Where Words Often Fail: Talking with Bryan Washington


Bryan Washington’s debut story collection, Lot, was a unique and sprawling love letter to the city of Houston, and garnered him instant positive critical reception and popular support (Obama liked it!). In turn, his first novel, Memorial, is one of the most anticipated books of 2020. In his novel Washington introduces us to another city close to his heart, Osaka, while continuing his devoted record of Houston and its many faces.

Mike was raised poor in the US by his immigrant mother Mitsuko and Benson is an HIV-positive Black man who lives in alienation from his family. They find love and care in their relationship with each other, but four years in, things aren’t going too well anymore. Just as their relationship is starting to rupture and Mitsuko arrives to visit her son for the first time in years, Mike finds out that his father is dying. He leaves Benson and his mother in Houston to take care of a father that abandoned him when he was a boy, in a city that was never his home. This early abandonment is seen through Benson’s eyes, though we go on to shift to Mike’s perspective midway through the book, and then back to Benson’s for the third act.

Washington is able to conjure a painstaking portrait of family and found community from Osaka to Houston, each thread tangling at the central narrative and shooting out from the bounds of what Washington has shown us, alive and suggestive. Still, Memorial is as unassuming as its main protagonists—but arising from its placid surface is a story that deals with a lot of raw subjects without ever becoming melodramatic. Washington’s characters are survivors, dealing with their pasts with a kind of broken grace, and Washington doesn’t let anything leak out by the wayside. He gives hints, he shows but doesn’t tell, without a whole lot of gabbing or practiced introspection.

Washington and I spoke by phone about what it took to draw out the contours of Memorial’s complicated structure, soulful connections, suggestive silences, and more.


The Rumpus: Memorial reminded me so much of Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen. Was that an inspiration?

Bryan Washington: Yes, in a lot of ways. Partly because a lot of Yoshimoto’s novels, including Kitchen, were read in preparation for writing Memorial. I was trying to get a sense of pacing and tone, but also the way that Yoshimoto tracks the culinary progress of her protagonist throughout that novel was really important to me as I was trying to figure out what the respective trajectories of what Ben’s and Mike’s stories looked like. Trying to make that make sense on the page was tricky, so having Kitchen as a reference was helpful.

Rumpus: There’s a really compelling relationship between cooking and grief; what made you want to develop that connection throughout Memorial?

Washington: I think that one of the functions of cooking for me and one of the functions of cooking in Memorial was to serve as a love letter. To provide a form of language where words often fail the characters or when the exchanges the characters may have had with one another weren’t immediately discernible between them. I think a lot of Ben and Mike’s conversations with one another are punctuated by silences, implications, and assumptions. But food, meals, the act of cooking for someone is one of the ways that they cross the gap for one another. Even when Mike and Benson are at their worst, so to speak, Mike is always cooking for Benson and Benson is sitting down to eat and thanking him.

While Ben may find Mitsuko a bit terser than he expected, she is the character that is most emotionally aware among them and she is constantly trying to make people feel better and constantly trying to comfort people. Even if Ben isn’t immediately aware of that through her dialogue, it’s clear through her actions—her cooking—that she’s always trying to make people feel comfortable. So, as characters negotiate grief and the reparations of grief in their respective ways it felt as though the culinary languages that they utilize among each other is another way to get at their attempts to be okay.

Rumpus: There are a lot of different substitutes for speaking throughout the book, like all of the pictures they send each other over text when they don’t know what to say. But there was another silence that I was curious about. We learn that their relationship issues include physical violence, but it’s almost mentioned in passing. We never really hear why they’re laying hands on each other, how they really feel about that. Why is that?

Washington: It was really important to me not to be prescriptive or dogmatic or didactic about Ben and Mike’s relationship specifically, but also the relationships that sprang from that primary relationship. I’m always more interested as a reader in a symbiotic relationship between the text and myself, in that I would like it to be a conversation. I wanted to leave space for the reader to insert their thoughts, to insert their context to make sense of what’s actually going on on the page.

I wanted to recreate the strangeness, the awkwardness, the emotional and physical volatilities, all of the unpredictability that can be pronounced in a relationship. I felt that in order to make that work I couldn’t put too much explanation on the page. In lieu of that I was trying to paint a picture of their physical actions and their physical movements without necessarily giving an overwritten context as to why they were doing what they were doing so the reader can bring themselves into it.

Rumpus: What catalyzed this story, this project? Up until now, you’ve only written short stories.

Washington: It actually began as a short story that I wrote for a zine. I was in the midst of working on what I thought the second book project would ultimately become and it wasn’t going well at all. I constantly found myself returning not only to that original short story but also to the characters, and I began to wonder what a long-form work between them could look like. Though I strongly believed at the time that I couldn’t pull it off. So, I was working on this other thing while the story was lingering and manifesting and resurfacing in different ways. Eventually, with the guidance of my friends and conversations with my editor and my agent, I wrote the first twenty pages of what would eventually become the novel.

I showed it to my friends and they were really supportive of it and I showed it to my agent and my editor and they were the same. We started talking through preliminary structures and preliminary references in order to see what the tone would look like, what emotional pocket we were ultimately aiming for. And then I was left to my own devices to write the thing. It was definitely not the easiest writing process by any stretch of the imagination but I do think there wasn’t really a point throughout the entirety of the initial drafting experience where I wasn’t curious about how it would end, and I do think that was what propelled me to finish it. I just wanted to see what a book like this would look like.

Rumpus: What was the most difficult passage for you to write in Memorial?

Washington: Structurally, the book was pretty tricky to untangle. As far as emotionally speaking, there were three particularly tricky passages. One of the final arguments between Mike and Ben, they sort of just lash out. The scene where Benson is talking with his family towards the end was really tricky, emotionally. Just trying to make sure that even though Benson isn’t someone who talks a great deal, or extrapolates a great deal, that the words that he did use were sort of reaching those notes. Also Mitsuko’s monologue towards the very end of the novel where she’s talking about the reason that she chose to keep herself and Mike in the States. That was tricky, partly because I knew that I wanted it to be a sort of reveal but I wanted it to be natural and it had to make sense to the other characters that she would do that. I wanted it to be delivered in such a way that it felt like a conversation and an exhalation more so than a confession, which I don’t think it was, or something that she felt guilty about, which I don’t think she did. Each of those passages took a great deal of time to get them where I wanted them to be.

Rumpus: You’ve talked previously about how your deep relationship with Houston, one that’s been deepened by your writing about it. What was it like balancing against your familiarity with that city and then going into Osaka for such a large portion of the book? What was it like exploring this space?

Washington: It was tricky but it was also a lot of fun. I’ve been going to Osaka for the past six years and I’m usually there once or twice a year, not in a research capacity but just to visit friends and hang out. When I started Memorial as a longterm project I knew that I wanted to give equal credence to Ben and Mike over the course of the text. When I broke down the final, final draft down in terms of page count, Benson gets just over four more pages than Mike does. In word count Benson might have thirteen hundred more words than Mike. That was as close as I could reasonably get to do the thing that I was trying to do. So, it wasn’t really a question of whether Osaka would have the starring role as far as characters or emotional weight were concerned but rather how to do that in a way that was able to conjure so much of the warmth that I’ve been privy to in that city. It was a nice experience trying to key into what the characters not only saw in the cities but what these cities revealed to the characters and how each character responded to those things.

Rumpus: Mitsuko is this incredibly powerful personality, and in some ways she says more than a lot of the other characters in the book. What was it about her that clued you into the fact that she would end up serving this lynchpin role, that she would be that way?

Washington: She was a really fun character to write and was also one of the most difficult to write, both in editing and in drafting. I had to toe a really tricky line between showing the reader how she came to be while simultaneously establishing her principles and the ways in which those simply do not waver. I also had to toe the line between the warmth and respect she genuinely shows to every character, though it may not be the iteration that Benson might be expecting or that some of the other characters might be expecting. Just trying to have a fully realized image of her was a challenge if only because she occupies so much page space. A misstep there would rupture not only the emotional pocket of the novel but also the structural foundation of the novel.

From the beginning Mitsuko was there, and Benson and Mike. The challenge for me was how to take these people from that short story, which was maybe fifteen hundred words, and to really flesh them out with their own respective histories and ambitions and loves. That was tricky for all of them and particularly her because she’s such a force for both Benson and Mike. Their arcs don’t move unless she’s there to propel them and to mold them and guide them in one way or another.

Rumpus: The novel allows for so much space to develop not just characters but communities. This being your first novel, how did having this space to build a full world compare to the short story experience?

Washington: It’s exactly as you said, the short story is a suggestion of the connections these characters have or didn’t have, an implication, or inference. The task for me was to calcify that suggestion into a reality. I have three different notebooks where I would just write about the relationship between Mike and Benson, Mike and Mitsuko, Mitsuko and Eiju, and Benson and his family. The overwhelming majority of those notes didn’t make it into the book but I needed to establish those connections for myself in order to even brush at that lived in quality that I wanted the text to take. I didn’t want any of the characters to feel as if they were minor characters. I wanted them to be people, so if the camera, so to speak, may not have been on them as long as others, whether that’s Lydia or Tan or Omar, I didn’t want any of the characters to feel like bit players or as if they were solely there for the function of having Benson or Mike realize something about themselves. Being intentional about who was introduced and why they were introduced in any given section was important to me.

During the late editing session I was really lucky to be staying at friend’s place in Osaka and I would just cover their guest room walls with notes. Taped notes of who meant what to who and why that would change and what that looked like. That was what I needed to feel comfortable putting the characters in situations that they have to negotiate. A big thing for me was just not being trivial, not taking it lightly. Taking each of the characters as seriously as a person should be taken and giving each character the benefit of the doubt.

Rumpus: I consider Memorial to be a love story, but there’s so much more going on, so much grief and healing work that’s going on within these families. When did that shift come to include a larger thematic question of how we start to fold our families back into our lives at a certain point? Was that always there, or was that something that made itself known?

Washington: It wasn’t always there. I think that early on one arc that sort of emerged for me through drafting was this question, for both Benson and Mitsuko: who a person is or who a person believes themselves to be once they’re removed from the context that is telling them who they should be or how they should be within those contexts. Benson loses the gravity that Mike has on him and he has to reorient himself. Mike has a literal geographical uprooting and Mitsuko has both. Trying to figure out what each of those contexts meant to the characters meant knowing their families. Three or four drafts down the line it became apparent that I would have to really highlight those grievances and then also moments where Benson saw his parents and they became people or when Mike saw Mitsuko as a fully fleshed person and not just his mother, and when Eiju moved on from being an absent figure in his life to a person.

The intention is that these epiphanies aren’t pronounced. You aren’t relegated to this climactic scene. Rather, through tiny conversations and observations and realizations when each of the characters looks up, there’s been a shift and that shift is the arc. I wanted everything to matter and I didn’t want anything to feel forced. That was the final, major goal on my end.


Photograph of Bryan Washington by Dailey Hubbard.

Shanti Escalante-De Mattei is a freelance writer with work in Interview Magazine and City Limit, and pieces forthcoming in The Believer, Public Parking, and Electric Ghost Magazine. More from this author →