Ono Masatsugu｜Bryan Washington
In early January 2020, I went to New York for an academic gathering at NYU. For a couple of days, I stayed at the Washington Square Hotel, close to the university, and when the event was over, I met up with an editor named Elmer Luke and his partner Robert. (Elmer played a large role in introducing Haruki Murakami’s work to the English-speaking world.) They took me to Prune, a well-known bistro that would unfortunately close its doors a few months later during COVID. We had an unforgettable evening, and the next day I flew to Raleigh, North Carolina, to visit Akhil Sharma, a writer who teaches at Duke University and whose autobiographical novel Family Life I had translated into Japanese.
While staying at Akhil’s house in a neighborhood surrounded by trees, I found an issue of The New Yorker on his kitchen counter and started leafing through it. Akhil came over and told me that, as a subscriber, he could give me online access to the magazine if I was interested. Thanks to his kind offer, I read the January 20, 2020 issue, which featured a short story called “Visitor.”
The story, narrated by a young gay man living in Houston, begins with a Chinese-Jamaican stranger arriving at the narrator’s door late at night, claiming to be the lover of the narrator’s late father. The narrator is shocked to hear this. He had never imagined his father having a relationship with a man. The story is written in an extremely simple style, and the dialogue—between the narrator and his father’s former lover, and between the narrator and his “fuck buddy”—is almost brutally plain. There’s something so real in the way they speak; I was also deeply drawn to the story.
The author of this story was you: Bryan Washington.
I googled you right away. According to Wikipedia, you were born in 1993, which means you’re still in your twenties now. That made what I found on your website even more surprising. You’ve already published a great deal, including short stories and essays in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Paris Review. I saw that you’d also published a short story collection in 2019 called Lot. Needless to say, I ordered a copy immediately.
Lot is a fascinating book. All of the stories take place in Houston, where you live. Most of the protagonists are gay. The stories center on the harsh worlds of impoverished people (most of them Black or Hispanic) living alongside violence, crime, and joblessness. But the characters don’t appear to struggle for a way out. Is it apathy? Could it be that life has left them exhausted? Possibly, but it’s more like they’re incapable of freeing themselves from despair, deceit, failure, and self-abandonment. It’s as if these things are old friends to them—old friends who sometimes drag them down. This really struck a chord with me. It just seemed so human.
That was how I came to know about you as a writer and started to read your work. Then, about half a year after I first came across your writing, I read “Heirlooms,” an excerpt from your debut novel Memorial, which was also published in The New Yorker. When I asked a friend familiar with the American publishing world, I learned that Memorial was getting a lot of attention even before its release, and that the critics loved it.
“Heirlooms” tells the story of a gay Black man named Ben and a Japanese woman named Mitsuko. Ben has a nikkei boyfriend named Mike, and when Mike’s mother Mitsuko comes to Houston to tell Mike that his father is dying of cancer in Osaka, Mike leaves Mitsuko with Ben and flies to Japan. As this story focuses on an unexpected guest coming from abroad and living with the narrator, it bears a certain resemblance to “Visitor.”
In “Heirlooms,” I see three elements that strike me as particularly important themes within your work: Houston, being gay, and Japan.
Bryan, I believe that your writing is widely read around the world, but—thanks to this third element—readers from Japan (including me) have a special relationship with you as a writer, distinct from the one you share with your readers elsewhere. Looking at your website, I noticed that you’ve visited Japan, written about your time here, and posted pictures that you took while in Tokyo. For any author, there has to be a country, a culture, a language that speaks to them in a special way. In my case, when I was about your age, I moved to France and lived there for eight years. My experiences during that time have undeniably shaped my writing. I wonder if Japan means something similar to you. I’d like to think that it does.
As for the other two elements, it would be clear to anyone who’s read Lot that these are closely connected to your own background. When I read contemporary American fiction, I’m always struck by how many authors write directly from their own lives, especially in their debut novels. Quite a few writers seem to turn toward that which is closest to them: their own families or, in many cases, communities based on racial or ethnic identity. I wonder if you see Lot in this light.
Or perhaps you view the book as aligned with the tradition of autofiction, which people in the English-speaking world seem to mention a lot these days. Of course, fiction never comes from nothing. All fiction is in some way rooted in the experiences of the author, but it seems that there’s been a rise recently in the number of writers who have looked to their own lives for material, writing about characters who are more or less identical to the authors themselves. At the same time, this probably isn’t a recent development at all. (In Japan, we’ve long had a form called the I-novel [shishōsetsu], which seems closely related to autofiction.) Perhaps we’re simply seeing a string of remarkable stories of this type.
It’s not surprising that these tendencies have such a strong presence in American fiction when you think about the kind of place that America is: a home to immigrants from all over the world. If fiction as an art form is always aiming for novelty and a distinctive voice, then experiences that exist outside those shared by the majority are invaluable to readers.
At the same time, it seems as though racial minority experiences have only very recently come to be viewed as worthy of literary expression. In fact, the literary emergence of sexual minorities seems to be an even more recent development. Much like the spheres of politics or business, the world of literature in the United States has long been dominated by straight white men. Their voices have drowned out all others. It’s the same in Japan, where the voices of straight Japanese men have occupied a position of supremacy, to the exclusion of all others. Whether in Japan or in the United States, there’s a need to identify structural discrimination and inequities, and to correct them. The world of literature needs to be open to different voices. Of course, everyone is free to choose those that they like or dislike, but readers ought to be presented with the greatest possible variety to choose from.
An increasing number of writers from different backgrounds is a wonderful thing for readers. Yet it seems as though this welcome tendency paradoxically restricts the writer’s imagination. Perhaps out of respect for the difference of the other, authors avoid speaking in the voice of those distant from themselves. I sincerely doubt that any author today is unaware that writing in the voice of an “other” means stealing that voice. If a straight white man were to tell a story in the voice of a Black woman, for example, he would certainly face harsh scrutiny. That’s the age we live in. It’s no wonder, then, that writers are now gravitating toward the worlds they know best, focusing on the worlds with which they personally identify, believing this to be the safest, surest, and most realistic approach. Of course, this can also be rooted in a strong and pure desire to write about one’s own suppressed world.
But isn’t the ability to become the other one of literature’s greatest gifts? In the words of Arthur Rimbaud, “Je est un autre.” We discover the other within the self and, at the same time, we discover the self within the other. Essentially, it makes no difference who the writer is, and that’s exactly why a text can take on new meanings, distinct from what the author had originally intended. The work lives on, even after the author’s death. But the author has now been brought back to life. The identity of the author—their race, their gender identity, their sexual orientation—is more valued than ever before, and it’s being read in direct connection with the work itself.
In an age such as this one, how do you write? In what ways are being Black and being gay significant to your writing? What was it in your life that made you want to write in the first place? Who were the authors, poets, artists, and creators (either your predecessors or contemporaries) who encouraged you to write and supported you? As a writer, where do you want to go from here? Looking over what I’ve written, it seems as though all of my questions relate to who you are as an author, as well….
Earlier, I said that it may restrict our imagination as writers to focus entirely on the worlds that we know best. But who am I to write that? I’ve always set my stories in Kyushu, along the Oita coast where I grew up, writing about the lives of the people who live in the villages there. Writing about one place. You’ve continued to set your stories in Houston, but it seems to me that your characters don’t really inhabit some massive city; instead, they live in the small communities that exist within it. I feel as though this connects us.
I’ve been to Houston only once, in 2018. My book Lion Cross Point had just been translated into English, and I visited a number of independent bookstores to meet with readers. As a part of the tour, I went to Brazos. It was early in the afternoon when I got to Houston; the event was in the evening, and I left the city the next morning. I wasn’t even there for a full day. It was only April, but I remember the heat and the stifling humidity, and how, as we drove around, the city seemed to stretch on forever. I also remember going out with staff (Sara and Thu) from Brazos to a Mexican restaurant, where we had a delicious dinner and a great conversation.
With the exception of the warm welcome that I received from the staff and readers at Brazos, Houston seemed to me to be only some abstract vastness devoid of life, but—thanks to your books—I now feel so much closer to your city, as if I can feel its breath, smell it, hear its heartbeat. I’m looking forward to telling you more about what continuing to write about a particular place has meant to me but, in the meantime, I’d love to hear from you about the place that Houston occupies in your literary imagination.
Ono Masatsugu, born in 1970, is the author of numerous novels, including two published in English translation: Lion Cross Point and Echo on the Bay (both translated by Angus Turvill and published by Two Lines Press). Ono won the Mishima Yukio Prize with Nigiyakana wan ni seowareta fune [Boat on a bustling bay] and the Akutagawa Prize with Kyunen mae no inori [A prayer nine years ago]. He has also translated works by Édouard Glissant, Amin Maalouf, Marie NDiaye, and Akhil Sharma.
The translator's profile is not available as requested.