Hanya Yanagihara: “I want my books to be provocative” | Culture

Trying your luck, throwing the dice, putting them back in the glass and repeating the move over and over again is what Hanya Yanagihara has done in her new novel, To Paradise, turned into an interesting three in one: a sum of different stories that share characters, themes, obsessions and the tension between true love and that imposed by traditions or social status. An unusual experiment.

It seems that this singular author born in Los Angeles in 1974, of a South Korean mother and a Hawaiian father, has written three declensions of the same story; and that she has grouped them in a single issue of 943 pages!, but not to confuse us, but to convey the repeated randomness of life and luck. Each one, yes, in a different century of American history. A challenge for her and for the reader.

— Why the same names and similar characters in three different centuries?

— I have the feeling that we always talk about ourselves as individuals who shape society, but I wanted to turn it around and ask myself how society shapes us. One thing is what the citizen makes of a place, and another thing is what the place makes of the citizen. That is why my characters are different in different situations and centuries.

Yanagihara, director of the magazine T from The New York Times, was released in 2015 with enormous success around the world with so little life (Lumen), nominated for the Man Booker Prize and then chosen as the best novel of the year by the main US media. To Paradise, in the same editorial, it is similar in length, in the abyss of wonder that it is capable of creating, and in little else. Because in the face of the saga of friendship and abuse that she raised then, the author has dared in this installment with a dystopian journey through three centuries with an epicenter in New York: the 19th, the 20th and a distant future of our 21st century.

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“The ideas came to me simultaneously and it took me a while to connect them, but I did it,” he says by phone from New York. “I wanted to explore the idea of ​​America as a young country, where things flow, change and the possibility of becoming another country defines our national identity.” Today, for example, the debates on race, gender, colonialism and origins are at their peak and they are the ingredients that converge in its three stories: from some free States of the 19th century in which gay marriage is legal and common to a few years Nineties of the 20th century marked by an epidemic (AIDS, of course) and a future in which the Government tries to control freedoms excessively. Sounds familiar to us, right?

Do you fear government control?

— It is not an individual fear, but if you look at what has happened in the United States since 9/11, we have had to change many things in the name of freedom and security and, over time, some of these changes have been proven wrong : the interrogation methods, the torture abroad… it was shameful. We are now at a time when it is impossible to talk logically about what the government should do. And maybe it’s worse to cut freedoms to protect the most vulnerable, but the fact that we can’t even have that debate in a reasonable way is alarming.

Yanagihara does not want to define himself as queer, as it has been cataloged on occasions, but as “woman and Asian”. “It’s who I am,” she says. But the homosexual theme that runs through his work, and very specifically this book, has a very clear cause: if in the first roll of the dice, that of the 19th century, gay marriage is common, things are getting worse in the 21st century (and we will not spoilers). “The idea that progress is always sustained over the centuries and that we move forward in freedom is not true. Rights can be taken away, reversed.”

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“And the idea that progress in one field becomes progress in all fields,” he insists, “is not true: not in my book, not in life.”

With a somewhat nineteenth-century length and style, the author does consider her way of narrating as “old-fashioned”. “I see myself as a storyteller, for me books should be readable, immersive, create a compelling and specific world. Have a rhythm, a flavor. And I want them to be provocative. I always say that the writer begins a book with a few questions and at the end he has even more. And I hope that the same thing happens to the reader: that when he leaves a book his vision of the world is something different from when he entered it”.

One of the three stories will drag us to Hawaii, where the paternal family had settled since the end of the 19th century and where he spent part of his childhood. In it he wanted to reflect the feelings of the colonized, of those who saw their kingdom, religion, language and traditions lose in an “imperialist experiment” by the United States that snatched from its inhabitants the paradise that gives the novel its title.

The director of that trend magazine called T However, he flees from his own image, does not want to be seen or photographed and rejects an aspect of promotion that, he says, is particularly required of women. “I never wanted to, I don’t like the process and now I can stand up and say no,” she says. Success, she says, hasn’t changed her: she lives in the same place in New York, works at the same magazine and enjoys combining the solitude of literature with the task of putting the spotlight on other artists to bring to readers. .

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The conversation runs out between both sides of the pond and the final question remains, which is also the initial one. Can love overcome inequality? “You can’t,” she concludes. “But the desire to love and to be loved is what makes us human. And no society can change that.” So be it.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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