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Justin Torres explores the queer history we're not talking about in novel 'Blackouts'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Which histories do we share and teach, and which ones do we ignore or hide? Politicians and school boards are debating these questions all over the country. And these questions are also at the heart of the new novel "Blackouts." The author, Justin Torres, became a breakout literary star for his first novel, "We The Animals." And now "Blackouts" has just been named a finalist for the National Book Awards. Justin Torres, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, and congratulations.

JUSTIN TORRES: Thanks so much. I'm delighted to be here.

SHAPIRO: I haven't been able to stop thinking about this book since I read it. You weave together fiction and history, and it's never totally clear where the line is. So I want to start with the actual history. This book has cameos from Andy Warhol, Emma Goldman, even Martin Scorsese. But the central historical character, Jan Gay, is not well-known. Who was she?

TORRES: Yes. She was this amazing lesbian researcher and activist who understood that getting stories out there about queer lives and about lesbian lives in the '20s and '30s and '40s, when these stories weren't being told, would be kind of instrumental in changing public attitudes. And so she went to Europe. She interviewed all these lesbians there and in New York. And she took down these case histories, and she went and tried to get the cover of a medical expert because otherwise the work would never be published. And then what ended up happening was that her research was kind of stolen from her and turned against her, really.

SHAPIRO: She was blacked out in a sense.

TORRES: Yeah, exactly, exactly. Yeah.

SHAPIRO: How did you first learn about her?

TORRES: I found this book called "Sex Variance: A Study In Homosexual Patterns" that was published in 1941. And I was working in a bookstore, and somebody brought in a box of donations. And there were books like Jean Genet and Radclyffe Hall and these texts that I recognized that's these kind of pre-Stonewall queer texts and then this medical study. And it was fascinating and really disturbing - like, a lot of very pathological language about homosexuality as a social disease. And there was also this really careful documentation of the first-person testimonies that the people were telling about their sex lives and their family lives. And I was so fascinated. I'm like, somebody involved in this clearly paid very close attention.

SHAPIRO: So the name on that book, "Sex Variance: A Study In Homosexual Patterns," was a psychiatrist, a man, George W. Henry, who co-opted the work of Jan Gay. How did you find out about the unacknowledged author behind the author?

TORRES: There was a couple books that mention the sex variance study. And one of them was called "Departing From Deviance," and another was called "An American Obsession." And in those two books, both of them kind of dive into the story of Jan Gay in, like, the footnotes and some of it in the direct text. And so I just started researching like, oh, here's this hidden history. And can I tell more about her story? And then I found out I could and couldn't.

SHAPIRO: You couldn't.

TORRES: There just wasn't much more to find than what these people - I mean, I'm not also - I'm also not a professional scholar of medical history. So...

SHAPIRO: And so you imagine the gaps. You fill in the gaps. You tell us Jan Gay's story in the form of a dialogue between two characters in the present or the more recent past. There's this unnamed young man, a narrator caring for a dying old man named Juan. And Juan tells the young man about Jan Gay's history. And so readers get this sort of Russian nesting doll story within a story. Why did you frame Jan Gay's story that way with all of the potential for subjectivity and distortions that can come with a game of telephone?

TORRES: Yeah, I think because that was my experience of diving into history, right? Like, I had this desire to tell her story and then this frustration about the ways in which certain people's stories and histories are suppressed. And so I wanted to mimic that frustration in the text itself. And so Juan is somebody who knew Jan and knows a lot about her story, but also, there are so many gaps that he can't fill. And so they imagined their way into those gaps. They start just making up a story of her life.

SHAPIRO: The book is so multimedia. The experience of reading it is like no book I have ever read. There are photographs, illustrations, handwritten letters. At the back of the book, there's something I've never seen before, which is two sets of endnotes. There is blinkered endnotes with context from the fictional narrator's perspective and then illustration credits that say, like, oh, this is from the Library of Congress. What did you want the reader to experience as they engage with all of these different artifacts and art forms and layers of meaning?

TORRES: Yeah. I mean, I think that one of the things that I find troubling about writing about the queer past or stigmatized histories in general is you run into so much pathology. And you run into so much - all this ephemera, these photographs, these letters, things that you don't quite know how to make sense of or how to put into context.

SHAPIRO: There are images of book pages where almost all of the text has been blacked out, and what remains becomes a sort of poem. What did you have in mind as you were creating these blackouts? I'm assuming you created them.

TORRES: I did, yeah. Yeah, I did. I mean, I keep that ambiguous in the book, but I'm proud to own up to it now (laughter).

SHAPIRO: So what were you doing as you did that?

TORRES: My first impulse with these testimonies was to make all these people into characters. There's 80 participants in the study, 40 men and 40 women. And I wanted to, like, recuperate their stories. And I quickly realized that it wasn't going to work. It couldn't work that way, right? That would actually...

SHAPIRO: Just too much.

TORRES: Yeah. And what I had was this text that was coming from these deviance studies, right? Like, I didn't have these people. I didn't have their stories. I had this...

SHAPIRO: Pathologized version.

TORRES: ...Pathologized version. Exactly. And so I just started trying to - one day I just started making photocopies of the book and just blacking out things that - you know, like, that bothered me (laughter). And then that turned into, well, what if - instead of just trying to, like, redact what I find offensive, what if I just try and make the text say something else? So that - rather than recuperating, I'm - it's a third kind of interpretation.

SHAPIRO: It's such an interesting challenge as a writer that, like, you set out in so many different ways to portray omission...

TORRES: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...To portray erasure. It's like, how do you show the absence of something? And you do it in all of these different ways throughout the book.

TORRES: Yeah. I mean, this might sound incredibly pretentious, but Keates has this idea of negative capability, which is being able to sit with ambiguity and not trying to make everything clear. And I think that I wanted to keep things ambiguous and have the reader just sit there in that ambiguity.

SHAPIRO: So I asked you what we lose when these stories are blacked out, but what do we gain by remembering them through fiction, where you deliberately blur the line between what's real and what's imagined?

TORRES: I mean, I hope that reading a book like this triggers curiosity in the reader. I hope that you're just like, I need to learn more about Jan Gay. I need to learn more about Edna Thomas. I need to learn more about, you know, Puerto Rican syndrome or all of these things that I touch on in the book.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, Puerto Rican syndrome is a whole other conversation that blew my mind, but we'll save that for another day.

TORRES: Yeah, totally. But 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.

SHAPIRO: Justin Torres. His new novel is "Blackouts." Thank you so much for talking with me about it.

TORRES: Thanks, Ari. There's no one I want to talk to more on NPR than you.

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.