Washington’s debut collection, Lot (Riverhead, Feb.), maps the sprawl of Houston and the relationships within it, especially those between young black and brown boys.
What does being from Houston mean to you? Was it important to you that your collection was as much about Houston as the characters and their lives?
I think writing the book was one way of trying to figure that out, but I don’t know if I did. Maybe, for me personally, being from Houston means you’re open to difference. The locals here are pretty laid back. We’re pretty open to folks that are different from us, and to incorporating other ways of living into our own. The descriptor I’ve heard most often is that Houstonians are scrappy, which isn’t wrong. But maybe we just need new adjectives. Virtually all of my fiction is rooted in Houston, and I don’t think any of the narratives would survive being pulled out of it. If the stories work, they’re being colored by the city, I think. Or at least that’s what I’m most interested in trying to do at the moment.
Did you find it difficult to faithfully render the Houston you know on the page?
Nah—I was less worried about faithfully rendering anything than just doing what I was trying to do. That’s always hard enough. But it’s the Houston I know, and not some all-encompassing homologation of it, because the latter would be impossible to render, and also it doesn’t really exist. The city has too many layers. My big hope is that other folks—specifically nonwhite folks—will have the chance (and the funding) to publish work about their Houstons, too. From there, we’ll probably scratch the surface of what life can look like in Harris County. But only just barely.
How much do you pull from your own life and experiences when writing? Are there any of your characters you feel a particular kinship with?
I’m from Houston, so there’s that. But the fiction is fiction—although, of course, nobody’s gonna believe it; American literary fiction is pretty obnoxious about immediately correlating authors of color with their novels and short stories, despite what the writer actually says. That said, the collection’s recurring narrator is who set the whole project off. I wanted to try and understand him better.
What was the most challenging or rewarding part of capturing the tenderness of your characters?
I’m always a little weirded out by narratives that portray victimized folks solely as victims, rather than people who are just trying to navigate their situation, whatever it looks like, just like anyone else. Most of us don’t get to choose the circumstances we’re dealt. But I guess the most rewarding part of the whole thing was getting to write about communities that mean a lot to me. And a place I really care about. That’s a rare opportunity. The work was hard, but I’m stoked about what my editor and I came up with.