Tiphanie Yanique: “A sense of place and a sense of self”

Award-winning writer Tiphanie Yanique tells Lisa Allen-Agostini how literature can link the US Virgin Islands to the rest of the Caribbean

A sense of place and a sense of self. Photograph by Moses DjeliBook cover

I’ve been writing as long as I have a memory. When I was five, I thought I wrote a novel. It was probably the alphabet over and over again. I was raised by my grandmother, who was a librarian. We always had books around and reading was the most celebrated activity in the house. I don’t have a granny that makes sugar cake or crochets. I have a granny who tells stories. I knew my mother had been a poet, but it wasn’t until I started to become a professional writer that the other, secret writers in my family started revealing themselves to me. My mother had been a poet, a cousin writes history, another journals. I’m sure there are more still.

Schoolteachers often asked me and other students to read our writing out loud. While this may seem kind of trivial and silly (I was still a child) it was vital to helping me consider writing as something that had a listening audience. Even when a reader is in a room by herself she’s still hearing the words in her own mind. Sound and rhythm are now a very important part of my writing.

But the most memorable story of my work being performed was not me performing it. When I was in my final year of high school, St Thomas was victim to a major hurricane, Marilyn. We lived without running water and electricity for three months. Once school was back in session, a group called the Birch Forum put together a number of important events. One was inviting Maya Angelou to come read at our Reichhold Center. Associated with her coming was a poetry prize for high-school students. About four of us won and our poems were put into a book for her. When she started on stage she began her own performance by reading the poem I had written! She said something else about me being a part of the future of Virgin Islands writing…but I don’t remember exactly because I just about fell out of the balcony seat I was in.

The collection [How to Escape from a Leper Colony] opens with an epigraph: “Lead us to those we are waiting for, those who are waiting for us.” That is from the prayer to St Raphael, the patron saint of lovers and travellers. That epigraph is the rope gathering all these stories into one bunch. Each character is, at some level, yearning for a sense of place and a sense of self. And often the characters find that sense in another person. In romantic or familial love.

I write both poetry and fiction, and I’m sometimes an essayist as well. I really like other human beings. I find us humans really fascinating. In general, though there are exceptions, when I am more interested in discovering some truth about people in general, I write fiction to help me feed that curiosity. When I want to excavate something personal from myself, I write poetry.

I am always writing more than one thing. I read in the same way. Right now I’m reading Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, Edwidge Danticat’s Create Dangerously, and The Everyday Wife by Phillippa Yaa de Villiers.

I am working on a novel entitled Land of Love and Drowning. It’s about the Virgin Islands and the people that have come from those islands. But it’s also very clearly about how our particular history has been impacted on by the rest of the Caribbean.

Most Virgin Islanders, myself included, have a very complicated relationship to our Americanness. When we talk about “Americans” we are never talking about ourselves. Still, we benefit from an American passport and from many of the other privileges of American citizenship. Barack Obama is our president.Ultimately, however, we think of ourselves as Caribbean people, and our history, location, and culture clearly situate us in the Caribbean. At the same time, we don’t know much about the rest of the Caribbean. At least, not my generation. We didn’t learn much about our region in schools. We had to find other ways to access the rest of the Caribbean.

I played in the Rising Stars Youth Steel Orchestra when I was growing up. Playing pan definitely helped me connect with the rest of the eastern Caribbean. For others it was through dancehall or sport or politics. Perhaps now, thanks in part to the OCM Bocas Prize and to this interview, the Virgin Islands might be able to link to the region through literature, as well.

A literary debut

When Tiphanie Yanique’s debut book, the collection of short fiction How to Escape from a Leper Colony, came out, the Boston Globe said, “It is easy to imagine Yanique’s characters in an adaptation for the stage: think Our Town, set in the Caribbean, but with raw language and stories full of violence and sexuality. Plus it’s funny, too. Are you listening, Oprah?”

That early accolade was vindicated when Yanique’s collection got her onto the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 list and won her the 2010 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award for Fiction, worth US$25,000. In April, the collection won Best Book of Poetry in the inaugural OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature at the first Bocas Lit Fest in Trinidad.

Yanique, who teaches creative writing at Drew University, New Jersey, is no stranger to prizes and acclaim, having also won, among other honours, a Pushcart Prize, the Kore Press Fiction Prize, the Academy of American Poets Prize, a Fulbright Scholarship in writing, and the Boston Review Fiction Prize.

Yanique was born and raised in St Thomas, US Virgin Islands.