When you can’t go back home: Behind J.L. Torres’s The Accidental Native

For years I thought Lucy Liu was half-white because of her freckles, until I read a magazine interview about her Chinese immigrant parents. When I told my Korean friend about my prior assumption, she frowned and said, “Hmm, no wonder Americans think they’re Korean and then they go to Korea and find out they’re not.” She grew up in Seoul.

At the time, I didn’t know what my friend meant by that remark and thought it was quite rude. But growing up in another country apart from your native roots, despite being raised to appreciate your heritage, creates strong differences in how you and your native counterparts see the world and one’s place in it. It can be a difficult realization to reckon with, causing stress, anger, bitterness and resentment. My friend was only stating a fact.

FINAL ACCIDENTAL NATIVE_COVERJ.L. Torres, a Nuyorican, displays many of these predicaments in his novel, The Accidental Native, in which Rennie, also a Nuyorican, returns to his native Puerto Rico to bury his parents. He soon discovers that the woman he buried was not his mother. As he struggles to accept his biological mother, he accepts a teaching a position at a university, which becomes embroiled in a radioactive waste scandal suspected to be causing cancer in the staff. Things are further complicated when his mother’s law firm takes legal action against the university.

“I came from a Puerto Rican household,” Torres said. “The protagonist in the book is Nuyorican but doesn’t see himself as Puerto Rican. And he is in Puerto Rico as an accident.” (See our review on Torres’ The Accidental Native.)

Born in Puerto Rico, Torres’s family left the island when he was about six years old. He arrived in New York with his mom and brother on a cold April day. It was the first time he felt such low temperatures. They initially lived in Williamsburg, which was a Puerto Rican enclave at one time, followed by El Barrio (East Harlem), and finally settled in the South Bronx.

A lot of Latino-American literature is about dysfunctional men in the streets, Torres said. “I think there has to be some Latino writers who say even though I grew up in the South Bronx, that’s not my experience at all.” Torres excelled in school and graduated from Vassar College, followed by an MFA at Columbia and then a doctorate in English at USC-LA.

Between these degrees, he returned to Puerto Rico during his twenties. He thought he was going to stay for one year and did not return to the states for 18 years.

J.L. Torres

J.L. Torres

“Unlike Rennie, I know my history,” Torres said. “You come from this environment thinking you’re Puerto Rican, but people don’t think you’re Puerto Rican. That saying, you can’t go back home, it’s really true. I was aghast at how many Puerto Ricans don’t know about their history.”

Torres was an outsider in his native land, much like many people who try to return to their homeland. He described the Puerto Rican sentiment that they feel betrayed by people like Torres for leaving. There is a cloud of inertia in the community, he explained. Part of Puerto Rico wants to be a sovereign nation, but the people fear it will fall prey to sweeping poverty like many former Latin American colonies. And if it becomes a state, it may lose its culture and language.

Any yet they don’t see how much of the culture has already changed, Torres said. The English language has already corrupted the language with Spanglish. Puerto Rico also feels like an American city, he said. “In certain ways, they’re disconnected from the U.S. and in a way they’re not.” 

Eventually Torres returned to the U.S. and today he is a professor of English at SUNY Plattsburgh. A 60s kid, he was very political and didn’t find the same desire in Puerto Rico. “I didn’t like the attitudes of the people. The colonized mindset.” Now a husband and father of two, he didn’t want his sons to adopt the same mentality. He was also burnt out with university politics, which Rennie also faces in The Accidental Native.

“[Rennie] is a better man than me. I think he does want to keep fighting.”

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m2Monique Antonette Lewis, founder of At The Inkwell, sits on the board of the New York Writers Workshop. She is the assistant editor of Mergermarket, an online division of the Financial Times Group.

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