Bookshelf: Q&A With Hanya Yanagihara
The People In The Trees author talks about medicine and misanthropy.
By September 2, 2013 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016published
You conceptualized this book during Gajdusek's trial in the mid-1990s. How has your thinking about personal failings versus professional genius changed since then?
I began writing this novel when I was 21; I finished when I was 36. Part of becoming an adult is finding a way to truly, intensely admire people...while at the same time acknowledging their mistakes and, concurrently, their humanity. I think one can admire much of what Gajdusek was, not just as a scientist and a mind, but who he clearly was to his friends, while realizing that he caused great pain and suffering to some of the most vulnerable people in the world: children. One doesn't negate the other, but both facts deserve to be mentioned in the same breath. A person can be remarkable and unforgivable, after all.
Do you think scientists are admired in our culture? Or does one have to win a Nobel Prize or Fields Medal to be noted?
I think that the cultural tide has turned against science of all sorts in the past 30-odd years. We think of the 1950s as an oppressive time in the culture, and indeed it was, but it was also in many ways a more secular moment, and one in which great scientific achievements flourished. I don't want to get too gauzy about this, but there was much more respect for science as a necessary part of society. I don't think we need to idolize the people who practice science—that's a very dangerous sport—but the scientific illiteracy in this country and the amount of junk science that's practiced without thought to its global consequences are frightening and potentially disastrous.
How did your thinking evolve about what is justifiable in the name of research?
I grew up thinking of disease in a very specific way. My father was a research scientist until I was in high school, and for research scientists, it's not the afflicted person who's of most interest: It's the infection itself. But then he went into private practice, [which] means addressing not the virus but the person before you. You see a virus very differently when it's caught and suspended on a slab of glass than when you're observing how it's ravaged a fellow human being.
Your protagonist is mordant and condescending. What is the role of the misanthrope in our culture?
Misanthropy is born, I think, out of an almost oppressive sense of loneliness, a conviction that there's no one on earth who understands you. I don't think misanthropes hate people: They hate that people hate them. A misanthrope will tell you that there's something tough and intellectually rigorous about being permanently disenchanted with humanity. But really, the harder thing is being disenchanted with humanity and yet still fighting to find a place in the world, still trying to save other people, still trying to engage with the world—especially when it's at its most difficult and disappointing.
You challenge cultural and literary taboos in writing about child rape. Do you think there are any universal taboos, or do you consider everything culturally relative?
This is still one of my favorite questions to ponder: Are there any acts or behaviors that are inherently wrong to the human condition? Rape is a tricky subject: The islanders in my novel wouldn't consider what they do to their boys as rape, for example — it's an initiation. When you remove a person from that specific context, does the behavior then become wrong? and if so, why does it become wrong? After all, the behavior itself doesn't change: What changes is the culture around you.
"You have to understand," a man who knew Gajdusek told me, “when these boys were young, they would've been taken into a hut and taught lessons in love by an older man."this man had a young son himself, and I asked him: "So would you let your son go into a hut with Gajdusek?" He kind of scoffed and huffed, but he never quite answered the question. I remember being fascinated by that answer, because the man had managed to suggest both that what was fine for a tribal kid on Papua New Guinea wasn't suitable for his son — meaning he did have some moral judgment about it and, just as disturbingly, that he thought that his kid, whether by dint of his race or advantages or circumstances or simply that he was his, didn't deserve such treatment — and, simultaneously, that he wasn't exactly closing the door on the suggestion.
What about taboos in fiction? Does that depend on the act being depicted?
I think anything goes in fiction, as long as it fits within the interior logic of the work itself and is presented in a disciplined manner.