Introducing 2019 Debutante Bryan Washington

On May 16th, at our 10th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating six of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.

This week, we’re talking to Bryan Washington, author of One Story #230, “Bayou” and the short story collection Lot (Riverhead).

Predominantly told in the voice of a first-generation American youth, Bryan Washington’s Lot is a coming-of-age collection that centralizes narratives around family, sexuality, poverty, intimacy, and identity. These thirteen short stories ambitiously portray the complexities within immigrant-based communities and Washington becomes our tour guide, skillfully ushering us into the lives of Black and Latinx folks in Houston and its adjacent cities. From the collection’s first story to its last, we encounter romantic relationships, infidelities, and vocal individuals who allow for these energetic neighborhoods to come alive with each turn of the page. 

Kukuwa Ashun: Where were you when you found out Lot was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Bryan Washington: I was wrapping up a lesson plan at work, just before a long weekend. I may or may or not have partied throughout it.

KA: These stories rely heavily on setting, specifically in Houston and its surrounding cities. What inspired you to draw attention to your hometown in your debut collection?

BW: It definitely wasn’t a didactic effort, or even especially initially intentional: at some point, I realized that all of the stories were set in some hub or another of the city. Then my agent, editor, and I worked towards heightening the specificity throughout the drafting process. But I’m generally pretty taken with the locality of any piece — it’s always interesting to think about how a character’s structural, geographic, and physical limitations (or benefits) affect their arc.

KA: How did you decide which narratives deserved to be told from a third-person or a first-person point of view? 

BW: The short answer’s that the third-person is hard for me (too much power). So I don’t do it very often.

KA: I remember hearing you read “Waugh” on The New Yorker‘s podcast a few months ago and thinking about the emphasis on escapism. This concept pops up in multiple short stories. Why was it important to narrate how different characters chose to “escape” certain situations within their communities?

BW: It’s just a way of navigating or dealing with whatever cards you’re dealt. The overwhelming majority of us don’t have much of a say in our larger situations, so while the “escapist” methods some of the characters turn to might seem more far-field or extreme to some readers, the luxury of getting to hang out on your sofa and binge Netflix or whatever for however many hours might seem just as dubious to them. Different poisons.

KA: Many of these stories share an unnamed protagonist whose name isn’t revealed until the final story, “Elgin.” Was it intentional to keep his identity under wraps until the collection’s closing pages? Can you talk about why you made this decision?

BW: A friend and mentor of mine made the suggestion, and then I tried it and it worked. So we kept it in. But I’m always interested in the rift (or the lack thereof) between our identities as they’re perceived, and our given personas, or our internalized notions of ourselves—and what’s super-interesting to me is when those facets of our lives converge on one another. I think there are more than a few instances of given names (whether first or secondhand) and adopted names collapsing on one another across the book.

KA: Lastly, what are you most looking forward to at the One Story Ball?

BW: I’ve never been to a ball. So I guess I’ll tell you afterwards.

Kukuwa Ashun is an MFA candidate at New York University.