Bryan Washington’s debut collection is an ode to his native Houston and a meditation on what it was like to grow up queer and black in such a white, conservative state. His stories address issues of masculinity, race, socioeconomic status, and sexuality. Each story is set in a specific part of the sprawling city, which, over the course of the book, takes on a life of its own, becoming something of a character.
Prior to publishing Lot, Washington racked up a series of serious bylines ranging from traditional heavyweights like The New York Times, The Paris Review, and The New Yorker to new media outlets like Buzzfeed and Catapult. In every Washington piece there is a sense of tenderness, fortitude, and unguarded honesty.
I spoke with Washington about how his fiction developed over the years and what makes Houston such a character both in his collection Lot as well as in real life.
The Millions: I think it’s easy for people to say this book must be about your life. How often have you been asked about that? I’m assuming it’s not.
Bryan Washington: In this case, the fiction is fiction. I think if you didn’t ask about it, you’d only be the second person to not ask.
TM: I wanted to bring up the fact that these assumptions are always directed toward minorities or women. Never white male authors.
BW: If you’re a person of color or a writer for a marginalized community, it’s definitely a question you’re probably going to come across. There’s so few narratives in American literary fiction by marginalized writers that are actually given high visibility. The narrative you’re putting into the world is the narrative because there aren’t others out there. It’s as if this is the book by a minority queer writer. It’s a very weird tendency.
TM: A book could be complete fiction and in no way based on your life, but people will still want to shoehorn your reality into a novel.
BW: It’s irrespective of how far the author is pushing the bounds of fiction. I think a lot of it is due to the fascination that you are a writer from a marginalized community and there aren’t that many of you so it must be true. We don’t see a lot of y’all writing fiction. A lot of people are just mystified by minorities writing fiction and it not being based on their lives.
TM: How does your Houston differ from the Houston in Lot?
BW: I think mine is a lot calmer. It’s a little less volatile. What’s interesting about the city is there are so many different iterations of it. Your iteration of it is based on how much access you have and what boundaries you find yourself negotiating.
My Houston is pretty diverse because I love living in a city that has so many multitudes. If you want to live in a monocultural Houston, you have that option. I would think that would be pretty difficult. It’s something you would have to go out of your way to do here because there are so many different people from different places.
I was trying to put a few very specific instances of Houston on the page, and the big thing that I was trying to avoid was attempting to pass the stories in Lot off as a comprehensive or definitive Houston because I don’t think that exists.
TM: I just googled “Houston neighborhoods” and, like Phoenix where I live, it seems pretty sprawling with very specific pockets that are different worlds.
BW: I was talking to a friend about this the other day. I think one of the most analogous cities in the States is Los Angeles. You have so much sprawl and the city is defined by a series of hubs. While each of those hubs has very definite characteristics, it’s the combination of them and the fact that they all exist in the same city defines the city itself. The fact that all of these different communities exist in the same place and manage to work with one another.
TM: When did writing seep into your life?
BW: I was 100 percent not a writer. I was very much not doing that. I didn’t really start until undergrad. I studied with Mat Johnson and it helped me with the conception of what a writer could look like, what the process of writing looked like. I definitely started late. Or I should say, I didn’t start early.
TM: What were you exploring when you started writing?
BW: Well, the first course I took was just a general creative writing course. I was lucky that the person I studied with was very engaging and she took her students very seriously. The next class I took was a creative non-fiction course which was great to see the different ways you could mold the narrative.
TM: When did you start working on the stories that made their way into Lot?
BW: It would have been three years ago. Immediately after undergrad. I really seriously started thinking of the stories as a long-term project when I started my MFA at the University of New Orleans.
TM: New Orleans was the first time you really lived outside Houston then?
BW: I sort of had a foot in the door and a foot out. I was in New Orleans for about half the week and Houston the other half. New Orleans was the first time I was based outside of Houston.
TM: What made you write exclusively about Houston in these stories?
BW: When I started writing the first handful of stories, I wasn’t so clued into the idea that these would be so Houston-centric. It was through editing and writing the rest of the collection that I began to see the city itself was a character and how the stories were molded by each of the character’s perceptions of the city.
It was a little over halfway of the entirety of the project that I realized what it was. I went back and honed and amplified the different parts of the city that I wanted to stick out so that it was deeply apparent that the city was something to pay attention to. The locality was something that was always interesting to me. Everyone’s experience of a city is different. It’s not a singular experience that everyone is going to share. I think attaching a narrative to a place allows it to have a mythical quality. Certain places like Times Square or Hollywood Boulevard mean something because we attach a narrative to it. It’s always been interesting to me: what happens when a place doesn’t have a narrative to it and it is nondescript? What happens when you attach meaning to it?
TM: It’s interesting because even here in Phoenix, people can live in neighboring hubs and not really know the truth of the other one.
BW: I think Houston is very much the same. A lot of people who write about Houston talk about how we really don’t have zoning laws. We have high-rises next to strip malls next to areas that have been really hit hard by a generation of neglect to the city’s infrastructure. You very much hear the motif that this area is fine, but two blocks down it’s a really rough area. In reality, it’s just not as glossy.
Gentrification is making a thorough impasse through a lot of Houston’s hubs inside the city’s inner loop. It’s been interesting, but also pretty terrifying to watch how the street a local wouldn’t spend so much time on becomes the street with an ice cream shop or with the Warby Parker with the funky diner. The city is taking a number of terms.
TM: I don’t know much about Houston. What have you found is the biggest misconception of Houston from people outside of the city?
BW: I think the city itself is a giant misconception. The sense that I get when I talk to friends who don’t live in Texas or those who live abroad is the immediate association with whatever their conception of Texas would be. A grandiose white conservatism where everyone is riding horses with a six-shooter on their hip. There are certainly parts of Houston that are like that because we are a city in the Deep South. However, Houston’s cosmopolitan and a very global city. We have a very robust art scene and have for years, and when people come to visit they want to know why nobody is talking about it. We are. The same with our culinary scene. We are a global food city. I think the idea of the city for non-locals is confusing because it is confusing. But that is what makes it so fascinating.