ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
In Bryan Washington's new short story collection, "Lot," the streets of Houston are a tangle of dirty shoelaces. All of these stories are set in Houston. The characters are not oil and gas executives or suburban ladies with big hair. As Washington describes it, these are people who make a quiet life in Houston's crevices.
BRYAN WASHINGTON: There's really no one Houston story, right? I don't think anyone's going to tell the Houston story and the solution on that. And there's just going to be more Houston stories, and from there, we're going to be able to weave together what life is like in the city.
SHAPIRO: Some of his characters are undocumented immigrants, others sell drugs or sex. Bryan Washington has been published in a lot of magazines and newspapers, but this is his first book. We started by talking about Hurricane Harvey, when Washington says he saw diverse groups of people come together to help each other.
WASHINGTON: As a resident, I really didn't expect anything else because that's been the standard, as far as my experience in the city is concerned. Everyone just sort of acknowledges that we're all living here together, and we just find a way to make it work.
SHAPIRO: Will you read from the story, "Elgin," where you talk about gentrification after Harvey?
WASHINGTON: OK. (Reading) After the storm, they pushed the rest of us out, too. If you couldn't afford to rebuild, then you had to go. If you broke the bank rebuilding, then you couldn't stay. If you couldn't afford to leave, and you couldn't afford to fix your life, then what you had to do was watch the neighborhood grow further away from you. The Hernandez (ph) twins are gone. Tatiana's (ph) son is gone. Larissa (ph) is gone. Santiago (ph) is gone. The Garcias (ph) are gone, and the Pham (ph) family, too. Then there's Griselda's (ph) place, this dance studio she runs with her moms. But instead of selling or letting someone come in and flip it, she lets yuppies from wherever host their yoga in the back. She's in there every morning, checking them in, and every other night she's posted up to kick them out.
SHAPIRO: Was this kind of storm-driven gentrification something that you saw happen to neighborhoods that you knew after Harvey?
WASHINGTON: Absolutely, yeah, all over the place. I live in The Heights, which is a predominantly Latinx part of town or has historically been a predominately Latinx part of town. And even in the past two or three years, you can see the destructions of neighborhood institutions in favor of glossier buildings, glossier cafes, glossier bars. And it's really sad because the communities that have made a life in that part of town and in other parts of town across Houston have literally been through everything that you can throw at a community. So to see this rampant push for a cleaner, I suppose, highly polished iteration of the city, have that be the thing that finally gets them is really sad.
SHAPIRO: Do you feel like in a way you're chronicling a disappearing version of the city?
WASHINGTON: In a way. I mean, I feel like this isn't exclusive to Houston because gentrification is taking place in Brooklyn, gentrification is taking place in Oakland. But anytime, I think, you tell a story about a city in flux, it ends up being a sort of ghost story, right? And I wrote these stories, for the most part, a year and a half, two years ago. A lot of these parts of town that were in the period of transition at that time are completely changed now. So in a lot of ways, some of these narratives are a little bit like lightning in a bottle or tiny capsules of how the city existed before it hit these transition points.
SHAPIRO: Is there a particular character that you're going to be sad to let go of, somebody who connected with you in a deep way?
WASHINGTON: I think the two protagonists of a story called "Bayou" were relatively hard to let go of.
SHAPIRO: These are guys who think that they find a chupacabra, a mythical beast.
WASHINGTON: Yeah, yeah.
SHAPIRO: It's kind of the funniest story of the book.
WASHINGTON: Yeah, it was also the most challenging story to write because there was a way of pulling it off that I hadn't seen in too many spaces.
SHAPIRO: What do you mean?
WASHINGTON: The idea of finding a mythical thing or finding a magical thing is a narrative that in my reading and in my TV watching and in my movie watching - relegated to a very specific demographic, right? It's usually three or four white kids that come across it, or they come across the upside down, or they step into...
SHAPIRO: Yeah, I was just thinking of "Stranger Things" on Netflix. Yes.
WASHINGTON: Yeah. You know, they fall into a pothole, and they come out and it's Narnia on the other side.
SHAPIRO: "The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe," yeah.
WASHINGTON: Yeah. Having this happen to black and brown folks sort of living in the middle of Alief...
SHAPIRO: Alief is the neighborhood, yeah.
WASHINGTON: ...It was a challenge and also the most fun story to write.
SHAPIRO: It's fun as the reader to be in this situation where, up until now, every story has been 100-percent naturalistic, and reading this one, we're like, wait, did they actually find a mythical creature, or is this just like a muskrat, you know?
WASHINGTON: Yeah, yeah. And that sort of ambiguity between what is seen and what is understood and what is acknowledged as being possible in a neighborhood like this was really interesting to play with because the question becomes, like, why isn't fantasy and myth and play and the idea of magic allowed into this neighborhood, out of all of these other neighborhoods, you know, and what does a neighborhood have to be for this sort of freedom of imagination to be present?
SHAPIRO: Bryan Washington, thank you so much.
WASHINGTON: Thank you so much for having me on. That really means a lot.
SHAPIRO: His debut collection of short stories is called "Lot." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.