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UEA Live: Hanya Yanagihara

Updated: Apr 5, 2023

This Spring UEA Live welcomed critically acclaimed author Hanya Yanagihara, best known for her modern classic A Little Life. The panel saw Yanagihara in conversation with Georgia Godwin, where she discussed her latest release To Paradise, a novel in three parts which follows a family in an alternate version of New York City.

Upon learning Yanagihara was coming from across the pond, we had no choice but to send two of our writers to be flies on the wall...


A pink a green background, with a circle-shaped photograph of Hanya Yanagihara in the centre. She faces the camera head on, arms folded with a stoic express.


Tom

I’m a stranger to Hanya Yanagihara’s works, but was compelled by To Paradise, her latest title, and the fact her ‘classic’ A Little Life is now in theatres. Honestly, in the chair, the novelist’s charming – and unique. As UEA’s Henry Sutton pitched, Hanya is resetting the novel form and interrogating how we understand humanity. If that doesn’t make you read her books, I don’t know what will. For now, while my thoughts on Hanya Yanagihara can only rest on this interview, she’s thankfully a fountain of insights, and interviewer Georgina Godwin effectively structured the hour to prove this.

A warning: Yanagihara’s mind is like a Jenga puzzle. Embrace it and you’ll love her.

Like Jenga, how? Well, take the novelist’s ideas on connecting with people, vitally her asking and challenging “why humans value family above all else.” I couldn’t tell if Yanagihara prefers solitude and feels that’s a victory, nor whether this is linked to her upbringing, her house not fearing death. Whatever the link, here’s a storyteller apparently so charged toward north, unscared of it, and dancing in the present, begging for further clarity: is this her love for rejecting our uncertainties, thrill for seeking new ones – so a Lonelier life, – both or neither?

Yanagihara answers coyly through playful thought-evocation – her short story A Pet Tortoise Who Will Outlive Us All, which Godwin raised, is this precisely. An ode to the existential struggle, Yanagihara’s parents face finding a new home for a creature that will survive them. Yanagihara is so clearly mesmerised by our impermanence and our anxieties surrounding it – concerns of whether we’ll be celebrated, remembered, even just loved.

While Broadway playwright Tony Kushner, and his decree that ‘art offers empathetic flights into the unknown,’ moves Yanagihara, she’s actually sharpest, most relatable, and assured when flying into the very known and refracting its riddles to us. On COVID, where I thought writers would be poets, Yanagihara called for global discussion on the subject, and left me wondering if writers are the ones to facilitate such forums. On “heady” America: where I was afraid to satirise/fictionalise this land, now I’m inspired.

Unclearness remains, though: about why The People in the Trees lacks mothers; and the reason for A Little Life and To Paradise centring around gay men. Refer back to Kushner’s words, is Hanya’s answer. Where her characters ask readers to be game, her collection’s themes perplex: grand-folk as protagonists; “bodies falling apart”; who can speak and who can’t – I did love Yanagihara reminding us that “children don’t have fewer emotions, just less words to articulate them.” Yanagihara herself has many, for sure, fascinated by A Little Life’s actors and their unique approaches to her characters – but “to be a writer is to be king,” she says, and, yeah, I’d sign on that.

This is a philosopher leaving me with more inquiries, my favourite one Yanagihara articulated herself: “Who are we when we are all burnt away?” Another time to ruminate on that – of the answers I got here, I enjoyed every word.

Photograph of Hanya Yanagihara at UEA Live. She is seated at a table and is signing a book. A copy of her books 'A Little Life' and 'To Paradise' are visible on the table.
Hanya Yanagihara signing books at UEA Live (Photo credit: Tom Scudamore)

Jayne

Getting to hear Hanya Yanagihara talk about her newest book, In Paradise, made me feel validated and empowered in a way I didn’t expect.

Going into her talk, I wasn't sure what I wanted to get out of it. Perhaps to learn a little about what her book would be about and her thought process behind writing it. I didn't expect to hear her tackle the widely debated topic of cultural appropriation, or not understanding her own themes beyond the fact she is drawn to them. I'm a writer too, as are a large portion of her audience. Hearing Yanagihara say she doesn’t really know why she continuously returns to the themes of motherless children or bodies falling apart, is comforting for up-and-coming writers like myself, as I’ve spent most of my writing career staring at my work going 'But what's the theme??? What’s the MEANING???' Yanagihara takes the standpoint that the story you’re telling often develops themes and meaning all on its own - and these can differ depending on who is reading.

There was also a discussion around why she is drawn to writing on male homosexuality, and if that is somehow wrong for her, as a woman, to do this. For this, she had an answer which made me laugh: “I can write whoever I want." As a writer whose characters are typically gay men, it was another layer of validation to hear that I’m not somehow doing something wrong by following my instincts on what to write. Yanagihara gave a very thoughtful and insightful response about why there are a lot of hills to die on when it comes to writing, but this isn’t one of them. She made the point that both reading and writing literature are acts of escapism - they allow us to escape into a different body, mindset, or even a different world. Especially in modern society, we need that escape - we crave it. Being a woman writing gay men isn’t something she considers "appropriation," because she is simply telling a story.

When I heard that, I felt a weight lifted from my chest.

As Yanagihara discussed To Paradise, her focus on the story she wanted to tell never waivered. I have seen authors talk before, and sometimes they get stuck on things that I similarly find intimidating as a writer. Instead, Yanagihara seems to just want to tell stories, her passion for this allowing her to trust that (what I would call) the ‘deep’ parts of writing will develop naturally. The interviewer referred to the recurrence of character names in her work, and Yanagihara, in another display of perfect honesty, replied: “I hadn’t thought of that”. This only endeared me to her more, in seeing how easily she admits that her books start with passion and the micro-analysis comes later - “You learn to talk about books from interviews,” she confessed, “you learn to take what others say and pretend that’s what you meant the whole time."

I went into this talk as an aspiring novelist seeking advice and validation, and I walked about with it in the more honest, pure form I could have hoped for. I’ll be intentionally seeking out Yanagihara’s work going forward, because this is the type of author I think a lot of budding writers need to know about.



Edited by Florence Strang Boon

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