Bryan Washington on Fiction ‘Outside the Bounds of Trauma’

Bryan Washington on Fiction ‘Outside the Bounds of Trauma’

Bryan Washington on Fiction ‘Outside the Bounds of Trauma’

A conversation about writing emphatically about marginalized communities, Houston’s diversity of cuisines and peoples, Japanese literature, and more.

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The rare quality of Bryan Washington’s fiction is that he deftly explores the emotional lives of people from marginalized communities without foregrounding or telegraphing trauma or reducing them to their marginalization. In Memorial, his debut novel, two men, countries apart, assess the sum of their four-year relationship while trying to grapple with various forms of familial abandonment. Mike decides to go to Osaka, Japan, to stay with his estranged father, who is dying of cancer, leaving Ben alone in their Houston apartment with Mike’s mother, Mitsuko, who has just flown from Japan to visit her son. The book shifts between the two men’s perspectives as they clumsily form tentative relationships and learn to be vulnerable with the new people in their lives—Mike with his father, Eiju, and the sole employee and patrons of his father’s bar, Ben with Mitsuko and Omar, the older brother of a child at his day care job. That there are few white characters populating the novel and that Mike is Japanese and Ben is Black should not be even worth mentioning, and yet here we are.

Washington’s first story collection, Lot, revolved around the lives of Houstonians of color—some of whom are undocumented or queer or both—navigating how they negotiate interpersonal boundaries and masculinity as they work various subsistence jobs, struggle to pay rent, and try to stay out of trouble. The wryness with which he plumbs the emotional depth of people batting away at the vultures that be—real estate agents and rude managers, to name a few—has won him major accolades, including the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence.

I talked to Washington before the release of Memorial, touching on Japanese literature in translation, generosity and labor, and “whiteboys.” I got the sense that his world is expansive, full of mirth, and even portentous of a more hospitable future for American letters.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

—Rosemarie Ho

Rosemarie Ho: People have described Memorial as a quiet book, but I would describe it as one in which there are a lot of lapsed moments of intimacy and negotiations of intimacy that fail. How do you approach the ebb and flow of these relationships?

Bryan Washington: That’s a reading that I really appreciate. What was most important for me from a structural standpoint as I was trying to depict the relationship from both Ben’s and Mike’s vantage points—and the iteration of their cumulative experiences that the reader was experiencing—was not to be prescriptive or dogmatic, as far as what their relationship could look like. They do terrible things to each other, but they also do lovely things to each other, and while I can have that understanding, it would have taken the air out of those scenes to have the action play out and then to say, “OK, now that was a terrible thing” or “Oh, but this was the good thing that moved the relationship along.” That seemed it would be reductive at best and just a waste of the reader’s time at worst. So trying to paint the clearest picture possible that I could of the creases in between their relationship in lieu of major points that could be attributed to the relationship was really important to me, along with showing that their respective focal points within that relationship and what they individually value varied wildly between Ben and Mike. Trying to do that in a way that wasn’t hackneyed was really important to me.

Lot in many ways was good practice for trying to figure out how to pace a conversation on the page where the unspoken thing is at the forefront of the conversation while not directly alluding to it in the dialogue itself. That was pretty tricky. But it was something that I sort of strove for, to see the different ways that while language may have failed one of them—or not—at any given point in their relationship, they attempt to fill the gap with sex or food or photos that they’re sending back and forth to each other. It was a lot of trying to figure out how to create a simulacrum of what that could look like without being too obvious or holding the reader’s hand and really just trusting the reader to follow me.

RH: What is the place of literature and films in translation in your writing?

BW: For me, it would be difficult to separate the literature in translation that I’ve gotten to read—I hate the phrase “foreign films,” so I just say “films that were not made in America”—from craft as I perceive it, because, like, I’m not someone who arrived at literary fiction as early or as easily as many friends who are also writing, which is to say I wasn’t a massive, massive reader when I was growing up. So my first interactions with narrative were through films and translation, working my way through loads and loads of Criterion Collection and Janus films, mostly for pleasure. But it was through casually seeing recurring themes and recurring emotional pockets or recurring parts that I started to get the foundation of my sense of what structure is and was and could be. So they’re indelible, as far as my understanding of narrative is concerned.

I grew up with books around the house—cookbooks and also quite a lot of sci-fi and fantasy—so that was helpful in and of itself. Although it took me a little while to get around to thinking that and have an appreciation for simplicity of language, narratives that are delivered in such a way that comprehension isn’t a barrier for entry. Many of the texts that were lying around the house were folks like Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler, writing about Black folks in contexts that were very far from how Black characters were depicted in contemporary American narratives. That’s really important to me—to see marginalized communities depicted outside the bounds of trauma. Even if I couldn’t have articulated it that way at the time, it was really significant to me. And then later I began to read fiction in translation, authors like Yoko Ogawa, Hiromi Kawakami, Natsuo Kirino—[Haruki Murakami’s] Sputnik Sweetheart was a novel that was especially important. It made my ears pop.

And later on, folks like Valeria Luiselli, Alejandro Zambra, Andrés Neuman (who has an epigraph in Memorial) were super-pivotal, as far as not having a preconceived notion of what fiction was or could be structurally or formally. One thing that kept me from starting a novel—other than that it just seemed like so much fucking work—is that my image of what a contemporary American novel could be—or specifically, what could sell to a publisher under the guise of a contemporary American novel—was hamstrung in a lot of ways. My preferences leaned more toward folks who are writing outside of that. What was helpful for me as far as getting over that barrier was just deciding to tell the narrative on the page structurally the way that I wanted it to look, move the way that I wanted it to move emotionally, even if didn’t necessarily hit down the middle or teach the reader something or leave the reader feeling as though all of the boxes were checked for their novel checklist.

RH: I feel we’ve been circling this ethic of generosity, of warmth, that comes out in the writing, that allows ambiguity to be possible, which is a recurring theme in a lot of your work. How does that relate also to cooking, as someone who cooks and writes? You write a lot of columns about food and, specifically, sharing food with your friends and family.

BW: I started cooking when I was a kid, and it was just something that I did, that I knew—if it didn’t fucking suck—that could give pleasure to the folks around me. And that was how I approached it, certainly not from the vantage point of, like, “OK, I’m going to monetize this at some point,” right? But I think it was really fortunate to grow up in a subset of a diverse neighborhood where most weekends we would go over to our neighbors’ and, you know, we would have pancit or yakisoba or black beans and rice. So just being privy to a number of different cuisines quite early was just a big gift, which is not really something that you can pay back or plan for.

It sounds a bit ridiculous now, but I really didn’t know that I was writing about food until I was told by other people, “Oh, you are a food writer.” And then I was like, “OK, that’s not a super-horrible thing to be.” It certainly wasn’t a planned trajectory. But it was reading folks like John Birdsall and Tejal Rao around the way that they used food from the vantage points of pleasure and comfort while not shying away from talking about the transactional nature of both that made me think a bit more deeply, if not critically, about how and what role food could take on the page.

For Memorial, I spent a good deal of time carving out [the characters’] culinary arcs, because I wanted them to reflect how they’re figuring out that food can be a language in itself and a way to provide pleasure for other folks, a way to listen to other folks and be receptive to their needs. Whenever I’m in a space where there’s a transaction of food, I’m interested in the question of “Who is benefiting from this? To what extent are they benefiting from it, and why?”

Right before we hopped on this Skype call, I ran out to grab some bread from this super-rad Filipino bread delivery pop-up doing drop-offs all over Houston. Even then, I’m thinking, “OK, how far did this person have to go in order to do this? What is the labor behind that in a morning?” He had to have woken up quite early to pull that off, and he’s making multiple deliveries over the course of the day. So where am I within that? How can I not only adequately but aptly compensate this person for the labor behind the pleasure and the comfort that he’s giving me? I don’t know that that’s good or even the best way to approach all of your interactions if you’re just, like, picking up fucking banh mi, but it’s something I’m hyperconscious of and something that I wanted to try to play with for the book.

RH: That’s interesting, because both of your books are about how and why people are in community with one another, regardless of whether they’re related by blood. Why are you interested in working out what community and collective practice look like in your fiction?

BW: Why do you think I’m interested?

RH: Not to bring everything back to writing, but it sounds to me that you approach art-making as less of an individual thing, which also implies a different approach to thinking through all of these different objects—the book object, the food object, and what it means to put yourself in relation with others through that object.

BW: I think that that’s exactly it, to some extent. It’s not a very interesting answer. But I think that, having spent most of my life in Houston, I’m endlessly fascinated by how it works. I go back and forth between whether I was hamstrung or whether I was privileged, in that the diversity of the city and the communities that I grew up in was just all-encompassing. You of course move from one section of the city to another when you’re a kid, and you see financial disparity. You see that equity is not being apportioned as it should, how a multimillion-dollar Baptist church is right next to a neighborhood where most of the folks would describe their grocery store options as akin to a food desert. Or you have the very lovely private school right next to the strip mall and a bail bond center. Now that I’m older, I can articulate it in such a way and say, “OK, there are structural reasons behind this.” It’s understood that many different folks are going to be living simultaneously among one another in the city.

And that’s deeply interesting to me, especially now that I’ve gotten to spend a little bit more time in other places and cities. On a very base level, that isn’t the case from place to place. It isn’t remarkable in Houston for a very diverse classroom of second graders to all know how to spell a new classmate’s surname, because you grew up knowing folks from different backgrounds. So trying to figure out why that is and when my figuring out that has been insufficient to me, I turn to fiction in order to problematize and ask more questions about it.

I don’t know that I’m interested in an answer for it. A recurring thing that I could not ever in this life have envisioned is that people would turn to Lot and they would ask, “What does it feel like to write the Houston narrative?” or “What does it feel like to be the person writing about Houston?” The premise of that question is bullshit to me, when every experience is so singular and is so much itself that you could not possibly even attempt telling a narrative that will encompass the entirety of Houston. Coming up with and playing with singular narratives taking place within the city in which these communities are interacting with one another, whether or not those folks are within the same microcommunities or parallel communities or communities that are very disparate from one another and trying to figure out how they actually work in tandem is always something that’s endlessly interesting.

RH: I’m interested in this because you’re thoughtful on a syntactical level. The word “whiteboy”—why is it one word and not two in your stories?

BW: [Laughs] Thank you for asking that question. There’s a technical answer behind it, but it’s not perhaps as interesting as the answer-answer behind it, which is that socially, when I was growing up, I did not spend a lot of time around whiteboys, so there was never a separation. Like, I’m not talking about a boy that is white. I’m talking about a whiteboy—a singular entity, always intertwined.

I think that you’re the first person to ask why I’m doing it, even though you’re not the first person to point it out, so it’s been very telling, the connotations that other folks have attached to it, right? There is a myriad of reasons for that. In so much of contemporary American fiction, because whiteness is the standard assumption or it’s the vantage point of how a narrative is told, you go 200, 300 pages without a white character being called white. And yet the author will take great pains to note the Asian American person working in a grocery store or the Black friend that gets, like, four fucking lines that are a feeder for this white protagonist journey that’s self-actualization.

So “whiteboy” never was separated for me, but also, what is important to me every time that I use it is that it underlines the [book’s] vantage point is not whiteness. It is not the dominant frame through which I’m writing my narratives. I’m not looking for anyone to pick up one of my texts and see or learn how their whiteness is refracted against any of the communities that are depicted. Even though the characters are from many different backgrounds, a whiteboy is a whiteboy is a whiteboy. It has been a recurring joy for me to just take that to its logical extreme. I keep waiting for someone to tell me to stop, but nobody has yet—to their credit, I suppose.

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