At the tender age of 28, Tiphanie Yanique’s work has attracted considerable critical acclaim, including a Boston Review Fiction Prize for How to Escape from a Leper Colony. A native of St. Thomas, Yanique, who earned her M.F.A. in creative writing at the University of Houston in 2006, joins the faculty this semester to teach creative writing.
What gave you the idea for “How to Escape from a Leper Colony”?
A friend of mine sailed around the Caribbean, and when he came back he showed me pictures of [an abandoned] leper colony on an island off the coast of Trinidad called Chacachacare. I was so fascinated by the photos. There were beds that were still made up, kitchens where there were plates on the tables, offices that still had files on people who had been sick. It seems like people just vanished. The lore was that the place was haunted, that something had happened to the lepers. When I started doing research, I couldn’t find anything. No one knows what happened to them.
How did you create your characters, Deepa and Lazaro?
I think Lazaro came before the main character. I wanted to write about someone who was stuck in a leper colony but was not a leper, someone who in greater society would be the normal one. It’s almost as if he wants to be a leper, although at the same time, he’s trapped there. The story, though, is actually told from Deepa’s point of view. I’m very curious about her. As a writer, my primary tool is my curiosity. I write characters that I’m baffled by.
Can you write without being a reader?
You have to love literature if you want to be a writer—even if you just want to be in my class. (Laughs.)
What do you read?
I’m a huge Jamaica Kincaid fan. I worship her and Gabriel García Márquez. They’re my two stars, the writers who I always return to. My favorite book by Kincaid is Autobiography of My Mother, which I think is her masterpiece. I’ve probably read it 10 times, and I still feel like I discover something new and fascinating every time. I like the way that writers like Kincaid and Márquez bring in politics, but still have beautiful poetic prose and incredible characters and incredible story lines.
Is there a book in your future?
My agent is attempting to sell my short-story collection right now, and I’ve written a novel. I also have a chapbook out this fall called The Saving Work, which won the Kore Press Short Fiction Award.
After a year in Jamaica and Trinidad on a Fulbright—in your words, “the flyest time” of your life —you went home to teach. Why?
I thought I had gone to the best high school on the planet, and I wanted to give back. In the Virgin Islands, there’s a lot of turnaround in schools: Many of the teachers are Americans who come for vacation, and then leave. It was the hardest job I ever had, but it was wonderful.
You were on a mission there. What was it?
I was trying to be radical and infuse Caribbean stuff into the curriculum. I remember reading Caribbean folktales as a kid, and there was a Caribbean history class. But that was so unsatisfactory to me. I went to that school, and I didn’t know there was such a thing as Caribbean literature. I didn’t want my students to end up the same way.
Do you see yourself as a Caribbean writer?
Absolutely. I embrace the title. I’m happy to be in the box.
Why is writing important to you?
Without calling the gods down on me, I believe that I have powerful and beautiful things to say. I also want to go back to the Virgin Islands with a book, and give it to them. That’s really important to me. It’s about giving people there self-pride. If you see your hometown in a novel, you think, “Oh, my town really exists.” There’s something about seeing yourself in falseness that makes you feel real. It’s validation. I want that kind of validation for my home. I want people to feel that home is worthy of literature.