Bryan Washington describes himself as a writer from Houston, but it might be more accurate to say he’s a writer of Houston. His work not only observes the city, it seems to create it anew. The words rustle through the trees and stomp new cracks in the sidewalk. Washington’s fiction and essays range from food, film, and the arts to sexuality, gentrification, and blackness in America. No matter the topic, his work is steeped in Houston, conjuring the city with equal parts empathy and pride to create a distinct feeling of home.
In his debut short-story collection, Lot, an unlabeled map serves as a frontispiece, and the stories, each named after a different area in Houston, fill in the space. Washington’s characters share the same streets, roaming their city and singing a collective history. In the story “Alief,” a neighborhood relishes in the drama of an extramarital affair; “Shepherd” follows a boy sorting through shame and sexuality with a visiting cousin; and a young man finds job security with a veteran drug dealer in “South Congress.”
Throughout these stories lives a recurring narrator, a young man growing up in a rapidly transforming city, sorting through his scattered family, his queerness, and his black Latino identity. Houston is a constant, but as the force of gentrification builds in the wake of Harvey, the narrator is forced to choose between leaving and staying. His transition into adulthood is haunted by the ghosts of people who have left, restaurants that have closed, and muddied baseball fields. In the final story, “Elgin,” Washington writes, “Houston is molting. The city sheds all over the concrete.”
Lot has been enthusiastically anticipated, and stories from the collection have appeared in The New Yorker, Tin House, American Short Fiction, and Electric Literature. Although these stories stand alone, reading through Washington’s book from start to finish feels significant, like bearing witness to Houston’s erosion. For every thrown fist and quickly whipped comeback, there is a quiet moment cleaning dishes, sitting in the Whataburger parking lot, or sneaking out on a lover in the night. Just as every city is created by its inhabitants, Lot belongs foremost to its characters, who ask to be remembered, even long after their pages have turned.
The book plays with geography, with each story named after areas in Houston, alongside references to driving or walking down specific streets, almost as if giving directions. I feel I could follow this book through Houston, like a walking tour, if I wanted to. Did you start out intending to map Houston with such specificity? What is the importance of Houston to you?
Ha. If you took that tour, you’d be walking a very long way.
But yeah, the city’s geography was pretty integral to my conception of the book. I’m enamored with Houston because it’s home. There are definitely cities I think I’m more taken with in spurts, but none at the moment that I’m as comfortable with or as suited to living in temperamentally. A text’s locality is always a draw to me, though. Around the time I’d started writing the first stories, I’d just seen Alonso Ruizpalacios’s Güeros, so I was pretty taken with how Mexico City became a pivotal character in that narrative. Tthe books I used as frames for Lot, like Cristina Henriquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans, Brian Ascalon Roley’s American Son, Ha Jin’s A Good Fall, Patricia Engels’s Vida, Natsuo Kirino’s Real World, and Luis Negrón’s Mundo Cruel, are deeply informed by their respective locales. There’s an unknowability to Houston because of the sprawl and the diversity, and there’s a chaos, too, but one that’s warm. The multiplicity of experiences you can have here makes Harris County crazy-good fodder for anyone looking to write about it.
What was the writing process like? I’ve read that you watch videos and use the notes app—can you tell me a bit about that, and about how these stories came together?
Well, I watch a ton of movies. Not in a scholarly way at all, but as a means of getting a sense of pacing, plot development, and resolution management. That’s honestly been formative for me as far as contextualizing structure goes. Writing the book, I’d rewatch the scenes I got a lot of emotional resonance out of, from Columbus and Yi-Yi and Spa Night and Moonlight and Weekend and Still Walking and Girlhood, just over and over again, to get a sense of their rhythms, what moved me about them and why. But the notes app thing is just me finding different ways to write. I used to work jobs where I stood on my feet a ton, so I’m not new to writing on my phone.
You’ve written a lot about food, and food in Houston specifically, in your Catapult column, “Bayou Diaries,” and in The New Yorker. In Lot, food takes on a different role—the characters are often the ones serving and preparing it. Food provides a cultural exchange, but it also manifests a racial divide between who is in the kitchen versus who dines in the restaurant. In “Elgin,” you write, “stepping through the kitchen you cross border after border.” What is the role that food has played in your life? Do you have experience in the restaurant industry?
I’ve cooked for most of my life, but never in a way that I thought I could monetize—it was just something my family and I did for friends and relatives. Then I worked front of house at a chicken shop for a minute, and I mopped floors for a few years. But it was through reading folks like John Birdsall, Tejal Rao, Korsha Wilson, and Danny Chau, and through venues like the Racist Sandwich podcast, that I started thinking about food in a new context, and a queer context, and a potentially comforting context. Reading Chang-Rae Lee’s New Yorker pieces about food and the connections it creates, or doesn’t create, was revelatory—it led to an entirely new way of seeing. I didn’t have a foundation for associating cuisine with memory and its intangibilities before coming across them.
But just as often as food can bring us together, it’s also a reminder of the stratification that exists in our cultural contact zones. There’s a human cost for the gratification that comes with a meal, and it’s usually on the bodies of minorities in the back of the house—and in Houston, especially, on our Latino communities, who are the backbone of the city. Given Houston’s immigrant population, it’s extremely significant that restaurant work can be one of the gigs that you can walk into with relatively minimal interference. But all of that said, Houston’s a global food city, a culinary boon, a town whose rhythms are set by its black and Asian and Latinx residents, and a lot of folks from elsewhere are just starting to catch on.
Lot explores intimacy in many different ways, but especially in relationships between men—platonic and sexual and in the gray area in between, as well as between older male figures and younger ones. Can you talk about these male intimacies?
I’m a little obsessed with the ways men come to terms with one another, or don’t. Especially within that gray area. And I’m deeply interested in the many different forms that mentorship can take, and how certain kinds of experiences and knowledge are passed down. Maybe most significantly in my experience was how to move through the world as a queer person, something I picked up from mentor figures and other folks gravitating through my immediate and peripheral vicinities. It wasn’t—and isn’t—a streamlined learning process at all. There’s no real comparability with how folks predominately in straight—or straight-ish—relationships are socialized. If you fall outside of a palette-cleansing, cis, white, queer narrative, with a certain brand of polished body, then you’re mostly SOL for representation. On one hand, the diversity of experiences you might open yourself up to as a result can be wildly edifying, but they can also could lead you horribly awry. So the range of those journeys fascinates me a ton. I wanted every narrative in Lot to have a queer character or queer component. Insofar as I’m interested in writing fiction, those are the stories I’m most excited to write.
You provide space for characters who don’t often get written, and offer complex narratives for individuals who might otherwise be overlooked, marginalized, or stigmatized, such as undocumented immigrants, sex workers, drug dealers, and those struggling with homelessness, HIV, and/or addiction. Were these elements you always knew you wanted to include, and was there anything you wanted to focus on with your depictions?
I only went in knowing that I wanted to write about the characters I wanted to write about, with whatever conflicts would eventually arise between them. It might sound like bullshit that I didn’t have a master plan regarding the spectrum of their experiences, but I didn’t. All of that was secondary to trying to conjure who they were as people, which is always difficult enough. In my experience, that effort takes care of everything else. But there’s a way of writing about marginalized characters that limits the range, scope, and gaze of their experience to their marginalization, which I was absolutely uninterested in doing. The marginalized don’t think of ourselves incessantly through the lens of our marginalization. Your situation certainly informs your life and the scope of what could be possible. I, for example, can’t donate blood, and I will never be a Gundam pilot or an Olympic figure skater. But you still have a life within that.
But living in this country is really fucking difficult. And oftentimes—if not most of the time—American literary fiction negates the interiority of folks living outside of those dominant narratives, simplifying their existence to the usual dehumanizing talking points. A really unexpected part of watching preliminary commentary on the book has been seeing quips about folks “living on the margins,” or folks who are poor, or HIV positive, as if they were some sort of edgy plot device. The truth is that most folks in the States are literally one missed check away from catastrophe. Most folks here aren’t getting the help that they need. But the larger issue is that America en masse is largely missing from American literary fiction, in lieu of a highly polished, almost exclusively straight, white rendering of the country. And if that’s your default, then the inclusion of any voice or narrative outside of that framework is deemed “on the margins” simply because it doesn’t take place among WASPS or in some Brooklyn brownstone or on someone’s college campus.
Many of the characters in Lot might be identified as gay or queer, but they don’t seem to self-identity or adopt these labels even as they admit to preferring sexual relationships with men. Can you talk about the hesitance to claim sexual identity for these characters?
For some of the characters, they’re in that liminal—and sometimes permanent—space between knowing what they want and being unable to articulate it or allow it to manifest. And others are well aware of their queerness, whatever that looks like, and deeply comfortable with themselves, and they’re just living their lives at this point. I don’t think you need to approach your situation through a critical lens to ask those questions about who you are, or to prod what they might yield and mean for your specific situation. A large of part of writing the narratives was trying to explore some of the many different ways we ask about and attempt to reconcile those questions within ourselves. More often than not, we are the biggest mysteries in our respective lives.
But I also didn’t want to write a coming-out narrative, or what might be thought of as a traditional coming-out narrative, for this particular project. I was mostly interested in the spaces after coming out, and during it, and the reverberations that are made through the rest of your life.
Throughout the stories there are multiple moments that comment both on looking and what is seen. In “Lot,” for example, you write, “It didn’t take long to see that there’s the world you live in, and then there are the constellations around it, and you’ll never know you’re missing them if you don’t even know to look up.” What role does looking play in your life and in your work?
That’s a really great question. It’s especially important in a city as diverse as Houston, because we all occupy the same space and see different things. We only bring ourselves to every situation we find ourselves in, and the scope or limitations of our experiences color what we’ll ultimately find. The idea of looking is especially significant in queer spaces, since it’s very possible to find yourself out of the loop, or entirely in over your head, unless you’re keyed into learned signs. If you know, you know. In that way, you’re constantly engaging in a sort of education. When you’re really observing what’s happening around you, you’ll learn new shit every day.
The recurring narrator has an aversion to touch, often flinching on contact, and at one point another character suggests he uses sex as a coping mechanism, which can be seen in other stories. Sex is often a response to conflict or used as a resource. Is this something that comes from his childhood, or something he learns later when he develops his tough exterior? Why did you choose a sort of emotional isolation for so many characters?
It’s probably a mixture of both for him—the experiences you accumulate are the total sum of yourself. I’m deeply interested in the ways bodies negotiate one another on the page, and how even within the intimacy of sex, there can be a rift. Sometimes, that isolation during intercourse could stem from the concession of navigating someone else’s body, or the concession of allowing them around or into yours. And sometimes, the fucking is joyful, with no concessions made, and the question of why that’s the case for these characters in some instances and not others was a major conflict point to untangle. What’s especially interesting me is how certain acts can be indicative of different levels of intimacy, like, in the recurring narrator’s case, bottoming. Parsing how and why each character negotiates for themselves what they’re comfortable with, and why, was really fun to investigate throughout the writing process.
At the end of “Alief,” there’s a passage in which the neighborhood describes how “we danced, danced, danced, to the tune of that story, their story, his story, our story, because we’d been gifted it, we’d birthed it, we’d pulled it from the ashes.” There is a sense at the start of Lot that the energy of this community will endure regardless of what happens on an individual level, which shifts later in the aftermath of Harvey and the effects of gentrification, though we see the recurring narrator’s inclination to stay even when he seems to be one of few left. Can you speak to this tension between staying and leaving, and that gradual shift from we to I?
Staying in a place, or choosing not to leave, is a choice. At the end of the day, you are the one that lives with the decisions that you make. Or the decisions that are made for you. So at the heart of that we is always, ultimately, an I. But these are communities that have been through everything, that have seen everything. And while many of the folks don’t make it to the other end unscathed—or at all—there can be something joyful about any one of them pulling it off.
Nikki Shaner-Bradford is a writer living in New York. She is currently an intern at The Paris Review.
Last / Next Article