In her closing address to the Sydney Writer’s Festival, Hanya Yanagihara, author of the dazzling and disturbing novel, ‘A Little Life’, reportedly spoke about violence and hope. She argued that violence belongs in novels because novels are about life, and violence is part of human existence, and so is fair game to the writer. No problem with that.
The main character in Yanagihara’s novel is Jude, a brilliant lawyer, who struggles all his life to overcome the unspeakable–and almost unreadable–abuse he suffered as a child.
Yanagihara suggests that from a position of story authenticity, some trauma can never be healed. Of her novel, she said: “It was always going to be about someone who wasn’t going to get better. What does the story then become about if it becomes a story of hope and that hope is never quite answered?”
Hope, my sacred cow! My antennae began twitching.
“I think hope,” said Yanagihara, “can be tyrannical for many people, this idea…that if they hope…or work hard enough…they might be able to effect some sort of major or elemental change in their life, and I think for many people this is simply not the case. For many people the central struggle of life is the pole between your hope and the acceptance or resignation towards what you know is going to happen.”
For many people? Was I one of them? I’ve had my share of trauma in life and one of the anchors that has helped me survive has been hope. Have I been deluding myself?
I thought of a story I wrote recently that explores the little known topic of genetic attraction. Although I struggled with the ending, eventually I offered a spark of hope for the couple in their tragic and taboo relationship.
Another story about a paedophile—‘Pigs, Onions, No Maidens’, published in the literary journal, ‘Wet Ink’—has a very bleak ending, yet again I offered a glimmer of hope for the paedophile’s redemption through his love of music.
And of course, in my novel, ‘The Lost Child’, I intended readers to find hope for Sylvie and Nella as they leave Burley Point to embark on new lives in the city.
Have I been offering false hope? Have I been naïve in my view of the world? Yanangihara set me thinking.
And, strangely, the first thought that came to mind was of Primo Levi who survived the horrors of Auschwitz and wrote about his experiences in ‘If This is a Man’. Levi later took his own life, presumably because, as Yanangihara suggests, some trauma can never be healed.
Yet as I checked the facts of Levi’s death, I discovered that several of his friends offered convincing reasons why his death could not have been suicide. Which version of his demise did I choose to believe? The latter of course.
Because despite how despairing I feel at the moment about so many aspects of life—asylum seekers, Trump, Syria, ISIS, the mass migration of refugees in Europe, climate change—I could go on—I’m forced to face the fact that I am a glass-half-full-of-hope type of person.
Despite the atrocities of the Holocaust, of Stalin and Pol Pot, the Rwandan genocides, North Korea’s warped belligerence, the ongoing civil war in Somalia, and many daily disappointments too numerous to mention, I live in hope for the human race. I have to believe that mankind moves forward. I choose to believe that civilisation–slowly, in fits and starts–becomes more civilised.
We all live little lives. And most of us live through difficult times. Whatever aids our journey, be it family, friendship and love, meditation, therapy, work, art, pets—dogs!—walking, writing, running, religion, these are supports that hold us steady and help us along the way.
Yanagihara may well be right when she suggests that for most people the primary struggle is between hope and finding a way to accept what will inevitably happen. Death for instance. Of course I hope it won’t happen, yet I know it will.
But in my daily life, I’m wired to believe that hope and hard work can effect change. Hope is my bedrock. Hope keeps me alive. That tiny beating kernel that lives in my soul keeps me fighting the difficult times.
Michelle Obama has said: “You may not always have a comfortable life and you may not always be able to solve all of the world’s problems at once but don’t ever underestimate the importance you can have because history has shown us that courage can be contagious and hope can take on a life of its own.”
Yanagihara or Obama? Now there’s a choice.
References: Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Hanya Yanagihara: Why she wanted to provoke readers with A Little Life’, Andrew Purcell. Photograph courtesy www.theguardian.com