J.L. Torres is a Puerto Rico-born, Bronx-raised writer, poet, and professor of literature at Plattsburgh State University. He is one of the co-founders of the Saranac Review, and currently its Editor. His latest book, The Accidental Native, was published in Fall 2013. I recently got the opportunity to speak with him about his literary inspirations and goals and what it’s like to be a Puerto Rican, aquí y allá.
SC: You’ve previously published short fiction, poetry and edited a text on Puerto Rican literature. How long have you had a novel in you waiting to be written?
JLT: It took seven years to write The Accidental Native, working on it on and off. Working on this novel has been a real learning experience. I feel that I’m really a short fiction writer. [Though] I still want to write stories, I also wanted to write a novel and test myself doing that. Writing a short story you have a different perspective; a novel is a completely different animal.
SC: What were your literary inspirations growing up in The Bronx? What set you down the path of literature?
JLT: Like many other Latina/o writers of my generation, I was not introduced to Latina/o writers. There was no such thing as a “Latino Lit course.” I was pretty ignorant of Latino writers, that they even existed. Piri Thomas was definitely one of my early inspirations. I did not live the life he lived, but I could still identify with many of the things in Down These Mean Streets, his language, the fact that he was writing about Puerto Ricans, the community, that was unheard of. Before him, Bernard Malamud gave me a sense that you could write about ethnicity, a particular cultural collective. Everything before that was Anglo, everyone was White. What was being sold was an Anglo-centric sense of what is “American”. Also, African American writers. James Baldwin was a big one for me. I would put Piri, Malamud, and Baldwin down as influences and also, all those amazing Latin American writers of the Boom helped pave the way for my desire to write.
SC: The women in Rennie’s life are a driving force in the novel. How much of that was a conscious effort on your part?
JLT: I consider myself a feminist. I’ve always had strong women in my life, including my wife. I don’t think that Latinas need to be told how to write Latina characters. Latino writers, on the other hand, could learn something…
SC: It seems obvious to me that the women are very important in the novel.
JLT: Thank you. I’ve been told that I write women well and that’s an incredible compliment. My mother is a strong influence. You know, working class, she worked really hard to put food on our table and keep us in line. I always look at that, and the history of Puerto Rico and how important women have been in our culture. It is a conscientious part of what I do as a writer. I don’t want to write clichéd female characters.
Particularly Julia, who is obviously central to the novel. It was really, really fun to write her even at the moments when I realized her life is shrouded in sadness, guilt and regret. She’s very ambitious and successful, but that one thing keeps haunting her. This is the reason why she hadn’t had any more children or relationships. She desperately wants to reconnect with her son and make things right.
SC: There’s a great line in your bio about how you’ve never been in prison, dealt with drugs, pimped, or been in a gang. It messes with the usual stereotypes surrounding Puerto Ricans, our men in particular. Rennie is a different sort of Nuyorican character in the ways in which he resists stereotypes as well. Could you elaborate on your connection with Rennie in this way?
JLT: Rennie is like me, when I was that age, but he fits a specific narrative purpose. His characterization stems from my desire to get away from “ghetto literature”, not to disparage literature that represents working class people or the underclass. I come from that background, but I am just saying I am sick and tired of those stories that consistently represent the barrio and working class people in such narrow terms. And that’s why I am so critical of Junot Diaz and other writers who continually present problematic Latino characters. What is our responsibility as producers of discourse and cultural workers? Shouldn’t we present decent models to those men and women who will go forward and share in the responsibility for creating our nation and society? We can’t keep focusing on the negative and what’s toxic. We have to go beyond that.
This is part of why I wrote this novel. I tried to create a fresh story, something that’s different from the current typical Latino narrative, especially when it comes to the representation of men. Rarely in Latina/o literature do you get depictions of any type of honorable, respectable Latino man. Rennie is far from being a typical Latino caricature.
SC: Your last book, The Family Terrorist and Other Stories, also deals with the conflicting narratives of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. and U.S.-born/ raised Puerto Ricans on the island. What about that dynamic keeps calling you?
JLT: That’s my life. This is another thing: many Diaspora writers and Puerto Ricans in the US have never lived in Puerto Rico. Visiting for a week to hang out offers little insight into life on the island. That makes you a tourist in your own land. I was born there and lived close to 20 years there as an adult. I have a different perspective. I don’t feel like I belong anywhere.
Here you’re always a Puerto Rican. Over there, you’re a Nuyorican or in worst cases they brand you un Americano, which is funny and odd in a sad way. Here you are Puerto Rican and you always feel that foreignness. I figured I might as well write about that [limbo]. That indeterminacy is the essence of being a Nuyorican, not living in New York. All my work is centered on that in-betweenness because I am trying to represent it, I’m trying to understand it, trying to articulate it in all its messy beauty.
SC: Can you talk about this idea of literary representation for us as a people in Diaspora?
JLT: I see a trend in Latino literature, and if I may be as bold as to compare myself to Julia Alvarez, Junot Díaz, Daniel Alarcón and Cristina Garcia for the sake of example, we are a generation that, even though we’re very much American, we write about the homeland from this sort of distant diasporic position that I find intriguing. U.S. American and American as in the Americas. It’s not just writing about being Dominican, Puerto Rican, or generally Latino in the US. It’s looking at your homeland and writing about that as a subject of your diasporic condition. Anglo-immigrant writers wrote about being here. Latinos are closer to the homeland, and I think that’s important in defining our sense of diaspora.
Abraham Rodríguez, the author of Spider Town, once said in an interview, ‘I could care less about Puerto Rico.’ He, to his credit, had finally articulated what a lot of Nuyoricans have felt. They’ve shut the door on Puerto Rico: I don’t care about Puerto Rico, I don’t write about Puerto Rico. I feel very much the issue of being Nuyorican there, being Puerto Rican here. Rodríguez sort of shut the door on that past. I’m trying to re-open it, and when I reopen that door, what happens?
SC: Do you have anything coming out soon, or anything you’re working on?
JLT: A collection of poems, Boricua Passport, being released by 2Leaf Press in April or thereabouts. I’m working on stories for a collection tentatively titled, Roots in the Sky, that centers on estrangement. I’m also researching a novel on Roberto Clemente, a sort of Caribbean perspective on race through him. Here’s a guy who comes from Puerto Rico to Pittsburgh, the boondocks of all baseball cities back then. He’s Puerto Rican, he doesn’t speak the language, and he’s Black. This book will really explore racial issues and racism in Puerto Rico through this amazing individual. I am finding, through my research, that he had confrontations with African Americans who were like, this guy thinks he’s not Black. Then there are wonderful revelations, like he met with Martin Luther King Jr., he invited him to his house in Carolina. Can you imagine the discussion that he had with this man? And I get to create that scene. I get to be the fly on the wall, to put words in their mouth and imagine what they were talking about. I’m excited about that. That’s what I love about writing. The endless creative possibilities.
Read our review of The Accidental Native, here.