Bryan Washington’s debut novel asks the reader to participate in a major way—and it’s absolutely worth it.
Life has become a lot more complicated since Bryan Washington started writing his debut novel, Memorial. The United States is contending with a global pandemic, civil unrest, climate change and a contentious political atmosphere—but not everything is terrible. This past winter, former President Barack Obama included Lot, Washington’s 2019 collection of short stories, on his year-end reading list—a bump that placed Memorial high on many lists of the most anticipated books of 2020. Lot also recently won the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, an annual prize given to a fiction writer who is 35 or younger.
“For the most part, things are going good in the immediate vicinity,” Washington says during a Zoom call to his home in Houston, Texas. But especially regarding Memorial, things seem to be going great. The book has received praise from authors like Jia Tolentino and Ocean Vuong, who called Memorial “a new vision for the twenty-first century novel” that “made [him] happy.” It’s apparent that Washington has struck a chord within the literary community, but Washington especially leans in to the latter part of Vuong’s praise. “As weighty as that particular diagnosis is, the fact that it made him happy means so much, if not more, to me, because it is a tricky novel tonally,” he says. “I was trying to hit a mark that was not quite straight down the middle.”
Memorial focuses primarily on the intricate relationship between Black day care worker Benson and his boyfriend, Japanese American chef Mike, two young men in love who are being torn apart by the separate forces of their lives. On the same day that Mike’s Japanese mother, Mitsuko, arrives to stay with him and Benson in their home in the Third Ward, a historically Black neighborhood in Houston, Mike announces that he’s leaving. He’s going to Osaka, Japan, to visit his sick father—“Just for a few weeks, he says. Or maybe a couple of months”—leaving Benson and Mitsuko behind. The two reluctant roommates form a bond, sharing delicious meals in their one-bedroom apartment, while Mike journeys to the other side of the globe. Emotionally and physically, the young lovers are drifting apart, a process that readers experience in intimate first-person narration that alternates between the two men.
Memorial makes the reader feel a lot of feelings and ask a lot of questions, not just about the book’s narrative but also about the state of love and relationships today. Washington grappled with many of these questions while writing the book, but there’s one question he says he wrestled with the most: Will they or won’t they stay together? This quintessential back-and-forth between Benson and Mike is what drives Memorial. “I always had that question in the back of my head,” he says, “knowing that I would have to answer it, even if I didn’t know what the answer would look like from the outset.”
“Within the various traumas that people experience, you still have the things that make you laugh and the things you enjoy eating and your crushes and your first loves.”
But Memorial is bigger than any one question, and Washington’s motivations for writing the book show deep respect for his myriad communities and found families. When he began drafting, Washington realized his book would “not have a lot of thematic or plot [comparisons] in contemporary American literature.” Rather than being disheartened by this absence, however, he embraced it. “The fact that it’s a departure is what encouraged it,” he says.
One major departure from other queer fiction is the way Memorial handles trauma within the story. “There’s a way that narratives in contemporary American literature—if they do feature queer characters, and especially queer characters of marginalized communities—are trauma-based,” Washington says, “and it was very important for me not to center trauma in the midst of the novel. . . . Within the various traumas that people experience, you still have the things that make you laugh and the things you enjoy eating and your crushes and your first loves and the acceleration of relationships and the deterioration of relationships. I wanted to find a way to center community without solely underlining the traumas in the story.”
Decades of literary discussions and debates preceded Washington’s creation of a book like Memorial, and he’s aware of the special place it holds in the chronology of queer literature. From Langston Hughes to James Baldwin, all the way to contemporary writers like poet Danez Smith, the conversation around how queer characters and communities are depicted in American literature has been going on for a long time, and Memorial continues that lineage. “A lot of other people had to have written the books that they wrote in order for the possibility of a novel like Memorial to even get to the precipice of publication,” Washington says. “It feels nice to be able to contribute another facet, I hope, to the conversation.”
Washington’s unique place in literature isn’t something he’s overly concerned about, though. It was only after writing Memorial that he could look back and ask himself which writers he had been in conversation with. During the writing process, he just wanted to make the best book he could.
In fact, when I ask him what books inspired him, he can’t think of any. All that come to mind are films. He mentions the 2019 dramedy The Farewell, starring Akwafina, as a standout inspiration, particularly for its relationship with the audience. “We get the events and we get the things that happen,” Washington says, “but we aren’t told how to feel about it.” Films like Edward Yang’s Yi Yi and Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood helped him to be less proscriptive in his writing, and to strike a balance between showing and not showing.
Another goal of the novel was to foster communication with readers, making them think critically and deeply about modern love and relationships. Washington describes this as an especially difficult part of the writing process, as he tried “to find a way to direct every conversation and every gesture . . . toward not answering [the reader’s] questions. I don’t think I’m really interested in answering questions so much as lengthening the conversation, so that the reader can take what they have and do what they want with it.”
I pitch him a metaphor, about how experiencing art is like hearing a gavel strike, a moment to decide whether or not to pass judgment. “I’m certainly interested in holding the gavel, but I don’t need to be the person who actually makes contact with it,” Washington says. “I’d prefer if that’s the reader. The final judgment can be what they want. Then the narrative relationship becomes symbiotic, and it’s not just me saying this is what happened.”
“I feel like narratives that really stick with me are those that allow space for the readers.”
This consideration of the individual reading experience isn’t new in the world of literature, but it transforms Washington’s intimate novel into an opportunity for reflection, for the reader to glimpse into their own mind, rather than some kind of indoctrination by the author. However, this style of storytelling stands out as unique in the information age. When so much mass media is trying to tell us what to think and do and buy, it’s refreshing to be encouraged to think for ourselves.
Books like Memorial, which require emotional investment and internal inquiry by the reader, hold a lot of power, and Washington wields it with grace. It’s not that he doesn’t have the answers to the questions he raises in this book; it’s that he’s more interested in all of us searching for them together. “There is a difference between a narrative that simply refuses to illuminate what it’s going after, and a narrative that comes to a logical conclusion that is still open to the world of the reader by way of their personal experiences and that allows them to fall into that world,” he says.
Empathy is the goal here. All these open-ended questions encourage readers to understand the characters’ motivations and their own reactions to those characters. “By the end of the drafting process,” Washington says, “I felt as though I understood where [the characters] were coming from, but I didn’t need to like them. . . . If I knew where they were coming from, I had a better understanding of why they did the things they did.”
To Washington, shifting interpretative authority to the reader is a vital element of literature. “You really don’t need to answer every question for a reader or for someone in the audience. As long as you are extremely calculated in how you are giving information and details on the page, everyone will end up in the general pocket,” he says. “I feel like narratives that really stick with me are those that allow space for the readers.”
Author photo by Dailey Hubbard