There’s an image of the quintessential Houstonian, established in the boom years of the seventies and often invoked in the wake of Hurricane Harvey and the Astros’ long-awaited World Series championship. Houstonians are resilient. Houstonians are bold. Houstonians are strivers. Yet beyond a shared determination, the denizens of the most diverse metro area in the country defy a singular narrative. In Lot (Riverhead, March 19), Bryan Washington offers his perspective on the city’s many identities through a series of interconnected short stories. The 25-year-old, who has spent most of his life in Houston, writes about the city for national publications like the New Yorker and the online magazine Catapult, where his column, “Bayou Diaries,” recently concluded. In Lot, his first book, Washington reveals the range of perspectives that coexist in his hometown. By tracing his main protagonist’s adolescence throughout the city’s neighborhoods, he captures the personality of an ever-changing place.
Texas Monthly: You originally wrote stories all from different perspectives but ended up focusing on a few narratives. How did you decide to express a city’s character predominantly through one voice?
Bryan Washington: My initial idea of what I wanted the book to be was a few stories highlighting different hubs from the city. I thought that could be the cohesive line that strings together the collection: a bunch of narratives about a place that is unique in each of its corners, but ends up being sold as the sum of its parts. That didn’t work out, because I latched onto one voice in particular—the recurring narrator—and I found that I wanted to learn more about him, how he was navigating the city, his family, and the relationships that he had. I’d say that I wanted to write about, say, Bellaire, but it ultimately ended up coming back to that one narrator and me wondering, how was he navigating these various trials?
TM: What drew you to that character?
BW: His narratives in particular were a great visage for working around the themes that I’m really interested in: intimacy between young men, families that are in transition, reconciling who you are with where you live, and what happens when you stay in a place or when you leave a place.
TM: Lot focuses on fictional Houstonians, but the city itself is a prominent character. Did you start out thinking of Houston as a character?
BW: I think I figured it out by the act of writing and by reading narratives in which places are as much a factor as movement in the stories. If you read Zadie Smith’s NW or Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, London and Tokyo are as integral to those narratives as the characters. Rereading those books got me thinking, “How can I put the Houston of these characters on the page in a way that’s particular to them?”
TM: Texas has a rich literary history of place-centric writing too. Did you look to any Texans as influences?
BW: One book that was extremely helpful to me was Domingo Martinez’s memoir The Boy Kings of Texas. His voice is rooted not only in the idea of what it means to be from Brownsville but in the ways that he gets into the city’s contours without explicitly describing it.
TM: What does that particularity add to the portrayal of a place?
BW: Writing the book became significantly easier when I was less concerned with trying to capture Houston en masse, which I don’t think would be possible, because there are just so many different ways you can live in this city. Some of them touch one another—the diversity and the sprawl are pretty consistent throughout—but the experience that someone might have growing up in Midtown is wildly different from someone growing up in Pearland or Bellaire or Memorial. By making each of the characters’ experiences extremely specific, I think I was able to heighten what different parts of the city mean to different people.
TM: You’ve spoken about how you hope the variety of perspectives in Lot might inspire a greater diversity in the range of literary voices coming out of Houston.
BW: To my knowledge, we’re not overly inundated with contemporary narratives that take place in Houston. A good thing that could come out of the release of this collection would be the opportunity for other people to write about the city in the way that it’s specific to them. All the narratives I’m writing would be wildly different from those written by a Vietnamese American or an Indian American or someone who moved here from the Caribbean or Nigeria. When someone who isn’t from Houston thinks of the city, they probably don’t think of a Jamaican restaurant next to a Thai barbershop next to a taqueria.
TM: So what is the image of Houston that outsiders have?
BW: What fascinates and maybe confuses people who aren’t from here is that there’s so much diversity, and it all seems to work with relatively little friction. That idea is more heavily associated with the Bay Area or New York, somewhere that isn’t Texas. That’s confusing for someone who is trying to capture their idea of what they think the South is or what they think Texas is or a Texas city is, especially when the narrative people have of the South is that it’s a place that is wildly contrarian, wildly disagreeable to diversity, wildly disagreeable to acceptance. Houston is very much not that.
TM: So many places that have been celebrated for their acceptance and openness—the Bay Area, New York, Austin—are now being criticized for allowing their distinctive identities to be muted by the arrival of wealthy, largely white newcomers. You’ve written about that shift in your column for Catapult, and you address it in some of the stories in Lot. How do you see that playing out in Houston?
BW: As locals are being priced out, that’s beginning to shift the identity of the city, but I think that it isn’t moving at as rapid a pace as in a city like Austin, partly because of Houston’s sprawl. In lieu of people being pushed entirely out of Houston, the idea of what we think of as Houston is growing. Instead of being limited to the loop inside 610, people are being pushed to the outlying areas, so the city is only growing larger. Instead of [being] the greater Houston area, it will all just become Houston.
TM: As much as Houston gets made fun of for its sprawl, it has a real advantage—sprawl means flexibility.
BW: Yeah, it’s a deeply livable city.
TM: Do you think of yourself as someone who will always be in Houston?
BW: It’s interesting; I’m much more comfortable saying that I’ll be a lifelong Houstonian than that I’ll be a lifelong Texan. When I go anywhere in the States that isn’t Houston—with the exception of Los Angeles—what immediately jumps out is the lack of diversity. Growing up here, I took for granted that living in a city center means being around so many cuisines, having neighbors from so many countries, being in the midst of so many different cultures. It wasn’t until I started traveling that I saw that wasn’t the standard from city to city.
TM: How do you see the identity of being a Houstonian as different from being a Texan?
BW: I think that people who aren’t from Texas see the state as rooted in the South. It has conservatism within arm’s reach and a traditionalist way of living. Houston has those things, but they don’t define it. I don’t think Houston is entirely divorced from the narrative of Texas as a whole, but I think there’s certainly an asterisk next to it—it’s a little bit different from the rest of the state.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
This article originally appeared in the April 2019 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Bayou City Stories.” Subscribe today.