A Slacker Dramedy About Two Men of Color in Love
Bryan Washington, author of “Memorial,” on food as a love language and how remarkable it still is to write gay sex
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Bryan Washington’s debut novel, Memorial, is about Benson, a Black daycare teacher, and his boyfriend Mike, a Japanese American chef, who find themselves at the four-year mark of a messy relationship without a clear path forward.
Much like with Lot, his lauded 2019 short story collection, the novel offers Washington’s trademark empathy and compassion for characters who struggle to step outside of themselves, who long to open up, who make mistakes and hurt one another, who are doing their absolute best to get by. It’s a novel built on quiet moments, touched by equal measures of grief and joy. As Benson and Mike navigate dating, work, and the death of loved ones, they reflect on their time together and apart, disrupting the static life they once knew. As a writer, reading Washington’s fiction makes me want to do better for my characters. And as a reader, I always walk away from his work reexamining the construct of my own heart.
Bryan Washington’s Lot earned him a number of awards and nominations including the 2020 Lammy for Gay Fiction, the Dylan Thomas Prize, and the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. He is a National Book Award 5 Under 35 honoree, and his writing has appeared widely in such places as The New Yorker, The New York Times, BuzzFeed, Vulture, The Paris Review, McSweeney’s Quarterly, Tin House, One Story, and Catapult.
I had the pleasure to speak with Washington about mundanity, hookup scenes, cooking as a love language, and doing right by the communities and people we care about most.
Christopher Gonzalez: I’m obsessed with the fact that you refer to Memorial as a “gay slacker dramedy.” Can you unpack what “slacker” here means? For me, it speaks to this kind of everydayness, how life is always mundane even when it’s not, if that makes any sense.
Bryan Washington: The intention on my end was certainly leaning towards mundanity. The book I wanted to write was about the creases in relationships. Sometimes that’s romantic relationships or familial relationships or even just platonic relationships, and so much of that is mundane. You look up at some point and your partner is your partner, or your relationship with your mother or father has changed, or you know a sibling or someone who you see as a person and not just a brother or a sister or a partner become something else. The transitory periods between those plateaus are often filled with things that are mundane. I was trying to find a way to write about that as remarkable, because I think there is a lot of remarkability in mundanity.
CG: I don’t necessarily want to talk about representation with a capital R.
BW: Ha, OK, appreciate you.
CG: But there was something remarkable, to use your word, about reading a novel about Benson and Mike, two gay men of color, having a lot of sex, and how commonplace it all was within the work. Can you talk a little bit about that?
BW: I don’t have the sexiest answer for that beyond the hackneyed notion of wanting to write the narrative that you want to see, and taking experiences that I’ve had and experiences that my friends have had, the stories that we told one another. I wanted to see a simulacrum of that on the page, because I feel like when you’re telling stories to your friends, you’re not thinking about how a white audience would interpret the narrative. When you tell a story to your friend, you just try to tell the story. I wanted to write a narrative that features the communities I am a part of and also the ones I care deeply about.
CG: You tapped into this casual cruelty that can exist within the hookup scene. This rang painfully true for me. I’m thinking specifically about the racism and fetishization Mike encounters on the apps and the comments he gets about his body. And the fact that, like many of us, he still sleeps with the assholes.
BW: It was deeply important to me to try to paint as full of a picture of these very particular experiences and these very singular experiences as possible without being prescriptive or being definitive as opposed to being illustrative of what those interactions can look like. What does it say when that character goes through with it? What does that say about them? What does it say about the interaction itself? What does it say about the construction of that interaction? And what is owed and what is expected between two bodies? I just wanted to paint a picture for the reader and have them take it for what it is, and have them come to conclusions given their respective experiences, their respective canons.
CG: Another type of narrative might have instilled the idea of an educational moment, but that doesn’t happen here. There is a withholding of judgment, not only with writing about sex and cheating but also some of the violence that occurs in Benson’s and Mike’s relationship. It’s part of their dynamic. There’s no morality tied to it, which I found fascinating. Was that the goal?
BW: I feel like when we’re telling stories about people we care about to people we care about, the inclination to be moralistic or to be judgmental isn’t nearly as strong. You’re just trying to tell the story about what happened to these folks and trying to do it in such a way that it retains the dignity of each of these characters while still not shying away from the fact that sometimes they do fucked up things and fucked up things happen to them.
CG: Something that strikes me is how conscientious you are about how you portray your characters. This also comes across in how you write about Japanese cuisine, not only in this novel but also in your nonfiction. How did you approach this thread for the novel? And did anything surprise you when it came to writing about food?
BW: I was really interested in writing about comfort and writing about pleasure and the different ways that people give and receive comfort and pleasure. Food was one way to do that. For Benson, what does a culinary education look like for someone who is learning about how to care for others in this way? What would he start to cook and where would he end up so that his trajectory from being shocked about Mitsuko cracking an egg to cooking Mike’s favorite dish at the end of the book makes structural sense. Whereas for Mike, my question was, what is the menu for someone who speaks and thinks and gives comfort and pleasure and nourishment predominantly through the foods that they cook? And, because Mike’s been cooking for a while, that gave me a lot more options as far as what that could look like. But that didn’t really make it any easier, because each of those meals is supposed to be saying something about how he feels or intends the recipient to feel.
CG: I love the dynamic between Mitsuko and Benson. She’s similar to Mike, in that both never stop talking, while Benson is very quiet and reserved. Mitsuko is able to shake him a bit. It makes me wonder about communication more generally within the book. You’ve touched on food as a means of communicating love and giving comfort, but I’m also thinking about how communication breaks down for Benson and Mike at the start of the novel and how distance exacerbates this issue with text messaging becoming insufficient for them as they both fall into separate day-to-day lives.
BW: There’s a certain reading of the book where you could argue that Benson’s arc is of someone who learns how to speak up for what they want, whereas Mike’s arc is someone who ultimately learns how to listen to other people, which is an extremely, extremely, like extreme shorthand of the book. I’m really someone who takes stock in a character’s love language, and the ways in which they relate to other people that might not be immediately discernible as being deeply significant but that are significant for them. That tells me that this is how they communicate when they’re trying to get affection across or trying to entice someone or even if they’re just trying to tell someone to go away. If I know what a character wants and I know what they desire, I know what they don’t want, and I have a pretty general framework of who they are and how they relate to the folks around them.
CG: We’re at a point now where social distancing and the lockdowns have afforded us time for great introspection and reflection as well as time we might not have previously had to devote to learning something new. To speak to the book, distance is what Mike and Benson ultimately need in order to figure out where their relationship is headed. And in that space, Mike is able to connect with his dying father, and Benson learns what opening up to other people feels like, and they both see opportunities for new love. Is there anything in the last seven months that you’ve finally had time to sit with and learn about yourself? Is there anything new you’ve tried to master?
BW: Something that I’m hyper-conscious of now, even if I was just very peripherally conscious of it prior to our being in a pandemic state, is trying to really expand on and to calcify what generosity and what being there for someone can look like. While the medium has changed in which we can show up for one another, whether it’s for a capital-B Big reason, or if it’s for someone just wanting to have you around, the need certainly hasn’t. The need has grown and extended itself. So, I’m trying to figure out the many different forms that that can take for folks, whether it is a romantic relationship, whether it’s more platonic, or a familial relationship. It’s just something I’ve been thinking about a lot as of late. Is there anything for you?
CG: I guess for me, personally, I’m thinking about what loneliness can yield and how it’s always been something I had run away from or feared. I’m thinking about how I might need it to, as you were talking about, be there for other people. And the big question I’ve been working through these last seven months is how to be there for myself, too. Have we gotten there? I don’t know.
BW: Do you feel like you need to get there?
CG: That’s a very good question. I guess, and maybe you can relate, I’m always in my own head in some way. And never have I ever had to confront a lot of things about myself on this level.
BW: I never feel like I’m deeply and integrally comfortable anywhere. And by way of that, it makes it extremely difficult for me to be uncomfortable anywhere, if that makes sense. I’m not someone who feels like I’m in uncomfortable situations very often or, rather, I have a very high tolerance for what that can look like. I wouldn’t say whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but having to think about that in the context of the pandemic as someone who generally has a tendency to take everything extremely seriously—but also I don’t take very many things terribly seriously—and wanting to put myself in a position where I’m not constantly dissociating. Ideally, you want to be present in the moment, but when the moment calls for long stretches of time in solitude, whether that’s solitude with a partner or solitude by yourself, or if you and your kids are trying to find a way to be present, that’s been a big challenge.
CG: You’ve talked a lot about trying to do right by characters in your book and also by people in your life. I think that’s what we’re trying to do better as writers, be there for people whether they’re fictional or not. That level of empathy and compassion you have and that is so prominent in your work, how do you maintain that? Not even just in considering the current moment, I mean, pick any year. There’s so much to be angry about. I guess I’m mainly asking or myself, but how do you channel what might be anger into empathy?
BW: As far as the context of work specifically, I care quite a lot what my friends think of my work. I care quite a lot about what those who are close to me think of my work and the projects that I’m trying to do. A lot of not too good things happen in the book. A lot of terrible things happen to each of the characters. There’s the dissolution of relationships, there is a drifting apart, there is literal death of loved ones. I think about what the characters need to carry them through to the next page. Whether they’re sharing a meal or sharing a glass with someone in a bar or they’re sharing a chat with someone or they’re sharing a smoke with someone or sharing a drink with someone or they notice something in the road, that may be enough. And that’s very much how I approach things generally and, more specifically, as of late, as far as really being appreciative of the generosity that I’m privy to and the generosity that I have been privy to while acknowledging that things are still very much fucked up and it’s deeply unlikely that they will unfuck themselves over the course of my lifetime. But that doesn’t negate the small pleasures and the small generosities and the small comforts I’ve been privileged to have and that, ideally, I can be privileged to share with friends and loved ones and folks I hold dear.