Bryan Washington’s 2019 debut short story collection, Lot, was winner of the Dylan Thomas prize and listed as one of Barack Obama’s favourite books of the year. Set in impoverished Houston neighbourhoods, where gentrification threatens a collection of fierce and feisty characters – minimum-wage kitchen staff, drug dealers, sex workers – it is often darkly funny. At the book’s centre is Nicholas, the recurring narrator, who wrestles with his queerness and black-Latino identity. Washington, 27, has written for the New York Times, New Yorker and Paris Review. Lot is out in paperback on 6 August; his first novel, Memorial, follows early next year in the UK.
In Lot individual chapters represent different marginalised regions of Houston, your home town…
The city, for me, has no focal point. Houston is not inundated with “third” places; you go to work and then you go home and then you have the sprawl in between. There are landmarks that I would acknowledge that could be immediately invalidated by my neighbours and none of us would be wrong. It’s largely due to the diversity of the city; not just the ethnic diversity but also diversity of thought, economy and religion. Its residents have had to come together to find ways of functioning on a daily basis – not seamlessly, but what’s really cool about living here is the way that it’s understood you can live multiple lives simultaneously.
Love and sexuality are big themes in your stories, especially in those that involve Nicholas. How would you describe the evolution of his attitude towards love and being queer?
There was a deeply conscious effort on my end not to write a coming out story but [to observe] the ways in which you continue to come out. A singular coming out narrative, while valuable for many people, isn’t the only narrative. In many ways it can constrain you because you come out every day in various contexts. Whether with a stranger, a romantic acquaintance or a platonic figure in your life, you’re constantly figuring out how much of yourself you’re going to reveal. So those transactions were really fun to parse, not just for Nicholas but for each of the characters and the code-switching that can take place between them.
In your writing you’re very attuned to the politics of food. Do you see the black and Latinx restaurants in Lot as a microcosm of what’s going on racially in the US?
Any time you have a place where transactions are taking place you have a microcosm of where power lies, where white supremacy may have its strongholds and [the] various avenues of a correlated web of ongoings around any particular city in this country. In Lot the dynamic between the front of house and the back of the house, the folks that you see as you’re being given your food and the folks who are preparing it, is interesting to me. While food becomes a kind of lingua franca between communities, it shouldn’t negate the fact that the difference between the hands preparing that food and the hands presenting that food and the hands consuming the food are in very different stations.
The white characters, marginal in the neighbourhoods of Lot, are mostly thinly depicted. Often they’re just referred to as the “white boy”. Is that to counter the dominance of white characters in US fiction?
Lot focuses on queer folk of colour. I’m fascinated by the way in which white authors will have a character of colour or a minority character or a double minority character and that character’s status as a marginalised entity is a default of their narrative. Many of my contemporaries are doing the work of de-centring whiteness from their narratives and from the centre point of American literary fiction at large.
In Lot, while I don’t set out to condense a character’s entirety to who they are, I think that when you’re not centring whiteness, you find yourself with characters who will call a white boy a white boy because that’s who they are to that particular character. That’s not something I’ve seen on the page as often as I’d like.
Your next book, Memorial, is a novel. How have you managed the transition from writing short stories to a novel?
It’s difficult but I was fortunate to have friends who told me from the outset that the energy required would be different. Writing’s always hard but I’m most comfortable in the smaller moments between characters. I couldn’t have written Memorial without having written Lot and gaining an understanding from that.
I pitched Memorial as a gay slacker dramedy. I’ve been calling it any number of pithy things like a “lower-case love story”, but each of those descriptions is an attempt to capture a tone which is deeply difficult for me to condense on to a page, this idea of bitter sweetness that volleys between moments of deep levity and moments of deep despair.
What kind of reader were you as a child?
I wasn’t a prodigious reader, but visiting Houston’s libraries opened my world up in ways that would have been unimaginable prior. I initially read Jacqueline Woodson, Tracy K Smith. And a significant amount of the fiction I read was literature in translation, whether that is work by Latinx authors, Asian authors or works across the diaspora.
Which books are on your bedside table?
Raven Leilani’s Luster, Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half; and Samantha Irby’s essay collection, Wow, No Thank You.
What is the best book you’ve read in recent years?
Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. He’s brilliant and so flexible with language and has such an understanding of what an emotion incarnate is, he is able to not only condense it but to heighten it across languages, across countries, across codes as characters speak to one another. He’s peerless.
• Lot by Bryan Washington is published by Atlantic Books (£8.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15