Galaxies in Houston: A Conversation with Bryan Washington

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Reading Lot, the debut fiction collection by Bryan Washington, is an immensely satisfying experience. If you’ve glanced at any Most Anticipated Books list, you’re probably already aware that all of the stories in Lot are set in different areas of Houston and that roughly half of the stories portray a coming-of-age recurring narrator, the youngest son in a family of five struggling to make ends meet.

There’s an acute empathy in each of the stories, tenderness alongside brutality, generosity and humor in tandem with loss and grief. When the narrative calls for it, Washington’s prose sings with vibrancy. His sensibilities are spot on.

Well before the enthusiastic and justified advance praise for this collection, Bryan Washington established himself as formidable new voice. His essays on social, racial, and LGTBQ issues have appeared in the New York Times, BuzzFeed, Vulture, the New Yorker, The Paris Review, the New York Times Magazine, Hazlitt, and Catapult, where he writes a column called “Bayou Diaries.”

I spoke with Washington by phone recently and confessed to gleefully geeking out over his dialogue tags. He talked with me about the complexities of relationships between young men and the work of capturing those dynamic relationships on the page, queer representation and the lifelong venture of coming out, as well as portraying joy in the midst of hardships.

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The Rumpus: How did the collection come together?

Bryan Washington: Originally, I’d wanted to see if I could write a collection that highlighted each of the city’s individual hubs, because I think it’s easier to think of Houston as series of smaller cities in lieu of just one homologous mass. Because there’s just so much sprawl. And each of those areas has their own specific character. So I thought okay, you know, the through line could be Houston and each of these hubs could have their own singular story, and I’ll maybe find a way to bring them together at the end.

It didn’t work, partly I think because that’s just a really ambitious undertaking and partly because a handful of the voices were just so easy to write and so interesting to write, and I wanted to know more about those characters. So it took me a little while going back and forth between trying not to write in those voices and edging away from those stories. But eventually it just sort of clicked that that’s what made the most sense structurally. And once the structure was in place, actually writing the stories was definitely work and a lot more of a challenge, but it became one that felt a lot more natural.

Rumpus: One of the things I love about the book is that the spectrum of the ways the characters react to one another almost always includes a distinct moment of empathy, if not even grace. We see it from the very first story between the narrator and Roberto, and in several of the subsequent stories. Can you talk about how this element emerged? Were you writing toward it, or looking for it, or did it happen organically?

Washington: I think it happened organically. That’s very kind of you to call it grace.

I’m really interested in the relationships between young men and the ways they push and pull against one another. Like what interactions or what stressors bring out certain reactions? Or how they may feel about one another in public, as opposed to in private? Or how much weight a prior history might hold when the conflicts they have come to a head? Like, are they able to sort of keep it together or do they break apart? And why?

So a part of it was attempting to answer some of those questions for each of those characters and the relationships they have with one another. I think another part of it was being committed to showing the different layers that some of those relationships can hold. Because a relationship can take many different forms and often times it takes those forms simultaneously.

It’s a short story so there’s not too much room to get into the multitudes that any single relationship can have. But attempting to answer those questions was interesting to me, and in the midst of trying to answer them, more questions were formed. That interplay between posing a question about how two characters are relating to one another and then coming up with an answer that leads to another question, that leads to another answer that leads to another question—that’s kind of like what any relationship is, right? Or any organic or dynamic relationship. Just trying to put that dynamism between those characters on the page in those particular scenarios. And also figuring out which scenarios would accentuate that dynamism.

Rumpus: At the other end of the spectrum—perhaps as a foil to these rich and empathetic, supportive relationships—is Javi, the recurring narrator’s older brother. He’s quite often cruel to the narrator. How do you feel about Javi?

Washington: Well, I mean he’s definitely an asshole. [Laughs] Those particular stories are through the recurring narrator’s perspective. They’re filtered through his eyes and what he’s seeing, and what he sees is a brother who is not very brotherly, is not very hospitable to him and where he is coming from. And then simultaneously, it is his brother. It is his family.

So, while Javi’s actions through the recurring narrator’s eyes are pretty reprehensible and—in so far as we could say anything objectively—we could probably objectively say that he does some pretty heinous shit, it was also important to me to have some other aspects of his character show through. Like the moment that they share in the final story where they’re just talking. Which isn’t to say that those are positive moments or that they’re heartrending moments or anything like that but just to show that he may not be a good guy but he isn’t necessarily bad all of the time.

Javi’s through line was what I hoped was one of the subtler through lines between each of the stories. I wanted him to grow without straying away from how the recurring narrator may have seen him.

Rumpus: Some of the early talk about the book mentions that the recurring narrator is figuring out his sexual identity and dealing with potentially being attracted to men. But it seems apparent to me that he knows full well who he’s attracted to, and that what he’s grappling with is how his family is going to react. Do I have that right?

Washington: Yes. I didn’t want to write a coming out narrative. I didn’t want it to be a struggle of the recurring narrator or any of the characters in the book, having to come to terms with the fact that they were queer—like realizing that they were queer. The recurring narrator is well aware, by at least the end of the first story, of who he is. But you know, coming out to yourself is one thing. Coming out to everyone around you—your friends, your family, the community that you live in, the revolutions of everyday life in the places that you go—that’s a lifelong venture, right. It’s just something that does not end.

So, any sort of internalized issues with his gayness that he has are sort of thinking through how does this affect his relationship with Javi? How does this affect his relationship with his mother? How does this affect their future? The moments after coming out are what interested me more in this particular book.

Rumpus: You’ve got an amazing gift for a succinct characterization. For example, in “610 North, 610 West” there is the casual mention of the father having drowned the family dog because the kids never walked it. Powerful lines like this appear in every story. Does this type of detail come to you on a first pass?

Washington: Thank you for saying that. I feel like I have a hard time giving enough information sometimes. So like on a first pass I’ll have that detail and that’s it, that’s the relationship, that’s what you get. It’s something my editor and my agent have been super helpful about making me more conscious of. I’ve been writing other stuff since Lot and now my issue is overwriting—giving too many details, which, maybe I shouldn’t even call it an issue.

Rumpus: You probably know that almost ubiquitous, beautiful quote by Toni Morrison: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Would you say you’ve written that book for yourself with Lot?

Washington: You know, that was the sort of mantra that I went into with each of those stories.

I would say that the stories, as I see them, had a few different forms. The first was the individual story. Let’s take “Lockwood” for example. There is “Lockwood” as I wrote it and perceived it as a stand-alone. And then there is “Lockwood” as I wrote it and perceived it in my first pass iteration of the book, before I sent it to my editor and we worked on it. And then there is “Lockwood” with the context of my editor’s insight, my agent’s insight—how that story exists in its current iteration. The way that I view the book and the way that I viewed these stories prior to publication has shifted dramatically, and I don’t think for better or worse. It’s just my understanding of them is very different.

It’s a really interesting quote because it’s a sort of thing that you hear and you think, Oh yeah, like why else write a story? But actually, you know, writing with that intentionality of “writing the story that you want to see in the world,” and working with that in mind consistently can be a completely different matter—especially when the story that you want to see in the world strays a little bit or significantly from the prior models of the story that are out there, or what has been received warmly, or whatever.

So whenever I did have an issue or I fell into a hole when I was writing these stories, I just kept coming back to that idea of, Okay, what kind of story do you want to see out there? And then did my best to write that story.

Rumpus: In a way, what you want to see in the world changes over time.

Washington: Yeah, absolutely.

Rumpus: Just as a draft is evolving, your sensibilities about the content are shifting.

Washington: Yeah, totally, because you read more, you live more.

Rumpus: Last May, you had a beautiful essay in Hazlitt called “Slow Pan” about queer representation in American films. In it the speaker references growing up secretly reading “some Baldwin and some Foster and the Kushner play and the Monette autobiography.” I find myself imagining a future in which kids will add the name Washington to that list. Do you think about your audiences and potential future audiences as you’re writing? Or is that just too much?

Washington: I think it’s way too much. [Laughs] I think it’s hard enough just to write. Like I think that’s a battle in and of itself. But what I will say is that, first and foremost, I write the story that I want to read. And I write the story that I think my friends would enjoy, or that they would derive feeling from.

I can’t say that I have thought, or that I think about posterity in that way. You just do the best work you can—work that excites you—while you can. But one thing that I will say, like, the first New Yorker story that I read was Justin Torres’s, called “Reverting to a Wild State.” It was his very first New Yorker story. And it was the first, from what I understand—and I could be wrong about this—it was the first overtly queer story in the New Yorker in a very long time. And I came across that story with no prior knowledge of what a New Yorker story was or could be. I didn’t have a lot of the sort of expectations that I think that you bring to the idea of what can be esteemed by the academy as far as American literary fiction is concerned. And here was this story that was fractured. It was not chronological, and the reader had to do a lot of work in order to come to terms with an understanding of what the narrative was. What the narrative presented on the page and what the reader took away from it could have been two completely different things, and that was very much the author’s intention. My conception of what a story could or couldn’t be was dramatically impacted by having come across it when I did.

So while I don’t think about what resonance or what sort half-life the work that I’m doing will have, I do know that it’s important for queer kids to see themselves in the narratives that are being written. I’m not by any means the first person to say that but I think that it will always be worth repeating. It’s important for them to see queer authors and particularly queer authors of color. It’s important to see yourself telling those stories and engaging in those stories, and in a multitude of different kinds of stories. It’s important to see, you know, queer rom-com, also a queer tragedy, and also an affirming queer story. It’s important to have those tiny universes of the ways in which you can see yourself on the page. That can do a lot of work, because it certainly did for me.

Rumpus: And in Lot, in addition to queer representation, I think every story has immigrants. It’s wonderful to see, especially because the book is so accessible for young readers.

Washington: Houston is a really interesting city to write about because it is so diverse. I mean, I would hope that people know that. It’s a fact that’s out there, but it’s one thing to see the numbers on the page, and another to come down here and live in that space.

It’d be very difficult for me to conceive of a monocultural story set in Houston. It’s fiction, so do whatever you want, but is it the story that I want to read? Or that I want to write about Houston? No. So it was important to me to have that representation of folks from different ethnicities or from different communities that were the first ones in the country, and also to have folks that were three generations down, living in and interacting with one another.

I was not the biggest reader, to say the least, in high school and the beginning of undergrad, but when I did read, I sought queer characters. So with Lot in particular, it was important to me to have at least a queer character, or a queer component, in every single story. And I’m pretty sure that I did that. I went out of my way to do that. Because again I think it came back to that idea of having that presence in those stories.

As far as like the language goes, it was very, very important to me that the language have an ease of reading. Each story’s orality was something I’d been especially conscious of. I’m most interested in narratives that are able to juggle multiples themes, multiple ideas, multiple conversations in a vernacular that’s accessible, that someone can just pick up and know what’s going on. I didn’t want any of the pieces to be buried under a sort of inscrutable jargon. That really wasn’t what I was here for.

Rumpus: Optimism runs through the book. It’s never sentimental or glossy but there’s something genuinely uplifting about it. Did that come as a surprise to you during the writing?

Washington: That’s a really interesting question. I guess one thing I’ll say before I answer that, is that I recently did the audiobook for about half of the stories—all the recurring narrator stories. And I was a little bit surprised by how much the narrator went through. Like, when I was reading the stories, reading them in that voice, there were few points where I was like, “Oh shit.” [Laughs] And the audio engineer and I would look at each other every now and again like, “Oh no, there’s a lot that’s happening to this guy.” And yet, simultaneously, he gets through it and he puts his head down and he keeps moving forward. So when I read those stories, I found myself pretty satisfied in that regard.

What I did not want to write about are communities that are systematically marginalized and harp on their marginalization. In a lot of the literary fiction that I’ve read, when you talk about folks that are coming from heavily marginalized communities or communities that are hit by significant economic hardships, those hardships are both the crux and the conflict of the story with very little variation. When the fact is that folks are living their lives, regardless: they go out to eat together, they have sex with one another, they laugh, and there’s a lot of shit that they have to deal with, but they’re still living their lives and their stories contain tiny galaxies.

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Photograph of Bryan Washington © David Gracia.


Ruth LeFaive lives in Los Angeles where she is working on a collection of linked short stories. Her writing has appeared in Best Small Fictions 2018, Little Fiction, The Offing, and elsewhere. More from this author →