Visiting author Justin Torres spoke in the Storrs Center UConn bookstore Tuesday night about his unique style of writing by blending personal experience with fiction.
Torres was invited as the first recipient of the Mark Twain Distinguished Writer-in-Residence Program, which allows the University of Connecticut’s creative writing department to invite a well-known prose author to campus every other year for readings, meals and one-on-one workshops with students.
An English professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, Torres has written a novel titled “We the Animals” and numerous works of shorter fiction. He read excerpts from both to a crowd of roughly 50 students, faculty and community members. Throughout the reading, he explained that many aspects of his stories parallel his own life, although he still considered his work fiction more than memoir.
“I’m writing, and I’m making s--- up, and sometimes I’m telling the truth,” Torres said.
Torres discussed several times how this strange narrative style gives him a guilty sense of power, particularly in “We the Animals,” which depicts characters very similar to Torres’ own mother, father and brothers.
“My family had a right to their version of the truth and I didn’t want to make any claims on the truth,” Torres said.
Torres said when his father first read his book, he responded gruffly, saying he could write his own book. Torres interpreted this as his father saying, “I have a version of events.”
Part of the reason Torres said he writes about his own life is because he likes to think of it as somehow “reparative” of his troubled past. “We the Animals” chronicles the lives of a lower-class, mixed-race family isolated in a very white neighborhood. Other stories and essays discuss his brother’s homelessness or mirror his own experiences with sex work.
While many of these topics can be viewed as unpleasant, Torres said he has promised himself that he won’t shy away from his past and his truth.
Creative Writing Program Director Sean Forbes said he thought Torres’ discussion of these kinds of important, contemporary themes and issues recommended the writer when the committee of English professors discussed who they wanted to invite as the Mark Twain Distinguished writer-in-residence. Forbes also thought he was a good fit to work with students.
“He just seemed like the choice for me because I knew he would interact well with students,” Forbes said.
Forbes said at the time of the reading, Torres had already participated in two one-on-one workshops with creative writing students at UConn, with three more scheduled for the next day.
“I think what tends to happen in the creative writing department is that you might go through the same professors over and over again,” Forbes said, explaining how feedback from an outside, unbiased source could give student writers a new perspective on their own strengths and weaknesses.
Fifth-semester English and secondary education major Rhianna Bennet said that she found it refreshing to have a visiting author who worked in prose.
“I feel like in the past we’ve had a lot of poets come,” Bennet said. “But I liked his style.”
Manchester resident and recent University of the Creative Arts graduate Kevin Kissane said that he was inspired by “We the Animals” when working on his own major project, and ended up comparing his own style of writing to that of Torres.
“It was really just cool to be here in person,” Kissane said. “You picture an author’s name, but seeing him here made me realize I could be in the same position one day.”
At the end of the reading and the Q&A, audience members lined up in the back for Torres to sign their copies of his book.
Alex Houdeshell is the managing editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.