Garth Greenwell & Hanya Yanagihara in Conversation
on gay books
HANYA YANAGIHARA I’m going to go for the big question. What does it mean to write a gay book? Is it the fact that the writer is gay that makes a book gay? What does making gay literature mean at this particular moment?
GARTH GREENWELL I don’t really have an answer for that. I think anyone who cares about the question is going to have a different answer.
HANYA YANAGIHARA is the author of A Little Life, her second book, following the lives of four friends in New York City, some gay, and one of whom is coping with an unnamable trauma from his past.
GARTH GREENWELL is the author of What Belongs to You, his debut novel, about an American teacher in Bulgaria who falls in love with a young and charismatic hustler.
But do you think there’s such a thing as a queer aesthetic? I know that you’ve argued persuasively that there is this idea of an extravagance of emotion, a bigness of mood, a sort of tonality. I think especially when gay art – in film or music or books – had to disguise this idea of gayness, there was this twinning of shame and eroticism that they had to express in a different language. Is that still true?
I don't think that there’s a queer aesthetic, I think there are many queer aesthetics. And I actually don't think it has anything to do with – well I don’t think it’s determined by an artist’s identity. Because I don’t think you're born into a queer aesthetic, I think you have to work for it, learn it. I think there are styles that queer artists have chosen, and I certainly feel that when I think about the kind of sentences I’m drawn to. Whether you're thinking of Proust or James or Woolf, that comes out of a queer tradition. And yeah I do think there are modalities that have been coded queer both adversarially and in a sort of identificatory way. So it does feel meaningful to me to think about queer art. Maybe more intensely because queer life and queer culture have been so mainstreamed.
A very limited sense.
That’s exactly right. In a way that excludes, that can feel constraining, or that can feel like it sacrifices too much. There is this kind of desire, among a lot of queer writers and artists I know, to push back and to assert a kind of queerness that has fallen out of the marriage – equality – picture of gay life.
When you were writing this book, were you conscious of following in a certain tradition of a “queer aesthetic?” Whatever you write, now and in the future, even if your writing, subjectwise, seems to have nothing to do with gay life or gay history or gay experience, is it still, by your experience, a gay book?
Beyond my current projects I have no idea. The current projects are queer in both of those senses. I don’t think queerness in art is necessarily or primarily about subject matter. In David Halperin’s book, How To be Gay, he makes this argument that things like opera and Broadway musicals are more expressive of queerness than something like Brokeback Mountain. In that, objectively queer content puts more pressure on the queerness of the style. That’s an interesting argument to
me, but I don’t know if it’s exactly true. I think Genet’s novels are as queer as anything could ever get, both stylistically and in terms of subject matter. But Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night – there’s not a lot of objective queerness in that, but it’s a super gay novel.
It is super gay. I do agree with you that it’s like that famous line about pornography – you can't define it until you see it. But I also think there is a queer aesthetic in a way that there is perhaps not an Asian-American aesthetic.
Oh that’s interesting.
I thought lots about what makes a gay book or not. Is it the content, is it who’s writing it, is it the themes, or is it the tone? What is it? Because one of the questions I thought I’d get asked a lot, and didn’t, is: Why are there no Asian-American characters in my book? And are you an Asian-American writer? In the end, I was asked it only twice, both by Asian-American writers, and the answer to both is “Yes.” I think that much of Asian-American history in America has been, largely for cultural reasons, accepting what’s handed to us. It comes down to a philosophical difference of thinking that life can’t be changed, versus thinking that if you push hard enough against circumstances they will change, which is a very Western way of thinking. There’s a Japanese phrase Shikata ga nai – “It can’t be helped” – and the Eastern way of thinking is simply that. Which is why, for example, people find it perplexing that Japanese-Americans never uprose in large numbers when they were put in internment camps. It simply wasn't part of their philosophy. And in that way, I thought my first book [ The People in the Trees] was an indictment of how Asian-Americans have allowed themselves to be treated in this country. I did think that was a very Asian-American book. But no one has called it that, even though I do. So I’m not sure there’s a certain Asian-American aesthetic the way there is definitely a queer aesthetic.
Well part of that may be that Asian-American identity –
You can’t hide it.
You can’t hide it, and also you're born into it, you can’t deny it.
It’s not associated with shame and hiding and a process of discovery.
And education, or initiation. Because I think with gay identity, there’s a kind of initiation to it.
It’s something you have to act upon.
And it’s something you have to seek out. I remember, because I grew up in a very un-gay environment, there were no gay people around me for a long time, and I had to seek out gayness and try to find images of myself that made me not want to die. And that in itself was a kind of training. When I was 13,
“I don’t think that there’s a queer aesthetic, I think there are many queer aesthetics.”
I went to this bookstore in Louisville that had a lesbian and gay section. I didn’t know anything about literature, I was in Kentucky public schools, and I would just pull books at random.
Do you remember a book you read that you saw yourself in?
I remember Giovanni’s Room, Our Lady of the Flowers, and Confessions of a Mask.
Wow, you really went for the trio.
There’s a way in which, because of that section, I knew that any book I pulled out would speak to me in a way.
There is this idea of the [queer] tribe – the emotions are the same, the process is the same. If you are gay, the process of becoming a gay adult is much more similar than not. The circumstances might be different, but the emotions are all the same. And it does cut across nationality and race and so on and so forth.
In that way I could read Mishima and feel that his books were about me. Even though they were books about a world very separate from Kentucky in the early 90s, I could say “This is a book about me.”
What does it mean to write a post-gay novel? If you believe such a thing exists?
I want to hear your answer to that.
I don’t believe it exists. I understand what it means insofar that gay desire isn’t something that has to be written about in code. You don’t have to sort of ferret it out in a book. It’s not subtext, it’s text. I suppose that that could be a definition of a post-gay literary age. But I think “post-gay” assumes that everyone understands and accepts what gayness is. “Post-gay” suggests that gayness is something that isn’t expansive in of and itself, that it’s something that isn’t universal in of itself, that it’s something that has to be moved beyond, and I just don’t think that’s true. What do you think?
The idea of post-gay is bound up in a narrative of gayness and gay community as a response to shame.
Or sex. But if we can get beyond shame then the bonds that might make the identity and the community intelligible will be gone. It’s a kind of wishful thinking that we’ve cleared away all the prejudice and now we can live more expansively, and it’s an understanding of gayness that is far too narrow – it buys into this bogus idea of “the universal.” The idea of “the universal” is something that’s scrubbed clean of particularities – all that does is let it be white. All that does is let it be straight.
What is a gay book without sex?
That seems like a really easy question to answer. A book doesn't have to have sex in it. In your book [ A Little Life] Willem feels a great deal of desire for Jude. Some people would say “obviously it’s not a gay novel, Willem says he’s not gay but he just loves Jude.” And I’m like, that’s the gayest thing anyone could ever say.
I know [laughs].
Of course you can have central, primary, nourishing, important gay relationships without sex, just like you can have heterosexual relationships that have all of those qualities that don’t have sex at the heart.
Yes, it’s a very limited way of thinking. I think all of us, gay people and not-gay people, are guilty to a certain extent of assuming that a central part of a gay relationship is sex. One of the things that I wanted to discuss in the book is how limited the idea of sexuality is for men. Women don't have as much power as men and so we are therefore left more to ourselves to glide up and down the spectrum of sexuality. If you’re a woman who identifies as straight and you end up sleeping with another woman and you still want to claim yourself as straight, no one really cares. If you're a man, it doesn't work that way. Being gay as a man threatens the idea of masculinity in a way that being gay as a woman does not threaten the idea of, if not femininity, then womanhood. Love between men, in its most beautiful and fluent expression, has traditionally been between gay men because it is assumed to be part of the expression of what a gay man is. Not that straight men aren’t capable of that, but they’re certainly not allowed to access it. So it was, in its truest sense, a book about the depth and the complexity of love between men. I remember when I was first thinking of this book I was at a dinner party with the great publisher Ann Godoff, and she was saying that what you saw during the worst years of New York’s AIDS crisis was a flowering of friendship and a testament to the elasticity of friendship that modern times have never seen before. And it was because of gay men. It was gay men who created that and showed how durable and how expansive the relationship could be. In that way te book was inspired by a part of gay history. But I wasn’t consciously writing a book about gay life. I will say that when I turned it into Anna, our agent, the first thing she said was ‘There are too many gay people in this book.”
[Laughs] Bad Anna.
And that it wasn’t realistic because of that. But it is realistic! If you're in a certain city, if you're in a certain class, if you're in a certain circle, if you're in a certain industry, that is what you see. And you see these mini-utopias of people who have found, in perhaps very small universes but complete ones, places where love and affection and physical intimacy and romance and sex and friendship and jealousies, and all of the things that love can be between men, are profoundly and imperfectly and wonderfully expressed.
“The idea of “the universal” is something that’s scrubbed clean of particularities – all that does is let it be white. All that does is let it be straight.”
Some people responded very strongly against the idea that A Little Life is a gay novel, or that it could be claimed as a gay novel. There were categories those responses fell into, and I sort of ranked them from stupid to non-stupid. The most stupid was ‘This can’t be a gay novel because it is written by a woman.’
Well, listen, if you came to me and said ‘Garth Greenwell wrote the great Asian-American novel,’ I would think ‘No, he didn’t.’
Right. Like Darryl Pinckney said, “But it has been such a battle for these stories to be told.” Not just queer stories, he was talking about but black stories and about the black experience and for these stories to be told in their own voices. That has important value, too. And he said this beautiful thing about how we have to be able to hold contradictions and hold contradictory things to be true. Writers have to write what they have to write, and they have to be free to write that and it is also important that stories be told in their own voices. It’s not a contradiction to assert that however perilous and difficult, it is possible and also valuable to write across difference. We all have to be invested in creating more spaces for voices that have not been heard, for voices that are structurally de-privileged to be heard.
I feel like if you’re really concerned that you can’t write across difference, there is a bigger problem with you, yourself, as an artist and a person. But I also think that in the conversation, of writing across race or sexuality or gender or religion, we forget that there’s another way to write across difference. The way that the characters think and move in my book – and certainly many authors would say the same about the characters in their books – are not necessarily how I think or how I’ve been trained to think. The sense of privilege these characters have, their sense of ease, are not things that I am privy to necessarily, and that, too, is a writing across difference.
No question. And to think about what it takes to write across difference? It seems to me it takes a kind of emotional investment that puts the writer at risk. It takes work.
Let me ask you something else. What are you tired of seeing in queer books [laughs]?
There’s nothing I’m tired of. I’m not tired of coming out narratives – that’s
“I do see a conflict between my work and my identity as an activist.”
an incredibly rich experience that’s inflected by all sorts of different categories. I don’t think that sex work is a story that we wear out, because it’s this humanly rich, infinitely varied experience. Just like, I don’t think we’re going to wear out boy meets girl or girl meets boy, I don’t think we’re going to wear out these sort of fundamental human stories that we’re going to tell. And the sort of lie at the heart of that complaint of “Ugh, are we going to see another coming out narrative, or another narrative about sex in bathrooms,” is this assumption that these experiences are less valuable because they're gay. I think it is just homophobic.
Also this idea that there’s a sameness to the coming out narrative.
There’s a sameness to any growing up narrative. There’s a sameness to growing up in a household and then leaving it. These are just fundamental experiences. Really there aren’t new stories. Human life follows a limited number of patterns.
Let me ask you about this. Is it the artist’s obligation to be political, and what does that mean in this day and age? Does a gay writer, a selfproclaimed gay writer, writing these days have any sort of responsibility?
No. I think there’s a lot at stake for everybody in protecting writers, in protecting artists from those kinds of demands. I do see a conflict between my work and my identity as an activist, as someone who is interested in politics and political change. My work and my identity as an artist is all about ambivalence and ambiguity, but work in the political sphere, it cannot entertain that kind of ambivalence and ambiguity. I think there is a flattening out of vision when you are engaged in the important work of political change that is damaging to the artist. Fighting for political change for queer people has meant presenting a kind of narrative that is true and false, and I think being an artist means trying to tell the truth as much as you can. In that way I do feel a conflict between my art and my politics. It does feel like a split allegiance, because both of those endeavors feel really important to me.
I will say that we’re in a period of gay literature in which you can have unhappy gay characters, loathsome gay characters. Our understanding, perhaps in limited spheres of what it means to be gay and to have a gay life, has advanced far enough that I don't think writers worry as much about positive representation. Whereas I don't know if trans writers feel that they have to reassure, that they have to make an ending that feels unambiguous somehow. I suppose that is cultural and artistic progress when you have a broader diversity of gay life and gay outcomes and gay endings in literature, when you don't feel the burden perhaps of speaking for an entire community.
Not just the burden of speaking for but the burden of speaking to.
And of knowing your book is going to be the one in which some kid finds salvation, which is crippling for art.
What political change for minority groups means in a democracy is making a case to the majority. It means translating the values of particular lives and packaging that value in a way that will be legible to the majority, packaging them in a way that they're palatable to the people who are disgusted by the idea of queer life. You go back and you read some of the Congressional debates around the AIDS crisis, and the ways in which queer bodies are just demonized and vilified and spoken of in animalistic terms. Just this disgust, which was unashamed then. And that’s what the political fight had to counter.
It meant everyone had to be on their best behavior. And now you don’t have to be as much.
I think that that’s just part of what fighting for minority rights entails. For queer people it meant getting them thinking about everything except anal sex, because straight people are disgusted by two men fucking. And so getting them thinking about everything else. So maybe that was necessary, but it’s also necessary now to push back against that and try to recover, to try to restore the reality of queer experience.
Well, I mean, that’s one of the things I love so much about Edmund White’s books. They’re unabashedly, often very funnily, but unflinchingly, delightedly about sex, especially City Boy.
I think that’s a great subversion.
Did you – this is going to be a really terrible word in this context – did you really enjoy larding it up in your book [laughs]? Because the sex scenes are very sexy and they're very much about sex. You can’t pretend they're just sort of having frottage in the equinox.
Or in Giovanni’s Room, where the bodies just disappear when they have sex.
They sort of conveniently fade.
I don’t think there’s nearly enough sex in What Belongs to You. I don’t think there’s enough of it. For the last 20 years, there has not been a lot of visible gay fiction that has gotten attention that has explicit sex in it.
I think The Swimming Pool Library has it. That is the book that managed to get prestige and attention even though it had a lot of gay sex in it. Samuel Delany is one of the writers doing the most remarkable sex writing, but those books aren't being widely read. Edmund White has never been recognized as the genius he is by the broader literary sphere. His fiction has never won the huge prizes he should have. Even if you look at a writer I adore, Andrew Holleran, who I think is a great American writer who has never been recognized.
Not that we should say winning is –
Right, but –
But it is a recognition from some sort
“I think of sex as this experience that captures a whole series of interlocked contradictions.”
of academy that what you're writing is relevant to culture.
G Oh! David Leavitt, too. G The Lost Language of Cranes.
H I’ve always loved it. My father got it for Y me when I was 12.
G [Laughs] G
H Yeah, I don’t think he knew what it was Y about.
G That’s a wonderful book to read when G you're 12.
H When I think about it, who really does Y write gay sex ecstatically?
G In the stuff that I’m working on now, G there’s a lot more sex. It’s much more explicit. I am interested in pushing that further. I do think it is this almost unique tool for a writer, it puts so much stuff under pressure.
H That’s an interesting way to think about Y sex – both as an announcement and a pressure applier for the rest of the book.
G I think of sex as this experience that G captures a whole series of interlocked contradictions. It’s when we’re at our most vulnerable and our most performative. It’s when we’re most thrust into our own sensations. And, if it’s inter-
esting sex or if it’s good sex, most attentive to the sensations of another. I think it’s when we’re most bodily animal beings, and when we have our greatest intimations of the metaphysical.
H I suppose if A Little Life suggests Y anything about sex, it’s that it’s not fundamentally necessary to the human condition. That sex might be something that is not afforded to everyone and is not central to everyone.
G The much better arguments about the G book are in thinking about it as the first great asexual novel.
H Yes! And hearing from readers who Y have taken the time to write very thoughtful and interesting notes, I wonder, are we at a moment in a particular slice of gay America, the slice of gay America that you inhabit and that many people in this city inhabit, in which there is a terrific amount of pressure as a gay man to have sex, to be talking about sex, to be fluent in sex? One of the interesting through-lines of these letters has been these sorts of confessions of, “I don’t really like it that much,” “I don't have it enough,” “I feel like I’m failing as a gay man because I’m not doing it enough,” “I’m not enjoying it enough,” “I’m not experimental enough.” Certainly, I don’t think any other group has that sort of pressure.
G You can’t question it. I think there was G a moment where straight women had to prove it, too.
H I agree, but that moment has sort Y of passed.
G Sexual liberation does not mean G your whole life is centered on sex. I do think that’s something that’s been recognized in gay literature. I think you see this in Edmund White, you see this in Alan Holleran quite explicitly. Part of recognizing the richness of sex and sexuality is recognizing that it accommodates tedium as well. Part of the richness of sex and sexuality is the fact that it is possible for it to be not very meaningful.
H What do you think about this idea that Y for many years, and certainly still in many places, gay life was inextricable from danger? This idea of a fearfulness of potential new encounters, very broadly defined. That part of the thrill of going to the park at 3 a.m. was that you might get arrested, but it was also a necessity.
G I do think one of the most dangerous G things in American culture is that timidity, that fear of Otherness, that fear of crossing these boundaries we inscribe our lives with. It is true that much of what seems the radicality of queer life, or the potential radicality, is that it did all of those things. When you went to the cruising park you would meet all kinds of people. There could be a heightened danger but also a heightened possibility. And I think we are so obsessed with safety. We are so obsessed with safety and that is totally stifling. I do think risk is really important.
Hm. The closing of the American mind to risk. And the defanging of gay life for acceptance and visibility. And the seizing of a certain type of gay life or representation of gay life as entertainment, is dangerous. Not all representation is helpful representation, especially when the representation is as a sort of clown.
G Then the question becomes, certainly G as a writer, how do you put the fangs back? Or how do you reclaim some of what’s been lost in exchange for a kind of acceptance. This is a thing that unites all responses to A Little Life, people who love it and people who hate it, is the intensity. I think it’s owed to the intensity of the experience that is reading that book. I think everyone should read the book. I tell them, I’m not sure if you will love this book or if you will hate it, but it will be a landmark. After you finish this book you will be in a different place. It is a book that feels like it assaults you. How intentional was that when you made it? How much is that a quality of the art that you love, the adversarial quality?
H I suppose the easy answer is that I Y wasn’t trained as a writer. I didn’t know what kind of mistakes I should be avoiding. But if there’s something I don’t like in literature right now it’s the safety of it. I think artists of all sorts should be encouraged to make big mistakes. You should be making mistakes on the page, you should be reaching for something uncomfortable, you should be less worried about prettiness. And I think we’re at a moment in American literature where a lot of the work is polished, it’s contained, it’s buffed, it’s perfectly fine. It’s often technically perfect. But that’s
not what a book should be doing – a book should be trying to make something new, and by making something new it should have bolts and nails showing. It should be something that makes you a little uncomfortable to do, or a lot uncomfortable to do. It should be something that makes you sometimes queasy, something that makes you actively challenge yourself to do something ugly. I do think that every writer has an obligation to reach for something big and to be unafraid of being unliked. When you look at photography, which I’ve been collecting for a while, the word that photo editors will often use to distinguish a work they don’t like from one they do is – this is a very damning word – “easy.” A photo director will often say, “Have you seen so and so’s work?” And they’ll say, “Oh yeah, it’s tough work.” And what they mean by that, obviously, is that it is work that is uncompromising, not just in its subject matter necessarily, but because you have the sense that the artist is really forgetting audience. It’s really hard to forget your audience when you’re creating a visual work, and someone’s walking by or a gallery owner is flipping through your portfolio, and you have a second or a micro-second to catch their attention. You don’t want to put in the tough work. But the tough work is the work that announces you have something to say, that you are seeing something and that something is seeing you back. And if you can’t do the tough work, if you can’t forget about the audience enough, then you shouldn’t do the work at all. Do commercial work, that’s fine. I look at my collection here in my apartment and a lot of these pieces are not pieces that are going to endure. They’re tough pieces, they’re unlikable pieces. But I always admire the artist who has something to say, and is going to say it without thinking about who’s actually going to see it.
G The thing that is scariest to me about G the process of the publishing and the reception of the book is that when you’re promoting a book, you are in this very artificial environment that has this incredibly strong gravity that distorts values. I was an opera singer and then I was a poet, those were my trainings in art.
H So you left the money-making world Y behind [laughs].
G I’ve always admired writers who G seemed utterly unconcerned with any conventional measures of success. For the first time in my life, I’m aware of sales figures, and I hate that. There’s
such intense pressure put on writers now. If you’re going to publish with a publisher like Doubleday or FSG then people are going to care about sales figures and you’re going to be put into this machine. And the question I have now is how do you get back to that place where you’re not thinking about an audience? Where you can have the fangs?
H Yeah, and there’s nothing sweeter than, Y in retrospect, when you’re writing your first. No one knows, no one’s read it, the book could be anything. It’s as close as you can get to a pure state of writing. There’s something very sweet about that. In order to be an artist, it’s useful if you're in some sort of state of constant humility. Whether it’s living in another country, or surrounding yourself with another form of art you can’t quite understand or won’t or don’t have any pure, true access to. Or you’re surrounded by others who don’t understand you, or are in a job where you are diminished somehow. It’s necessary.
G It’s the privilege of marginality – that is G the privilege of queerness. That exclusion.
H Right. If you’re lucky enough to exerY cise it.
G I do think that writing across differG ence, if it’s done in a way that feels authoritative and not objectionable, has to be earned.
H I think people get into trouble because Y of two things: you create a character and you try to make this character, their Otherness, be incidental to who they are; or you try to make their Otherness all of who they are.
G Absolutely. G
H They’re the same problem. It’s the Y same way that people will say “My black friend so-and-so,” or “I don’t see it’s race.” As offensive as that is, and as problematic as that is, and as willfully blind as that is, in life so too is it in art.
G I think especially in this country it’s just G agonizing to wrestle with those things. Especially around race, more around race than around sexual identity, even though both of those minorities have been subjected to such violence. It is a kind of agony. To me, the authenticity, or the sort of the legitimacy of writing across difference, is the extent to which you are willing to confront and take on and feel that agony.
H Yes, and I certainly don’t think you Y can announce “I’m going to write a gay book.” That’s where you really run into problems.
“You should be making mistakes on the page, you should be reaching for something uncomfortable, you should be less worried about prettiness.”
You have to do the work of trying to understand not just your ideas or the myths you’ve been told about another group’s experiences, but about that experience itself. Writing across difference becomes objectionable when it is cartoonish in the sense that it is just inhabiting myth.
H And it can’t be your sort of challenge Y for that particular month, or that particular book. It’s not Kilimanjaro and you’re not going to climb it and it’s not going to be something you dust off your hands at the end. It should leave you with more questions and toward a greater sort of searching. And if it doesn’t, you’re not doing it right.
G Absolutely. G
H Yet how extraordinary it remains, and Y how meaningful it might be, to have the sense that you are being recognized by someone not of your tribe, as being a full human, a full member of what humanity is. I suppose that’s what I find the most moving. When we talk about a work of art as “universal,” what we’re really talking about is its particularities. We’re not talking about a generic person in a generic landscape dealing with generic problems, however you might define that. What makes a book universal is the problems of the particular. By saying that this is territory that can only be told or trod by a gay writer means that you are taking away your right to be recognized as the universal. I hope that other writers would think that a gay life is just as meaningful, just as universal, as a life that conforms to the contours of heteronormative society. But someone else talking about a queer life who’s not queer does not mean that other people won’t have their chance, nor does it mean the narrative that comes from experience is less meaningful.