“Look... Okay is good. Alright is good. Most people don’t get more than that. That’s a myth,” says Benson in Memorial, Bryan Washington’s debut novel which came out last October. The story investigates a couple’s unsaid love that is borne out of familiarity and duration.
Memorial begins with Benson learning that Mike, his boyfriend of four years, is leaving to take care of his dying father in Osaka. Ben must share their one-bedroom apartment with Mitsuko, Mike's mother, who is visiting Houston. She’s completely unenthused about the surprise living arrangements; Mike’s departure was a shock to her too. The first part of the novel chronicles Ben's life in Houston, which involves looking after kids at a daycare center and shuttling Mitsuko around town for groceries. "So... You're Black," she says on their first errand. Ben replies, "You noticed."
Ben’s day-to-day events are cut with recollections from earlier times in his and Mike’s relationship and memories with his family: the first time he and Mike went to the beach in Galveston, a childhood road trip where a cop pulled the family's car over for speeding and nearly arrests his father, the moment that he learned he was HIV positive, and the time Mike asks him if they can see other people. The memories provide emotional context, marking past intensities against which the humdrum present is measured.
Like many of Washington’s works, Memorial explores Houston, food, queer love, and boyhood. Its interspersed format recalls Lot, Washington's acclaimed 2019 collection of short stories, in which multiple narratives of Houston alternate with sections of his O. Henry Prize-winning story, “610 North, 610 West.” In Memorial, Washington widens his concerns to Houston's slow atmosphere and scrappy immigrant-shaped culture.
As in Lot, Memorial not only thumbs its nose at catering to a white audience—though an excerpt of the novel appeared in The New Yorker in July 2020—but its text also declines to explain names or a place's significance to anyone who doesn’t know Houston. Ben's and Mike's stories swing from Katy, a far-out suburb, to Montrose, the city's LGBTQ neighborhood, to the Third Ward, a historically Black neighborhood where Mike, who works in restaurants, can afford to live alone.
Houston itself forms a backdrop to the novel’s trajectory. “A large part of what is so exciting to get to write about a city like Houston is that it’s full of so many nooks and crannies and communities,” Washington told Rice's student newspaper last fall. At times the city rears up: There are driving scenes, moments at bars like Grand Prize, culinary flourishes, and characters molded from Washington’s experience here. The book shares a name with Houston’s largest park, its largest medical center, and a suburb along the city's outer ring road. The cover is a snapshot of Houston's mood: A plastic takeout bag pinned by chopsticks billows in the city's cloudless blue sky. A special pleasure comes from reading a novel and witnessing an environment that you know well recreated by a skillful storyteller.
Memorial, however, marks a shift in Washington’s repertoire not only in its change in the scale of craft from short story to novel, but also in subject. Rather than the travails of late youth, Washington turns his attention to early adulthood. He hones in on the sense of stasis and unease that arrives when you realize that you’ve comfortably settled in your apartment, reached the fourth year of a second love, or gained enough distance from your parents to see their shortcomings and mortality.
The second part of the novel is told from Mike's point of view. He recounts how his family “bounced from Alief to the South Side to the West Loop, settling wherever Eiju could keep a job.” Eiju, Mike’s father, drank away the money he and his mother saved and fought with Mitsuko. He left Mike and Mitsuko three times, the last time for good.
It’s easy to identify with Washington's characters, even though the kinships and circumstances that structured my upbringing hardly mirror theirs. The agency that adulthood affords requires tiresome vigilance, which Mike feels guilty about letting lapse, like when he admits that he has no professional prospects in Houston. After his and Ben's worst fight, Mike concludes, "It wasn't like I didn't know what was happening, or that I wanted us to be over, but it just felt like gravity—like I was slowly sinking into something that would eventually happen anyway and I didn't know how to stop it or turn it around or what." His lack of initiative captures the ambivalence of a person with something to lose. Mike is experienced enough to know that something could be better but is unable to abandon his investment; he finds that it takes more than resignation to leave.
Centering the mundane decisions of adulthood and banal details of day-to-day observations makes Memorial a story about two people, rather than a story of identity labels. Washington's diligent attention to his subjects' histories makes them feel real. His characters eschew the one-dimensional tragic marginalization or triumphant defiance that so often flattens the experience of being a person of color in America.
Bayou City is about to get more media attention. The day before Memorial was released, the distribution company A24, whose past films include Minari, The Farewell, and Moonlight, announced that they had secured its television rights. The book will be adapted into a limited TV series, which Washington is currently writing.
Sometimes it feels as if the stories that portray unseen subjects and the mechanisms that broadcast them have conflicting objectives. In the past half decade, and especially in the past year, the gatekeepers of contemporary arts and culture have taken an interest in identity and representation. Memorial seems to feed this new hunger, and I can't help but feel that production industries are capitalizing on the feelings of affirmation and relief that come with seeing one's own narratives for the first time.
Washington has responded to these questions: "I was insistent that I be able to write it," he explained in his conversation with poet and writer Ocean Vuong on A24's podcast. "But it is a deeply collaborative effort [...] with folks that are so like-minded." He highlights the significance of trust and control within publishing houses and acknowledges that change in literary and film industries will take time.
Despite the city's size, there is a dearth of TV shows set in Houston. With eager anticipation, I wonder: How will a filmic gaze contribute to Houstonians' collective senses of place? What will the show’s images reveal about our city today? The temporal dimension of film seems particularly apt for translating Washington's wide character arcs, cooking sequences, and silence-filled relationships. Perhaps the visual rendition of Memorial, like the book, will make us see not only how "okay is good,” but how okay, with time and context, can be fulfillment. Maybe the same is true for Houston.
Tiffany Xu (M.Arch 2020, Rice Architecture) is a designer and writer based in Oakland, California.