Bryan Washington’s “Lot” Reminds Us What Community Really Means
In his debut collection, Houston gets to tell its own stories
The term “community” is one of the most worn out phrases of the early aughts. I’ve had more than three job titles featuring the word “community.” Each of these jobs had entirely different goals and tasks I completed in front of a computer. Every nonprofit I have interacted with has “community” peppered in mission and value statements. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter sell community as a service. In the meat and produce sections of grocery stores, community is mentioned on food labels and store signs. Yesterday, I ate a bag of chips that had a paragraph about community under the nutrition information. Community is thrown around so often that I’ve lost sense of what it means.
Enter Lot by Bryan Washington. Lot is a collection of short stories that feature characters from Houston neighborhoods. Places like Alief, Bayou, and Shepherd are depicted from many perspectives. Corporations and nonprofits depict community in one dimension—a space for pleasant interactions with people of your choosing. Lot tells stories of people trying to figure out how to survive and find joy in situations they don’t choose. Lot reminded me that the unit of a city is the neighborhood and that a community is any group of people trying to figure out what they owe each other.
I was happy to speak to Bryan about how he chose the short story genre to write about Houston, how this collection changed him as an artist, and how his relationship to Houston has changed since he penned these stories.
Candace Williams: While I read the book, the word “community” kept popping into my head. I’ve worked in schools, startups, and nonprofits that really preach community. It’s mentioned in most mission statements. When I think about Alief and Waugh, I’m thinking about the physical terrain of the neighborhoods and the orbits and constellations of people. I think the question “What do people owe to each other and to their situation?” is very important to this book. Very early on, I realized that in this book, community doesn’t necessarily mean friendship or being nice. That was very interesting to me because many people think of friendliness when they think of the word “community.” I’d really love to hear you talk more about community and how it works in this book.
Bryan Washington: One of the things I’m most interested in, or one of the themes that I gravitate to with the characters that I write, is they’re sort of seeking a place of comfort or a place where they fit in. Sometimes that’s with their blood family. Other times that’s with their found family. The idea of community is one that I come back to often, particularly in narratives about Houston, because one of the most fascinating things to me about this particular city are the ways in which people reach across ethnic lines and religious lines. And across languages to create a sort of community. Often times what they end up with isn’t necessarily what would be the expected outcome. I think that’s part of what makes Houston so rife for stories. The diversity of the city is such that you just have a lot of different narratives. A lot of different ways of life, and a lot of different ways of living that are just bubbling not only under the surface, but within plain sight.
On my end, I didn’t appreciate it until I left the city for a little while and got to travel a bit and came back. I was a little bit mystified upon returning how everybody was able to make it work despite their differences. So that’s something that was deeply interesting to me at the time and it was a really fun question to parse in each of these stories—What community meant to each of these characters, what were the sort of bonds that each of the characters have between one another, and how much pressure could be applied before they came apart or didn’t come apart and why on both fronts. So, sort of asking, “What is each character looking for? What are they going to do when they find it?” And the why, just continuing to ask “why?” for every conflict, every scenario, every character. That’s one of the ways in which the collection came together.
CW: Would you say that for you, writing is a way that you find comfort? Is it a comfortable process? Or, is it the opposite? I kind of find that for me, poetry is both extremes. Sometimes I’ll be like, “Wow, that broke me apart and I need to see a therapist right away.” And then other times I’ll say, “Wow, this is one of the most cohesive uplifting things I’ve ever done.”
BW: So, the process of writing for me is pretty hellish. It’s really a shitty experience. But, on the flip side, it’s just absolutely horrible. I saw Min Jin Lee when she passed through Houston maybe a year ago and someone had asked a similar question to her about what it took to just sit down in a chair and just slog through the process of writing a novel. Because it is work, you’re not building houses, and you’re not washing dishes, and you aren’t mowing laws. The actual physical toll on you is minimal and it is very much a privilege to be able to get to do what we do. But, it is labor. Her thing was finding the joy in what you were writing, and not writing something that isn’t, if it doesn’t put you in the chair. If you aren’t excited to write it, then it’s like why do it?
That is sort of what fuels all of my work on the fiction side. If it’s not a story I’m excited to write, if I’m not excited to write about these characters, the conflicts, the conversations that they’re having, the ways in which they’re gravitating and moving through the world, then it’s not gonna be exciting. It’s probably not gonna be exciting for the reader. So that is something that I’m constantly having to evaluate with the Project of Lot, or any other project that I’m working on. Is it something that I want to sit in the chair and do? And then if it is, everything else in my experience has sort of fallen into place. Even if the work is difficult, I want to be there and I want to do it.
CW: I was wondering how these stories fit into the timeline of your life and Houston’s life. How long did it take you to finish the whole collection?
BW: Three years total. From the first story until the last story, and then after we sold the stories, it was another two years before release. Originally, I thought of the stories that make up the collection as singular entities and I was submitting those to journals. Mostly the ones that I enjoyed reading. I didn’t really have a map or a foundation behind it. About half of them had already been published in one form or another out in the world prior to Riverhead picking it up. That in itself was a sort of validation as far as my seeing that people might be interested in these stories or they might have a little bit more value outside of my interest and my friend’s interest because it’s one of those things where I write for myself and for my friends really. You write the story that you wanna read. But seeing that external validation is pretty helpful as far as giving me a sort of a drive to finish the project.
Once we sold the text I got to work with my editor at Riverhead, Laura Perciasepe, and our goal from there was tying each of the narratives that we’d original conceived as being separate into a full book. So, in lieu of reading one story about a particular hub of Houston, and then another story about a particular hub of Houston, and then the only thing that binds them together is the book’s literal binding, is the challenge to create a sort of community. Or, a sort of atmosphere that tied all of the stories together.
CW: I just want to hear more about how this book might have changed you as an artist or even as a person because I think that’s a big artistic shift—to go from seeing it as disparate stories to kind of seeing it as separate stories that feed into one place or one work that you’re trying to build.
BW: I’m still trying to reckon with that. The way in which Lot changed my process or how it informed my process. One thing that I did fairly recently, is read about half of the audiobooks for the recurring narrator stories.
BW: It was an illuminating experience because as I was reading it there were times where I would look up and I would make contact with the audio engineer and we would just think like, “Fuck, the narrator has really been through a lot,” or I would read certain passages and I was like, “Wow.” One of the ways I think that my process has changed is that there was a sort of kinetic energy that was running through the stories that now when I read them or when I look back at them I sort of wonder how I was able to conjure that at the time. Because it just seem very foreign to me. The energy that’s throughout the book.
Originally, when I was trying to decide what it would look like, in my head I thought of a collection that was made up of a series of Houston’s hubs. Each piece or each story would take place in a hub within the city and they would be connected, just like you said, by merit of geography. But, because each of those tiny little towns have very specific characteristics and details to them, those details would give each piece its own autonomy. I ended up moving away from that because it was really ambitious. That would have been really fucking difficult to pull off for a first time author let alone any author.
I was approaching it from too big of a focus on the geography in lieu of just trying to tell the stories. What ultimately ended up happening was that I latched on to a handful of voices. And one voice in particular, the recurring narrator. At first, the goal on my end was to figure out how to tell the stories about each of these hubs that tries to capture the character and the atmosphere of that area. Then, I thought: Here’s this one person, what’s going on in their life? Why do they feel the way they do when they’re moving through the world? How does it affect the people around them and where are they going to go from there?
Once I started asking those questions, everything else surrounding those particular narratives and the narratives of the other characters made a lot more sense and the process was a lot more seamless. It was still difficult to try and pull off and bring together, but the structural question was put to rest. More often than not, when I’m working on a longer project, the structure is the hold up. Trying to figure out how something will work. The interior of it. Piecing things together or just trying to figure out what component goes where is a lot less painful once I have an idea of what the makeup looks like.
CW: Playing with the words. I try to talk about, talk to students about that. Sometimes I’m just like, “Can you just play, kind of like you’re playing basketball or you’re just painting and you’re experimenting?” Get yourself to a place where you could actually play with language. That’s what we tend to hammer out of kids with language because we take it so seriously. As we should. But it turns into, “Can you read? Can you understand this and write about it? If you can’t then it was a waste of time and you need to be knocked back a class or whatever.” Instead of saying something like “Not everything you write has to be intelligible to everyone or even to you. You might write something and it doesn’t make sense to you until two or three years later.” How do we help kids keep the creativity going when it’s so cutthroat out there?
BW: Two revelatory things to me in that respect were: One, reading Helen Oyeyemi talk about the idea of writing a novel that’s like a game. Or writing a novel that’s existence is solely for the sake of this being a novel as opposed to some sort of large, overarching thing with all these important scenes and ideas that all have to build together to create the capital B-I-G, capital N-O-V-E-L novel. It just seems super cool to me because it’s something that I just hadn’t thought about. But then, you hear it and say, “Yeah.” The point of a novel that you’re writing should be to exist in and of itself. For the sake of itself and creating its own universe.
I think something else that’s been super helpful for me is that I teach ESL, so I’m working with a lot of kids who are just now coming to terms with English. Point blank. They’re trying to figure out the contours of the language. I’m watching the ways that they treat it very much like a game and they’re right I think.
CW: Yeah, it is a game.
BW: They try to figure out the adjective placement or try to figure out certain tonalities. Because a language is a language, they come across a new way of speaking, and that in itself becomes a language. So then they’ll find the words to adjust to that. I see the many different ways in which English is malleable. So, the question on my end becomes “How do we negotiate the malleability while trying to tell a narrative that has weight, and doing it in such a way that I’m able to tell the story that I wanna tell in a way that is clear for the reader?”
CW: So, do you think that if you attempted to write these stories now, do you think that they would be different or the same? Do you think that these areas of Houston have changed even since you’ve written these? Or do you think that your artistry has changed?
BW: I think they would be different partly because these particular areas of Houston have changed. The neighborhoods that I mentioned. Whether it’s East Town, whether it’s Montrose, whether it’s certain portions of Alief. Writing the book, in a lot of ways, was a little bit like lighting in a bottle. Two or three years ago those places were in a major moment of flux. And it would be very difficult I think to conjure or re-conjure that on the page now given not only how those parts of the city are but how my adjustment to them has been in the interim years. As far as what I’m drawn to on the page, they would just read as wildly different. I think that they’re, again the energy that I brought to Lot. Now that I’ve come out of another long project I can say that the process with which I approach stories has changed.
I don’t think that that’s a foreign idea. I think that every project has its own requirements from you as the creator. Is the same true for poets? I know that at times poems can be much smaller endeavors, much smaller projects if it’s one word in lieu of a much longer piece.
CW: I’m trying to take myself back to when I first started and not be writing toward a collection. For me, in poetry, things are better when I can play around more. If I get married to one form or one content idea or one speaker, then I might actually miss out. So I’ve been trying to talk to different poets and read different things that are out there for me. I would say a linear poet in a lot of ways. I’m a very logical, conversational poet. Everything has a logical next step and there’s a beginning.
It’s not predictable but it’s definitely linear. I’ve been trying to break that mold in a lot of ways. After this summer, I would like to say, “Oh, I kind of know the project I’m working on.” But I’m also working on some visual art right now and trying some other things. So it’s okay if keep my work in this pre-project stage. A lot of interesting things could actually happen.
BW: That’s so cool that you’re able to work across mediums. Because generally when I’m working, I mean certainly for all of my fiction, for a good chunk of my non-fiction, the way that I approach those narratives is very non-linear. This makes the essay pitching process just the worst because I can’t say what it will be like. I haven’t figured it out myself yet. But as far as fiction is concerned, I have an inclination to juggle multiple narrators and multiple timelines. To work with larger gaps in time. Sort of moving back and forth and playing with white space. Partly, this is the idea of making the text a game, and partly that’s what I have to do before I figure out what the narration would ultimately look like. To sort of move things around and, you know, just play with it until it makes some semblance of sense to me.
Once that happens, it’s usually a structural issue. I’ll move the right passage from page 15 to page three and all of a sudden everything else will click in my head. I must spend the time doing that work and moving it around. It can feel as if it’s dead work. You’re just sort of moving words or putting words and getting rid of them without actually playing into the conflicts on the page. If I don’t do it, then it’s really hard for the story to come together for me. It just won’t really make sense. Then, once it does, everything else fits into play.
CW: I’m just really interested in your thoughts on Houston and its future. Just so you know my sixth graders come in wearing a lot more Houston gear.
BW: Oh great, absolutely.
CW: Well, I think it’s because of the Astros, right? But also Travis Scott and Beyoncé. My students are wearing Travis Scott gear. A lot of his artwork is about Astroworld and why it was put there and why it was taken away. I just think he’s had a huge impact on consciousness about gentrification, specifically in Houston. I think that, even my students are having a conversation about it which is pretty awesome in some ways. But then, on the other hand, I’m thinking about Brooklyn and also Atlanta. When people start to have conversations about your city or neighborhood, there’s a displacement process associated with that conversation. So the conversation can be good but it’s also scary.
So, if someone were to give you millions of dollars and said “Hey, you can build an art institution in Houston.” What would you want that institution to do? Where would it go? What would the goal be?
BW: That’s such an interesting question. And that’d be a huge responsibility so I don’t know could give you a clean answer. The one thing I will say is that I would want it [to be] Alief. Alief is a very diverse suburb within Houston. I don’t know exactly what the makeup of that particular museum would be. I think that there’s an interesting way in which people who aren’t from the city can acknowledge the expanse of the city’s diversity and the totality of the city’s diversity and what its implications are without actually centering the voices that make up that diversity. To sort of acknowledge that there is a massive, massive Latino influence upon the city. And, that there is a massive Black influence upon the city. And, that there’s a massive Asian influence upon the city. People who aren’t from the city will simultaneously center white voices to tell those stories and narratives and sort of dictate the terms of what those narratives are allowed to look like.
Finding a way to tell the stories of each individual community and the ways in which they’ve managed to create community within the city, in the same place, would go a long way to also telling the story of how they ultimately managed to fit together. The ways in which they were able to come together. Because that’s what’s happened here. I mean, each of these communities within the city are very much themselves and yet, they’re willing to learn from those that are adjacent to them on our left, those that are adjacent to them. Give and take. It really is a gift to live here. The challenge will be to find a way to display the city’s individual components while also paying a huge homage to how they’re able to come and work together.
It’s really cool to see the city get a sort of national visibility and in some cases international visibility. Whether it’s Travis Scott, whether it’s Beyoncé. Whether it’s Solange. She just had the record come out. Half the tracks are street names. Like Almeda, Binz. That sort of thing goes a really long way because when you see those street names, those place names, that iconography, you’re able to attach a narrative to it. I feel like that’s how Hollywood becomes Hollywood. How Main Street in any city becomes Main Street, you know? Like, Canal street becomes Canal Street because of the narratives and the associations we bring to them. But, I think that it’s really not enough to have narratives associated with those places and things. Who is getting to tell those narratives? On what terms are they able to tell those narratives? Would they not be able to tell the ones that they want to tell? How they would like to tell it? Or, maybe they’re being dictative with a sort of dominant narrative in mind. Where it has to be a cis white narrative or a cis white vantage point.
With any changing city, whether it’s Brooklyn or whether it’s Oakland, there is a risk that’s there. Who gets to tell the stories? How are they getting to tell the stories? To what extent are the stories that they’re telling are being amplified in relation to the folks who have historically had control of this dominant narrative?
Trying to spread the wealth of stories to around the city would be the goal of that museum. It would take a really long time to do that. Houston has multitudes. I think that, in a lot of ways Los Angeles is a sister city. I very seldom hear someone say, “Oh, you know L.A. This is the story of L.A. It’s just one thing.” There’s a sort of general acknowledgement, at least from my end, that L.A. is made up of many different people. Many different narratives. I think the same is true of Houston. Which is why, when folks approach the city with the intent of finding one story they’re going to fail every time because there’s just too many different ways to live here. And that’s a gift, so the solution is not really a story, so much as more stories. I want more people to tell their stories. And from that you’re able create a story that’s, mural or a modulation of what the city is, and can be. Where it can go.