Coming to creative writing by way of a fully-realized career in public health, National Book Award Finalist Alejandro Varela is a distinctive and urgently needed literary voice–both a conjurer of imaginative, incisive, and often humorous fiction–he is also a public health storyteller and a former cancer researcher. Driven by concerns fundamental to public health, Varela’s fiction engages readers with stories constructed around pressing social issues ranging from systemic racism to gentrification, to income inequality and class conflict, to sexuality and heterosexism.
Varela’s stories are provocative and witty; while eliciting chuckles they also dispense uncomfortable truths that everyone thinks about but won’t address out loud. —Andrienne Cruz, Booklist
The child of immigrant Salvadoran and Colombian parents, Varela grew up in a small, working-class town in Long Island, where he served as interpreter for Spanish speakers in his family, often translating complex subjects and nuance. This sparked a desire to hone language, connect people, and humanize theoretical ideas. Varela went on to get a Master in Public Health and worked as a cancer researcher at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
But creative writing called to him, and he turned to fiction as a medium for expanding awareness of the issues that compelled his work in public health: collective liberation, lack of community connection, the terrible human costs of isolation and oppression.
Studying public health helped me to see our society’s failings clearly, and more importantly, it helped me to see the paths for improving it…If it were better incorporated into mainstream education, we’d better understand one another, and we’d be less likely to fall into the political traps set to divide us. –Alejandro Varela, Apogee
Varela says “I figured a queer person of color living in a highly gentrified part of NYC, with a professional background in public health research—read: me—had a lot to mine for the purposes of storytelling.” (Edelweiss)
His debut novel, The Town of Babylon, marked him as an incandescent, new literary talent. It was a finalist for the National Book Award, as well as a nominee for the PEN America Open Book Award and the Aspen Literary Prize. The novel follows Andrés, a gay Latinx professor, who returns to his suburban hometown in the wake of his husband’s infidelity to care for his ailing father. An intimate, page-turning portrait of queer, racial, and class identity, it is also a universal story—a coming-of-age tale and the need to confront a past one has tried to leave behind.
Alejandro Varela dissects the disease of suburban life in The Town of Babylon, a finely-crafted literary scalpel with two edges, one that cuts through the layers of a dying body politic and another that clears arteries blocking the way to the heart of personal and political health: community. — Roberto Lovato, author of Unforgetting
Varela’s sophomore book, The People Who Report More Stress, is an entertaining and provocative collection of interconnected short stories praised by Gwen E. Kerby of the New York Times as “a master class in analyzing the unspoken…. [it] is a collection that delights in the layers of human interaction, and what might lie beneath them.” Blending humor, tenderness, and social commentary, Varela illustrates how relationships are shaped and impacted by race, class, and difference. A self-described “class jumper,” he has an unabashedly political approach to his fiction, saying his writing is “a conduit for public health advocacy.”
In his writing and presentations, Varela focuses on the intersections of public health and fiction, the need for more queer love stories in literature, and the unique lens through which he sees the world—how his storytelling works to lay bare the essential, but often overlooked stresses and anxieties that modern life and hierarchy inflict upon people and communities—especially at the margins. Varela holds a Master of Public Health from the University of Washington, with a focus on Community-Oriented Public Health Practice (COPHP). He has taught graduate level classes in policy advocacy and undergraduate courses in nursing and in public health and film at Long Island University, focusing specifically on the value of narrative and the importance of community-led interventions.
His work has appeared in The Point Magazine, Georgia Review, Boston Review, Harper’s, The New Republic, and The Offing, among other outlets. Varela is an editor-at-large of Apogee Journal, a literary magazine that centers historically marginalized writers and artists, and is based in New York.here.