This week, Norwich was lucky to be the only UK city to host a reading event with famed American writer Hanya Yanagihara. As part of the UEA Live reading series, Yanagihara came to talk about her latest book To Paradise and the on-stage adaptation of her second and most popular novel, A Little Life.
Yanagihara is one of my favourite authors, so you can imagine my surprise and excitement to see that she would speak at my university. She spoke in conversation with Georgina Godwin about her work, her own background, and the balance of working as a magazine editor while writing fiction. Born in Los Angeles and raised in Hawaii, Yanagihara is of Japanese and Korean heritage. Her first novel The People in the Trees and her most recent To Paradise both involve the theme of American imperialism in South Pacific islands. While not of Hawaiian heritage herself, Yanagihara spoke of how her upbringing on the islands gave her a sense of what this history meant to the island and how, as someone of Asian heritage, she was part of a majority population.
The talk then segued into elements of craft in Yanagihara’s famously long books. In To Paradise she wrote about a dystopian future telling the audience that when writing a dystopia the writer needs to answer two questions: 1) is there more or less technology than in the present and 2) is it hot or cold. This made me think that many of the dystopian novels that we’ve seen in recent years fall neatly into these categories, even though as readers we often get lost in all the details that make the dystopian world appear different than our own. I was struck by the simplicity with which Yanigihara discussed her approach to writing given that I admire her books for the manner in which she weaves together complicated characters and social issues.
Finally the discussion ended on the American nature of Yanagihara’s work. As an American writing about my home country while living and working in England, it was great to hear how Yanagihara explained her view of Americana in her work to a foreign audience. I often find that I need to remember some parts of American history and culture that I reference in my work are not common knowledge to someone who did not grow up in the States. Godwin shared a quote from the Guardian in which American novelist Edmund White said Yanagihara ‘is chronicling her country just as panoramically as Tolstoy did his.’ I understood this to refer to the way in which Yanagihara writes about the ideas of identity, nationalism, imperialism, gender, sexuality, class, property, and social mobility across her novels while focusing on individuals who bring these broad topics into view through a compelling character. Yanagihara went on to talk about her own interest in writing American stories as they reflect the youth of the nation and the ideal of the American Dream, which offers rich context for her characters.
Having read all three of Yanagihara’s novels, it was an absolute treat to hear her discuss these texts. Now I can look forward to her next work with anticipation of how these themes will be reinvented again with her lyric prose and engrossing narratives.
Written by American Scholar Lauren Cortese