It would be trite to suggest that three years of ignorance and bigotry setting the American political scene has bred a new wave of impassioned young black writers. Literary movements don’t work as neatly as that; the troops can’t be galvanised quite as swiftly or adeptly. But art seems to ebb and flow by mystical osmosis, and as is so often the case, the alarmingly changing times have coincided with the rise of debuting writers with serious mettle.
As the face of its highest political office has become increasingly twisted, contorted by infantile pettiness, rage, egotism and insecurity, America’s young writers seem prematurely self-assured and robust. Jamel Brinkley, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, Angie Thomas, Kaitlyn Greenidge and Maurice Carlos Ruffin are just some of new black authors who have introduced their energetic and provocative voices to the febrile world of contemporary US fiction. Now, with his smart and soulful collection of short stories, young Texan Bryan Washington adds his name to the impressive list.
It’s hard not to fall a bit in love with Washington just on the basis of his irresistibly cheerful, boyish author’s photo. He has an open and intelligent face, befitting of an aspiring writer who, after a few years contributing to the likes of The New York Times, The Paris Review and BuzzFeed, has finally got round to translating his ideas into thoughtful and empathetic fiction. Lot begins with a tender tale about the teenage son of a black mother and Latino father – “too dark for the blancos, too Latin for the blacks” – finding his sexual and social footing in his working-class Houston neighbourhood.
There follows a series of flashpoints from the lives of the people around him; the local pimp and his hoods, the fledgling baseball team, the unexpectedly paternal drug dealer. Woven in between their stories is the fate of his own dysfunctional family, struggling to bear up under the pressure of infidelity and distrust, and the perilous lure of high-risk lifestyles.
Critics often say his books are for ‘committed fans only’; if they’re right, I pity the uncommitted
The headlines you’ll see around Lot might sound tiresomely familiar – no punches pulled, life in the margins stuff – but Washington has an individual take on the contemporary black experience. His heartfelt voice rings out; compassionate, observant, tough; often funny, always authentic. Anyone interested in getting to know this community, so often belittled and slandered by its country’s ruling political class, would do well to seek out Lot. Then read all the other writers on the list above.
As an insight to the contemporary experience of the young British man of colour, Richard Ayoade’s Ayoade on Top is of no use at all. It’s simply the next in the series of cinephile (and movie actor/writer/director) Ayoade’s quirky books examining his love of film and his personal grudges against the industry. This one – ostensibly his call for the canonisation of 2003 cabin crew comedy/Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle View from the Top – is particularly indulgent; he does offer some autobiographical titbits (his childhood preference for the Happy Eater over the Little Chef; the law degree he respected enough never to consider practising law), but mostly this is a popcorny stand-up routine on modern pop culture, with references to soft rock, the history of aviation hospitality and the bible thrown in. Critics often say his books are for ‘committed fans only’; if they’re right, I pity the uncommitted Ayoade fan, because I haven’t laughed this much reading a book in a long time. The man is a national treasure.