When asked about his favorite recent meal, author Bryan Washington thinks back to a previous week’s takeout order of steaming hot dim sum. For Washington, food isn’t just sustenance—it’s a detailed and eloquent form of conversation. And his new book, Memorial, sets it right at the center of the table.
What Washington and his editor lovingly refer to as “a lowercase l love story,” Memorial details the collapsing relationship between Mike, a Japanese-American chef, and his boyfriend, Benson, a Black daycare teacher. The two live in Houston, cook together, and are fairly sure they love each other. But when Mike’s father is diagnosed with a terminal illness, he flies to live with him in Osaka, Japan—just as his mother, Mitsuko, comes to stay with the couple in Houston. With a measure of wit, pain, and gorgeous descriptions of food, Memorial shows how Benson stuck with an unlikely roommate, learning about what he wants in life, and reconciling himself with what love is really worth.
Asked how he would describe his novel, Washington answers decidedly: “I think it’s a novel about a handful of folks that are trying to find what it means just to be okay as a person, and what it means to be okay as a person among people.” Being okay, for Washington’s novel, means in more than just relationships. Memorial spans a journey from food that is just okay to food that serves an important purpose. For Benson and Mitsuko, who only know each other tangentially through their equally strained relationships with Mike, cooking dinner together becomes a way for the two to articulate their feelings, even if they don’t know how to speak them. It’s a device that a lesser author might let overwhelm a book, but one that Washington handles with a delicate reverence.
“I think that trying to use cooking and sharing of meals as a way of communication was definitely something that I wanted to carry through over the course of the novel,” Washington told PW. “I was trying to convey the concurrent pleasure the characters are trying to get across that they may not have the language for at the time, and to be conscientious and thoughtful about who was eating what and when they were eating it. How they were relating to the meal, and if that changed over the course of time, was really important to me.”
A winner of both the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, Washington’s first collection, Lot, put him on the map—but Washington didn’t let the pressure that often accompanies a sophomore book get to him while working on Memorial. “What was most important to me for Memorial was telling the best story,” said Washington. “I really wasn’t too bent out of shape as far as how it would be received, because I just wanted to write the best version of it that I could.”
The strategy paid off. Even before Memorial was published last week by Riverhead, production company A24 won the rights to the title for its TV division, and Washington is set to adapt it himself. For Washington, getting a hand in the adaptation is “absolutely gratifying,” he said. “It’s a story that I care a good deal about and there are themes that I wanted to see on the screen.“
Memorial is one of 2020’s most anticipated titles, and Washington hopes that his novel’s visibility will serve as a model for other writers working on books that don’t initially seem like the next great marketable masterpiece. He also hopes that systemic changes come to the publishing business so that Black voices, stories, and creators are given more prominence not just this year, but every year.
“Much of the change that needs to occur in American publishing needs to happen on the masthead front,” he said. “The whole thing needs an overhaul, but I’m thinking about lasting, substantial, generational change. It’s about ensuring that you have publicists from marginalized backgrounds, you have designers from marginalized backgrounds, you have marketing folks from marginalized backgrounds, you have folks who are making decisions not just at the book level from every background you could imagine. Those are the changes that will ensure that we don’t simply have seasons of progression.”
One of the more unique aspects of Memorial is its central love story, which centers parental and platonic love rather than romance. While writing the book, Washington was careful to ensure that his characters didn’t venture into an overwritten territory. Rather, he said, wanted to write a book “in which many different things were true simultaneously,” in a way that allowed “each character to have the capacity for understanding.” He added: “I didn’t want to write a novel that came to hard conclusions. I didn’t want to write something that was prescriptive, or something that was deeply definitive.”
As a result, Memorial plays with time in a way that twists and melds the characters’ growth, a technique whose effect is only heightened by reading the book in a year characterized by stark physical separation. While quarantine didn’t change the way Washington employed time as a literary device in the book, it did “calcify the importance of context in time,” he said, in a way that foregrounds the ways time and space contextualize and change the characters’ past experiences and their perceptions of them.
“I tried to have every character exist in a state of simultaneity, where they’re given the benefit of the doubt,” says Washington. “That they’re given room to expand and grow was really important to me. That was something that I knew from the outset would just have to be true. But I also knew that ideally I strive for that in all fiction that I’m trying to work with.”
Memorial is as much a novel of place as it is of time, a love story to two places Washington has called home. Houston and Osaka are two starkly different cities, each featuring strongly in Memorial not only as settings, but almost as characters in themselves. That tangibility came directly from Washington’s own experiences.
“It’s a rare and special thing anytime that you’re privy to warmth, and to the benefit of the doubt, to the generosity of other folks who absolutely don’t have to give it to you in any place,” says Washington. “When you’ve experienced that in a place consistently, it sticks out. I’ve experienced that in Houston, and I’ve also experienced that in Osaka. In a lot of ways, the writing in Memorial was me trying to figure out why that is—because I couldn’t quite come up with an answer to it.”
Even for its own author, Memorial doesn’t give easy answers. Instead, the novel defers on answering questions in favor of methodically allowing its characters the time and space to learn how to be okay. For Washington, seeing his characters do just that was the most gratifying part of the whole process. “I wrote the book that I wanted to read, and in a lot of ways I finished it because I wanted to see how it would end up,” he said. “I wrote [Memorial] for myself.”
—Bryan Washington’s Houston Is a City of Multitudes
—A Year in Reading: Bryan Washington
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.