At a sold-out event at Sydney’s City Recital Hall on Thursday, US author Hanya Yanagihara spoke of her urgent need to delve deep into issues surrounding male friendship, love, and what a good life is in her second novel, which divided critics and took readers on a roller-coaster emotional journey.
A Little Life weighs heavily in both form and content. At 720 pages, “You could throw this book at a child’s head and kill them, probably,” said Benjamin Law, the writer and comedian. In his role as master of proceedings for the evening, Benjamin evoked impassioned responses from both Ms Yanagihara and an audience happily tucked away within the very hand that had dragged them through an emotional hell and back.
A Little Life won the Kirkus Prize for Fiction and was nominated for the 2015 Man Booker Prize. It follows several decades in the lives of four college graduates as they come of age in New York. Willem, the kind hearted actor; JB, a quick-witted and ambitious artist; Malcolm, the frustrated architect; and Jude. A successful lawyer, he lives a life coloured irrevocably by abuse and trauma. Damaged. Vulnerable. Secretive. Slicing his calves and arms at 2am.
Ms Yanagihara maintained that the emotionally draining and explicitly violent subject matter was critical to her work. “I believe fiction should march into any territory that involves the human condition. Violence is part of the human condition. For fiction to deny its existence or to feel it can’t go into those territories is to let down what fiction should do,” she said. “It is painful to put your characters through pain, and it should be. But if you can ask and make the audience feel this is a person and a person to whom harm is being done and then they start wondering what is the consequence of that harm? What happens to the person after? Then I think you have done a great job. Fiction is the beginning of the conversation.”
Since its publication in July last year, A Little Life has contributed to a continued discussion regarding the institutionalised sexual abuse of children. Benjamin wanted to know if this was intentional on the part of the author.
“It’s been interesting to see how this book has been received in certain countries that are really grappling in a serious way with institutionalised sexual abuse, so in Ireland and England and here,” she said. “None of the characters are meant to stand in for any greater social issue other than themselves. The book is not really about child abuse and it never was to me. I wanted to create a specific world of only men and a claustrophobic world of only men.”
For Ms Yanagihara, maleness as defined in Western societies is still a point of great contention. She said for men to remain silent and repress their emotions in relationships with friends, family, and the wider community is to the detriment of both sexes: “This idea of being silent is linked to power and stoicism.”
When confronted by an audience member as to why she had excluded women from the narrative, Ms Yanagihara said, “As a novelist, it is a great gift to be able to write characters who are limited in some way, by society or by law. I do think that’s its 2016 and we have two generations of men raised by feminists, and still it’s interesting to see what men are and aren’t allowed to discuss and what they are and are not encouraged to feel.”
As a writer, and speaker, Yanagihara is fearless in her candour regarding the complexity of what it means to be human. When questioned as to why she created characters that do not prescribe to society’s obsession with ‘happily ever after’, she is typically frank. “I think in America certainly, and in most countries in the West, we do believe that happiness is something that can be attained or achieved and if you can’t do it then there is something wrong with you. And I don’t think there is anything wrong with people who can’t. They just can’t.”
The applause that followed was the loudest of the night.
“My hope for the book was that it would find a couple of hundred people who felt that it was a magical object that had been dug out from under a tree,” Ms Yanagihara said. “And would feel like a message meant only for them. I knew it was going to be a book that a lot of people would find repellent. But I also knew that it would be a book that certain people would find like a secret that’s been told to them.”
A secret the world is now well and truly in on.