In one of the stories in Bryan Washington’s debut collection Lot, two men share a meal then go upstairs to have sex. After every public event where he has read that story, Washington says that someone has come up to him afterwards to tell him it’s the first time they’ve even considered that two men of colour might have sex with each other.
“And that’s why I read that particular section,” he says. “Because for that moment you have to – as a reader or as a listener or as an observer in that audience – give agency and give a sense of humanity to two young men from communities you may or may not think of or see on a daily basis, let alone think of as engaging in intimate acts with one another.”
It could be easy to read Lot as a reflection of life in Trump’s America, where questions of identity are increasingly urgent. But while “race will always be a factor living in the States”, Washington says the collection circles around the issue of race so tightly because of his interest in the idea of community – “how those communities interact with one another, how they don’t, why they don’t or why they do. And I don’t know that you can do that without addressing race.”
About half of the stories in Lot are told by a young, gay man who embodies Houston’s remarkable diversity – “too dark for the blancos, too Latin for the blacks” – and works at the hardscrabble end of the restaurant business. He sweeps under the fryers, washes dishes and hooks up with men, ranging from the white guy learning Spanish so he can get a promotion, to the Guatemalan with no papers whose family came to the US because his sister was sick. The other stories assemble a cast of drug dealers, male prostitutes and fast-food servers, ranging through districts from Shepherd to Alief, and all offering a portrait of life at the sharp end of a city undergoing rapid change.
Born in Kentucky in 1993, Washington has lived in Houston since his family moved to the city in the mid-1990s. He began writing Lot in 2016 with an ambition to chart the city’s geography, “just so I could establish I was someone who knew what was happening in the city”. There are no zoning laws in Houston, which means people from many walks of life can be found living side by side, “so you get a lot of different experiences that are parallel or perpendicular to yours”.
The fast pace of change in Houston lends Lot a bittersweet air; Washington says many of the places so vividly brought to life in his stories, depicted on the cusp of gentrification, have been irrevocably changed in reality, making his stories “time capsules for some of these particular neighbourhoods”.
While writing, Washington realised Houston is so diverse, so various, “that there is no singular experience – there’s no story I could have written that would have encapsulated what it meant or what it could mean to live in the city. And I don’t think there’s any author who’s going to do that, just because there’s such a multiplicity of experiences in this particular city.”
He insists on these specifics again and again, framing his answers with a recognition of his own “particular experience”, his own “point in time” – a courtesy he argues is rarely extended to marginalised characters in contemporary American literary fiction, where if a character is poor, that often becomes “the defining characteristic of their being”.
“I don’t come from money, I don’t know what that’s like,” he says. “But I do know there is a multiplicity of experiences to be had, irrespective of your economic stratum at any one point in time.” Many authors either “haven’t met those people and that’s very clear in their writing,” he adds, “or they have met those people and they simply don’t view them as human – which I think is another side of the same coin.”
Homophobia is a personal experience Washington was keen to depict. He wasn’t interested in writing a collection where a character comes out and then everything’s great “because that’s not reality. You’re constantly coming out, you’re constantly negotiating the question of how much of yourself to reveal in any given place or time. Each character negotiates that question and those aspects in different ways. A goal of mine was to show a handful of different experiences without trying to state or subject them as being ‘the’ experience, because that doesn’t exist. There are as many of those as there are people.”
Fiction can open a window into other lives, but Washington says that’s not enough for some of the communities he writes about – there is still “practical work that needs to be done” to address issues such as access to healthy food. “It’s one thing for someone to read Lot and to acknowledge that there are food deserts, let’s say, in certain neighbourhoods that are depicted throughout the collection – to see that and to acknowledge that, to accept it and to talk about it with their friends. But if they aren’t doing the work or doing what they can to mitigate the presence of those food deserts, then what is it doing?”
While his collection may be rooted in reality, Washington is suspicious of questions surrounding his own connection with the people and the places that fill his work. “There’s a way in which for writers of colour and specifically queer writers of colour their work is looked to as a sort of ethnological guide in lieu of a work of fiction,” he says.
But for Washington, to read Lot merely as a report on other lives is to miss the point of writing stories: the joy of making things up. “Having the chance to try and build another world and to occupy it, even if only for a little while, that’s a gift. It’s a challenge to become a photographer of whatever world it is that you’re attempting to recreate, irrespective of whether it’s one that you’ve lived in or maybe one that you’re not so intimate with. But it’s fun. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t do it.”
• Lot by Bryan Washington is published by Atlantic (RRP £12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.
Source: The Guardian