At times profoundly sorrowful and deeply moving to read, Hanya Yanagihara’s most recent novel, A Little Life, is a stark meditation upon the resolve of the human spirit when faced with insurmountable tragedy. Charting the life of four men as they progress from youth into adulthood, A Little Life is a contemporary coming-of-age story that explores sexuality and mortality in frank, often unsettling detail.
It has also become a novel that for many gay men lucidly evokes the traumas associated with their own sexual discovery and its acceptance. For her part, Yanagihara eschews the labeling of her novel as specifically a “gay novel” and instead hopes it will engender a broader discussion regarding sexuality and the various ways it is expressed.
Following the recent announcement that A Little Life has been shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize—the winners will be announced on October 13—Yanagihara and I spoke about the novel’s portrayal of sexuality, death, and her thoughts on its label as “the great gay novel of the generation.”
Joseph Akel: First and foremost, let me congratulate you on this Man Booker Prize nomination. It must seem a little surreal. Only in its second year being open to authors from outside the Commonwealth, you are now amid some very illustrious company—Ian McEwan, Margaret Atwood, and Salman Rushdie are among the past winners of the prize.
Hanya Yanagihara: This is the award that I really grew up reading and following. It’s the one that I’ve waited to come out every year. It’s really wonderful. My agent said that I have no chance of winning. It really is one of those things where the thrill of it is being in the company you are included with.
JA: A Little Life has had an enormous success that is perhaps surprising, not the least of which because of the often incredibly tragic life of the novel’s key protagonist, Jude St. Francis. I wonder what it was like for you going through the process of developing him as a character and what brought you to tell his story.
HY: Jude was a character that I had in mind for a long time. Specifically, I had this certain person in mind that would never get better, who would be profoundly damaged and yet full of hope that he might be able to heal himself. And importantly, I wanted to write a book in which the center of the narrative tension is his slow, painful realization that he’ll never be able to get better.
What I tried to do throughout this book, and what I hope gives the book intimacy and its sense of suspense, are points at which the reader knows more than Jude’s friends and the points at which the friends knows more than the reader. One of the heartbreaks of the book comes from watching Jude try to move forward in life despite that knowledge. And importantly, I do think for some people that there can be a series of events beyond which they never can recover, and that was one of the elements I had known I wanted to do from the beginning.
JA: One of the compelling traits of Jude is his fortitude to endure such horrible traumas throughout his life, only in the end to surrender and commit suicide. Do you see Jude ultimately as having given up, or is it something more, a realization that after the death of Willem—his lover—combined with his mounting physical and emotional traumas, there was no more life for him to live?
HY: One of the things I wanted to explore in the novel is how we think about death and how we think about life, particularly in this country. We have a sort of hostile attitude towards people who choose to die, whether they choose to die because they don’t want to endure the final stages of a terminal illness or because they commit suicide for a variety of reasons.
When we look at the terms of how death is discussed, we often couch it in euphemisms of defeat. We say people lost their fight to cancer, or they gave up and committed suicide. I think this an unfair way to discuss another individual’s choice to stop living. It doesn’t acknowledge the incredible difficulty and insurmountable pain that some people experience simply by being alive. I would never tell somebody that by choosing death or choosing not to argue for life that they are making any sort of worldly or ethnically incorrect decision.
JA: Sexuality is a central theme throughout A Little Life. Whether portraying the horrific sexual abuse that Jude suffers as a young boy and an adolescent, or in the touching, sexually fraught and equally fluid relationship between Willem and Jude—not to mention all of the key male characters in the novel—how do you see the novel exploring the multiple ways in which men interact with each other—gay, straight, or somewhere in between?
HY: Even in this age of sexual identity and liberation, of a growing fluidity towards gender preference, I think we’re still fairly binary about how men define their sexual orientation. There’s a line in the novel when Willem’s agent, Kit, exclaims, “If you touch a dick, you’re gay,” and I think that’s pretty much how most men—most people—think, whether they’re gay or they’re straight.
I wanted to create a friendship between Jude and Willem that attempts to transcend that very narrow definition. One of the most effective elements of Jude and Willem’s relationship is that I don’t think of either of them as gay. I think of them as people who love each other and are trying to express a deeper level of feeling, whether through sex or otherwise.
It’s the same way that this book is a celebration of a different version of adulthood, one without marriage and one without children. It also recognizes and celebrates the different forms relationships can take—ones that aren’t conventionally driven by sex. Indeed, in the absence of sex, what we find—in the case of Jude and Willem—is as profound, deep, and as intimate as any you can imagine. We tend to assume that the deeper, more profound relationships are the ones that include physical intimacy and sex, and I don’t think that’s necessarily true.
JA: In an article for The Atlantic online, Garth Greenwell posited that A Little Life might be the great gay novel of our generation. Were you surprised by the level of attention the novel has received from the gay community?
HY: Let me preface my response by saying that I have come to understand that the novel has been read by a lot of men. Certainly, a lot of the men who have reached out to me have been gay men, and the reception of the novel as such has been a lovely surprise for a couple of reasons. Among them, when I was working in book publishing, we were always told that men just doesn’t read novels, and that is more or less true whether you’re gay or you’re straight. Men just don’t read as many novels. That’s the first unexpected surprise.
The second thing is that I’m not one of those people that will go around saying things like “The gay community thinks this is a gay novel” or claim it as such. I think it would be reductive on my part to claim to speak for any group. I have been very touched by the sincerity of reactions and the generosity of response. There has been a very real, very generous territoriality that has been granted to me that’s been moving and humbling.
JA: In many ways, memory and the relationship of the body to memory is another central theme throughout the novel. This comes to the fore with Jude, whose various scars and impairments, along with his self-cutting, are the physical manifestations—reminders, you could say—of his past. We follow Jude and observe how his memories both haunt and simultaneously continue to mold who he is.
And as with your first novel, The People in the Trees (2013), memory, aging, and the body are intimately linked. I wonder if you were conscious of that link going into A Little Life and if that is a broader interest as a theme to you.
HY: The short answer is yes; it’s something that unites the books most profoundly. People always mention that there’s sexual abuse in both books, and there is, but to me what really links the books more is the tyranny of memory and the abuse of power and the consequences of the abuse of power, not just on a personal level. Equally, what’s profound and what’s interesting to me is the destruction of the body. I was very sick as a kid and spent a lot time in the hospital. I also grew up with a father who was an oncologist—someone trained to be very dispassionate about the body.
The body—Jude’s in particular—is one of his greatest tormentors throughout the novel. And indeed, in the great push and pull between what the mind wants and the body does is an undercurrent that informs the modern age in many, many different ways. The processes that the body will go through in order to try and spare itself I always have found fascinating, so yes.
JA: To me, the other primary relationship in the novel that sustains Jude is, of course, Andy, his doctor. Indeed, there is a point late in the novel when Andy voices his belief that Jude’s life went downhill when he announced to him that his practice was closing. In some ways, that was the other profound rupture in Jude’s life after Willem’s death. It’s interesting to see that you’ve built these twin characters—one who provides Jude the unconditional emotional love that he needs, while the other provides him with unconditional physical attention in the form of medial care.
HY: My first reader was very tough on Andy. He didn’t like Andy. He thought Andy was irresponsible. I suppose the other thing that I hope the book makes you think about is how much we as humans are supposed to do for those we love. What are our moral obligations, and do those moral obligations extend to how we participate in letting others die? With Andy, it’s an interesting question, because he is somebody who loves Jude. He struggles with this. As a doctor, there are real serious ethical and legal questions for him. Jude puts him in a terrible position again and again and again.
JA: And among the dilemmas Andy faces is Jude’s ongoing self-cutting.
HY: Cutting is like any addiction, encapsulating a wish to control, to subvert the body. Whether the addiction is drugs or whether the addiction is starving yourself, as in anorexia, there is this need to exert some sort of power and some sort of control over oneself when everything else is so out of control. For Jude, cutting is a process of self-erasure, but it is also the one thing that he has in his life that is completely his. For many people who practice some sort of bodily self-harm, the attraction of it, the horror of it, is simultaneous. One’s inextricable from the other.
JA: Is there one scene in the novel that stands out for you particularly as being lucid and moving—distillations of the currents that wind through the various story lines contained within?
HY: Well, I have two—both to write and to read—but the one which stands out is the section of the novel when Jude decides to undergo the procedure to amputate his legs. I’ve always thought of this section as a mini-book within the book because it says so much about his hopefulness, his exhaustion. I think how in that section we come to see that Willem and Jude can’t have a sexual relationship and the accommodation they make for each other—how they’ve managed to create a relationship that is different from everything else that is out there. They’re just left with themselves. Two people at a moment in time who are trying very hard to keep each other alive.
This article originally appeared in FourTwoNine’s Sixth Issue