Bryan Washington, author of “Lot” and “Memorial” and assistant professor of creative writing at Rice University, spoke about setting and how identity fits into writing stories during his Frederick Douglass Human Rights Lecture on Feb. 23 in the Morgan Auditorium.
The Frederick Douglass Human Rights Lectures are hosted by the College of Arts and Sciences. The series was created to highlight the importance of human rights principles to the University of La Verne community.
Shannon Mathews, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said the lecture honors the University’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion as a Hispanic serving institution during her introduction speech.
“Through public lectures and seminars, the University invites contemporary scholars, leaders, authors, artists, activists, and policymakers to promote dialogue between the walls of the campus and to act as a bridge between scholarly insights and the practical and lived realities of human rights and the human condition,” Mathews said.
Washington began his lecture by talking about how he found it challenging to center himself inside the stories he was writing when there was no model. He did not see the narratives he was interested in being told in books, TV shows or movies when he started writing his debut story, “Lot” in 2017.
“In wanting to write stories about Houston and wanting to write stories about places that I was coming from, a question that was really weighing on me was getting it right and getting it correct,” Washington said.
Washington explained that by talking to friends, editors, acquaintances and mentors he learned that the notion of wanting to get a place, a community or a time correct was a big goal because everyone’s experiences were different and they were all valid.
“There is the component of doing right by the communities and the peoples in the places that we want to tell stories about but just because we haven’t seen our own individual milieus in these narratives doesn’t negate their validity,” Washington said. “It doesn’t at all negate the emotional weight behind them or the stories that can exist inside of them.”
Veronica Jasso-Padilla, a child life graduate student, said she liked that Washington talked about how everyone has their own story and that there is no right or wrong way to tell a story.
“I think that’s really inspiring because a lot of the time we focus on the academics of writing and not the freedom and they can really go hand-in-hand,” Jasso-Padilla said.
During the lecture, Washington read excerpts from “Lot” and “Memorial” to give examples of how he wrote multiple characters that were complicated in his stories without capitalizing on the trauma of the diverse communities in Houston, Texas.
“Writing a story in which characters are trying to figure out something as simple as how to be okay in a contemporary city, coming from diverse backgrounds, it felt like something that was challenging, but thinking through setting, thinking through identity, it was something that I really sought to do, something that I really wanted to do,” Washington said.
Taiz Ortega, sophomore biology major, said Washington’s writing style stood out to her because she was able to visualize the characters having tense discussions.
“His excerpts of his novels gave me a sense that I can tell stories of characters that have complex identities and issues,” Ortega said. “And you can be real with it. You can put things that you wouldn’t normally hear people admit or characters admit.”
Washington ended the lecture by talking about the importance of telling a story even if it does not seem urgent or necessary because many things can be important at the same time. They might seem unimportant, but other people might wait for the story to be told.
“You’re finding importance in it, you’re finding value in the thing and the people and the place and the community and the amalgamation of all of these things in tandem with one another that brings value, that yields value,” Washington said. “And that’s oftentimes when and where our best work can extend from because it’s something that’s palpable.”
Washington’s upcoming novel “Family Meal” will be published Oct. 5.
Samira Felix can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.