Sex

Bryan Washington, How Are You So Hot?

A conversation with the author of "Memorial" about patterned socks, long silences, hot pot, and other attractive parts of his life.
November 2, 2020, 12:00pm
How Are You So Hot, Bryan Washington?
Collage by Cathryn Virginia | Images from Getty and Dailey Hubbard
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It's not a set of rules—it's a state of mind.

Have you ever been just breezing through a book, when the seventh or eighth little ideal detail piques you and you must flip to the author bio with unruly curiosity, like, OK, that's it, you mystery babe: Who the hell are you?! Or played a song on repeat while also searching for every possible outfit combination the musician has worn in public, like, How! How is it possible for one person to be this way!! VICE's new interview series, “How Are You So Hot?” is a thirsty journey into the minds of these kinds of fascinating people, covering their specific talents, peculiar charismas, and every other thing we want to copy about them. 

The writer Bryan Washington excels at setting moods. In his first novel, Memorial, Washington uses silences, photographs, and pauses to outline the steady work of figuring out who we want to be with and who can love us back. Through the story of Benson and Mike’s love and trial by separation, the humid asphalt of Houston is perhaps the third in the relationship. (It's a continued setting from Washington’s 2019 short story collection, Lot.) 

Washington writes gracefully about a city’s influence on its inhabitants and how distance can morph that dynamic, the worn joists that hold together love under duress, and boning, shooting the shit, and cooking dinner. He’s preoccupied with the slipperiness of communication—and he has a fun, perverse, and sexy tendency to undercut language itself whenever he can, slipping into gestures and physicality as a kind of speaking, too. Because Washington is so fascinating and magnetic, he was the obvious choice to ring in the first edition of “How Are You So Hot?”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


When do you feel most like yourself? 

Either when I’m walking through a city by myself or sharing a meal with friends. Like K-BBQ or shabu-shabu or dim sum, when there’s a lot to share. 

When do you feel least like yourself, but in an exciting way? 

In the old world, when we had events, reading my work and the presentation elements of the artistic process. Being in the world with it feels deeply unnatural, but it’s exciting that there’s interest. It’s exciting to be among people taking time out of their lives to be around story. To have an investment in a story that’s not yours, but which you might be implicated in, is really rare and special: There’s a major election next week, rent is due next week, but you carved out time to talk about story. 

What do you think is hot in secret? 

It wouldn’t be a secret if I told you… but thoughtful socks. Cute socks would make me think for a minute. 

What mindset or strategy do you consciously adopt in order to feel hot?

Straightforwardness. This will probably change by the time I say it, but I’m someone who has been leaning more into the fact of many things being true simultaneously. I’m quite all right not coming to a decision about something with haste or with speed. Being open to many things at the same time is important to me, so there’s a decisiveness I’m not inclined towards, [but it] sometimes feels necessary to cosplay as a decisive person.

What’s a quality in others that you can't help but think is hot?

People who listen. It can be a veil. You don’t know what’s going on in anyone’s head, but it’s so generous. They’re giving you their time. It’s a lovely quality because it’s so rare. What’s deeply interesting to me is the point at which a person decides, implicitly or explicitly, whether they’re going to reveal more of themselves to someone in their life. It can be a recipe, a place, a story. Sharing is an act of trust. You’re trusting they’re going to see it for what you believe that it is. It’s not something you decide once—it’s not, This is the person I’m going to tell all my stories to. It’s a dynamic transaction. It’s one that I feel like you make every day.

What’s a typically underappreciated personality trait that you find very appealing?

When someone can’t see the full extent of the compassion that they’re giving something. Like when they just do it. I don’t know if it’s a flaw, but the other side of it is absent-mindedness, self-blindness. 

And this doesn’t have to be in a romantic context. So I had to go to the DMV for some bullshit. There were a number of safety protocols, as there should be, and it was really heated up. I messed up some paperwork, and if you don’t have what you need, you have to go home and start over, and there’s a weeklong wait time. The person helping me saw pretty quickly I was basically an idiot and they took time out of their rhythm and routine, they took their lunch, to walk me through everything. It was a thoughtful, quiet thing, an hour they won’t get back. They didn’t treat it as though it was a big thing, they just did it. There is such generosity of someone sharing their time with you. You can’t get time back, especially at the DMV. 

Is there anything you once didn’t care for at all that you now find unendingly hot?

Timeliness has grown on me. Not, like, too much, but I’m slowly changing myself. As far as punctuality, that’s nice, but not something I’m big on. I’m more taken towards the feeling as though something was inevitable. I live on island time: When it needs to happen, it does. 

I’m into things falling into place, as opposed to being forced. A film or a novel moving in the time it needs to, instead of the prescription of how linear time is supposed to operate, is always really amazing and admirable. This novel called Walking on the Ceiling by Aysegül Savaş uses time in a way that is admirable. It feels natural, necessary, even if it’s deeply strategic in its plotting. 

What’s your favorite writing about sex?

Ocean Vuong writes sex really, really well. His novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, had a thoughtfulness of the physicality that’s really striking. The ways in which he is generous to each partner in congress, without being reductive and without holding the reader’s hand. 

Raven Leilani also writes sex really, really well. In her novel, Luster, that’s a similar thoughtfulness and a refusal to soften certain blows for the audience. We can just see what’s happening, both physically in linear time as they’re in congress, and emotionally. This is a tricky thing. 

The way they [both] write it, sex is sex, but also sex is learning about both the characters and the world. It’s doing so much work.

Your work has so much love for its settings, particularly Houston. What have you newly fallen in love with in the city? 

I’m always in love with the ways the city finds and codifies and morphs itself around community to fit the circumstances. In addition to missing people, there’s missing physical places and the versions of yourself that occur there or were there: a park or a gay bar or a city; a home that you haven’t been in for a while, like an apartment. Houston has a part of town, a neighborhood called Montrose, considered to be the gayborhood, where a lot of queer business have been established. There’s an energy the area had on certain evenings that was really warm and had its own weight. I haven’t been to a gay bar since February, but I have driven through the neighborhood running errands. The absence of that energy is really palpable. It is a little bit like electricity. That’s something I’ve thought about: The physical place can be the same, but the absence of that energy can radically redefine it. 

I was just driving down Federal Boulevard—I live in Bellaire, a suburb— and there was a big assortment of younger folks dancing to K-pop. That’s not terribly rare to see outside of boba shops and the H Mart. They [and the audience] were all distanced and had their masks. It wasn’t spontaneous—there’s so much driving in the city, so that chance of people getting together without planning is close to zero.

In Memorial, the characters are quiet with one another much of the time, but other ways to communicate seep out. How do you think about silence as a specific form of expression between people?

Not all communication takes place in dialogue. For the characters in Memorial, it’s not knowing the language for it, or grabbing at the language two weeks too late. Seeing the way people fill silence, like texts or pictures they send, or the act of cooking, is seeing where language is failing and how they fill that void. 

What are you falling in love with now, and what do you want to fall in love with next?

Incense. I’ve always been super into candles. When I was growing up, we always had a bunch of candles. Lately, just the strength of incense has been really calming a nice presence. I’m still trying to figure out what I like for scents. I’m alternating between lavender and whatever I can find for cheap. I literally have lavender burning now; a matcha one was just burning. I got sandalwood, and I was like: I don’t know about this. Rosemary was great. 

I’ve started a garden in the recent past and I want to keep it. I don’t want to give up. I want everything to live. 

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