The Homes and Houses of Memorial

This article contains spoilers of the novel discussed.

Through the university’s English program and the Crossing Border Festival, I had the pleasure to interview Bryan Washington, author of the best book I’ve read this year: Memorial. The novel had been on my to-be-read list for a long time already, having heard of it for the first time on Carley Thorne’s booktube channel. She listed it as one of her favourite books and I have yet to read a recommendation made by Carley that I didn’t enjoy, so I knew it must be good. The UvA inquiring for students willing to interview Washington was the perfect academic excuse to finally read this book, and boy am I glad I did. Memorial centers on Benson and Mike, who love each other but as of lately don’t really know if their two-year relationship is of value anymore, despite the love being there. Before they can make any substantial decisions, Mike finds out his father–who he has not seen in years–has gotten a terminal cancer diagnosis. He decides to fly to Osaka, where his father resides, to take care of him during the time that’s left. An unquestionable noble act, except Benson is left behind in their home in Houston with Mike’s mother Mitsuko, who just flew out of Japan to visit his son. Ben and Mitsuko will have to figure out how to deal with each other despite being complete strangers, and Mike and his father Eiju will discover whether there’s any redemption to be found in their relationship, while feeling the pressure of Eiju’s diagnosis like a ticking time bomb.

I loved this book. I don’t even know what I liked best because all of it was incredibly well executed. At first glance it might seem like this is a love story, but that does not do it justice. Memorial poses questions that keep me awake at night: How wounded must a relationship be before it becomes irreparable? How do we know when to give up on people? What makes a family a family and a home a home? To what extent does our family affect the ways in which we express love later in life, or the ways in which we are unable to do so? Is home a physical place, is it alongside someone you love? Can you make a home out of people, is that a sensible thing to do? What do we do when language falls short and communication fails us? The great and equally infuriating thing about this novel is that it presents us with no answers. That is perhaps why it feels so true to reality: human beings are complicated. Nothing is ever as easy as “just” communicating and expressing our feelings, and Memorial is an excellent case study of that. Both Ben and Mike come from deeply dysfunctional family structures and have gone through a lot of trauma because of it. Ben is gay, and Black, and has a positive HIV diagnosis and an alcoholic father and a mother who does not say much; a home where conflicts remain unsolved. Mike grew up in periods of extreme poverty, his parents having immigrated to the United States from Japan, his father also an alcoholic and abusive to his family. And yet, it is not as simple as saying that their families are just dysfunctional. Benson’s mother is often at a loss of words, and still loves her son deeply and cooks their family’s favourite food. Eiju drinks their money away, and still manages to prepare his family decent meals. This is not to make excusable the inexcusable, but to show that acts of love are seldom as obvious and straightforward as we think they are, and more importantly, to question whether they are enough to make us feel cared for.

Another interesting layer in Memorial is the distinction between the home we’ve been given and the one we make for ourselves. The novel is very aware of how race affects our whole existence, often seeping into our social interactions: whenever Ben walks into a restaurant, he’s aware of who’s Black and who’s not. He’s aware of police cars and cops everywhere he goes, and notes at the beginning of his relationship with Mike how Mike has moved into a predominantly Black neighbourhood–which throughout the novel is being gentrified. Mike finds a sense of community in seeing children play outside, in the passing of cars, in his elderly neighbors who invite him for dinner one evening and funnily enough try to set him up with their daughter, unaware of his sexual orientation. He cooks for these grandparents and his Venezuelan neighbours every few weeks. His absence in Houston does not go unnoticed. Back in Osaka, we see how Eiju has found a sense of home within the bar he runs. All the regulars have stumbled in almost accidentally but end up forming meaningful connections with each other: Hana and Mieko were two strangers who found themselves toasting to each other, both going through a breakup. They became best friends after that. Natsue is Eiju’s childhood friend, who reconnected with Eiju when he came back to Japan and has been around ever since. When Eiju is too sick to work in the bar, and Mike is the one preparing the orders that come in, the regulars notice that although it might be the same dish, it doesn’t taste like Eiju’s. They know him well enough to care about this distinction. These were precious testaments to how home can mean whatever you need it to mean. It can be your parent’s house, but it can also be your favourite restaurant; the colleagues at your workplace; someone you love dearly and even all of these simultaneously. Despite having an unfair start due to the circumstances we might have grown up in, we still have agency in the connections we form and the community we build.

Memorial ends on an ambiguous note. We don’t know what Benson and Mike will do about the love they still have for each other, but they sure have changed in ways that they did not see coming. I was grateful for how this book allows queer relationships to be difficult not only because of their inherent queerness, but also because it is incredibly hard to be a person existing in the world. There’s history and preferences and trauma and past experiences and the weight of our socio-political structures all at play in every single relationship, and we need to give literary characters as well as ourselves the right to be more than just one thing.

Written by Lhya Munive


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s