Bryan Washington

SWEATER by Vince

A Place at the Table with Bryan Washington

Last fall, to mark the release of his latest novel Family Meal, the award-winning author Bryan Washington spoke with Cero Magazine poetry editor Ocean Vuong at Brooklyn’s Center for Fiction. The two longtime friends discussed queer pleasure and trauma, the influence of Japanese literature, and what we owe each other and ourselves. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Ocean Vuong Thank you so much for joining us here to celebrate. It's a deep honor for me as a practitioner to be alive and breathing while you are. I feel great kinship with your work, Bryan. Why don't we open up with the voice in Family Meal? You've always had a wide range of registers, styles, and vernaculars in your books. We see that in [your previous books] Lot, Memorial, of course, but here, you really opened up with that. You're leaning into this voice-driven character. The language itself is almost mimetic of thought. There's a lot of callbacks, there's a lot of hesitations. I can hear these voices as I read them and I can hear where they're coming from geographically, the tensions in their relationships. Can you talk a little bit about voice and vernaculars, particularly in this project in relation to the others?

Bryan Washington I feel like you may have kinship on this front as well. As I've progressed with projects, whether long form or short form, I've become less certain about certainty and less sure of the, I suppose, correctness of a particular voice—or the solidity of a particular voice. Particularly over the last few years, I found that what I think about anything has radically shifted. For this particular narrative, two characters are navigating the question of what a friendship looks like, really what a relationship looks like, what care can look like, or what a community can look like. For queer folks who were circling around these questions, perhaps for which they don't have models—or perhaps the models that they have might feel inaccessible or irrelevant to their particular situations—to have a voice or to have voices that are centered in a sort of certainty or centered in a sort of solution-oriented way, it felt as if though it would be intellectually dishonest but also emotionally dishonest. For me, voice-wise, and also for the characters in many different ways, the challenge was trying to figure out what it meant to be okay in a particular moment, which is going to shift from context to context, from person to person. It wouldn't feel entirely honest to me if any of the characters were certain in their assessment of what that meant for them, of who they wanted to become, of who they are in a given moment. In quite a lot of ways, the hope is that the relationship between TJ and Cam, between many of these characters, is of individuals who are grasping for one another, who are reaching for one another. If you're grasping towards someone, if you're grasping towards something, then you may not have the exact language in that moment. Perhaps the emotion is familiar to you but articulating that emotion becomes quite difficult. So there's the fumbling with language, there's the grasping with and toward language, but they don't think of that as a failure because there's an effort. Nonetheless, they're still reaching toward, there's still the grasping toward. That in itself is its own action.

OV Wow. It brings to mind one of the ways that literary culture codes its values in the dominant semiotics, where it will say things like, “A good book is cohesive, consistent.” We never ask, “Well, why?” What does that serve in this idea, this mythos of greatness that we supposedly chase after? I think what I really love about this book is that it's stubbornly disobedient to those models without being reactionary. It's almost like it doesn't deserve a full reaction, but it goes on its own path, and you're speaking to that right away. You are allowing characters a sort of dissonance with themselves that breaks patterns. This is true also in how the plot moves. There's a kind of reciprocal bond. People owe each other things and I think the friction of the drama here is how much we are owed and how do we perform that debt to each other and whether we're worthy of it. What I found really courageous in this book is that you've decided that that is enough, that the characters don't have to go through an arc, that they don't have to follow this mythos of improvement or even transformation. There is change here without transformation and I found that incredibly courageous. Was that on your mind at all in how you plotted this novel?

BW In a lot of ways it was your use of the Kishōtenketsu early on in your own work that served as a model for what a narrative can look like if conflict isn't the crux of the narrative in and of itself. What if the tension or the conflict that exists in a narrative is simply the passage of time or the proximity of characters to one another? Which is a little bit antagonistic to the way that so many of us have been taught in contemporary American literary fiction, or white contemporary American literary fiction, that the protagonist has to solve something, they have to figure something out, and then they are better for it. Or they have to overcome an issue and then they are better for it on the other side. In writing narratives featuring folks who are coming from these marginalized communities, queer folks who are coming from marginalized communities, who among us is certain? Who among us feels as if though we are “the Voice” or we have “the Solution”? At any given moment, I feel like for these particular characters, for my own life, for that of my friends, so much comes from the collective. The collective is where value is ascribed, it's where it's recognized, right? Not from an individual saying that this is the right way but from a shared experience ricocheting off of each of us and our finding through trial and error and error and error and error and error and trial and temporary solution, that, okay, maybe this is something that works, not just for me, necessarily, but for us, collectively. This is how we, collectively, as a community, are able to navigate this particular moment. And just one way, as well. I think that on the level of prose, for me, even though there are only three narratives in the book, that meant trying to give as much credence to each speaker in the text as possible, attempting to remember that none of us feels as though we are a tertiary character in our own life. We may not be the person on stage at the moment, but we are the protagonists in our own respective scenarios, our own respective situations. If the attempt is to try to paint as close to a simulacrum of lived experience as possible on the page, trying to lean into that, trying to allow the community of voices, trying to allow a communal arc in lieu of the arc and the solution and the disaster and the eclipsing of that disaster on the page felt to me more fitting. Not only for this particular narrative, but for the characters that I was circling around.

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Vintage COAT by Dior Men. SHIRT by Loewe from ByGeorge. PANTS by Rag & Bone. SOCKS by Druthers NYC. SNEAKERS by Adidas. NECKLACE, Washington's own. BRACELET by Miansai.

OV Is that why you use the bar as a place? It's such a perfect organizing principle for found family. We often talk about found family amongst queer friends, and that much is true, but there's also a kind of managerial or circumstantial found family in labor, particularly in service industries. I feel that sort of tactile kinship, where people in very subtle and also grand ways rescue each other on every shift. I was curious how conscious setting, particularly Osaka, Houston, but also the queer bar—how was that functioning to you craftwise, as a literary device in this book?

BW It was an active function. I feel like oftentimes setting can be thought of as an entity or something that is useful in narrative but not the narrative in and of itself, but I've found that narrative with a capital N is indistinguishable from the world in which it exists. That world, its contexts, informs the decisions that each of the characters is making. If we're thinking about queer characters, or characters who are coming from myriad communities inside of queer communities, the mores that exist for them, the mores that have been presented for them, so often don't align with their own trajectories or their own sense of selves or sense of community, how they may feel that they are, who they are, who they want to become. It felt like a means of creating a subsect of constant energy. There's no one way that a particular queer bar is on any given evening. It's many different ways simultaneously every evening, all of the time, which can be a bit unruly on the page. It can be a bit of a task to capture the energy of whatever the fuck someone's singing in karaoke, strobe lights, this is last call, everyone's like, “I don't know what I'm going to do, I'm going to the next place!” Trying to put that on the page is challenging. Even alluding to it felt like a really high bar. I felt if I could even allude to the multiplicity of emotions and just the amount of possibility that can exist in these spaces, that would be enough, in a lot of ways. In many different ways, the conceit of Family Meal, for me, is this question of pleasure and what pleasure can mean to an individual, how pleasure can change someone if they acquire that pleasure. What if that pleasure shifts for a particular person? Can they accept that? Is that acceptable? Is it okay not to want the thing that I've been told that I want? Or is it okay to want what has been marketed or told to me or sold to me as being the undesirable thing? I think that this is a question that so many queer folks are constantly navigating, regardless of where you are on your own personal journey or your own personal sense of self. In that way, I think that the narrative has, or ideally has, a sort of energy that serves as an undercurrent, not only for the characters but also for the audience, for the reader. Who among us is entirely certain of ourselves or who among us has been entirely certain of ourselves for a month at a time over the course of the last four years? No, it certainly hasn't been me. Trying to put that on the page, trying to put even an iteration of that on the page, felt as though it would be a goal.

OV You use the catalog as a way to kind to uphold simultaneity. Simultaneity is actually impossible in writing because we're working with a linear technology. Only one thing can occur at a time, it's one sentence at a time. What I've noticed is that you really employ the catalog, this kind of sequential collection. You do get the sense that the author's trying to embrace, in this Whitmanesque way, the communities that the voice is trying to hold. Part of the great tensions of this book is that you can see how fraught that work is, that the wider you hold it, the weaker the embrace could be and the more things can come in and disrupt that embrace. The book starts to disintegrate, if you will, into a kind of tactile performance where halfway through we have the one-sentence pages as we enter moments of grief and rupture in the text. I really appreciate that, because we usually expect that from our poets. I was really lovely to see a fiction writer leaning into moving through space and also understanding, with great empathy, what it's like to turn the page. The act of turning the page does something to the mind. It's not exactly a disruption. It's not exactly a finite end, like a period, but something in the unconscious is sort of washed a bit and made new. I didn't see that in your other books. I was curious how you arrived at this and what were the decisions here? One would hope that we get better at our jobs, the longer we do them.

BW I think that in many different ways, like your work, both prose and poetry are an education in that regard, of thinking not only of the structure of a narrative from the standpoint of a narrative—as far as the events on the page are concerned—but also the architecture of the book as a larger project from a visual standpoint. What does it feel at an emotional level to move from this moment to the next? This particular scene or this particular motif or this particular line has left your reader or the audience feeling one way. How can I collapse that feeling, whether through a scene or through an individual word or through white space or through negative space on the page or run on over the course of three or four different pages? For me, it came back to, for each of these characters in different ways, trying to emulate the feeling of discovery. As you noted, once you're aware that you can be anything, that you can have anything that you want to do, there's a lot of elation in that, like, ”I can be anything? What the fuck!” But if you can be anything, that's also quite a burden, right? It's a lot to bear. There's a question of, who do you want to be? Who can you become if pleasure is something that is within my grasp, if it's something that I can really hold on to, if I believe that I deserve pleasure? Then a question becomes, ”Okay, well, how much is too much for me as an individual?” How do I determine what that is? What that feels like? Whether I like it or not? Whether it's okay for me to like it or not? Why do I feel one way or the other about these particular pleasures or about these particular events? It felt as if though one way—because it is the page—you're navigating one word at a time, I can't show you how many people are in a room whilst showing you what's playing on the stereo in that room, while showing you the proximity of the people to one another simultaneously in the way that you could if you had a visual element. You're approaching each of these ideas one after the other, so utilizing the page or attempting to utilize the page to add an additional dimension to what is actually occurring narratively felt like a sort of backend way of adding an additional layer—not only emotionally, or the visceral feeling of realizing that, ”Okay, this idea is actually five pages.” This moment, this rush that this character is feeling, it's not going away, it's really stagnant. Or, “Oh, this particular idea is so daunting, it's so challenging that we get four words on this page, six words on this page, and one word on this page.” The white space, whilst it is negative space, is doing work as well, is also serving its function as its own device. I think that honestly, truly reading your work and reading the work of others who were utilizing the architecture of the book, that is one way in which I began to think—not better or worse, necessarily—but differently about the architecture of a book and the reader's experience as you move from moment to moment in lieu of simply seeing the scene.

OV It's like how space works in architecture and silence in music. There's a great respect for the craft and it takes a lot of courage to say a negation of language amplifies language. I think that's really, really felt here. Also we can say that with the photographs in this book. I'm curious, at what point do you decide that language is not enough? There's a moment where the grief, trauma, and death render these explosions of beauty that come almost as little packets of medicinal moments in this book. What was the decision around putting photos, particularly photos of flowers in the streets? I believe it's in Japan. Can you talk a little bit about that visual element and your relationship with photography?

COAT by ,Homme Plis,s,é ,Issey Miyake., T-SHIRT by ,Druthers NYC.

COAT by Homme Plissé Issey Miyake. T-SHIRT by Druthers NYC.

BW For me, there are three narrators in the book. Kai's the narrator for whom the photographs are interlaced, and his particular text—it's not a spoiler, it's not a reveal necessarily to say he's deceased at the time at which the narrative begins, at the page time level. That was an element of the story that it took me quite a while to arrive at. I'd said this in a few other contexts, but I wrote about ten thousand words of this book between the end of 2019 and the beginning of our current pandemic. Upon the closure of businesses and the canceling events and all the little things that instigated the moment in which we find ourselves now, I found myself throwing away those ten thousand words. I didn't feel as though they had the weight that felt, not necessarily equivalent, but even a nod to the moment, not necessarily the emotions, that it felt as if I was experiencing and then I was experiencing by proximity of friends and loved ones. It didn't feel as though there was value there anymore. I was wary of including a narrative or a narrator who had died, whose death was in many ways a centerpiece of the novel, the event around which every other character circulates in some way, shape, or form. Not including that nod to American violence and the ways in which it can touch each of us when we're least expecting it felt as though it would be dishonest. The challenge for me became one of how to nod to the fact that this violence and the fact of its presence in all of our lives—particularly the lives of the most marginalized amongst us—while not allowing that violence to supersede the entirety of the narrative. How can these things exist in the same space without one of them becoming corrosive to the other or feeling as if though it's explanatory or feeling as though I'm trying to teach the reader or the audience something? I enjoy reading, having someone telling me how to feel and so on. I found that having photos of flowers, small pockets of things that I found beautiful, in the midst of this particular narrator, who is deceased, is no longer here in his present tense moments, didn't feel as if though it would cancel it out. It didn't really even feel as if it served as a counterbalance for that violence, but it felt like a nod to the fact that many things can be true at the same time, which in many ways is a project of the book, a larger project of the one that each of the characters is navigating to different degrees.

OV There's a surprising sense of authorial intervention that comes through. I think this is true with the traditional sense of the Tolstoyan omniscient author coming in to explain, which we've moved away from in the twentieth and twenty-first century, but you kind of picked up on that in a different way. You innovated on that trope, you haven't disabused it from from the toolkit, because when I see the photo I say, ”Oh, Bryan's here.” We value ”literature” for its escapist [quality.] Aristotle says the greatest achievement of art is mimesis and Henry James proliferated that. Fiction achieves itself best when it can mimic, without flaw, the world. We have realism for one hundred plus years. I think what I'm interested here is that you said, ”Well, what if the author is here?” Because the author was always here. Perhaps there are benefits of waking up from the fictive dream to consider the world, because that is what we do. The times I've read this book, I get to the breaks and I look up. I look up at the world I'm living in and I'm in it. There is no true, true escape. I’ve known you through the years and when I see the photo I imagine you with just your flowers on the back of your hand. I think what we're touching on is something really important, these key words of trauma, or trauma plot. I think it will behoove us a great deal to interrogate how the conversation is framed even before we enter the conversation. At the heart of it, when that word is lobbed at writers of color, particularly, it's actually a trap, because what we're talking about now is an engagement with a species-wide condition of violence and suffering and to assume that we don't experience that is to live in a kind of fraudulence. There's a double bind that happens, that if you engage in that, mostly as a writer of color, you are pigeonholed into writing about trauma. Trauma is in this book. Someone dies from police violence and was murdered. It's interesting to me that if we look back at the canon, the Western canon, the word ‘trauma’ is not applied to Hemingway, Vonnegut, JD Salinger, Catcher in the Rye, which by the way has an attempted sexual assault by a pedophile on our protagonist. It's interesting that those works, while dealing with the species-wide condition of violence, are seen as brave fictive artisanal crafts that are rendered through language as brave and stoic engagement, without turning away the work of witness. We see this again with Siegfried Sassoon and the postwar European writers as well. Interestingly enough, when it comes to writers of color, uh oh, if you're writing about troubles, then you're writing about trauma. I think what it's actually saying is that trauma is anthropological reportage and it strips the writer of color's agency to craft a fictive work. It renders it back to, ”Oh, you're only doing something from your culture and you're not making a crafted object.” If you look at how Morrison was treated when she wrote The Bluest Eye, I was fascinated. Even the critics that praise The Bluest Eye talked about the trauma. But the greatest achievement, I think, of The Bluest Eye is not the traumatic exposé but rather that it was able to critique and put judgment on whiteness without centering white people. How nefarious to allay that great achievement by casting it off as a traumatic work. I can tell from your reading that you've been paying attention to this discourse and what you've done so bravely is say, ”I'm listening to it, but I have something I want to do. If you excuse me, I'm going to write about what's important to me. I want to write about what I've experienced—both the horrors of the American life and the joys that reckoning with that horror makes possible.” I think that stubbornness towards something ahead of you, moving the fiction towards something ahead of you, beyond the dialectic, beyond this binary of this or that, was great skepticism of the terms. It's a trap. ”Did you write trauma porn or not?” Well, that's a trap. I think this book is so beautiful in that it upends that. It says, ”This is the world we live in. And I'm going to prioritize writing what I want.”

BW Is it a question of translatability? I wonder that more often than not, right? For Lot, my first book, many people wondered if the recurring protagonist was me. It's not. For Memorial, many of those same folks wondered if either of those protagonists were me, which is wild if you've read that book, but neither of them is. For this book as well, many people have wondered if two of the three protagonists are me as well or feel like me or my own experiences. I circle around this question of translatability quite often. It is a trap in a lot of ways. It's a distraction from doing the work that you're looking to do. If that is in fact the work that you are looking to do—how can I write about the communities that I would like to spend time with, whose tribulations I would like to spend time with, whose joys I would like to spend time with? That's one question. There's a separate, lingering question, particularly if you're writing for publication. This notion of, ”Will they get it? Is this translatable to the sort of euphoric, idealistic, white reader? Will they see what I'm trying to do? Will they see the care that I'm trying to craft with these particular characters?” If I have many different elements, if I even attempt to put a tenth of the elements that I see and the folks that I hold dear and the communities that I belong to, the communities that I am parallel to, if I just have a tiny amount of that, even that still is going to be an infinitude of emotion—is that translatable to the reader? Or is what's more translatable, is what's more sellable, the one incident, the recognizably disastrous incident that a reader can pick up and say, ”Oh, this book is about that. This book is about the killing of a queer Black guy by way of the state”?

SHIRT by ,Loewe ,from ByGeorge

SHIRT by Loewe from ByGeorge

OV Aboutness depends on the reader, yet sometimes critics will give an aboutness as a preconceived truth. My friend Robert Jones Jr. wrote The Prophets, this beautiful, beautiful book, and he said, ”I don't understand that everyone talks about the trauma in this book, but last I checked, I was writing about love.” It's really interesting, particularly for a Black, queer author, to say, ”All this is my version of love.”

BW How often do you see it, this question of who gets to write about love or whose love is translatable? Who can write about love and have that love be immediately recognizable to our perceived reader or our perceived idea of the reader? How do I have to bend language? What shorthands do I have to make more accessible for my reader? Can my character speak the way that they speak amongst themselves in their communities to communicate love, to communicate honesty, to communicate challenges? Or what do I have to shift so that they become more recognizable to our preconceived notions of what is viable in a canon?

OV How much of myself do I erase in order to be seen? You mentioned Kishōtenketsu. In so much of your writing, in your books and for the nonfiction in your articles, there's an incredible reverence and a dignified influence from Asian culture and media and literature. You're one of the prime examples for me to take influence from other cultures with such dignity and respect, both for the cultures but also for self respect. I deeply admire that, the clear ethics around how you engage. I can look at the books and surmise who has influenced some of these maneuvers, but I'm curious to to hear you speak on how Asian media and culture have influenced your work as a writer.

BW That's pretty straightforward in my case. I wasn't the biggest reader in my teens and my late teens, which is a euphemism. I wasn't a reader, I didn't really care about that shit, I wanted to do other things out in the world. It was only after I was working a job that I did not like—I was a cashier at a chicken shop—the outlet that I had that was most accessible to me was a library that was quite near this particular chicken shop. I started reading with a reverence for the work of writing, the labor of writing, the labor of the architecture of writing, primarily fiction and translation, and more specifically Japanese women in translation—which is to say the work of folks like Banana Yoshimoto or Yoko Tawada or Natsuo Kirino or Yōko Ogawa. In many different ways, they were my portal to literary fiction or what we might think of collectively or we've all decided to deem literary fiction. They were my access point, and not necessarily because what they were writing about was recognizable to me. I would argue that Yoko Tawada was not thinking about me when she was working on her early works, but [I was influenced by] the ways in which the relationships existed and unspooled with one another, the care that was taken for each character, the care that was taken with the ways in which their emotions shifted, the way in which uncertainty—in Banana Yoshimoto's work in particular—is not a fault, the ways in which these collective means of looking at structure didn't mirror what I may have thought of as being a typical arc for a narrative. It doesn't have to progress in an A through Z manner, in the way that so many of our collective experiences don't reveal themselves as a choreographed structure as we navigate our day-to-day lives. I think that an exposure to these works, which is only possible by way of librarians was, and is, something that is extremely dear to me. If I hadn't read [Yashimoto’s] Kitchen when I did, I would not be doing what I'm doing. I would not be here right now. Seeing the ways in which narratives and narrative structures that I thought were true and sure and right were just one point, one speck amongst so many and seeing the ways in which these specific authors showed me that, I can only be grateful to them and also the translators who made reading their work in English possible. [They were] very important to me, very important to my sense of structure, very important to my sense of what is possible narratively, and probably most significantly, the fact that anything truly is possible, narratively. These were the authors that showed me that quite early on.

OV It's so brilliant you say that, because when I read your work I see a confidence in these maneuvers that are not necessarily the safe maneuvers in the West. I said, ”There's such confidence, there must be a pool of influence,” and we remind ourselves, particularly reading your work, that there are canons of our own choosing and we curate it accordingly. I feel, ”Where is this coming from?” and I start to see, particularly as you said, the Japanese women. Of course, a Japanese woman was the first novelist in our species, Lady Murasaki, The Tale of Genji, the year 1011, five hundred years before Don Quixote. Part of that book's miraculous achievement was that it privileged interiorities. Many scholars say that the break between the epic and the romance to the novel was a move towards interiority. Lady Murasaki did that, and the funny—the brilliant thing is that when asked, ”Why did you write this thousand-page novel?” she said, ”I was bored.” I think that feeling of play and how the mundane is also a site of wonder is also true in your work. I can feel that thread going through all the way. That's what makes it so valuable to me, that residue—because all books, I think, have a residue on us. We might not remember a single word that we've read but there's a kind of stain that happens and occurs on our selfhood. For you, I get this joyous sense of care for people, and I see that relationship with that canon that you've just mentioned there. So thank you for saying that.

Family Meal is out now. Read this story and many more in print by ordering our seventh issue here.

Bryan Washington

SWEATER by Vince. PANTS by Theory.

Bryan Washington

SWEATER by Vince. PANTS by Theory.


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