A. Naomi Jackson
Tiphanie Yanique is a fiction writer, poet, and essayist from St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. Her collection of short stories, How to Escape from a Leper Colony, was published by Graywolf Press in March 2010. She was recently selected as one of National Book Foundation’s “5 under 35” and received the prestigious Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award. She is a professor of creative writing and Caribbean literature at Drew University. Last year, Yanique sat down with me for an interview over roti and mango juice in Flatbush on an early April day that teased with abundant sunshine followed by bone-chilling damp. We bonded over being two small-island women writers, and the children of both fiercely supportive grandmothers and mentally ill mothers. Only the bounds of the tape recorder limited the things that we had to talk about.
A. Naomi Jackson: So, let’s start with your autobiography of yourself as a writer.
Tiphanie Yanique: Well, it’s funny. I would never be able to separate my autobiography as a writer from my autobiography as a grandchild, a St. Thomian. So, the basic thing is my grandmother raised me. She was a librarian, and she was a children’s librarian, so she told stories. And I grew up with her telling stories. And I also grew up with books all over the place. So, not only children’s books, we had, like, “book” books. I just always loved books. And I think that’s where the beginnings came from.
When I was fourteen, I was rummaging through my bedroom and I found this picture of myself, and a little journal that wasn’t mine. And I asked my grandmother, When did this picture come through? It was a picture of me in, like, a white dress. And I was like, When did I take this picture? She said, That’s not you, that’s your mother. And then I realized, one, that my mother and I grown up in the same bedroom and, two, that we looked exactly alike. And also she had always wanted to be a writer but had never been able to make it as a writer. And I think for the first time I was already thinking of myself as a writer, didn’t know that she was a writer, and I began to think, like, oh, my mother didn’t make it. Maybe I will make it for both of us, somehow?
ANJ: Now, going back to this story of your mom as a writer. What does it feel like now that you’ve made it in some sense as a writer? You’re not the fourteen-year-old staking your claim, or making a bet. But, you have made your life, for the better part, that way.
TY: Well, I have bi-polar in my family. My mother is bi-polar, which is why she hasn’t achieved some of the things that she has the talent and the drive to achieve. As far as I know, I’m not bi-polar. And so in some ways writing has been a gift that I’ve been given. It’s also something that my whole life I have been afraid would eventually fall on me. And even being an artist was a thing that I had to decide. I had that fear, too, that if I allowed myself to go down the creative path, what if crazy also comes with it? So, I think I still struggle with the possibility of those things. In some ways it continues to be frightening. Like, I don’t want to eclipse her. She’s alive. Even the idea of doing it for the both of us is a completely arrogant thing for a child to think, especially when my mother is living and may very well still do it for herself, and for me.
But at the same time, as you probably know, putting yourself in danger is part of what you have to do if you want to be a writer, if you want to grow as a writer. And allowing the work to go places that you know are risky. And for me, the risk does feel like constantly the possibility of letting in the crazy, constantly, I love the way you put it, “the invitation to madness.” But I think that’s the risk you take. And hopefully you’re being reinforced by a community around you, by friends, by a spouse, by parents, by lovers, church, what the hell ever. That you feel, even as you step over the mountain, there are people there that will catch you if indeed there’s not water underneath to swim. Hopefully, you’ve cultivated enough community around you that if you actually are drowning someone will save you. But you have to take the risk of the possibility of drowning.
ANJ: Otherwise, the work usually isn’t that interesting.
TY: Then it’s just stuff that everybody knows. Everybody’s walking around the mountain and looking over the side, but not jumping. So, somebody’s got to jump. And I think the writer, any kind of artist, has to do that. So, hopefully I have a community that will save me if I need saving.
ANJ: In your stories, it felt like you were dealing with some of the big questions around Caribbean identity. Like, I loved this story [“The Bridge Stories”] because it gets into this question of a longing for connection between islands and the falsity of that connection, and the inability to really connect. So, can you talk about that story specifically?
TY: Sure. In that story, without giving away too much of the plot for whoever’s reading or listening to this, there’s a bridge that connects all the different Caribbean islands together, and it starts out with connecting the different Virgin Islands together. And the government has this idea to build this bridge and have a guy who’s basically a jewelrymaker make the bridge. Of course the bridge is fragile, beautiful but fragile, and is going to fall. And I guess for me, in a way, that is a metaphor for the kind of superficial attempts we make at connection. . . . I think sometimes we make these beautiful, empty efforts at connecting. We have concerts or we build organizations. We build these structures, these institutions as ways to connect. And yet connection, I don’t think, is always going to be pretty. And it’s never going to be easy. Anybody who’s been married knows that. There’s a constant work and labor of the heart that has to go into legitimate connection. Even in a place like the Caribbean where all a we is one, there’s still the ocean that separates us. And thinking that just building this bridge is going to make us all one, I think, is always going to fail. So there are other things. Like, I think of myself as a Virgin Islander, but as a Pan-Caribbean woman, really. But those are things I’m still working on. It’s a continual process of what it means to be a Caribbean woman and to have connections, to feel like Antigua belongs to me as much as St. Croix, St. Croix belongs to me as much as St. Thomas. Like, those are things that I have to continue to work on and strive for. And I don’t think if I had a plane to get places that would actually make it real. I think it’s more this inter-human connection.
ANJ: The book ends with the story “Kill the Rabbits,” which is about love in the heady context of carnival and an especially controversial song. What are the racial politics and the context in which this song [“Legal,” by Nicholas “Nick” Friday] enters?
TY: Then and now, our politics are mostly made out of insider/outsider. It’s not necessarily racial. In fact, it’s not racial, although that’s how outsiders often perceive it. So, Americans often perceive it as I’m entering into what is a racialized society and black people are the majority. So, this is what’s happening. I’m white and I’m a minority. But from our perspective as insiders, it’s that you’re American, you’re a kind of colonizing force. You come with money, or even if you didn’t come with money, you somehow get money while you’re here that we don’t have access to for whatever reason and help each other out. We are at the fringes of these communities that you create inside of our communities. And we suddenly become fringe actors in this place. So a lot of it is tourist versus native. Long-term tourists who become kind of local. And natives who often feel like they are economic and cultural minorities in their own place. So, that’s really where our politics come from. It’s outsider/insider Virgin Islands versus not Virgin Islands. And that sometimes makes its way into Virgin Islanders versus other islanders too, which is something I’m ashamed of. Because it comes into us stereotypically being afraid of people from other islands coming to take over our jobs. Or taking over our political institutions. There’s a lot of fear from Virgin Islanders of the outsider. Of kind of taking the V.I. away from us, similar to what happened in Hawaii. Like how many Hawaiians actually live in Hawaii? Very few. And yet we have this place there. So there’s that fear.
And to the politics of this guy who made this calypso that was called “Legal” and had the refrain, “Kill the Rabbits.” People even up to today have different interpretations of what the rabbits are. The ones in this story are my own creation. But people still talk about it. Are the rabbits white people? Are the rabbits tourists? Are the rabbits the government? Who are the rabbits that must be killed in the song? And now Nick Friday, who wrote the song, is deceased. So we can’t actually ask him.
ANJ: It’s interesting, too, because I don’t know a whole lot about the history of soca music and calypso, but my sense is that it would be very unusual for a song with such political overtones to be popular and become a road march. My sense is that you would have a very popular song that people would perform for carnival and that people would enjoy. And then you would have another song that was political.
TY: The thing about this song is that it is both. It’s a song about the politics of dancing up. Like, we should be free to have our revelry. And you are telling us that we cannot have our revelry, that we have to confine what is our dance. So, therefore we’re pissed off. Therefore, we’re taking a political stance. And then dancing and celebrating becomes a political stance, becomes a conscious act against these forces that are telling you that that’s not decent, that’s not acceptable to what the song calls the “tourist color.” Not the white man, but the tourist color. The tourists are not just white. The tourists are also black. The tourists are Asian. The tourists are all kind of things. But basically the tourist and this kind of outsider gaze. It’s carnival as a political act, carnival as a political communal expression is what that song was kind of telling us. It’s an interesting way that it crossed over, because it was doing both things.
ANJ: What are your hopes and fears about what you want your work do in the world?
TY: On some level it’s a selfish desire. I hope what my writing does in the world is continue to exist. But on a grander level, I also hope that it makes people think about the Caribbean, and in particular this book, the Virgin Islands, because it’s dedicated to the Virgin Islands and it’s one of the first Virgin Islands books that’s been published by a nationally or internationally recognized press. And I hope that it causes people to see the Caribbean, and particularly the Virgin Islands, as a place that’s more than just beaches and margaritas, but as a place where there are complicated human beings that can contribute to cultural and intellectual thought. And not just a place of servants. Not just a place where you can go to party or surf, but a place where you can go to discover humanity. The way that I think people go to Paris to discover humanity or go to Rome to discover human culture. I feel like that exists in the Caribbean too, but the people who go to the Caribbean don’t generally go for that. I really wanted to resist the clichés. There’s not many palm trees in my stories.
I would like for it to do that kind of work. I would like for it to do the work of helping people re-examine faith, re-examine with a critical eye the role of faith in their lives. I think metaphor and magic is a really important part of human existence. But I hope people recognize that they are in control of their own metaphors. They are the magical ones and have the power to use the black arts and to do what they want with that power. I hope people are just critical of their own perceptions of the journeys that they’re on, whatever those journeys are. That’s a tall thing for a little short story collection to do.
A. Naomi Jackson is a writer living and working in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Encyclopedia, Obsidian, The Caribbean Writer, and Sable. She is currently at work on her first novel, “Star Side of Bird Hill.”