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Major prize, first novel: Houston author Bryan Washington is on a roll

The writer talks about ‘Memorial,’ his upcoming 'gay slacker dramedy.’

It’s a big year for Houston author Bryan Washington. In September, his 2019 story collection, Lot, won the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, which is given to writers 35 and younger. On Oct. 27, his first novel, Memorial, will be released.

Memorial focuses on a couple — Benson and Mike — at a critical time in their relationship. Benson, a Black day-care worker, and Mike, a Japanese-American chef, are also wrestling with painful family histories. As the book begins, Mike leaves Houston for Japan to be with his dying father. Benson must deal solo with Mike’s mother, Mitsuko, who has just arrived from Japan for a visit.

We talked with Washington about Memorial’s strong sense of place, writing books that don’t exploit trauma and giving each character his or her due.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Bryan Washington's debut novel, "Memorial," focuses on a gay couple at a critical time in their relationship.
Bryan Washington's debut novel, "Memorial," focuses on a gay couple at a critical time in their relationship.(Riverhead Books)

Is it strange to have this book — which you’ve called a “gay slacker dramedy" — released at a time when suddenly a lot of people are paying attention to inequality and racism?

No. I think that it’s white people, specifically, that are suddenly paying attention to inequality and racism. There would never be a “good” time for this book — starring queer folks from marginalized communities falling in and out of love, without capitalizing on their trauma, or looking to educate a reader about their “experience” through some reductive equation — to be released in this country.

You’ve talked about wanting to write stories that don’t make you feel worse. Some sad things happen in Memorial, and yet it’s not a downer. So how did you pull that off?

Thanks for asking that. We all live lives outside of the terrible things that happen to us, if we’re lucky. The goal was to put a simulacrum of that on the page. People are many different things at once.

Memorial has a strong sense of place — two places, actually: Houston and Osaka. What’s your secret to bringing your locations to life on the page?

The structural problem on my end was trying to capture a very specific portrait of the warmth I’ve gotten to experience in both cities. Which feels like a massive privilege now, especially. It was tricky to put a tether on a “feeling.”

One of Benson’s friends observes, “Everybody’s somebody’s villain.” As a reader, our sympathies ricochet between Benson and Mike. As you were writing, did you keep score in your head, trying to keep things balanced?

I don’t think I was interested in balancing things so much as trying to paint as clear of a picture as possible for where each of them was coming from. It mattered a good deal to me that Benson and Mike were given their fair due.

There’s so much food in this book. Do you cook?

Yes. Lots of comfort food lately.

Which secondary character was the most fun to write? Benson’s sister, Lydia? Mike’s mom, Mitsuko? Someone else?

They were all a lot of fun in their own way (and, frankly, Mitsuko was the glue that held every character in the book together). The trick was thinking of every character as their own protagonist, although some of them spend less time on the page. Lydia’s concerns were just as important to me as Tan’s concerns, which were just as important as Ximena’s and Kunihiko’s and Omar’s and everyone else’s.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a few things, but they’re all slow going. Hopefully one of them sticks.

Coming up

Bryan Washington will appear at a virtual event as part of Arts & Letters Live, sponsored by the Dallas Museum of Art, on Oct. 27 at 7 p.m. For details, visit dma.org/programs/arts-letters-live.

Shawna Seed, Special Contributor. Shawna Seed is the author of two novels, Identity and Not in Time. She lives in Oak Cliff.

artslife@dallasnews.com
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