Redefining Caribbean: A Conversation with Tiphanie Yanique
By Kim Coleman Foote
Boston Globe has identified St. Thomas-born Tiphanie Yanique as one of “16 up-and-comers who might make it big in 2010,” which comes as no surprise. Graywolf Press approached the 20-something Drew University professor with an offer to publish her first short story collection, How to Escape from a Leper Colony: A Novella and Stories, released this March. Before the book’s publication, the stories had already grabbed high honors from the literary world: a Pushcart Prize, the Kore Press Award, and the Boston Review fiction prize. She is also the recipient of the Academy of American Poets Prize and fellowship writing residencies.
I had the pleasure of seeing Tiphanie read from the collection at La MaMa in Manhattan a few weeks before following up with her in a park in Brooklyn. Despite her roster of literary merits, I found her to be a humble, warm, and frank woman who insists that she just works hard at her craft, and whose love for human diversity and complexity drives her to imagine characters into existence. And memorable they are—an Indo-Trinidadian girl who escapes from a leper colony, a black Caribbean street hustler who falls in love with an African American, and an African priest who befriends a white Caribbean in a coffin shop, just to name a few.
The stories in How to Escape from a Leper Colony examine intersections between people of various backgrounds, while challenging readers to broaden their conception about race, especially as it relates to Caribbean identity. Even meeting Tiphanie, our different cultural backgrounds—the Caribbean and US, respectively—became apparent as soon as we opened our mouths. However, we discovered many commonalities, from attending a culturally diverse high school, to studying abroad in Ghana as undergrads, to being Fulbright Fellows, to owning the same sweater! I was particularly interested in where Tiphanie places herself in the literary tradition, considering the US Virgin Islands’ unique relationship to the US and other Caribbean nations.
Kim Coleman Foote: You dedicated the collection to the Virgin Islands, but most of the stories move beyond these boundaries.
Tiphanie Yanique: The earliest part of “The Bridges Stories” comes from a story I read in high school, called The Bridge of San Luis Ray. I was fascinated by how the plot—the action of the bridge falling—was really about us getting to know these characters better. But the impulse to want to write the story came from a friend of mine in high school telling me, “We should build a bridge between the Caribbean islands; it would be much easier to get around.” And I was really angry about that. I felt like if we really want to build bridges, it’s going to be a lot harder than just putting concrete down into the water.
The Virgin Islands in particular are a bunch of different islands, and even amongst us, there’s separation. We also carry American passports. Some Caribbean people don’t even think we are legitimately Caribbean. So the collection is very pan-Caribbean, and it’s intentional. I want to make sure that the Virgin Islands is included in this narrative and want to make sure Virgin Islanders are more aware of other Caribbean narratives.
KCF: You mentioned in an interview that you weren’t exposed to Caribbean literature in high school.
TY: In elementary school, we had a lot of Caribbean stuff, and even a really great Virgin Islands history book called Clear the Road. But there was nothing like that once you got to middle and high school. A lot of schools do have it now, but it’s an elective. The years I taught in St. Thomas, my school was revising the whole curriculum, so I was able to request one Caribbean book for each year, but it was very controversial.
KCF: Who is your literary family, so to speak?
TY: I’m interested in these outsider people who write very much inside the Caribbean identity but who are also negotiating some type of exile. Which for me, being a Virgin Islander, is part of that. Like Jamaica Kincaid, who is often thought of as an outsider to Antigua, her home. I also really love Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. I see García Márquez as a literary father. A lot of his stuff is set on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. I feel like I have tons of cousins and brothers and sisters who are writing now and who are coming up. I would like to think that someone like Edwidge Danticat could be a big auntie or big sister.
KCF: Tell me how the collection came about.
TY: I had a bunch of stories, but I wasn’t sure if they had uniformity. I was writing for the sake of each story. Which I think is good. It’s like when you make good music; no story is just there as a filler or a connecting device. We did drop one story. It was the most recently written story. My voice as a writer and maybe my intention as a writer had changed. The collection had as its commonality, people who are searching for a place that’s not where they are, and are longing for people who are not the ones around them. The opening quote of the collection, I feel really blessed to have found that—I don’t know if you remember that…
KCF: Yeah, you opened your reading with it.
TY: I try to do it every time if I can remember, because I think that’s the thing that makes it all come together: “lead us towards those we are waiting for, towards those who are waiting for us.” Maybe this is my poet self thinking, but I wanted to find a line that would bring everything together, and I feel like that did. And the fact that it was a religious quote from a religious text was also important. Almost all the stories reference a lot of religion.
KCF: And it’s interesting that it’s from the patron saint of lovers and travelers.
KCF: You’ve been likened to a ventriloquist, and that’s obvious. As I read the stories, I kept forgetting that a “Tiphanie” existed. The voices felt so real and distinct, so it doesn’t surprise me when you say that you thought of them as individual creations. What was your process, and were any challenging for you?
TY: I’m so glad that you did forget about this Tiphanie chick. Even in fiction where the author might say, “That’s my voice,” you really want to release from that, so it’s really gratifying that the stories were like that for you. Because I’m curious and really nosy, and really chatty, as you can see [laughs], I listen to the way people talk, the rhythm of language, and what people notice about a place. Like, we’re sitting in this park, and we could have three different stories about this place.
It’s hard to know now which stories were more challenging, because it was so long ago, but I tried to be respectful of the voices, like Street Man. Males could tell me, “What the hell you know ’bout man? Especially ’bout rootsy man who grow up on the street selling drugs?” I felt I had to be careful to be realistic and truthful. Whether it’s word choice or how long the sentences would be—which I’m hoping is where my history as a poet is useful—and even things like where does the period or comma go. I was able to write some of the stories entirely in dialect and some in standard English with the dialogue in dialect. If you like human beings and want to write about human beings, then you have to honor the way they talk.
I get people asking me if I feel comfortable writing in an Indian woman’s voice, because the first story is a little Indian girl—Indo-Trinidadian. I’ve always felt comfortable writing in any kind of Caribbean voice, whatever the racial makeup. And that might be because of the high school I went to, or it may be something about Caribbean identity, that culture is the common thing. Even within the same family, somebody has a Chinie auntie, somebody has a white uncle, so it’s so mixed up.
KCF: Do you think you get more criticism than white writers who do the same? I’m thinking more of the US context in particular.
TY: I think that’s really different. White people in America are writing black characters from a place of extraordinary power, about people who are extraordinarily powerless, and to do that without deep awareness is very messed up. In the Caribbean, we have people like Robert Antoni, who’s a white Trinidadian, who writes a story where he acknowledges whiteness as an identity and ethnicity in a particular Caribbean context. I hate when there’s an assumption of whiteness as normative: whenever that black dude walks into the room, he’s the “black dude.” What’s everybody else in the room?
I taught an advanced Caribbean class this past semester using stories where people were writing from ethnic or gender spaces they should not seem to have ownership over. Like Sam Selvon, an Indian-Caribbean writer, whose main character is black, and Patricia Powell, an Afro-Jamaican writer, whose main character is Chinese. Jean Rhys is a white woman who lived most of her life in England and wrote this one Caribbean book. Does she get to be a Caribbean writer? I’m very interested in having my students think about those types of questions.
KCF: Talk about your upbringing in Hospital Ground, in St. Thomas. Was it a very racially mixed area, and does Hospital Ground have any relation to the title story?
TY: That’s interesting. I almost don’t want to spoil it by saying otherwise, because it’s a nice metaphor! But actually, Hospital Ground is just where the hospital used to be in St. Thomas. Most people from there know it as “Round da Field.” In fact, when I didn’t put that on the back of the book, a lot of my Round da Field people were like, “Who you doin’ dat for? Who dat was for?” So it was interesting, the politics of it: who am I labeling my own self for, for outsiders or islanders?
Which is a good way to think about my upbringing. When I was growing up, Round da Field was the roughest neighborhood in St. Thomas. But in my family, we weren’t deprived in any kind of serious way. We might eat sugar sandwiches because there was no cheese or bologna, but you’re gonna eat it on a clean plate, with your mouth closed while you’re chewing. I was one of the few kids in my neighborhood that went to private school. My neighborhood was very black and Latino, but I went to an incredibly diverse high school. It looks like 25 Benetton commercials! We had white and black kids who were born in the States; Frenchies, who I reference in the book (we won’t say “white” because they get vexed!) who had come from the Virgin Islands; Caribbean kids. Come now! Arabs, Latinos… So I grew up oscillating between these two worlds and felt entirely comfortable in both.
KCF: Many of the stories deal with romantic and platonic relationships between people of different racial, religious, and class backgrounds. There was often an awkwardness and tension that felt realistic. How do you think the setting of the Caribbean provides a unique lens for examining these relationships?
TY: I like the question a lot. It’s something that a literary scholar could answer much better than I could.
KCF: And maybe since you talk about how your high school was so diverse…
TY: Yeah, I’m not sure if I could say much more. I grew up thinking that Ananse was Caribbean. It wasn’t until I went to Ghana that I realized that Ananse came from West Africa. I grew up thinking curry and roti was Caribbean. So there’s not a whole lot of purity, which I like. What the hell is pure, anyway? Of course there are often problems, when people don’t always see eye to eye. But a lot of problems are cultural, like in the story in which there’s an African American and a Jamaican—“Where Tourists Don’t Go.” From the outside, especially in the States, the perception is, well they’re both black; they should be cool. But they’re having problems that we think interracial couples would have. My husband is African American, so when he read that story, he was like, “What’re you trying to say?” I had to admit that I wrote that story before I even knew who he was! But these are things he and I struggle with, too. He’s a photographer, and it turns out that the way we think about the world—as artists—was the most important bonding thing that we had.
I think that if we’re learning with love and realize that we’re all human and all full of bigotry and trying to overcome it, we’ll be fine. The problem with Mason and his girlfriend Robin in the story is that neither one was trying, and that’s why it wasn’t working. [laughs] At least that’s what I’m hoping, because I’m trying to stay married forever!
KCF: Okay, let’s hope Mason and Robin wasn’t a prediction! You mentioned somewhere that you wrote the stories for many audiences, who are reflected in your characters. What has been the reaction of folks from the Virgin Islands?
TY: I had told my wonderful press, Graywolf, that I wanted to have my major book party in the Virgin Islands. But I had some trepidation going back home, because I thought, well, I have this “Street Man” story, I have cusswords, sex. I thought people would say, “She’s talking about me!” But people were very welcoming. Graywolf donated books to my old high school, so all the seniors had read the book. It’s funny: they didn’t seem to think that my writing about the Virgin Islands had been so radical, although I thought it was!
KCF: Are there other storytellers in the family?
TY: I was raised by my grandmother, this very strong, confident black woman who had a masters degree in library science. She was the children’s librarian at the one public library on the island. She would tell us Ananse stories, and fiction stories she would make up. I have a lot of journalers in my family. A lot say, “I have this book I’m working on, and when you get the chance, Tiph, would you look at it?” It’s pretty exciting.
KCF: When did you decide to become a writer?
TY: As long as I’ve known, I’ve been writing. I don’t think I’ve told this story before—maybe in second grade, I left my notebook at school, so I couldn’t do my homework over the weekend. I remember my grandmother being insistent that I had left it. And Kim, I convinced myself that I had not! I was crying, but I had a strange feeling of power. In fact, I reference that feeling with the character Cooper, who ends up in jail for his lying and thievery. I think fiction writers are kind of liars. It could have taken me towards lying and stealing, but it took me towards writing. So maybe I’ve turned my evil power into good!
I feel like I know myself when I’m writing. I am myself when I’m writing. In grad school, I could have gone either the route of a literature professor or a creative writer. I get to be both now at Drew.
KCF: How do you balance your writing with teaching, and with maintaining residencies in both the mainland US and Virgin Islands?
TY: I probably don’t balance it very well! I really care about teaching, and it takes precedence. But, I’m also very good at writing in unusual places. I can write in my office or on the train on my way to work, or on planes.
KCF: Do you think it helps your writing, having this dual residency?
TY: On a craft level, it’s an incredible benefit, to be able to leave the place that you’re writing about, to get some distance and better perspective. But it makes marketing and reception difficult. Am I qualified for the Caribbean prizes? Can I compete for the Commonwealth Prize? No. Am I qualified for the African-American prizes? Which section do you put me in in the bookstore? And which one do I want to be in?
KCF: In your essay, “My Superhero Secret,” you indicated that some might assume you’ve won so many awards because of your ethnicity. Do you think others will still want you to prove something extra, even if more awards come?
TY: I think it’s particularly sad that in the intellectual and creative field that you and I are in, it’s still a problem. It’s not just black and white; it’s based on people’s pure insecurities—if they didn’t get the award, there must be a reason. I’m like, go work harder! Toni Morrison, who’s won a Nobel and a Pulitzer, was asked recently on NPR, “Did you mean to do x, y, and z in this book?” And Toni Morrison said, “How many prizes do I have to win before you recognize that I mean to do everything that I do? I’m not stumbling upon this brilliance.” I’m working my ass off at it! The truth is, a lot of people of color aren’t winning a lot of prizes, so people think, oh, we need a black person to win a National Book Award now. Well, yeah we do! If that’s what it takes for you to finally look at this brilliant black writer, that’s fine with me. I don’t have a problem with affirmative action!
KCF: Ditto. So what next?
TY: I’m working on two novels and a collection of poetry. I’m not sure which one will pop next. Having a first book come out has given me a lot of calm. It’s been reviewed well so far, and that gives me an incredible amount of confidence. It makes me feel like I can do this again.