Novel unearths drama in the silent spaces of relationships

The Yomiuri Shimbun
“Memorial” by Bryan Washington

One of the most expressive yet frustratingly uncommunicative words in any relationship, whether it be paternal, platonic or romantic, is the word “fine.”

Fans of Bryan Washington’s short story collection “Lot,” which appeared on former U.S. President Barack Obama’s “favorite books of 2019” list, eagerly awaited the author’s next work.

Washington’s debut novel “Memorial” is told through short conversations, flashbacks, text messages and photos. But, just like in real life, what is left unsaid is sometimes just as important, if not more important, to the story than what is on the page.

“Memorial” is an exercise in empathy as it follows the lives of an interracial gay couple who try to figure out who they are, what they want and if they even want to stay together.

Benson and Mike live in Houston, Texas, and have been together for four years. However, as can happen with any couple who have been together for a while, they think they have figured each other out and their communication has fallen apart.

Both Mike and Benson have complicated relationships with their parents. Mike hasn’t spoken to his father since he walked out on him and his mother, while Benson’s parents pretend that he’s not gay.

The book is divided into three sections and starts from the perspective of Benson, a young Black man who finds out that his Japanese American partner is suddenly going to fly across the world to Osaka to see his estranged and dying father for an indeterminate amount of time. The kicker is that Mike’s mother, whom Benson has never met, is flying in the day before and is supposed to be staying with them for “a few weeks … or maybe a couple of months.” Let the drama ensue.

As Benson doesn’t really know what he wants in a relationship, or in life in general, he answers many questions with “fine,” or “I don’t know” or some other variant. When Mike talks about the idea of being in an open relationship, Benson doesn’t like it but doesn’t say anything, while admitting internally that “a non-decision is a choice in itself.”

But when Benson finally reveals important moments from his life, Mike always seems to be preoccupied.

Mitsuko, Mike’s mother, on the other hand, is blunt. In one instance, when Benson tries to start a casual conversation about Mike, he asks for a story, but Mitsuko just laughs and says: “A story is an heirloom … It’s a personal thing … You don’t ask for heirlooms. They’re just given to you.”

However, through this odd-couple dynamic, Benson learns more about himself and what he wants in life.

When the novel switches to Mike’s perspective, it starts from when he lands in Osaka.

After not having the kind of reunion he expected with his father, Eiju, Mike is immediately put to work at his father’s bar, where he soon realizes that even though he was born in Japan, he is now considered an outsider.

Mike is understandably angry with his father for a multitude of reasons, and they rarely have conversations that don’t involve throwing insults. However, as Mike takes care of Eiju and watches his cancer progress, Mike begins to see him as an actual person as opposed to the larger-than-life figure from his memories.

Through conversations and flashbacks, different sides of each of the characters are revealed as they grow. But will Benson and Mike grow together? Or drift apart?

Washington’s storytelling might be frustrating for some as it doesn’t give all the answers for what is left unsaid, but he forces the reader into the characters’ shoes. He also pushes the audience to reflect on their own relationships, and to realize that one’s perception of a situation may not be the entire truth and because something is left unsaid, doesn’t mean it wasn’t important.

— By Akino Higa, Japan News Staff Writer