Intimate Conversation with Tiphanie Yanique


Intimate Conversation with Tiphanie Yanique

Tiphanie Yanique is the author of  How to Escape from a Leper Colony. Her writing has won the Boston Review Prize in Fiction, a Pushcart Prize, a Fulbright in Creative Writing and an Academy of American Poet's Prize.  Her fiction has also appeared in Callaloo, Transition Magazine, American Short Fiction, the London Magazine and other places.  She is an assistant professor of creative writing and Caribbean Literature at Drew University. On January 1st, the Boston Globe listed her as one of the sixteen cultural figures to watch out for in 2010.

BPM:  What makes you powerful as a person and a writer?  Who are your mentors?Is the Tiphanie I think I am the same as Tiphanie who is presented to others?  I don’t know and so, I don’t know what makes me powerful.  But I have hopes.  I hope that my writing causes people to touch their beloveds more intimately, to venture beyond physical and emotional places of comfort with more bravery…that’s what my writing does for me, and if does that for even one more person I will feel magical! 

If I am more concretely powerful I would say that it might be in the classroom, as a teacher.  I tell my students that they’re gods and goddesses—creating characters and universes on the page.  I want them to be brave enough to reveal their own beauties and flaws, to learn to appreciate these things in all other people, even the ones they create.  I think writing, in itself, is incredibly powerful.  Even if it’s just writing for yourself, it’s affirming and reflective and even prophetic.  

I have been blessed with many mentors, but my first and everlasting mentor is my grandmother, who raised me.  She has always been a champion for my better possibilities.  She is a former librarian and an everlasting bibliophile.  There are always books around the house and so there are great readers in my family.  I’m not the only writer!  My husband recently asked me what my first important books were and I had no idea.  There have always been important books for me. That’s in great part because of my grandmother.

BPM:  What specific situation or revelation prompted you to write your book?The honesty is that it’s so many things.  One thing leads you to another and then another and then you’ve forgotten what the initial thing is.  Surely, every heart brake I ever had, every fall on the face I ever experienced informs the heart brake and fall that gets written in a story.  One of my favorite elements of a story comes from a song that has followed me and the Virgin Islands people for years.  The title for the story “Kill the Rabbits” comes from a calypso called “Legal,” which has “kill the rabbits” as a refrain.  The band, which has changed membership over the years, still exists under the name “Jamband.”  The lyrics ask about the purposes of culture. 

Should natives of the Caribbean dance in the street in a way that pleases tourists and makes for good pictures?  Or should natives dance in the street for their own pleasure, as a communal way to exercise self-identity?  The song demands that rabbits, those with “the tourists color” should be ignored, even removed from the revelry.  The song was banned when it came out and still causes controversy when it plays today…and still causes people to dance in the street.  I don’t want my story to answer the questions surrounding the song, but I would like to create more questions that we might each go on to answer for ourselves and communities.  This is a very political and, I hope, provocative issue in the writing, but if that was the single specific revelation the story would be a lot less full than it is.  Ultimately, I am interested in the human beings that live through the song.  The ones that dance in the street and the ones that watch.

BPM:  Introduce us to your book, How to Escape from a Leper Colony, and the main characters. Are your characters from the portrayal of real people?How to Escape from a Leper Colony is a collection of short stories, so there are many characters.  But even in the novel I’m now working on I have communities of characters. I like people and I like having many of them in my writing!  The characters that remain the most interesting to me are the ones that are still mysterious to me.  These are the ones I might return to, either for longer narratives in the future or just in my mind. Lazaro isn’t the main character in the story “How to Escape from a Leper Colony,” but I’m still curious about him.  He’s brave in his love for his friend Deepa and in his vengeance for his mother’s death.  I don’t quite understand him yet, but I like not fully understanding him.  I also admire Herman, in the story, “Kill the Rabbits.”  Her man is a bit provincial in his ideas of the Caribbean, but he is invested in learning.  When he fails he is devoted to his own contrition. 

Many of my characters are seeking belonging. Some seek this in another person, in love.  Others seek it in a physical place.  I think Herman and Lazaro do both. But if you asked me tomorrow to talk about the key characters, I’d probably list others!  My favorites depend on my mood!

BPM:  Take us inside the book. What are two major events taking place?Two major events in How to Escape from a Leper Colony are the bridge collapsing in “The Bridge Stories” and the church burning down in “The Saving Work.” You find out about these things early on, but the stories then take you to the characters impacted by the events. 

Both the bridge and the church represent the destruction of a physical entity that reflects something historical and intimate for the characters.  The bridge is supposed to connect the different islands to each other, making commerce flow more easily.  It’s opening is a major moment for Caribbean history.  The intimate moment comes when Margo walks on the bridge in search of her husband, whom she hasn’t seen in almost a decade.  The church is a place of refuge and power for the two women who are otherwise marginalized because of their interracial marriages.  But the story begins when Deidre arrives at the burning church to set up for her son’s wedding.  I really love finding places where history and intimacy meet.

BPM:  Who do you want to reach with your book and the message within?Everyone.  Old men who have lost the loves of their lives, young girls in St. John who didn’t know before that their experiences are worthy of examination, women in Korea who long to travel, men in Africa who love football, Feminists and womanists in South Carolina who haven’t met each other, humans anywhere from now and the future who love language and love the private joy of reading and the social joy of story telling. And myself.  I wanted to teach myself something; something about humans, something about language.  When I was in undergrad I was writing a novella that is now the novel I’m working on.  I was eager to finish it. When my professors asked me why, I answered that I needed to finish the project because I wanted to read it.

BPM:  How will reading your book shape the readers lives?  I hope readers of How to Escape from a Leper Colony will gain a greater consideration for the relationship between public history and our private realities.  I hope that the love scenes will make readers want to kiss their beloveds. I hope the books will makes an unbeliever go to church; make a believer question her belief. I hope reading each story will give readers opportunities for bravery in their own historical and personal spaces.

BPM:  What are some of their specific issues, needs or problems addressed in this book?I am interested in romantic love, though, I hope, not in a cliché or simplistic way.  I am also interested in things that seem mythical or magical.  Often in our society we play down faith or love as things to be suspicious of; things that make us weak or at least reveal our weakness.  I agree!  But I absolutely think that revealing weakness is the only true way to strength.  And I also think we must be suspicious of blind faith so that we might get to a more complicated faith that matures as we do. I hope How to Escape from a Leper Colony addresses the fear that comes in diving into love, the true magic in finding that love and the reality, I believe, that if we’re alive we are always searching for that magic.

BPM:  What was the most powerful chapter in the book?One of the most emotional sections for me to write is in “The International Shop Coffins.”  That story is told three times from the perspective of three different people who find themselves together in a coffin shop.  The two young girls in that story pain me every time they appear.  Their version of events is the one based on true events. What happened to them happened to two girls who went to my high school. They were also my students when I returned home to teach for two years.  I felt that I needed to write their story, but even as I wrote it I felt as though I was living it.  When I think of what happened to them I see their faces sitting in the classroom.  It’s frightening for me.

Readers have told me that other stories are the most powerful.  “How to Escape from a Leper Colony,” the title story, won a major prize while I was in graduate school.  I wrote the story fast and submitted it so sloppily that Junot Díaz, who called to me to tell me I’d won the Boston Review Prize, told me it was pretty amazing that I won considering all the typos.  In my mind the powerful thing about the story is its lushness.  One of my graduate school professors, Antonya Nelson, told me that “Canoe Sickness” was the most powerful story.  She said she appreciated the spare voice and the direct portrayal of the main character.  That’s the opposite of lush!  So much of what is considered powerful is subjective, I think.

BPM:  Ultimately, what do you want readers to gain from your book?I hope readers come to see the Caribbean as a place that is more than beautiful beaches and piña coladas or more than a place of poverty and marijuana…more than any of the clichés, but rather a place of human beings with full, complicated lives.

BPM:  What do you think makes your book different from others on the same subject?While there’s nothing new under the sun, I do think that this book is something close to brand new.  There really isn’t much fiction coming out of the Virgin Islands and getting outside attention. The most well known Virgin Islands fiction texts even in the VI are not by Virgin Islanders.  My perspective is among those that are presenting this part of the Caribbean completely differently.

BPM:  Share with us your latest news, awards or upcoming book releases.   The Boston Globe just reviewed the book and listed me as the writer to watch out for in 2010!  I’m so excited about that I put it in my bio.  Towards the end of last year “The Saving Work” was published in the “Best New African American Fiction.”  The book has been getting positive reviews. My first major book party will be in March at the Teachers & Writers Collaborative in New York City.  The book party in the Virgin Islands will be on March 19th at one of my favorite bookstores, Dockside Books.

BPM:  Finish this sentence- My writing offers the following legacy to future readers...I have no idea what legacy my writing offers. I hope readers will tell me. Whatever I say would be a desire and might be pompous or too humble.  But there is one sure thing I would like to offer. When I was in high school we didn’t read Caribbean authors, certainly not anyone from the Virgin Islands. The vast majority of people who visit the Virgin Islands see it as a place of beaches and rum heavy drinks.  They don’t see it as a place of literary or artistic value.  I hope my book contributes to an image of the Virgin Islands as a place worthy, not only of natural beauty but also intellectually cultivated beauty.  I want this not only for the visitors but also for Virgin Islanders.

How to Escape from a Leper Colony
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