Q&A: Bryan Washington on how Houston is a main character in his debut story collection, ‘Lot’
In “Elgin,” the final short story in Bryan Washington’s debut collection, “Lot,” a young man reflects on Houston’s East End, the neighborhood he’s called home his whole life. “Between the chop shops and busted laundromats and abuelas like scarecrows on every corner, there’s no reason to stick around unless you’re a kid,” he thinks.
But the recurring narrator, a biracial gay man who goes unnamed through most of the book, sticks around anyway. Home is home, for better or for worse, and that particular slice of Houston is his.
The sprawling Texas city is essentially the main character of “Lot” — the stories take place in various neighborhoods in Space City. Washington, 25, is a Kentucky native who grew up in Texas and was educated at the University of Houston and the University of New Orleans.
Washington spoke to The Times via telephone about his book, Houston and gentrification. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
How old were you when you started writing fiction? Was that something you picked up in college, or have you been doing it for a while?
I picked it up in university. I guess it would be the end of the first or the beginning of the second year of undergrad. It wasn’t really something that I had a habit of doing, but I took a nonfiction class with Mat Johnson. It meant a lot. He’s just such a cool guy, and I wanted to take more classes with him, so I eventually took a fiction class with him.
Was it difficult structuring the book? Or did it come pretty easily to you?
Originally, when I was plotting the book, I thought I wanted to have a collection of stories highlighting each of Houston’s hubs. I thought that just made sense as a through line. In each story, the setting would be a character in and of itself, and each of those settings would be a particular part of the city, and the through line would be the city of Houston. With the recurring narrator, once I’d written a few stories with his voice, the collection started to feel more like a collection than just a series of random standalone stories.
There’s a lot of violence and harshness in the book. Did you find it emotionally hard to write that, or was it more of a cathartic thing for you?
I don’t know that I would call it cathartic. There were some stories that were difficult to condense the weight that I needed for certain scenes and put those on the page.
As I was writing, I was thinking of the events that took place for each character from their perspective, and while for some readers the violence might be deemed abrasive or it might be deemed out of the norm, for other readers that just might be a fact of life, you know? So as I was trying to write it and thinking through it from the perspective of each of those individual characters, some of them may face traumatic incidents, or they may face structural violence put upon them by the city or the state or whatever. For some it might be a transformative, highly traumatic experience, and for others it’s just a fact of life and something they have to negotiate and work around. Volleying between those two spaces was tricky, but while I was actually writing it, I was trying to have each voice be so singular that the reader could approach each of those issues on each character’s own terms.
The main character, the narrator of many of the stories, has such a distinct voice. How did he come to you?
The first two stories that I wrote were “Lockwood” and “Navigation.” I work usually with dialogue first; I usually start with a conversation of some sort or another, because just by merit of one person talking with another, there is some sort of tension or conflict, irrespective of whether they’re agreeing on something or whether they’re disagreeing on something. Because the question becomes “why?” What are they talking about? And I was really preoccupied with the recurring narrator’s concerns.
You don’t reveal the name of the narrator until the final pages of the book. Was there a reason you decided to have him remain nameless for most of the book and have that big reveal at the end?
I would say it was twofold. The first reason was that a friend and mentor was reading over the manuscript, and she made the suggestion that we reveal the name at the very end. It was one of those things that sounded kind of wild, but I wanted to try and see how it worked. And it ended up fitting really cleanly and nicely, given that I think one of the book’s preoccupations, or one of the concerns that I was trying to imbue throughout the text, was this idea of self-realization: how one comes to terms with oneself outside of the context of their family, or outside of the context of their city, or outside of the context of their immediate surroundings. Who are you when you don’t have anyone telling you who you should be? So for the narrator to finally have his name on the page in the last story when things seem to be settling into some sort of coherence made structural sense in the end.
Who are you when you don’t have anyone telling you who you should be?
“Lot” is the name of a story in the book, as well as the title of the collection itself. How did you settle on that name for the collection?
That particular story felt like the crux of the recurring narrator’s situation. I have had a few folks that have talked to me about the story, and they immediately point towards the biblical connotations behind the name Lot. And I totally can’t take credit for having that idea. But, really, that story felt like the heart of the narrative and also this idea of someone being given a lot in life, because for the great majority of people, we don’t really have any larger control over the circumstances that you find yourself in, or the circumstances that you’re born in. But what you can control, or what most people can control, is how you maneuver within those.
Your book concentrates a lot on neighborhoods and real estate, and Houston is kind of unique in that it doesn’t really have zoning, and it’s a really sprawling city. Was it difficult for you to evoke the geography of Houston to readers who maybe have never been there before?
It was initially difficult, because I think that with the initial stories and in my initial drafting, I was trying to approach the city’s geography from a very critical apparatus and from a very analytical, comprehensive apparatus. And at some point it just clicked. And I came to the conclusion that your experience of the city, of any city, is very particular, right?
So once I started attempting to give each character a very singular experience of their negotiation of their respective hubs, or their respective movements and constellations throughout the city, then there was less pressure to get this right, to have this book about Houston be comprehensive and be correct in every aspect of Houston. Because there’s really never going to be a singular experience for Houston or any city, but particularly Houston because it’s just so diverse. You’ve got the sprawl and there’s so many different ways to live here.
Especially toward the end, “Lot” deals with gentrification in Houston. You wrote in an essay about the Third Ward for the Awl, “Those who historically didn’t have a place to call their own could find themselves displaced once again.” In the three years since you wrote that, have you become more or less hopeful about the future of the Third Ward and other neighborhoods that are undergoing some degree of gentrification?
I’m very hopeful. I don’t know that I’m the most optimistic person, but I’m very hopeful about Houston, because there’s just so much possibility here. And I think that what’s been really fascinating over the past few years, by merit of the Astros’ success, by merit of the attention given to the city immediately after Harvey, by merit of the attention that’s been given to the city as being an international food hub.
People are trying to figure out how to define the city, or how to give it a cohesive narrative, and no one really seems to be able to agree on any one thing. And I think that that’s really lovely. That you have a place that is so vibrant and so messy, and yet everyone seems to be able to do what they want to do and get along with one another, irrespective of where they’re coming from, because you have people here from all over the world. The fact that they’re able to figure it out here, I think, is cause for optimism.
In a piece for Catapult, you wrote about being asked what Houston means to you, and the answer you came up with was “gratitude.” What did you mean by gratitude being the meaning of Houston for you?
I think that my specific experience in the city has been one in which I’ve felt welcome, and I’ve felt welcomed by people who come from a plethora of different cultures. People who celebrate, or don’t celebrate, a plethora of different religions. People who speak any number of languages. People who view the world any number of different ways. And from my specific experience, I can’t help but feel thankful to live in a city where all of that can be in one place, you know?
The act of sharing a cuisine with someone is an act of love.
And you can also keep a very low overhead in Houston, so it’s a very livable city, but it’s also a very international one. I think the people here are generally pretty laid-back. I think they’re generally very open to difference or people who are coming from different perspectives on life, different ways of life, different ways of viewing the world. I feel very lucky to live here at this point in time.
You wrote this great piece recently for the New Yorker about cooking Korean tofu stew. And in the book, the recurring narrator works in a series of restaurants and there’s a lot of writing about food. How important do you think food is to Houston and to your book?
I think it’s integral to the city, and it was a slow realization for me while writing the book, the importance that food would hold. As I was writing it, you know, the descriptions of food, the fact that people treat eating as a communal experience. There’s a scene at the very end in “Elgin” where two people are just sharing a meal, and yet as I was writing it, I was trying for that to be one of the heaviest scenes in the text. I mean, just the idea that in Houston, you have so many different options as far as what to eat, cuisines from all over the world. That is as close as a lot of folks come to sort of broaching the scope of the city’s diversity. Like, the ability that you have to have Nigerian cuisine and Vietnamese cuisine and Filipino cuisine and cuisines of the American South, all in the same strip mall, let’s say. And that’s an illustration of what the city can mean.
The act of sharing a cuisine with someone is an act of love. You’re showing someone how you live and where you’re coming from, and there’s something very intimate about having someone cook something for you and then you take it and then you eat, you know? You’re sharing a very soft part of yourself, and someone is accepting you for it.
Schaub is a writer in Texas.
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