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Bryan Washington: “A Place Is What It Is Because of Its People”

Driving through Texas reveals many different communities. Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio are all radically different from one another, but still hold a distinct Texas flavor. And then you come to Houston, filled with neighborhoods and cultures and people unlike anywhere else in Texas.

It wasn’t until I read Bryan Washington’s debut story collection Lot that I found anything that came close to capturing the spirit and movement of Houston and its people. Lot chronicles a young woman, a ragtag baseball team, a group of young hustlers, hurricane survivors, and a recurring family who must deal with an absent father, great loss, and sexual discoveries.

I devoured the stories in this collection, mourning and celebrating with every character along the way. I was honored to speak with the author, Bryan Washington, about his time in Houston, the role place has on people, and how readers receive stories.

Sara Cutaia

Your stories are rich with an authenticity that can only come from a true native of Houston. But even more than that, it feels like there has been extensive research – or at least solid education – that went in to each story. Did you do any research for these stories, or was it just something you knew from living in the city?

Bryan Washington

It means a lot to hear that, Sara. A handful of the stories required pretty extensive research, but most of them were pretty casual. Since they’re so particular — like, each narrator’s experience only seeks to be singular, and integral to their perspective — I wasn’t super-invested in making sure there was a comprehensive truth or anything like that. But I talked to a lot of folks for “Waugh,” which was part of why that one took so long to write. And “Bayou” required the least amount of prior preparation, but it was easily the most demanding story to pull off structurally and thematically.

Sara Cutaia

This book is full of coming of age in a lot of different ways, and the heart of it is identity, the same way that Houston has its own identity that people are always trying to define. How did your own experience of finding your identity (or even finding the identity of Houston) inform any of the characters or stories in the book?

Bryan Washington

Some are closer to home than others, but I think the question of what makes a family, how we create community (or resist that impulse), and what a home looks like permeates just about every story. Or at least that was the intent. I’m constantly reevaluating my relationship to Houston, but the one constant is that I’m comfortable here, and comfortable in its multiplicities, and it feels like home, and that’s hard to find anywhere.

Sara Cutaia

One thread I found to be compelling through the stories was this eternal kernel of empathy. Sometimes it felt like Houston itself was exuding empathy. What role do you think a place and its people play with each other in this way?

Bryan Washington

That’s really generous of you! I think a place is only what it is because of its people. And the people in this city are, by and large, generous and open to difference. There’s an overarching sentiment of everyone being in this thing together, across class-lines and ethnicities and numerous cultural communities, so if that shows in the stories then I’m glad, because that’s been my experience here.

Sara Cutaia

One of my favorite stories in Lot is “Peggy Park.” It sings with the “we” narration, and I found the aspect of sport to be fully alive on the page. Did you consider adding more sports to the book, or was that something you avoided? Because it seems like football, baseball, and even soccer are sports that really grip the people of Houston.  

Bryan Washington

I’d thought about it for about five seconds, but the impulse never really took hold. Partly because there were other narratives I was interested in exploring, and partly because sports have such a large stake in the national consciousness’s view of Texas that it felt like one story would be enough.

But this is definitely a sports-centric city. There are the ones you’d expect, but cricket, rugby, volleyball, and badminton have their respective followings. And yeah, soccer’s massive here between the Dynamo and all of the local leagues going on.

Sara Cutaia

Half of these stories follow one boy and his family as he grows up and builds and breaks relationships. Why did you decide to put these stories peppered throughout the book in this way, rather than a novel, or in one longer story? What made you keep coming back to the family in this way?

Bryan Washington

That recurring narrator’s voice was the impetus for beginning the project, full-stop, but I knew offhand that I wanted to tell other stories about the city. The story cycle form was flexible enough for me to dip in and out of his vantage point (Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street, Brian Ascalon Roley’s American Son, Jamaica Kincaid’s At the Bottom of the River, and Ha Jin’s A Good Fall were really helpful on that front), and seeing how each narrative matched with its neighbors — or didn’t — became a little like a puzzle. Once my editor (who is a genius) helped me catch the rhythm, it was fun to see how everything fit together.

Sara Cutaia

I noticed a lot of these stories have appeared in other journals in different forms over the years. As you worked on revisions, and the manuscript as a whole, did the politics of Texas – and American in general – make you rethink certain aspects of these stories, such as the immigrants and the neighborhoods and the ways of life?

Bryan Washington

That’s really astute: in my lifetime, Texas’s larger politics, have been at odds with the rhythms of Harris County. There’s this big red (white cis-male) stamp on the state, from a national vantage point, that just hasn’t been my specific experience in the city. But while national politics have taken a turn for the more overtly xenophobic, and more overtly racist and homophobic behaviors for some folks (because some of us have been dealing with that since we’ve been alive), my experience in Houston has been largely unchanged over the past three or four years. That’s exacerbated what a gift it is to live in a city that’s so diverse and giving of itself, whose residents don’t treat it like a big deal at all.

But I generally think of the book, as most readers will receive it, in four iterations: there are the stories as I conceived them autonomously, individually; and then there are the stories as they existed in the context of their respective lit mags and publications; and then there are the stories after my agent and I did the work of piecing them together; and then there are the stories after my editor and I did the work of making each singular narrative into a book; and then there’s the book as it’ll exist to a reader. I feel differently about every version of those lives, but I could only control a handful of them. The rest are on their own.  

Sara Cutaia

From your online presence, it’s clear that you’re a prolific writer. Has your nonfiction writing helped to inform your fiction writing?

Bryan Washington

Totally. Working with Nicole Chung, Silvia Killingsworth, Dan Piepenbring, and Rachel Sanders was massively, massively influential to my writing process on the whole. They were whole educations. And those essays taught me about structure, balancing emotional payoff with context, and — most importantly, I think — not wasting a reader’s time. So I’m very grateful.

Sara Cutaia

Once a book is in the hands of a reader, their interpretation and the message they take from it is out of your control. But what do you hope readers take from Lot?

Bryan Washington

Honestly, I just hope they’re more open to more stories from and about Houston. Maybe they’ll pass through the city if they can find the time.

FICTION – SHORT STORIES
Lot
By Bryan Washington
Riverhead Books
Published March 19, 2019

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