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This book is an exploration of care through family, friends and food

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

When a person experiences a devastating loss, a question may follow, quietly or loudly - what's the point in going on? That's where the main character of a new novel, "Family Meal," finds himself. Cam is mourning the death of his partner, Kai, and it's clear that Cam blames himself. One of the people who helps ground Cam as he tries to pull his world back together is his childhood friend, TJ. In the opening pages of the book, they run into each other while Cam is working at a gay bar in their hometown of Houston. It has been years since they've connected, and it's the first time Cam has seen TJ in a queer space. When I spoke to author Bryan Washington, I asked him why he chose this space for their reunion.

BRYAN WASHINGTON: It is largely important because queer spaces have been so fundamental to me and my sense of who I am and the ways in which I've changed. But it also felt really important because one of the themes that "Family Meal" circles around are the ways in which queer friendship is just so expansive. But also, there aren't too many models for what that can ultimately look like. So one of the things that Cam and TJ grapple with are, one, the constraints of the relationships that they find themselves in, but also, when you don't have a model for how to be, what limitations arise from that? And also, what possibilities arise from that? For me, queer spaces are among the places where I've seen the many different ways that one can distribute care and live their life.

SUMMERS: At different points in this book, on page after page, in kind of a very heartbreaking way, Cam tells the different ways in which Kai revisits him after he's died and the dreams that he has that haunt him and all of the different ways that he experiences Kai's death. Can we talk a little bit about Kai's death?

WASHINGTON: One thing that felt important and challenging to capture in this particular book was the shock of grief and the ways in which grief can change over time. So with Cam - a queer guy who's mourning the loss of his partner, you know, at the hands of the state, that the shock of that is immediate for him, and it's a feeling that he can palpably identify. But it's one that changes. So one of Cam's journeys or one of his challenges is to figure out what role this grief has in his life. Is there a way for him to acknowledge it without finding himself submerged in it? You know, one of the larger components of the narrative for me was this notion that caring for yourself is caring for others, and caring for others is also caring for yourself. And Cam's journey - many of the characters' journeys is figuring out what that looks like for each of them.

SUMMERS: There's a point in this book in which the narration shifts, and we begin to learn and unfurl more of the story from Kai's perspective, before he dies - before his life is so intertwined with Cam's. Tell us a little bit about who Kai is.

WASHINGTON: In Kai, I wanted to write the character who finds himself between multiple communities. He's a queer, cis Black man who works in publishing. He has family who live in a more rural setting. He's someone who finds himself relocating to Los Angeles - a markedly different place from the one in which he'd grown up. And he finds himself also privy to love - something that he didn't think that would be within his purview. I think that, in my initial drafts featuring Kai, it was challenging because much of them were mired in the trauma of his role in the narrative. And it was only after Kai became a character in lieu of an archetype that something simply happened to that I think that the book really started to reveal itself for me.

SUMMERS: I also have to say that, in reading this, I really appreciated the way in which you wrote about sex in this book. It was incredibly thoughtful, but so intricate in terms of the pacing, the rawness, sometimes the anonymity, sometimes the intimacy. And I feel like, in reading about the sex between these characters, we learn so much about them. How did you think about capturing that in a way that felt authentic?

WASHINGTON: I mean, I think that the intimacy that we share with one another - it's so revealing about who we are, who we feel that we want to be or what we might conceive of as being pleasurable. I think that, for each of these characters, when I was writing about the intimacy, they share the question of what this pleasure looked like for them. And if you're actually able to bring words to it, which itself can be really challenging, what barriers can exist to your accessing it - right? - be they literal physical barriers, be they barriers or challenges that you're navigating with yourself? Each of the characters, in some capacity, is really negotiating this question of, like, what does or what can queer intimacy look like?

SUMMERS: I mean, this is a story that is built on these relationships, but so much of it also has to do with food. And you write so lovingly about so many different cuisines, from the breakfast plate early in the book that's heaping with scrambled eggs smothered in Cholula to smothered chicken and kimchi tomato salad to these handcrafted kolaches. There's this - I don't know - you pay so much attention to the menu and to the palate and the way that a person who is dining enjoys the meal that they are having. What draws you to write about food this way in your work?

WASHINGTON: Probably 'cause it's fun..

SUMMERS: (Laughter).

WASHINGTON: ...You know? Like, particularly as someone who writes about challenging things from time to time, having, you know, that sort of outlet is something that's really useful. But also, I think that food is most useful to me when it serves as a gateway or an entry point to the other conversations I'd rather be having, right? If we're talking about food, I think we're also talking about socioeconomic access. We're also talking about labor. We're also talking about bodies - the way that we relate to our own bodies and how those expectations shift from community to community.

I found, just as a device, it's easier to make the transition into those conversations when I'm using a shorthand like food. And the challenges that stem from those conversations around food, I think, are also challenges that we're navigating in our day-to-day lives, right? It feels as if the - you know, talking about the meals that are shared is one way to get around answering them or circling around an answer for them.

SUMMERS: I also want to ask you about one thing that you start the book with, and it is a word to the reader to let them know that if they're struggling with certain issues, like self-harm or eating issues or addiction or mental health struggles, that this might be a challenging read for them. And one of the things that I really appreciated that you wrote is that there's no wrong way to be, and that the only right way is the way that you are. What made you want to include that before a person even gets to the first page of this book?

WASHINGTON: I've really grown to appreciate the ways in which people who tell stories are making it a priority to care for their audience - right? - to mirror that same care that they may be asking of their characters. So it felt essential to me to offer, as a prelude, a note that this might be a challenging read, depending on your personal circumstances. But also, just as importantly, there's no concrete way to be. There's no fix for being, right? The way that a person is is quite all right.

SUMMERS: Bryan Washington, thank you so much.

WASHINGTON: Thank you so much for having me, Juana. It's meant a lot.

SUMMERS: His new book, "Family Meal," is out now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kai McNamee
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.