture the nuances of such a multi-layered story made his book a national best seller that has also been translated into 15 languages.
His novel was such a page turner it was made into a film of the same name and widely released in August 2018. The year ended on a high note for Torres when the movie was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award.
Before becoming a literary star and English professor at UCLA Torres was like most struggling writers with various side hustles from farm hand to dog walker. Torres is also a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop. He has worked tirelessly at his craft at fellowships at Stanford, Radcliffe Institute at Harvard, the New York Public Library and the National Endowment for the Arts. He has contributed fiction and non-fiction to The New Yorker, Harper’s and The Advocate amongst other publications.
Though the fundamentals of “We the Animals” are based on Torres’ life –he is gay, Puerto Rican and Irish/Italian, one of three brothers, and raised in Central New York –the details are taken from his imagination. He also believes that great books are not always based on big concepts or themes. “I don’t think we need to travel very far outside our own experience to find “big ideas” at play in the world,” he told an interviewer from the Electric Literature website.
With a new novel in the works, Torres continues to bring the works of his mind and his many perspectives to the world. He also firmly believes redemptive power that words can have on the greater world. “Literature can work as an antidote to dehumanizing rhetoric, and familiarizing yourself with the literature of a politicized culture (your own or another) is an excellent way to live in the world,” Torres said during an NBC interview. We hope that his words continue to open windows to into various worlds and minds in books, and on screen.