NEA Literature Fellowships

Justin Torres

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(2014 - Prose)

Excerpt from We the Animals

We wanted more. We knocked the butt-ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats; we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet, we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.

When it was cold, we fought over blankets until the cloth tore down the  middle. When it was really cold, when our breath came out in frosty clouds, Manny crawled into bed with Joel and me.

“Body heat,” he said.

 “Body heat,” we agreed.

 We wanted more flesh, more blood, more warmth.

When we fought, we fought with boots and garage tools, snapping pliers--we grabbed at whatever was nearest and we hurled it through the air; we wanted more broken dishes, more shattered glass. We wanted more crashes.

And when our Paps came home, we got spankings. Our little round butt cheeks were tore-up: red, raw, leather-whipped. We knew there was something on the other side of pain, on the other side of the sting. Prickly heat radiated upward from our thighs and backsides, fire consumed our brains, but we knew that there was something more, some place our Paps was taking us with all this. We knew, because he was meticulous, because he was precise, because he took his time. He was awakening us; he was leading us to somewhere beyond burning and ripping and  you couldn’t get there in a hurry.

And when our father was gone, we wanted to be fathers. We hunted animals. We drudged through the muck of the crick, chasing down bullfrogs and water snakes. We plucked the baby robins from their nest. We liked to feel the beat of tiny hearts, the struggle of tiny wings. We brought their tiny animal faces close to ours.

“Who’s your daddy?” we said, then we laughed and tossed them into a shoebox.

Always more, always hungrily scratching for more. But there were times, quiet moments, when our mother was sleeping, when she hadn’t slept in two days, and any noise, any stair-creak, any shut door, any stifled laugh, any voice at all might wake her, those still, crystal mornings, when we wanted to protect her, this confused goose of a woman, this stumbler, this gusher, with her back aches and head aches and her tired, tired ways, this uprooted Brooklyn creature, this tough talker, always with tears when she tells us she loves us, her mixed-up love, her needy love, her warmth, those mornings, when sunlight found the cracks in our blinds, and laid itself down in crisp strips on our carpet, those quiet mornings, when we’d fix ourselves oatmeal, and sprawl onto our stomachs with crayons and paper, with glass marbles that we were careful not to rattle, when our mother was sleeping, when the air did not smell like sweat or breath or mold, when the air was still and light, those mornings, when silence was our secret game and our gift and our sole accomplishment--we wanted less: less weight, less work, less noise, less father, less muscles and skin and hair. We wanted nothing, just this, just this.

(Used with permission of Mariner Books)

Justin Torres is author of the novel, We the Animals, which has been translated into 14 languages. He has published short fiction in the New Yorker, Harper's, Granta, Tin House, the Washington Post, Glimmer Train, Flaunt, and other publications, as well as nonfiction pieces in publications like the Guardian and the Advocate. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, and most recently a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. The National Book Foundation named him one of 2012's 5 Under 35. He has been the recipient of a Rolón Fellowship in Literature from United States Artists, and the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. He currently teaches at Columbia University and the Writers' Foundry MFA Program at St. Joseph's College. He lives in Brooklyn.

See our Art Talk with Justin Torres on the Art Works blog.

Photo by Gregory Cowley

Author's Statement

Writing is reliable and enriching as a calling, but a precarious economic endeavor. Thank goodness the NEA is here to offer support to artists in the midst of so much precarity by providing public funding for the arts, and for literature in particular. This grant will help me carve out time to finish my second novel; time for wondering and worrying about things beyond money; time for which I am ever so grateful.