Faculty Spotlight: Jonathan “JT” Torres, writing instructor
Home State: Florida
Fun Fact: Prefers Alaska’s dark winters to Florida’s relentless sunshine
Developmental studies instructor Jonathan Torres surfaced at UAA recently when he wrote to the Office of Advancement to alert us to a Q and A with Alaska writer Don Rearden that he’d recently published at the online website Fiction Writers Review. Could we share that link with our readers?
As it turns out, we have deservedly tipped our hat to Don Rearden and his writing prowess a number of times. He teaches at UAA in both the developmental education area and in the University Honors College, and has authored “The Raven’s Gift” that was just named a notable book of 2013 by the Washington Post. Earlier this year Rearden won INNOVATE funding to research an upcoming novel about an enduring whale and its hunters. He earned his M.F.A. at UAA in 2005.
We saw opportunity knocking. In addition to sharing the link to JT’s Q and A with Rearden, we asked if we might use this opportunity to introduce the newcomer to the UAA community. Happily, he agreed.
JT is a newly minted M.F.A. (2012, Georgia College & State University) and a Cuban-American from Florida. He teaches 80 students this semester in a combination of writing classes: introduction to college writing and writing strategies. He works out of UAA’s Learning Resources Center.
He arrived in Alaska in August after spending most of the summer teaching fiction and creative nonfiction at the John Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth. He has also taught writing at Georgia College and Front Range Community College in Colorado.
Florida to Alaska—you’re thinking ‘That’s not an easy leap,” and “I wonder how he likes the winter?”
Well, JT is one Floridian who is happy to leave all that sunshine behind. He jokes about his solar suffering in the southeastern flatlands. Pointing out a UAA window to the snow and monochromatic blueness, he says, “I love what’s going on out there right now.” But even he considers his journey from Florida to Alaska to be a bit mystical. It all began years ago, when he was just 10.
His older brother had a theory that everyone connects with one of the earth’s principle elements; he claimed the ocean for himself, and challenged his little brother to choose one too. So JT chose the mountains, and ever since has been trying to find a way to live among them. It was certainly hard to believe he belonged among mountains when he lived in flat Florida.
And even when he left Florida in pursuit of his M.F.A., he only went one state north, to Georgia, land of small hills.
So after he got his master’s degree, JT was determined to embrace his element and live in a mountain state. He imagined Montana, Colorado, Idaho, Washington. Maybe even Alaska. After a stint teaching in Colorado, his northern dream came true when he landed a term position at UAA teaching in the College Preparatory and Developmental Studies department.
Animated and fast-spoken, JT has an interesting story to tell about the job interview for this position. It was conducted over Skype. When he nervously tuned in from Florida, sitting right in front of him through the web cam was Don Rearden, a writer whose work he already knew. A writing mentor in Georgia had attended the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference and shared Rearden’s work with him.
“I know you!” JT blurted out. Rearden’s work had impressed him because it builds on the narrative quality of Alaska’s village storytelling tradition. Rearden grew up in Bethel before the invasions of technology and television, when storytelling was a major pastime for everyone.
JT, himself a student and fan of magical realism, connected easily with Rearden’s work. His other inspirations include Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquz. Learning more about JT’s background explains why this genre speaks so clearly to him.
While he was born in the United States, his grandmother migrated from Cuba during that country’s revolution. She was a powerful presence in his home, insisting that her daughter and grandchildren all speak English, though she herself was unable to master it. So, as JT tells it, he grew up in a household of “broken English and broken Spanish. I never did learn the hard l’s and I still roll all my r’s,” he says, smiling. But for him, the best part was growing up so close to his grandmother, an avid storyteller.
Her stories were filled with magic. She told of spirits that could inhabit her. When he questioned that, “Nana, that could never happen!” she showed him a stern face and declared it to be absolutely true.
He came to love her conviction, and has claimed it for his own writing ambition. He plans to combine her story of migration to the United States with her fantastical storytelling. His book will be a genre-buster, “memoir, biography, fiction and fantasy.” And if people say to him what he said to his grandmother, “This can’t be true!” he plans to display the same stern conviction he learned at his grandmother’s knee.
Besides happily trooping around “his element,” the Chugach and other ranges in Alaska, JT has one other reason he chose UAA over teaching opportunities that surfaced elsewhere. The excellent literary reputation of Alaska Quarterly Review produced at UAA also drew him. He is a frequent contributor to literary journals and deeply appreciates them.
And one more time, here’s the link to the interview that launched this story: Shaping Alaska’s Literary Landscape: An Interview with Don Rearden.