In Bryan Washington’s ‘Memorial,’ a Young Gay Couple Is Divided by Race, Class and Culture

By Bryan Washington

A striking aspect of “Memorial,” Bryan Washington’s assured debut novel, is that we never learn the true given name of one of the book’s two protagonists. He goes by Michael, or more often Mike, a Western name he adopted in childhood, after he and his parents emigrated to the United States from Japan. Such adaptations are common enough among the foreign-born and -extracted, a way for the Hee-Juns and Rahuls of the world to more easily slip into the rough stream of American life. But something is effaced when you become a James or a Robert: a part of your identity, your heritage, perhaps even your essence.

A sense of self-estrangement pervades “Memorial,” which centers on the relationship between Mike and his Black boyfriend, Ben (short for Benson). The novel begins with their separation: Mike flies to Osaka to care for his terminally ill father, who abandoned his family when Mike was a boy. The timing of the father’s sickness couldn’t be worse: Mike’s mother, Mitsuko, is on her way from Tokyo to Houston to see him. Instead she’ll have to spend her visit with Ben, a stranger. After four years together, Mike and Ben’s relationship is already shaky, nearing the breaking point, and they will now have to figure out where they stand from opposite sides of the planet.

From the beginning, then, Washington lays out the various factors that lay a claim on us and help determine who we are: race, nationality, sexual orientation, family. Over the course of the novel these vectors cross and get tangled up, binding Mike and Ben in knots. They are both alienated from deadbeat dads who still can’t quite accept that their sons are gay, and who enjoy tormenting them with crass homophobic jokes. This familial persecution is met with the equivalent of an eye roll, a recognition that the changing times are about to bury these dinosaurs along with their prejudices, but it also still stings. One of the great themes of “Memorial” is the immense power parents wield over their children, even well into adulthood — most evident in their power to wound.

There’s no escaping family, unfortunately. As the saying goes, you’ll always be your father’s son, which explains why Mike sprints off to sit at his father’s bedside despite a lifetime of neglect. Family dysfunction also adds poignancy to Ben’s cagey relationship with Mitsuko, who becomes a kind of surrogate mother to him as she grudgingly prepares a panoply of Japanese dishes for them both. Omurice, okayu, natto, potato korokke, abura-age, kamaboko — all emerge almost magically from the kitchen that Mitsuko has quickly made her own.

Mitsuko’s cooking also includes a dash of racism. When Ben says the local H Mart “just might” carry natto — or fermented soy beans, a stinky gloop of brown pellets that has a love-it-or-hate-it reputation even in Japan — Mitsuko deadpans in disbelief, “You know what natto is.” When Ben responds in the affirmative, she remains incredulous: “And you eat natto.” To his boyfriend’s mother, Ben is just a Black man who could not possibly know what natto is, let alone like it. Or, as she puts it to him, “How the hell would I know what you like.”

Flashback sequences reveal race creeping between Mike and Ben as well. “Sure, they had money,” Ben says of his middle-class parents, to Mike, whose immigrant parents struggled financially. “But we’re Black. So that cancels everything out.” Race also clashes awkwardly with their sexuality. Like Washington’s 2019 story collection, “Lot,” this book is set in Houston — specifically the Third Ward, a historically Black district. The couple live there together, but it is Mike who gabs with the neighbors and brings them food, while Ben refuses to acknowledge them, self-conscious about being the gay couple in the neighborhood.

Meanwhile, Mike is caught in an existential drift that comes from his original displacement, which retains its hold on him even when he arrives in Osaka: “I hadn’t called my boyfriend at home, and home was the only place I wanted to be, even if, technically, I was already there, I had already made it, I was finally back home.” His father, Eiju, runs one of those tiny Japanese bars that live their quiet, secret lives up anonymous staircases. He tells Mike that when he dies, the bar is his. It is Mike’s patrimony, as well as his opportunity to go back home for real.

In plain, confident prose, Washington deftly records the way the forces of loyalty pull the heartstrings in different directions. The tone and dialogue are cool, almost jaded, gesturing obliquely at the emotions roiling beneath the surface. The story is told from the alternating perspectives of Ben and Mike, but they both speak in a vernacular that tends to flatten the distinctions between them, as well as between English and Mike’s transliterated Japanese. At one point, Mike tells Eiju, “I think you’re writing checks your ass can’t cash,” an American colloquialism that might ring false to some foreign ears. But it also suggests a touching universality undermining all those barriers Washington has constructed.

The first-person conversational approach has other interesting wrinkles. The narration will often include a crucial “like,” as in, “He showed up like 15 minutes later.” Washington writes prose the way we speak, text, Slack and tweet, and “Memorial,” like other contemporary novels, is deeply influenced by those mediums. He knows how to place a “like” to add a beat, to soften a sentiment or make it funny.

When a whole novel is told in vernacular, however, it can suffer from a dimness of perception — from the feeling of being trapped in the heads of these confused, not entirely eloquent characters. At times I wished for an expository voice that would elevate all this muddle into something more polished, and therefore transcendent.

But that is not what life is like, of course. There is only the muddle and what we make of it. Divided by race but bound by sexuality, Ben and Mike still have to make decisions — about whether to stay together or part; about whom to forgive and where to live and what to do with the rest of their lives. These are decisions that will determine, as much as any other claim on their identity, who they are. “Memorial” leaves us with the sense that our true selves, like our true names, aren’t necessarily bestowed at birth. They are chosen, too.

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