Author Bryan Washington is a native Houstonian, something immediately evident while reading Memorial, his much-lauded debut novel. Named for the sprawling neighborhood that’s home to tens of thousands of Houstonians, Memorial is a stunning debut, one that digs deep into relationships both familial and romantic, what it means to love and be loved, and the healing power of food.
Set in Houston and Osaka, Japan, Memorial follows preschool teacher Benson and his partner Mike, who works as a cook at a restaurant in Montrose. The city’s culinary scene and diverse demographic identity lend both inspiration and conflict to the novel as it explores Mike and Benson’s relationship when the couple is pulled apart by thousands of miles, with Mike traveling to Japan to care for his ailing father and Benson staying behind in Houston alongside Mike’s mother Mitsuko, whom he’s never met.
Memorial offers a visceral, sometimes uncomfortable look into how the bonds we form with other people are impacted by our upbringing. Simultaneously, it’s also an exploration of how food can connect people from disparate backgrounds in profound ways. Its casual prose eschews pretentiousness and overwrought turns of phrase in favor of the kind of real-ass, familar language that made Washington’s first work, a collection of essays called Lot, a literary smash-hit.
And of course, media executives seized on the book’s undeniable relatability. Last week, Deadline reported that the book had been optioned by production company A24, and will be adapted by Washington into a television series over the coming months.
In their respective cities, Mike and Benson cook and eat — a lot. In Osaka, Mike helps his father run the izakaya he’s owned for years, steaming rice and cooking okonomiyaki while repairing a relationship strained by absence and time. Back in Houston, novice cook Benson gets a crash course in culinary basics from Mitsuko, who teaches him how to make seafood curry, udon, and how to break an egg in one hand.
These situations make for moments that reveal the tensions inherent to the evolving relationship between queer people and their families, both their own and those of the people they love. It’s in these moments where Washington explores how homemade dishes can function as a language; how stirring eggs together can plug the silences in awkward conversations or serve as a quiet expression of love.
Eater sat down to talk with Washington about Houston, food, and how his experiences in the city shaped one of the year’s most exciting new novels.
Eater Houston: Are you riding out the pandemic in Houston?
Bryan Washington: I am. I was in Toronto in February for about a week, then I went to New York. The week after that, New York closed and a few weeks later Houston shut down. Since then, I’ve been in Houston.
What are you eating right now to comfort yourself and, you know, stay alive?
It varies really wildly. Like everybody else, I’m cooking as much as I’ve ever cooked. I’m not comfortable sitting in restaurants just yet. I’ve been eating a lot of tomato and egg dishes, a lot of curry. There’s a restaurant called Korean Noodle House and I pick up kimchi there every two weeks. I am staying inside, I am avoiding people, but I am going to get my kimchi. Also a lot of banh mi, that hasn’t really changed — I go every couple days and pick up croissants and baguettes. Trying to balance between staying inside and supporting restaurants that are dear to me.
At the beginning of Memorial, Benson says that Mike works at a Montrose restaurant “where they butcher rice bowls and egg rolls,” which seems like a nod to the neighborhood’s gentrification. Is this a specific spot, or just an amalgam of trendy Montrose restaurants?
It’s not based on any one specific place, and there are a few different Montrose restaurants that could probably be described in that way. This description, though, is from a person who is pretty jaded about his partner’s place of work, so I don’t know that I would necessarily describe the restaurant that Mike works at in that way.
A really interesting thing about Montrose specifically, and Houston generally, is that you have all these coffee shops and restaurants that are blending various cuisines and flavor profiles very fluently, and they’re very cognizant of the cultures that those cuisines come from. It’s done in a way that is respectful.
Scenes in Memorial are often set at restaurants in Houston. Benson and Mike go to an Irish pub in the Heights and have drinks at a bar in River Oaks. Does name-checking these neighborhoods help tell the story of Houston through the lens of its bars and restaurants?
These places were really grounding and helpful in establishing a certain tone. If I write that a restaurant is in the Heights, that implies something wildly different than a restaurant that’s in Chinatown on Bellaire. The tricky part on my end was making it clear enough to the reader that didn’t have the shorthand for what that meant, while also appealing to someone who would know exactly what that meant. It also seems like it helps get at exploring the way that a person’s economic class impacts what they’re exposed to, even in a place like Houston. Mike and Benson have very different upbringings in that respect.
The differences in their experience are refracted every time something as simple as the cost of a meal comes up or being in a neighborhood that Mike would have never stepped foot in otherwise, even though he’s deeply fluent in the city. I don’t think it’s a secret at all to say that there can be a staggering dissonance between the food that folks are eating and how they think it gets to them on the table.
What do you mean by that?
The image that a person might have of the back-of-house or a restaurant as a whole can stray wildly from the reality of it. When you have a litany of Chinese restaurants and Vietnamese restaurants and Korean restaurants whose diners are coming from all over, and the entire back-of-house staff is mostly Latinx. Those communities aren’t being given equitable compensation or credit for what they’re bringing to the table.
Conversely, when you do have a restaurant that is primarily staffed by folks of the background, or of the culture that they’re cooking from, and you have white diners that come in and expect to pay little to nothing under the guise that ‘It’s under this part of town, so I don’t have to pay over a certain amount.’ I don’t think that those conversations are divorced from the ones that Benson and Mike are constantly having.
A cool thing about Houston, as far as major American cities go, its residents are hyper-conscious of that. Simply because you have to be to live here. You live amongst so many other folks from so many different places, it’s just understood that those systems are interconnected together.
Memorial is set in Houston and Osaka. What do these two cities have in common. How are they different?
I think I wrote the book to try to and figure that out, and I still don’t think I know the answer to that. They are both cities that i’ve had the privilege of experiencing an excess of warmth and generosity, whether from friends or from strangers. Trying to put that warmth on the page was really interesting to me, and also seemed like a challenge that I wanted to undertake, partly because Houston is such a deeply diverse city.
And yet, even though so many of the communities might be parallel from one another or seemingly disparate, they constantly find a way to make things work together. Whereas with Osaka, it’s pretty culturally homogenous within a deeply culturally homogeneous country. But there’s been so much warmth, as a complete outsider, that I have experienced within that city from folks who absolutely did not have to share it with me. It felt like it would be interesting narratively to see what that warmth and generosity and sensitivity to your neighbors could look like on the page, even it wasn’t the primary part of the narrative.
Were there specific restaurants in Houston — or in Osaka — that inspired the setting in Memorial?
I visited a litany of places through the process of writing. In Osaka, I was eating at a lot of food stalls and yoshuku, or Western-style diners. I spent a lot of time at izakayas with friends and by myself, which was really helpful in building ambiance in Mike’s section. In the time I spent editing the book while I was in Japan, it was just so comforting to eat home-cooked meals with friends.
The types of dishes that Mike cooks for Benson — sopa de pescado, yams, macaroni, and rice — feel so distinctly Houston. How did your own upbringing here influence Mike’s culinary identity?
This is the really interesting thing about growing up in this city. It’s something you can’t plan for and have to be grateful for if you’re privy to it. I grew up in a white neighborhood, but our actual cul de sac was deeply diverse. I had Filipino neighbors, Cuban neighbors, Japanese neighbors, Iranian neighbors. It wasn’t a big deal to have pancit on Saturday evening and black beans on Sunday morning and then have yakisoba on Sunday evening and then ackee and codfish on Monday morning.
As a kid you don’t appreciate how you live, but I’m so grateful to have it now. You get older and you see the context behind how and when folks pick up their culinary vocabularies. It’s a very rare thing for most parts of the country, but it’s not very remarkable or special for someone growing up in Houston to have access to this litany of cultures from a very young age.
For Mike, it was really just trying to have a character that was so ingrained into the city, that he would think nothing of cooking enchiladas for his boyfriend. Nothing of cooking black bean stew for his black neighbors and turning around helping out his Honduran neighbors with a meal for themselves. It’s someone who is comfortable in a number of different cuisines.
How did you set out to capture the sheer awkwardness of two people — Benson and Mitsuko — who don’t know each other and are becoming acquainted in this really intimate way, by cooking with each other?
A lot of drafting and editing. I was trying to get a sense of how the dialogue moved on the page, and what a silence between Benson and Mitsuko would mean on the page. What was underneath that silence. I kept thinking of this film Still Walking, directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, that largely takes place in one house over the course of a few days. For the overwhelming majority of the film, people are cooking and eating and preparing food. And there’s so much drama in how a dish is placed on a table, or the speed at which someone is shaving daikon. Trying to find a way to put that on the page when you lose the visual element was tricky.
While Mike’s running the izakaya, Benson’s at home cooking with Mitsuko. Did you cook the seafood curry, udon and abura-age, and other dishes that are mentioned in the book?
For almost every dish in the book, I cooked it in some variation. Even if only because I wanted to have a sense of whether Benson or Mike could be cooking while simultaneously doing other things. It was really important to me — and I don’t necessarily expect the reader to pick up on this or even care — to show Benson’s arc. He is someone who went from being shocked that people crack eggs in a pan and then scramble them to someone who is comfortable in the kitchen. I wanted to go through what he was cooking and what he was learning and the mistakes he made.
For Mike’s arc, it was a little bit less difficult because he had a more stable culinary foundation. The question for him became more about what someone would be cooking when they’re using food and cooking as a language, using it to fill gaps in the conversation. Mitsuko was just as challenging because she’s someone who is very confident and comfortable in the kitchen, and trusts herself with the decisions she makes. For her, I wanted to know what someone would cook when they’re just super aware of what the people they’re cooking for need.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.