Memorial by Bryan Washington

For Houston native Bryan Washington, 2019 was a banner year.

The already widely published author released his first book, Lot, a stunning collection of interlinked short stories set in various neighborhoods around Houston in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Rife with raw, candid depictions of queer relationships, especially between young Black and brown men; of the impacts of encroaching gentrification on poorer communities; and of the infuriating pervasiveness of racial macro- and microaggressions in all aspects of our modern society, Lot landed on many of the year’s “Best of” lists, earned praise from former President Barack Obama, and led to Washington being named one of the National Book Foundation’s prestigious “5 Under 35” nominees.

But if you thought Lot was good, Washington’s first novel is a ground-busting masterpiece.

Benson, a Black day care worker, lives with his boyfriend, Mike, a Japanese American chef, in the Third Ward of Houston. After a few years, their now open relationship has fallen into a rut. While Mike’s busy on Grindr, Benson’s spending more time at work. In Mike’s words: “We fight. We make up. We f— on the sofa, in the kitchen, on the floor. I cook, and cook, and cook.”

Around the four-year mark and on the verge of breaking up for good, Mike finds out that Eiju, his estranged father who lives in Osaka, Japan, has stage four pancreatic cancer. Just as his mother, Mitsuko, arrives in Houston from Tokyo for a visit, Mike hops on a plane to make amends with his dad before he dies.

From this superficial summary, it’s tempting to think (incorrectly) that Memorial is some kind of slightly headier rom-com. But what takes this novel well beyond just a simplistic story of two lovers who eventually learn how to come together by spending time apart is Washington’s decision to reveal the course of their journey — and the depth of both their problems and love for each other — from each of the characters’ perspectives.

The first of three sections is told from Benson’s point of view. Here, as Benson fumbles about trying to navigate Mitsuko’s needs, we learn about his tattered relationship with his alcoholic father, who ignores Benson’s homosexuality, calls gay men “fags” and says things like, “Does this mean you’re not gay anymore? It’s never too late to change.” We also find out Benson is HIV-positive. (To Washington’s credit, his nuanced portrayal of Benson’s matter-of-fact attitude toward his status is the most accurate I’ve seen in modern literature.)

Photo: Elizabeth Conley, Hearst Newspapers

Just as we’re ready to blame Mike for all of their relationship issues, section two kicks in. Washington’s Osaka depicts Japanese culture to a T (at least in this outsider’s opinion). As Mike tries to break down years of resentment while helping grumpy Eiju out at his bar (similar to the one depicted in Netflix’s beloved “Midnight Diner” series), Washington reveals more about Mike’s past, and we begin to understand that his actions with Benson weren’t as selfish as they originally seemed.

With a book so layered and, frankly, one that succeeds on so many fronts, it can be difficult to pinpoint the one overarching magical quality that sets it apart. In Memorial, Washington’s descriptions of food and cooking, particularly Japanese delicacies such as abura-age, konbu maki, kamaboko and spinach udon, and okonomiyaki, are to be slurped and savored (particularly while drinking a glass of sake).

The myriad screaming matches and sex scenes are compelling too.

As a secondary character, Mitsuko is sharp-witted and no-nonsense — and therefore thrilling company. (Her one-liners are priceless.)

But what truly makes Memorial extraordinary — especially the final section — is Washington’s uncanny ability to capture the elusive essence of love on nearly every page. Between a flawed mother or father and their equally flawed son. Between two lovers who may or may not be right for each other in the long run. Even between relative strangers. As in this wise snippet:

“Loving a person means letting them change when they need to. And letting them go when they need to. And that doesn’t make them any less of a home. Just maybe not one for you. Or only for a season or two. But that doesn’t diminish the love. It just changes forms.”

Memorial is being released during a pandemic, but if there’s one book you should go out of your way to read in 2020, it should be this one. Plus, for Washington fans, there’s more good news on the horizon. Memorial has just been optioned for a TV show.

By Bryan Washington
(320 pages; $27)

Originally ran in the San Francisco Chronicle (October 26, 2020)

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