Hanya Yanagihara’s Audience of One

Hanya Yanagihara wears her black hair pulled back with a razor-sharp center part, and she prefers to dress in black, especially in clothes by Dries Van Noten, the cerebral Belgian designer. She is the editor-in-chief of T, the style supplement to the Times, which publishes articles and photo-essays about fashion, travel, art, and design. Through…

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Hanya Yanagihara wears her black hair pulled back with a razor-sharp center part, and she prefers to dress in black, especially in clothes by Dries Van Noten, the cerebral Belgian designer. She is the editor-in-chief of T, the style supplement to the Times, which publishes articles and photo-essays about fashion, travel, art, and design. Through her editorial work, Yanagihara, who is forty-seven, has become conversant with hundreds of creative people and their work. She has spent a lot of time travelling and has an unusually international aesthetic: she is as comfortable speaking about ceramicists in Sendai as about conceptual artists in New York. She took over T four years ago, and, thanks to her magpie intelligence, it has become a vibrant cabinet of curiosities. Fashion and design spreads are now steeped in art history, and the magazine publishes essays that are surprising, and sometimes esoteric: an analysis of avant-garde flower arrangers; a rigorous survey of artists, from Japan to South Africa, who are “reimagining the animal figurine.”

Yanagihara’s private life is as constrained as her cultural knowledge is broad. She lives in a narrow SoHo loft, decorated with art and antiques and baubles, that she calls her “pod.” She rarely goes out and likes her place to be tidy—she won’t host dinner parties because she doesn’t “want the crumbs.” We once agreed to meet at a local restaurant. “You either go to Omen, Raoul’s, or Fanelli’s if you live down here, and I go to Omen,” she declared, adding that she wanted to sit at a particular table in the back. When she takes her trips, she packs a suitcase that, a friend says, is “almost as small as the one in ‘Rear Window.’ ”

Yanagihara is also a novelist with a large readership. Her 2015 book, “A Little Life,” begins as the story of the friendships among four recent college graduates, then cascades into an operatic, often appalling, chronicle of the abuse suffered by one of the protagonists. Like her magazine, the novel is proudly baroque. The critical reception to the book was very divided: it was called a “great gay novel” by one critic, and a “ghastly litany” by another. But it has sold more than a million and a half copies in English alone. It’s still easy to find readers talking online, with odd pleasure, about the emotional devastation that reading “A Little Life” brought upon them. TikTokers post videos of themselves crying after finishing the book.

Yanagihara is more confident talking about her magazine editing than about her novelistic abilities. She writes at night, for long stretches when the words are flowing. She completed her new novel, “To Paradise”—which stages three radically different narratives, set in three centuries, at the same town house in Washington Square—during the pandemic. Like “A Little Life,” it exceeds seven hundred pages. After she has hit on a plot and a structure she sticks to them, as if revising risks collapse. As she put it, “Once I’ve poured the concrete, I don’t rebuild the foundation.” Despite the extraordinary success of her fiction career, she regards it as a “slightly shameful” sideline. Indeed, she knows almost no other novelists, because she isn’t comfortable among them. She said, “I find that, whether from a sort of evil-eye avoidance superstition, or from not feeling that I quite have the right to call myself a writer—I don’t know what this is about, really, but I feel that writer is not something that I am, it is something that I do. And it’s something that I do in private.”

The most reliable route to becoming a novelist is that of the outsider, and this was Yanagihara’s path. She was born in 1974 in Los Angeles and spent her early childhood in Honolulu, the daughter of a doctor who did research on mouse immunology for the National Institutes of Health and a mother who practiced needlework, quilting, and other crafts. She remembers growing up with her brother in a house full of curated things that they weren’t allowed to touch. Her father, a third-generation Hawaiian resident, was of Japanese descent; her mother is Korean American. Her parents have always been deeply in love; Yanagihara described their relationship as “very much a union of two.” She suffered from severe asthma, which a doctor treated with steroids. When she was around ten, her father, apparently having determined that she was old enough to confront hard truths, warned her that the powerful drugs would devastate her body: “ ‘Do you know what happens with prednisone for a long period? You start growing hair all over your body, and your back begins to hunch, and you go blind before you know it.’ ” Yanagihara told me, “I remember I was crying and crying.” She began thinking of herself as “basically a big pair of lungs.”

Being a “sickly child,” as she says, was traumatizing, giving her the unshakable feeling of being different from her peers. Her family moved often, and in the mid-eighties the Yanagiharas arrived in Tyler, a small city in eastern Texas, where Hanya’s father practiced and taught medicine. Hawaii was full of Asian Americans, but Tyler was not, and Hanya experienced racism for the first time. When she walked down the hall at school, she remembers, students lined up, chanting, “Ching-chong-duck-dong.”

Her father, from whom she gets both her collecting instinct and a quality of emotional disengagement, became aware of her distress but considered it overblown. She remembers that once, when she and her brother misbehaved, he punished them by locking them out of the house. It would do them good, he reasoned, to face the kids who’d been menacing them. On another occasion, Hanya’s father took her for a haircut; when a barber told an anti-Asian joke, she looked to her father to respond, but he shrugged it off. “I wasn’t angry at the hairdresser,” she told me. “I was angry at my father, and I was angry at myself, as if we had done something by our existence that had, if not warranted the comment, inspired it.” She said that it was her first experience with the complexity of shame—of how you can cause “some sort of rupture, ripples in the social system, by your presence.” Around this time, her father gave her a copy of V. S. Naipaul’s “Tell Me Who to Kill,” a short story of post-colonial anger set in England. “He said it would help teach me rage,” she remembered.

Yanagihara moved back to Hawaii for her final three years of high school, living first with her grandparents and then with a teacher. She enrolled at Smith College in 1992. Explaining her choice, she joked, “In the early nineties, it was very easy to get into the women’s colleges,” then added, “Being a female was never something—and continues not to really be something—that was interesting to me. . . . So it was odd that I ended up at a women’s college.” At Smith, she marched for Asian American rights, and when writing papers she spelled “women” as “womyn”—a stance that she now regards as mostly a pose. “I should have spent more time thinking critically, and not trying to scare my way into easy ‘A’s,” she said. Yanagihara slept with women at Smith—“everyone had sex with women.” When the dorm next door hosted an annual orgy she didn’t go, because if she had she would have had to help with the cleanup afterward. By the time she got to college, she knew that she wanted to be a writer. “I was really going because I was hoping I would be like Sylvia Plath and stick my head in an oven,” she joked. “But I had pretensions to be something literary.”

After college, she moved to Manhattan, where she worked in the sales department of a paperback publisher. She later became a publicist, then an assistant editor at Riverhead, a hardcover imprint. Friends who visited her when she was in her late twenties were surprised to find gallery-worthy objects in her small, sixth-floor apartment. She made her first major purchase, “Bass Strait, Table Cape,” a photograph by Hiroshi Sugimoto, for ten thousand dollars, paying in installments. Her parents, she said, “had always instilled in me that art collecting was just something I should do,” though in practice she gathered objects “only to amuse myself.” She told me that she often found the outside world forbidding, and so she made her private world a refuge.

Yanagihara came to feel that she wasn’t destined to be a successful book editor. At the time, she said, “you had to have a certain kind of polish as a person, if you were a woman. Either that, or you had to be a spectacular weirdo who was rich. And I was neither of those things.” She added, “I was socially awkward. I didn’t really know how to behave in an office.”

Still, like a good collector, she pieced together a comfortable New York family. She gave her closest friends pet names—she still refers to two of them as Bunny and Giggles. Members of her circle found her a good listener but a poor confider. One friend, Seth Mnookin, a journalist, said that he had detailed his romantic life to Yanagihara over the years, and had asked her on occasion whether she was seeing anyone. She always evaded the question: “She sort of plays it off, in a way that is simultaneously disarming and makes it really clear that that door is closed.” (Yanagihara told me that for a long time she has been romantically interested only in men, but hasn’t found lasting companionship. She also said, “The understanding of who I was as a sexual creature was never great, or of that much interest.”)

She also didn’t tell her friends about a novel that she had begun writing soon after graduating from Smith. It was based on the life of Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist who did pathbreaking research in the South Pacific on infectious disease, then was imprisoned, in 1997, after pleading guilty to sexually abusing one of the dozens of children he had adopted from that region. The story was complicated, involving a lot of research, and she wasn’t sure that she had the skills to write it. There were years when she barely touched her manuscript, but she never gave it up. “The book became a sort of metaphor for delayed adulthood,” she told me. “I felt like I’d made this foolish bargain as a twenty-year-old. It wasn’t something I was ever going to get past.” She took editing jobs at various magazines, including Condé Nast Traveler. At last, when she had been working on her manuscript for almost fifteen years, she mentioned it to her best friend, Bunny—Jared Hohlt, another magazine editor. Yanagihara recalled, “Becoming accountable to Jared made me finally finish it.”

“Makes you feel more significant than everyone else, doesn’t it?”
Cartoon by Dan Misdea

The People in the Trees,” as she titled the book, was a political and moral novel. She wanted to interrogate “the binarian proposition” that people are either good or evil, and to square “a person who did and discovered extraordinary things with a person who caused great pain and was deeply flawed.” In the book, which fictionalizes elements of Gajdusek’s life and research, a scientist named Norton Perina learns that the members of a Micronesian tribe eat a food that dramatically extends life but doesn’t prevent mental decay. Once Perina announces his discovery, missionaries and pharmaceutical representatives descend on the tribe, ultimately destroying it. Like these predatory companies, Perina commits shameful acts but feels no shame.

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