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Justin Torres wins National Book Award for novel 'Blackouts'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

At last night's National Book Awards, the prize for fiction went to Justin Torres. His novel "Blackouts" is about histories that are hidden and erased. The story revolves around a lesbian researcher named Jan Gay. In real life, she recorded testimonies of queer people. Her research was co-opted by straight men and published in 1941 as a text called "Sex Variance: A Study Of Homosexual Patterns." In "Blackouts," Torres excavates and reimagines Jan Gay's story, weaving in photographs, illustrations, handwritten letters and more. When we spoke last month, I asked what he wanted the reader to experience as they take in the multimedia experience of this book.

JUSTIN 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.

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 was 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 I - you know, like, that bothered me. 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 Keats 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 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: That's author Justin Torres. His novel "Blackouts" just won the 2023 National Book Award for fiction.

(SOUNDBITE OF BTS AND COLDPLAY SONG, "MY UNIVERSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ari Shapiro
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.