Hanya Yanagihara narrowly missed out on the Man Booker Prize for her epic second novel A Little Life. Still, her story of an abused man who finds solace in a same-sex relationship continues to break hearts around the world and has a lot of life in it yet.
Many critics and readers have labelled A Little Life a gay novel, and although it does profile a same-sex relationship and features a few other minor gay characters, to classify it as gay feels reductive. Hanya has deconstructed the traditional notions of the kinds of relationships men should be in, in order to let them develop as naturally as possible, without the labels or expectations which she feels limit men emotionally. At the heart of the novel, we see a strong male friendship become a love affair. “It’s simply a love story,” she says, “and one of the things that has been particularly humbling is the number of gay men who have reached out to me online, but I wonder if one of the things that is resonating with them is this idea that male friendship is much blurrier than we give credit for it being, and there are different ways men express love for each other that we don’t really think about because we think of love between men in very binary terms.”
The themes of A Little Life are very dark; it’s about child abuse, self harm, addiction, domestic violence. How did you come to writing about these things?
Firstly, I always wanted to write something about male friendship, because I had always observed among my male friends a certain difference. Among female friends you can discuss pretty much anything, whether it’s just shallow, or troubling to you emotionally, but even among my male friends – who I would say are fairly emotionally sensitive – there are certain topics they can’t allow themselves to name. I would be talking to my male friends, and what they would be trying to articulate was so obviously – to me – shame, or embarrassment, and I think they hadn’t been encouraged to have these emotions, much less voice them. When you’re a novelist it’s always interesting to work with a group of people who are limited in some sense, and men fundamentally are; in that they are limited by what they’re allowed, or encouraged to say. Secondly, these characters came to me very fully formed, and I didn’t know I had them in mind until I sat down and started to write. I’d always wanted to write about this character who is irreparably damaged; a character who never gets better really. And it wasn’t until I sat down to write that I realised I had all the components of this novel already in place – the themes, the characters, the arc, the ending – I had so much in place it was just really a matter of sitting down and letting myself get sucked into this world.
It’s interesting what you say about men and their emotions – I saw a campaign on Twitter saying we should lose the phrase ‘man up’, because it implies men shouldn’t really feel things, or tackle things in the same way as women.
Totally. And I think every man I know has learned that lesson all too well, whether they’re gay or straight. That implication that there’s a way to be male, or that you’re not doing maleness correctly, is troubling for a lot of men.
On that note, sexuality is treated quite fluidly in the novel too. The main protagonist doesn’t really identify himself as gay, though he has a same sex relationship, and equally the bond between the four male friends is stronger than just a friendship – it’s what we might call homosocial.
Yeah, it’s interesting because I had a reading in New York, and someone asked what kind of research I’d done to write gay characters, and I suppose the answer is that they’re not so much gay characters as they are two characters who love each other. I think that there is obviously a great tradition of gay literature, and I’m not sure I’d consider this book in that tradition although I’m very happy if people see it that way. It’s not meant to stand in for some larger statement about gay men, it’s simply a love story, and one of the things that has been particularly humbling is the number of gay men who have reached out to me online, but I wonder if one of the things that is resonating with them is this idea that male friendship is much blurrier than we give credit for it being, and there are different ways for men expressing love for each other that we don’t really think about because we think of love between men in very binary terms. Just as woman have always had access to lots of different types of love between women, I think men do too, it’s just not something that’s discussed as much.
Certainly it’s there in literature, even when you think back to the men Walt Whitman wrote about.
Yeah, and I think even if you look back at Coleridge or Lincoln, and the great friendships they had with other men, I think that there’s a certain academic tradition that wanted to name those men as gay, and maybe they were, maybe they weren’t, but I do think part of moving forward in how we talk about sexuality is living with ambiguity, and living with the unsatisfying ways we characterise our own relationships. What I wanted to create for my two main characters, Jude and Willem, was a relationship that’s really unnameable. They even say at one point, “This is a relationship that was never celebrated in poetry or song,” and I wanted it to feel very specific to them.
You say you’re not sure you’d class this in the genre of gay literature, though many people have, including a piece in the Atlantic which proclaimed ‘The Great Gay Novel Might Be Here’. Even with the gay element aside, is this kind of praise overwhelming?
Well I don’t read reviews, which is another thing you learn when you’re an older novelist for the first time. You learn not to do what drives you crazy! I do know Garth Greenwell who wrote that piece a little bit, and he’s very smart and I was honoured that he wrote that piece. I understand his argument, I think it’s a very interesting argument. It’s humbling, it’s thrilling. It doesn’t really freak me out too much because I’m not reading anything, but it’s also awe inspiring when people tell you your book has resonated with them in some way.
A Little Life is out now.