The Passion of Bryan Washington: On Writing and Inspiration
Author: Nadia Awad
May 21, 2019
I remember first coming across Bryan Washington’s work on the New Yorker podcast “The Writer’s Voice,” in which writers read aloud their story that appears in that week’s issue of the magazine. The story he was about to read was titled “Waugh,” and hilariously, I assumed it somehow referenced the author of Brideshead Revisited. But the “Waugh” I was about to hear couldn’t be any further away from the world of Evelyn Waugh. Bryan Washington’s “Waugh,” a portrait of gay sex workers of color, is neither unsentimental nor tragic and is devoid of cheap gestures to Victorian morality. It is also unapologetically queer, and I loved it.
“Waugh” is included in Lot, Washington’s debut collection of short stories, which was published in March by Riverhead Books. All of the interconnected stories in Lot take place in Washington’s home city of Houston, which becomes almost a character itself in the collection rather than just the setting. Recently, he agreed to answer my nerdiest questions about his writing and Houston via email for this interview, which has been edited for clarity.
I first came across your work on The New Yorker’s podcast. You were reading “Waugh.” I remember thinking that this was the first story I’d heard on this platform that focuses on the inner worlds of queer sex workers of color, as well as HIV, stigma, homelessness. Representation can be a really fraught endeavor for many writers. Your characters reminded me of folks I’d met in my life, particularly in the South. What led you to write about this particular world? How did you prepare to write about the lives of folks of color who trade sex as well as folks living with HIV?
Well, I’m only interested in writing fiction about the people and places I’m interested in writing about. And the communities I care about are generally and specifically queer folks of color. So they’re who populate my stories. Writing can be a pretty shitty endeavor on the whole, with a very low financial ceiling, and not very many tangible benefits at all; and, in our current climate, the collective attention span of a readership isn’t long enough, I don’t think, to spend two or however many years ruminating over a narrative that you don’t believe in. So if a character or community doesn’t bring you joy in the writing process, then why spend the time doing that? Why sit down to write about people and places you’re not interested in? That’s just not worth it to me. You could be doing literally anything else.
But as far as preparation goes, I’ve got friends and loved ones in those communities. I spend loads of time with folks in those communities. The next book is also very much concerned with queer folks and poz folks just living their lives and dealing with stigma and negotiating their respective internal and external boundaries. So while I’m a firm believer that fiction is a space where a creative should do whatever they’d like to do, to the best of their abilities, I am a firmer believer in giving characters and settings the benefit of the doubt and respect and internal worlds. And seeking to do the former doesn’t negate your having to do the work of the latter. And it is work.
A running theme in this press cycle has been interviewers and whoever else looking to box up the characters as “on the margins of society,” and so on, when, in reality, that’s not the case at all. Not even a little bit. They’re just not familiar to you because we don’t see them in stories, or give them the benefit of the doubt, as often as we should. Working towards that benefit of the doubt to the fullest extent is always difficult enough (as it should be, because people contain multitudes). But those are the only characters I’m interested in reading about. And the only stories I’m interesting in working towards. And–more importantly, honestly–they’re the only ones I’m interested in reading.
One of the things I loved best about “Waugh” was the way Emil’s personal history of violence as an immigrant, or refugee, really, folded into the discussion on Rod’s decision to not disclose his HIV status. There is a sense that displacement, on even the smallest scale, is a central feature of the lives of everyone in this story. Was that your intention here?
Yeah, it’s definitely something I was reaching for. You only know what you know, and our respective struggles might seem insignificant–or, conversely, insurmountable–to the folks around us, even the ones we think we know best and hold dear, depending on where they’re coming from themselves. We’ve all got our issues. And, maybe even more so than exacerbating that displacement, I’m deeply interested in how communities manage to come together, or don’t, despite the differences between them.
I visited Houston years ago and loved it. I remember meeting someone who told me “Houston’s accent” is disappearing with gentrification. I don’t really know what he meant by that, but it stayed with me. Tell me about your thinking on accents, vernacular, and voice, and how that affects how you tell Houston’s stories.
That’s really interesting–there’s definitely a fairly distinct Houston accent among black folks who’ve grown up in the city (for context, Beyoncé’s is pretty prominent), but one of the most appealing things to me about living here is the lack of an accent. I don’t even know what a unifying Houston accent–that crosses communities and cultures and ethnicities–would sound like. There are just so many different languages being spoken here, and so many people coming from so many different places, that it’d be difficult, at best, to conjure. And that’s one of the things that’s really keeping me in Houston: it’s the most diverse city in the country. That’s just amazing. You could probably live your life in a sort of monocultural way here, if you wanted to, but you’d really have to go out of your fucking way. It’d be really difficult.
But voice is usually the thing that comes to me first in my fiction; or the way that voices mold into one another, or don’t, and find closure amidst conflict, or don’t. Just by merit of there being a conversation between two folks, you’re going to run into some sort of problem. Keep the conversation going long enough, and it’ll surface eventually. But there’s so much character in a voice that I think it’s just really fucking fun to parse, and extending and examining the lives behind those voices is a major draw to me as far as fiction is concerned.
Your last story, “Elgin,” talks a bit about the way Hurricane Harvey affected folks in Houston. For me, as someone who grew up in Florida, it brought the meaning of the whole collection full circle. Tell me about how Hurricane Harvey impacted you and your understanding of Houston.
Sure. Harvey didn’t really reshape my understanding of the city at all, but it further reinforced the importance of opportunities for folks to tell their stories, from their vantage points, in their voices. Because the experience of someone negotiating the storm from Acres Homes would be wildly different from the experience of someone in Bellaire, which would different from someone in Midtown or East End or Pearland. And each of those experiences and journeys is worth dissecting and investigating for a fuller, more comprehensive look at the city.
I’d been well aware of how close-knit the city’s various communities are, despite their obvious differences and the sprawl, but seeing how everyone came together through the lens of an outsider’s gaze (like, through media outlets covering the storm on national and international scales) really underlined what a gift it can be to live here. While press outside of Houston harped on the incongruities of everyone’s coming together (“how are black folks in this Texan city helping Asian folks who are helping Latinx folks,” and so on), you didn’t see any of that within local media. Because that was hardly worth mentioning. Because it’s just a given. I’ve lived through a few storms here, so I knew that in an implicit way, but watching it refracted across a larger scale reiterated its significance (and its rareness).
One of the things I really loved about Lot was that the stories subtly peripheralize things that frequently have a central, and even totalizing, presence in stories about southern cities–the church and its homophobia, white supremacy and its attendant institutions, white boys as gatekeepers to a new or ‘better’ kind of life. Those things are there, but they have a kind of creeping, ghostly presence–for me at least. I also love that your white boys have no names. Tell me a bit about how you came to include these elements in your stories and in this way.
I really appreciate you saying that. The question of naming folks, or not, is super-fascinating to me: how we’re addressed, and how we’d like to be addressed, and what we allow ourselves to address ourselves is always a ton of fun to extrapolate. It’s a window into the amount of intimacy, or the lack thereof, that we allow one another. And as someone who’s pretty interested in intimacy, and how bodies move with one another, that naming feels especially significant; what’s especially rad is playing with the question of who’s allowed a name in our respective narratives, or who is typecast, for whatever reason, and why.
From my standpoint, and my reading, I think that whenever you’re reading about marginalized communities and characters in contemporary American literary fiction, the catalysts exacerbating their marginalization are usually the crux of their entire narrative, which often comes in the form of institutions and their stigmas and the stereotypes and aggressions peripheral to them. But that isn’t the entirety of anyone’s story. Marginalized folks have hopes and aspirations and personal pitfalls outside of those restrictive infrastructural paradigms. We still want to eat and fuck and decompress. We’re still looking for comfort. We still want to chill. So while, in these particular stories, it would be a disservice to these characters to eliminate those barriers entirely (because the city’s infrastructural and geographical barriers constitute a large part of what makes them who they are), spending all of the narrative’s arc exclusively on those implicit conflicts would be intellectually dishonest. And, even worse, it’d be fucking boring.