An Evening With Hanya Yanagihara

Last Wednesday, the 5th of October, I had the extraordinary pleasure of attending an evening with Hanya Yanagihara organized by the John Adams Institute. Some of you might remember that Yanagihara released her second novel, A Little Life, in 2015. Fewer of you know how much that novel means to me, but that’s what this blog post will explain.

I should probably have included A Little Life in my post on Books That Helped Me Through Depression, because it definitely did. The reason I didn’t is somewhat complicated. While it is true that A Little Life gives an uncompromising view of mental illness that our society needs more of. I have seen too many teenagers on Tumblr romanticizing mental illness.  But A Little Life is also a book that toes the line of melodrama and edges towards too much.

That’s not a bad thing, at least for me. Depression is too much. Depression is melodramatic. The problem with A Little Life is that some of its content is explicit enough to trigger people. Now, I really don’t think we should be putting trigger warnings on novels and neither does Yanagihara. I think we should be putting trigger warnings on pretty much everything else, but in a novel the reader agrees to let the writer pull them into their world. This can and should involve challenging the reader’s world view. If you’re easily triggered by the topic of self-harm, you should probably stay away from this book. That doesn’t mean the author has to.

 

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. What, you ask, is this book about? Why is it so incredibly great that you can’t shut up about it, Julia? A Little Life starts out as the coming-of-age of four close college friends in New York attempting to make something of themselves. But all is not as it seems. Although the book initially has a rich ensemble of characters, focus gradually shifts towards Jude, who, it turns out, has had an incredibly traumatic childhood. His three closest friends try to help him battle his demons. We, as readers, try to uncover the mysteries of his past, even as we shudder to think what they might be.

Now, as to why this book is in my top five of favorites ever: the world and its characters are incredibly lovable and engaging. It’s style is simple yet poetic. Its messages are clear: on the one hand, this is a book that shows us friendship is the greatest good in the world.

“Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn’t it even better? It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified.”
Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life

On the other, it tells us that, in spite of our best intentions, not all damage can be healed. Not all trauma can be overcome. The human capacity for resilience and survival, while unimaginably huge, is limited. And here comes the controversial notion that I fully support: sometimes, it is best to let people go. A Little Life convinced me of the importance of euthanasia in cases of severe mental illness, and I am happy to live in a country where such things are possible. I’m sorry that assisted suicide is such a taboo, and I’m happy because I think this book shows us why we need assisted suicide in some situations.

There’s just one thing I didn’t like about this book: where were the women? In a novel that beautifully develops four main characters, where the background characters are almost equally well-rounded and lively, how come there are only two women and these two remain relatively obscure?

The evening I attended was moderated by Dutch writer Auke Hulst, who did a splendid job of letting Yanagihara open up while also making himself vulnerable. Furthermore, Hulst had definitely done his homework: he asked intelligent questions that showed not just understanding of the novel, but also a great deal of awe for it. It’s only logical, then, that one of these questions was: “Why are there so few women in this book?”

Yanagihara’s answer was simple yet brilliant: if the main characters had been women, the book wouldn’t have been half as long. This, of course, is true. There is a very strong cultural norm in our society dictating that men must never show or share emotions. The best, most manly of men have managed to disengage from emotion altogether. This idea is part of a larger culture of toxic masculinity, a set of ideas that force men into certain stereotypes that can often be harmful to them. By making this book entirely about men struggling with emotions, Yanagihara draws attentions to the problematic nature of cultural ideas of masculinity. And I love her for that.

I love Hanya Yanagihara for a lot of things. I love her because she wrote Jude and Willem who, it seems, where put on the fictional earth just so I wouldn’t feel as alone. I love her because she gave me the courage to step forward at the end of the evening and ask about writing across identities.

I love her because she immediately linked my question back to its source; namely the speech Lionel Shriver’s recently delivered in Melbourne on cultural appropriation. I love her because she showed a clear understanding of the problem of cultural appropriation and expressed her hopes that she had written Jude, a disabled man, in a respectful way. I love her because I am a disabled woman and I found the representation of Jude as disabled absolutely flawless; he might not consider himself a human being worthy of existence, but Yanagihara certainly does.

We need more respectful representation of minorities in fiction, and Hanya Yanagihara has given it to us. For that, I am grateful.

You can read Auke Hulst’s touching introduction of the evening here.

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