Book Review | Quietly ordinary queer lives

In Memorial, Bryan Washington ignores the expectation for queer narratives to be only about the exceptional. Instead, his novel considers the multitude of small moments that make a life.

Depictions of queer life in art and literature have a tendency to be immersed in the spectacular. They present diverse existences as a collection of only exceptional moments – primarily centring trauma – with none of the texture of everyday life. For audiences, this creates narrow interpretations of LGBTQIA+ lives that are not dynamic and on a continuum. 

Fortunately, as the canon of queer literature continues to evolve, new narratives are breaking away from this pattern. They present queer life not anew but as understood, and create an opportunity for a more inclusive representation and, importantly, a more robust queer archive. 

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In Memorial, American author Bryan Washington succeeds in demythologising queer life. He offers a narrative that gleams with not only the mundanity of daily life but also its surprising absurdity. Over a Zoom call, Washington reflects on this. 

“There is a way in which, within contemporary American literary fiction, if you have books from marginalised backgrounds generally, but queer books specifically, there’s a deeply reductive way in which they can be depicted in that every event is a capital E event.” Real life, as Washington points out, is varied. It fluctuates between intensities. 

With Memorial, Washington was “trying to write a narrative and to work with characters that are just navigating trying to be okay on a daily basis. 

“Sometimes the capital moments – or what may be a capital letter moment in another narrative – is just a moment that is occurring that [characters are] navigating in the midst of their particular narrative,” he says. 

Different realities

Memorial tells the story of Benson and Mike, a couple living in Third Ward in Houston, Texas. Clamped in the routine of domestic life, the relationship is tested when Mike decides to leave for Osaka in Japan to nurse his ailing father Eiju. On his departure, his mother Mitsuko arrives in Houston and must now stay with her son’s boyfriend, whom she is meeting for the first time. 

With the couple on opposite ends of the world, they navigate their new circumstances and relationships with a casualness that belies the life-changing potential of the circumstances they’ve landed in. In different ways, both Benson and Mike are thrust into living arrangements with people they barely know. Though this may appear to be an absurd context to place characters in, real life can be just as theatrical.

As testament to this, Washington notes that “one partner leaving his mom with the other partner” might “look ridiculous”, but “I can’t tell you how many people have written letters to my agent or reached out to me and said hey, something very similar or this exact thing occurred”.

Washington’s respect for his characters and their individual narratives feels like an anchoring in their stories. He validates daily queer life as worthy of being literary fiction. Memorial declares the insights into the banality of queerness as important as those into its exceptional qualities. It’s why he decided on the title Memorial, to underscore the importance of the everyday, the moments and events that might not register as important. 

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“That’s the little bit of the conceit of the title,” he says. “The tone, whether it’s Ben or Mike, is largely understated with only a handful of exceptions. The entirety of the narrative is memorial in a sense; it’s something that is really important. Even if in the midst of its [occurrence] in the present sense, it doesn’t seem that way for them.” 

Memorial completely ignores the expectation for queer narratives to be only exceptional and rather considers the many small, moments that create the spectacular aspect of their lives. 

Location and food

One of the novel’s obvious explorations is place, and Houston and Osaka are prominent. The descriptions of both cities are alive and tangible. Washington creates a stark contrast between them that requires the characters to interact with space differently, particularly Mike in Osaka, who finds himself in a foreign city that oddly feels familiar because it’s the city of his parents, technically his home. But Benson is also experiencing a Houston without Mike, which makes it an unfamiliar experience, too. 

A big inspiration for Washington was trying to figure out what the tangible connections between the two cities are and what they could look like in narrative form. “In my specific experience, there’s a warmth that I’ve experienced in Houston that I’ve only seen a reiteration of in Osaka, a certain congeniality of people, a certain generosity, a certain mood. Both are port cities, so you have lots of different folk making their way through for commerce or pleasure, and both cities are places where their respective residents are really proud of the places they’re from,” he says. 

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But in the same breath, the cities could not be more different. They have distinct food identities; one is largely monocultural while the other isn’t; and Osaka has mainly one language while Houston is multilingual. The less tangible differences were tricky to define for Washington, but this created scope to explore something interesting to him. “Trying to figure out what the less tangible connections were or could be or look like felt like a challenge, but it seemed like the sort of thing I would want to read.”

Like place, food is important in the novel. It transcends being just comfort and nourishment and becomes a tool for communication that the characters use to “say things that their dialogue won’t allow them to, or they may not have the language for it just yet”. Anyone familiar with Washington’s work can attest to his own unmissable culinary vocabulary. Food holds an almost sacred space in his life, beyond sustenance. 

Washington brings this culinary vernacular to the ensemble of characters and, through examining how food is in one’s life and how it isn’t, provides a conduit for communication through food. Furthermore, the cultural dimensions of food become indicators of where a person is from, where they’ve been, their class and what structural maladies they have to contend with. 

Love letters to Houston

Memorial’s Houston is an extension of Washington’s first book, Lot, a collection of interconnected tales that take place in Houston. Memorial continues the love letters Washington has been writing to his hometown that can be found throughout his work.

“Houston is and feels like a city where you can live, work and play and live in different contexts simultaneously as opposed to, at least for me, a city like New York, where you’re constantly viewed within a professional context or your social context is always visible, and [it] doesn’t feel the same as in Houston,” the author says.

These love letters to Houston highlight his keen understanding of how a place can impose itself on characters – and all of us – ultimately leading to evolution. Washington says he is trying to convey a particular tone about Houston, which is less on the forefront of plot and structure than trying to figure out what the city is for whichever character is the focal point. Through plunging characters into different contexts and monitoring how they change, he wraps the narrative around the central tenet of evolution: adapt or die. 

This is at the heart of Memorial. Mike is plucked from the comfort of Houston and we watch him begin to question his life and his relationship, and in that questioning lies the potential for growth. Meanwhile, back in Houston, Benson’s physical location may have not shifted but the constellation of people around him does, and readers watch as he responds to this. In his reactions and choices, he too is given the opportunity to alter the idea of who he can be. 

Purposeful choices 

Washington’s character choices are deeply intentional. The two protagonists, Benson and Mike, are purposefully characterised as being, respectively, a Black, HIV-positive daycare teacher and an overweight Japanese-American chef. It may be an interracial relationship, but both of them come from marginalised backgrounds, which heightens the complexity of their relationship. The easier choice would have been to make one of them white, which would have made the power dynamics easy to inscribe. 

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“It was important to me to write a queer romance of the kind that was not siloed within the parameters of whiteness,” he says. “There’s a way in which queer narratives are reflected off a presence of whiteness and white supremacy.” 

Washington instead “was interested in writing a story where characters of marginalised backgrounds are having conversations on their own terms and that they’re operating within their own language”, and “doing so without feeling the impulse to translate or to make it more relatable to white people” and the white literary world.

As the scholar in residence for racial justice at Rice University, Washington is attuned to the necessity of work that pushes the line forward. “By way of writing what I do and when I’m writing it, it can only be a reflection of the times. You are writing into the moment by writing in the moment,” he says. “I’m only interested in writing what I’m interested in, irrespective of what might be deemed socially important.”  

The palpable pressure for writers of a marginalised background to produce work that speaks to some social issue and appease the white gaze is a constant negotiation. “The interesting thing about that social importance – usually it’s whenever a book’s copy or … blurb [states] ‘this is an encouraging book’ or ‘this is necessary’ – it’s white people deeming it urgent. It’s more fun if it’s something I want to write,” he says. Memorial is undeniably a novel that delivers on the monument it purports to be, an intimate monument to queer lives, grief, love, sex, food and all the gaps in our humanity that we don’t honour enough. Washington’s literary vision is an incantation of what is here, and yet to come.

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