A subversive swipe from a rising literary star

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 August, 2015, 10:58pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 August, 2015, 10:58pm

Hawaiian-born Hanya Yanagihara is a journalist for The New York Times and the author of two novels. Her debut, The People in Trees, was a coolly brilliant account of Norton Perina, a Nobel Prizewinning scientist accused of child abuse that swept between colonialisation and moral relativism. Her follow-up, A Little Life, is almost a mirror image – a relentlessly, even exhaustingly emotional account of four friends navigating modern-day New York. Already hailed as a modern American classic, this epic tale centres on Jude, who survives brutal abuse in his formative years to become a wealthy and respected corporate lawyer. As his friends discover, no amount of success or happiness seems to erase the appalling events that all but destroyed him. Yanagihara talks to James Kidd about her Japanese heritage, her childhood in Hawaii, about death, unapologetically moving fiction and her desire to live in Asia.

A Little Life, your second novel, has earned rave reviews in America, but has also been described as emotionally gruelling and even harrowing. Was this your intention? 

There is nothing subtle about the book. I really push the conventions of a literary novel, and the restraint of the contemporary literary novel. We are in an era of literary novels where it is about distance. A Little Life is not about distance. It is about largeness and exaggeration of emotions. I did mean it to feel a little vulgar – a little extreme on the senses.

Despite its title, A Little Life offers an unflinching portrait of suffering and death in 21st century America. What is your own view about suicide?

If you have a friend who is very damaged, what is your responsibility to that person? I do think there is a point where some people are too damaged to be alive. One thing I wanted readers to ask themselves is: Is there a point in which somebody really is better off being dead? I don’t know the answer to that.

Jude, like his friends, is a conspicuous success. Yet none of his achievements make him happy. Does A Little Life critique America’s obsession with material achievement?

All the skills Jude has are the ones that count in society: intelligence, money and ability. But he doesn’t have the fundamental skills he needs to be healthy. This is not a way of blaming him. I hope it makes people consider that the qualities we do value in people are maybe not the most useful qualities in the end. I think Jude is very hopeful right up until the end. But hope is punishing. It keep asking us to think that things will get better. When things don’t get better, what does that do to a person?

We tend to talk about death as if it’s the losing of a battle – even in medicine. But that assumes that living is winning and dying is not. In America, where everything is so much about winning and losing, it seemed an awfully crude or reductive way to think about people who have simply chosen to stop whatever pain they are in.

The brutality of Jude’s formative years set his future in stone. What was your own childhood like?

I was always looking for parental extras. I am not sure why – I was always very close to my parents. I think they wanted me to be an artist. They thought I might be a cartoonist, and they encouraged it. A life in the arts always seemed viable to them. I had nothing to rebel against in that way. When I was in high school, they moved to California, and I ended up staying in Hawaii living with a bunch of teachers. They were these wonderful parental substitutes in a lot of senses.

You grew up predominantly in Hawaii but the Yanagiharas originated in Japan. How did they make the transition?

My family is from the south of Japan. They were farmers and came over to work the fields of Hawaii. There was a big wave at the end of the 19th century to go to the plantations and sugar cane fields. That’s when they came over. I am the first generation not to work them. Both my parents did. My father’s generation, born in the ‘40s and ‘50s, were the first to finish high school.

What is your relationship with Japan? 

I am fourth generation Japanese- American, but only went to Japan as an adult. My Japanese is very poor but I go every year and have done so for the past 18 years. I really do love it there. Japan is such a fascinating place because it is the most selfpossessed country I have ever been to. They are not really that interested in the present day. They are really interested in the past and preserving the idea of the past – not so much the structures.

You have just started a new job as an editor at The New York Times. What is next for you?

I want to move to Asia. I want to live abroad. I don’t want to live in the States for the rest of my life. I have to figure out how I am going to do that. A friend is trying to get me to move to Ubud. She said you can live in Bali very cheaply. But the most work would be in Singapore or Hong Kong.