Neighborhood Stories

“But the neighborhood’s changed. With our not-legals shuffling in, people who don’t have time for violence, people whose only reason for bouncing was to get away from the violence, we’ve mellowed out, found our rhythm. Slowed down. You can raise a kid in the complex. Start a garden or some shit.”

-Bryan Washington, “Alief”

I read Bryan Washington’s short story collection, Lot, in the spring when one of my advisors assigned it to me. I loved it so much that I bought the book for myself this summer, and I’ve already reread it once. These are stories that stand up to rereading–Washington has created a portal to Black and Latinex neighborhoods in Houston, and you won’t want to leave. I saw Alexander Chee speak to my graduate program this summer, and he cited this book as proof that you no longer need to be queer or a person of color in the publishing industry anymore. You can be everything. For a collection that’s less than 250 pages, Washington leaves no stone unturned. His characters are biracial, queer, Black, Latinex, immigrants, children, women, men, and sex workers. The stories are so inherently intersectional that they are now one of the standards I hold my and other’s writing to.

Several of Lot‘s stories are narrated by the same character, a young gay man who is half Black and half Latino. I loved this technique in Grace Paley’s stories and I loved it in Washington’s, as well. The stories show this narrator and his family at various points from his early adolescence to his twenties, but Washington moves through time in every story. You learn in a paragraph that someone will leave, or get married, long before you read the scene of them leaving or visiting with their spouse and children. This allows the reader to appreciate the stories for their language and imagery, rather than rush through to find out what happens to people–in fact, even for stories that don’t feature this main character, linear plot is made secondary. Washington often begins with the expected ending or “twist”. The first sentence of “Alief”, which I quote at the beginning of this post, starts with: “Just before they slept together for the final time and before Aja’s lover was tossed by her husband, our neighborhood diplomat, onto the concrete curb outside their apartment complex…” and “Peggy Park” a four-page story about a pickup baseball team, begins: “Micah turned pro and the rest of us went regular”. The strength of Washington’s writing allows him to reveal characters’ pasts and futures as he shows a specific moment in scene.

After the stories that follow Lot‘s unnamed narrator, my favorites are “Bayou”, a strange story that is at once about heartbreak, the importance of male friendship, and a mystical creature, and “Waugh”, a forty-page story about the fear and illness unprotected sex workers are forced to endure. They show the range of the collection, and of Houston itself, by travelling further across the city and showing scenes outside of domestic and family life. Lot is a fantastic collection because Washington captures people how they live. In my last post, I wrote about N. K. Jemisin’s The City We Became because her portrayal of gentrification and bigotry as personified evil is a lesson than many people need right now. Lot shows how much there is in American cities–what should be celebrated and what should be improved–and the choices that cast their lives in relief. The title story, “Lot” is about the narrator fighting to keep his family’s restaurant, which is left to him and his mother after his father and siblings leave, one by one. Gentrification can be an unstoppable force, but Washington stakes a claim for unrepresented communities in Houston and everywhere in America in his collection.

For blog updates and other writing news, follow me on Instagram at @deshpande_writes!

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