Printed by permission of SLL/Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc. Copyright by Bryan Washington
It’s been another humid summer in Houston, and just as flat as you recall—but I’ve actually spent most of this season on the West Coast. My boyfriend and I stayed with friends in Portland, for a while, where we were greeted by one of the worst heat waves that this country has seen; and then LA, where I ate some of the best Vietnamese food I’ve had in my life. I read your letter for the first time on a train in San Francisco, and then again in Oakland, at an outdoor bar that sold cold soba and warm beer. I’d told myself that my plan for these months was to work on my next book, but in actuality, inevitably, I mostly only ended up resting. I rode bikes and saw old friends. We ate outside and sat at the park. The weather grew cooler, and the days ended a little earlier, and it felt like an exhale in the midst of a very long two years.
Now I’m back in Houston. The Delta variant has brought all of us back indoors. That flatness isn’t something that I particularly missed. But I immediately, irrefutably, felt settled upon returning. Maybe that’s one way of knowing that you’re home.
In either case, it’s an honor to write you this letter. I first read Lion Cross Point on the recommendation of Thu and Sara (more about that later). I adored it, and when Echo on the Bay was published in English, it felt like a beacon during a very strange time. Your work cultivates an immense openness to the world, alongside its possibilities, and all without shying over the grimmer realities your characters face. But the hope that your characters hold, and the hope that your novels cultivate, are lights that never feel undercut—they’re tested and contorted, but they persist. Sigrid Nunez (who I adore) has said that if a work of fiction is hopeful about an aspect of the human experience, and communicates that to the reader, then that’s a very good thing. I think your work does this in spades. And I admire it deeply. You’ve made me an ardent fan.
Stateside, a question I get often concerns my interest in Japan and Japanese literature. But my answer, to everyone’s disappointment (or at least the white folks who ask), has been deeply banal: in the time I’ve been fortunate enough to spend abroad, and in Japanese circles more locally, people have been exceedingly kind to me. Which fascinates me endlessly. I visited Kansai for the first time in my very early 20’s (I suppose I’m in my “late” 20’s now)—to see a friend who’d relocated from Houston—and what immediately struck me, although I couldn’t articulate it at the time, was the way in which I instantly felt comfortable, as if I were still in my own city. The feeling was unmistakable. And a little indescribable. But there were tiny, tangible things: like mannerisms among the locals, or the way laughter drifted and then leapt across bars. Once, leaving a gay bar in Osaka, I stepped outside to find chopped and screwed rap—which originated in Houston—playing on a nearby radio. I could’ve been in my own neighborhood.
Since then, I’ve traveled back to the country at least once a year, which is a streak that ended last year with the pandemic’s onset, but those feelings only became more concrete. And a lot of my work has stemmed from that very simple interest: to think through the many different forms a home can take.
Reading-wise, I arrived at Japanese literature almost accidentally: I wasn’t a very big reader growing up. But I worked near a library that had a sizable amount of literature in translation. So, entirely by chance, I was introduced to the works of Yoko Ogawa, Natsuo Kirino, Banana Yoshimoto, Yoko Tawada, and Hiromi Kawakami. In my late teens, I spent a summer reading the entirety of Haruki Murakami’s translated oeuvre (for what it’s worth, I likely wouldn’t be writing today if not for Sputnik Sweetheart). And while I haven’t quite figured out what, specifically, these readings have meant for my work—although I’d probably be the worst person to ask—they led me to contemporary American literary fiction, and to an interest in studying the works themselves. Lately, the work of Zadie Smith, Alejandro Zambra, Raven Leilani, Andrés Neuman, Jia Tolentino, Audre Lorde, Rachel Khong, Choi Eunyoung, Akhil Sharma, Park Sang Young, N. K. Jemisin, Mieko Kawakami, Lee Lai, Eugene Lim, Ocean Vuong, Sarah Broom, and Anthony Veasna So have been deeply important to me.
These authors show me new things about the world, and about our conceptions of community. And I started writing, I think, because those questions of community plagued me so often; writing just happened to be one way of thinking through them. So maybe that’s a thread that ties my work together: I’m interested in the questions of what makes a home, particularly if our homes aren’t immediately translatable or definable. The question of home also feels permeable in your work—is it something that you find yourself interrogating, too?
Even still, I don’t think I could draw a direct line between my fiction and my own experiences. I’m a fan of autofiction, and what I’ve read of the I-novel that’s available in English (most recently, An I-Novel by Minae Mizumura), but I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s what I’m trying to do. Mostly because I’m generally loath to pull explicitly from my life for my work. But the emotions I’ve experienced? Absolutely. The tonal spaces I’ve navigated? Irrefutably. I think of that notion from James Baldwin pretty often, about how a writer’s crucible is to extract what they can from their own experience to the fullest extent (although, a year after publishing Memorial, it still gives me a laugh when I tell people the character I have the most in common with is Kunihiko, and they think I’m joking).
All of my work is queer and Black, because I’m queer and Black. Whether I’m writing about Houston or elsewhere, the work and its concerns are being formed through these prisms. I think a good chunk of my (ongoing) development as a writer has been acknowledging that these things are in no way limiting or even defining: they just “are.” And as a result, they’re limitless. Because each of these communities, and the identities of the folks who belong to them, is limitless.
Which is also a roundabout way of approaching your note on writing the other: the short story is that I agree with you. If I couldn’t spend time and space in the minds of others in my fiction, I doubt I’d be spending so much time trying to figure out how to write it. On my end, I approach it less as a question of “how” or “if” than “why”; what most interests me in narrative are the ways that communities and people come together. For me, that sort of story would be intellectually and emotionally dishonest unless it gave credence to voices and people with identities that don’t necessarily align directly with mine. When I’m writing outside of myself, it’s a big responsibility, and much of my process is researching, interrogating, and building a foundation from which I can begin to feel comfortable writing about each character. Which can be an ungodly amount of work. But it’s all very necessary for me. Because in my experience, at least, marginalized communities in the States aren’t saying that authors can’t write outside of their experience—they’re simply asking them to do the work behind it, and also to be held accountable for that decision. But many (white) authors don’t want that. Perhaps because they haven’t had to worry about it, historically. Or perhaps because the work required to do these things is really, really hard. How have you navigated writing outside of yourself?
The communities I belong to inform my work from the first word to the last—because how can’t they?—and it’s important to me that the characters are allowed to have a dialogue on their own terms, in communication with one another. But it’s just as important to me that they aren’t solely siloed by their identities. And that’s still, despite everything, a relative rarity in contemporary American literary fiction. If we were to belabor the question of sales, or what the market seems to reward (a conversation that makes my skin break out) it’s an unspoken notion that the most reductive narratives concerning marginalization, while trafficking in trauma, will always scale sales-wise. The reduction of identity in these narratives makes for easier discernibility, which makes for easier categorization, and there will always be an audience for the simplification of our narratives. That’s the sort of story that a (white) reader might pat themselves on the back for having read. Maybe things are changing. But it’s hard to say. Because, as you noted, the Alejandro Zambra magnification of marginalized voices in the US is recent history.
But, at the same time, my stories certainly aren’t new stories. I see these experiences in the lives of my friends and neighbors every day. And I’m not thinking about discernibility, translatability, or marketability when I’m working: when I’m writing (or pretending to write), something that I keep in mind (which I’m constantly re-learning), is that, whether I know it or not, I’m writing to learn something, but not necessarily to find a conclusion. Even if I’m chasing a question, I’m not necessarily interested in answering it. But to further the limits of the question, to extend it into other conversations, to create more questions, to learn more about yourself, is a gift, I think. One that no one can take away from you. All of my writing circles around that Toni Morrison adage about creating the sort of thing that you’d like to read. And what I’d like to read are narratives that center the communities I care for, and that have cared for me, allowing them the benefit of the doubt and the expansiveness that I see within them every day, without feeling the compulsion to justify it or explain why. I like to tell stories about the people and places that mean a lot to me. And it’s been one of the great privileges of my life that I’ve had the chance to do so.
Most importantly though, I hope that you and yours are well. And that you’re finding pleasure where you can, whether tiny or large; in reading and writing, sure, but also everything else. Or have you been able to write in our current climate? Is there anything in particular that’s bringing you joy nowadays? And how have you been moving through the world as of late? Funnily enough—and maybe this is a note to close on, for now—we’ve actually met before, in person, albeit briefly. I was at the reading that you had in Houston. I remember it was a lovely evening. And when I gave you my copy of your novel to sign, you were very kind. I was a little starstruck, because I so enjoyed the book, and I remember you asking if I’d read any other contemporary Japanese authors. When I mentioned Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, you mentioned that the two of you were friends. Then we shook hands (as unimaginable as it seems in the midst of this pandemic).
Checking the forecast, it looks like rain is on the way to Houston, but maybe brighter skies will follow. And, if they emerge, I think my person and I will walk the dog up the block and back a few times. That’ll be the tiny journey we’ll take today. There’s a line from Yoshimoto’s Kitchen that I read nearly a decade ago, and it’s one that I think of just about every day: No matter what, I want to continue living with the awareness that I will die. Without that, I am not alive. That is what makes the life I have now possible.
That has informed how I live and how I write every day of my life since I read it. And Yoshimoto couldn’t have been thinking of me, or anyone like me, when she wrote it! As skeptical as I am, I think that’s pretty magical.
Printed by permission of SLL/Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc. Copyright by Bryan Washington