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On Growing Up Poor & Gay in Houston


By Bryan Washington (Riverhead Books: 2019)

Bryan Washington’s first book, Lot, is a collection of short stories about growing up a poor, gay person of color in Houston. It has been widely acclaimed since it came out last year; most recently, it won best gay fiction in the 2020 Lambda Literary Awards.

Half of the stories chronicle episodes in the life of narrator Nicolás, one of three children “too dark for the blancos, too Latin for the blacks” who works from an early age at his family’s financially precarious restaurant. The other half are third-person narratives about freeloading cousins, youths looking for a break, baseball, drug dealers, and hustlers.

In an interview in The Guardian, Washington observed that there’s no unitary experience of being gay, and in Lot he has depicted “a handful of different experiences without trying to state or subject them as being ‘the’ experience.” So Nicolás and the other youths in the book share quick “tugs,” have affairs with other young men and sometimes women, go on the game, and dream about getting husbands. Nicolás’s sister asks him “how’s the queer thing going”; his brother says “the only thing worse than a junkie father [is] a faggot son”; and when a white boyfriend asks if he is out, he says he he doesn’t know what that means.

Mostly, gayness is always there, just a fact, another strand in a story with many other strands of equal importance: poverty, institutionalized racism, the urban desolation of Houston, a constant longing to escape, and the gentrification of poor neighborhoods.

Most of the narrators go unnamed, but one voice sings through all of the stories, almost as if Nicolás is the universal narrator is the author telling us some version of his own story. In a 2017 essay in The Awl, however, Washington cautioned against assuming that all fiction by people of color is autobiographical: “There is a profound difference between acknowledging [that] an event may be derived from lived experience and assuming that a group of others is capable of no more than direct transcription.”

Washington’s artful prose is anything but “direct transcription,” yet his writing is disarmingly spare and straightforward. Events and characters speak for themselves, without comment: “I grabbed my socks and my cap and my belt and I left and he did not put up a fight. / This is how easy it is to walk out of a life. I’d always wondered, and now I knew.” This gives the stories a crystalline clarity, but at times I found myself wanting to know more: What is Nicolás thinking? What is the narrative that holds it all together? What does it all mean?

Perhaps this is me, child of a privileged upbringing, unfairly asking someone else whose experience I have not lived and cannot know to explain himself to me. Or perhaps it is just grasping for the kind of false verisimilitude that Hollywood screenwriters are so good at delivering, where no fact is extraneous and no loose end is left untied.

As Colm Tóibín observed in his review of The Man in the Red Coat, history “is often made up of events that are highly unlikely. It is only in fiction that the facts have to be plausible.” In real life, once the preconditions are set, things just happen, and real human beings don’t always spend time reflecting on the deeper meanings. Why should we expect fiction to be any different?

Bryan Washington’s second book, Memorial, will be released in October 2020. He spoke about it recently with Entertainment Weekly.

Bryan Washington: Lot (Riverhead Books, 2019) · Illustration by gay·F·fect: Houston shotgun houses CC BY 2.0 Patrick Feller; base map and data from OpenStreetMap and OpenStreetMap Foundation; rainbow flag and men holding hands adapted from public domain images on Wikimedia Commons.

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