Justin Torres, a UCLA professor of English, has won the National Book Award for Fiction.
The award was presented Wednesday evening in a New York City ceremony hosted by actor-director LeVar Burton and featuring a presentation by Oprah Winfrey. The National Book Foundation also presented honors for nonfiction, poetry, translated literature and young people’s literature.
Torres was honored for “Blackouts,” a boldly experimental work that incorporates vignettes, imagery and poetry to present a dialogue between a 20-something narrator and a much older man named Juan Gay, who is on his deathbed.
Justin Torres at the National Book Awards ceremony; his acceptance speech begins at roughly 2:08:00.
“They tell one another stories about their pasts, their families, their lovers — but Juan also explains to the narrator the history of a major study of homosexuality that took place in the 1930s,” Torres said in a recent UCLA interview. “As you can imagine, this kind of early sexology was rife with pathological language and disturbing pseudoscientific practices — but, still, the testimonies of the participants in the study make for fascinating reading.”
In “Blackouts,” Juan has with him the medical text that resulted from that study, but in his copy of the text, pages are blacked out into erasure poems, images of which appear throughout Torres’ book, along with historical and personal photos.
“It’s a bit of a puzzle of a book, but intentionally so,” Torres said in the interview. “One of its themes is historical erasure, and the messiness and confusion of looking backward.”
“Blackouts” was published in October by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and it has been widely praised by critics. A Washington Post review called the novel “shimmering, fable-like. … An ingenious assemblage of research, vignette, image and conceit.”
Torres’ debut novel, “We the Animals,” published in 2011 when he was just 31, was a literary sensation. Narrated by a young boy of mixed heritage who is finding his way amid family struggles and a budding queer identity, the book received the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, became a bestseller and was adapted into an award-winning film.
Torres has been a UCLA faculty member since 2015; among the courses he has taught is “Queering Latinx Literature: From Machismo to Feminism and Beyond.” In the UCLA interview, he said the university, and his English department colleagues in particular, have been “spectacularly supportive.”
“Everyone in the department is trying to get research and writing done — whether that’s scholarly work or creative — and as a junior colleague, I’ve felt guided and encouraged and just generally boosted. … Colleagues recommend books; grad and undergrad students share with me what novels they’ve been enjoying,” Torres said. “And I love reading the short stories my students come up with for my workshop — a peek into the soul of the next generation.”