Bryan Washington is doing for Houston what Celeste Ng did for Shaker Heights, Ohio. Or: Joan Didion and California. Stephen King and small-town Maine. With his debut short story collection Lot and now the release of his first novel Memorial, Washington is building his own southern literary universe. The Houston native, 27, uses the city as both muse and backdrop for his award-winning fiction, offering up a slice of the melting pot that doesn't often get its due in popular discourse. Instead of a concrete web of highways, Bryan Washington's Bayou City is full of flavor. Where culture starts and ends in an apartment complex in the Third Ward and not an outdoor mall flanked by SoulCycle in River Oaks. In Memorial, he sets a possibly-doomed love story between Houston and Osaka, as Texas-born Benson attempts to grapple with the realities of his relationship while his live-in boyfriend, Mike, flies home to Japan to care for his ailing, estranged father.
Washington's many influences — both cultural and culinary — reach off the page, offering up the sights and sounds (and smells) of his big-city backdrops. Here, he speaks to EW about the many elements of his life that offered up inspiration for the resulting novel.
My favorite book as a child
The Real Taste of Jamaica by Enid Donaldson. I read a lot of cookbooks as a kid, but this was so usable — very descriptive yet extremely straightforward. My mother is Jamaican; my father’s American, but I grew up around a lot of cooking. And now I feel very fortunate to live in Houston where it’s so diverse, with access to a lot of cuisines.
The movie I watch over and over
There’s a film by Edward Yang called Yi Yi. It was strange, in that in the experience of watching it for the first time, I thought: This is going to be an important film for me. I love that it’s not a very loud movie — it’s so unadorned, but by the end of it you’ve gone through the entire emotional spectrum along with the family it follows. It’s my 'summer, I’m still up it’s 2 a.m., what’s happening?' movie and this has been a summer where there’s been quite a lot of that.
The last book that made me cry
Samantha Irby’s collection Wow, No Thank You made me tear up with laughter. And Miri Yu’s Tokyo Ueno Station — I was lucky to read an early copy of it and I actually finished it in Tokyo Ueno Station. I was just reading it on my phone, like, why am I bawling?
The TV show I turn to for food inspiration
Interestingly, I really like Selena Gomez’s Selena + Chef on HBO Max. Watching her learn to cook with all these different chefs has been lovely. I went in with no expectations, thinking I would watch three minutes and never look at it again, but I finished all of it and now I’m sad it’s over.
The first record I bought with my own money
I remember saving my allowance money, which I did not have a lot of, and buying the Arctic Monkeys’ first record [Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not] — and being really pleased with it.
The Houston-centric pop culture I love the most
The food writing of [Houston Chronicle’s] Alison Cook, but it goes without saying that the work of Solange Knowles — whether it’s her most recent album [When I Get Home] or not — is essential and seminal to the city.
What I turn to when I’m writing
If I want to make something that will make me feel good immediately, I’ll cook the straight-up boxed Japanese curry, but lately, I’ll put an oxtail soup on the stove. The thought of it being on the stove while I’m trying — and failing — to write is nice, because I know at the end of the session something will be finished, even if it’s just a soup.