Tottenville Review

A new review of books focused on debuts, translations, and all works that would otherwise go undetected. It is a collaborative of authors, translators, and reviewers bound by one purpose: to contribute to the dialogue of literature.

Tiphanie Yanique

Tiphanie Yanique

Interviewed by Kaitlyn Greenridge

Tiphanie Yanique’s debut short story collection, “How to Escape From a Leper Colony” was released in March 2010 by Graywolf Press. The National Book Award Foundation recently named her one of the “5 under 35 Emerging Writers.” In addition, she was nominated for the 2010 Cork City Frank O’Conner Short Story awards and her book was nominated to the Boston Globe’s “Sixteen Authors to Watch.” She is a recipient of 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. She is currently a professor of Creative Writing and Caribbean Literature at Drew University. She is from the Virgin Islands and lives most of the year in Brooklyn, New York.



INTERVIEWER

What was the first thing you wrote that you were proud of?

TIPHANIE YANIQUE

When I was ten, I had a teacher who randomly selected me to read a story in front of the class. Which, you know, is really good for your ego. You think, “I must be good at this.”

But a year later, I had a teacher from the States. She came to the Virgin Islands and took over our English class. I wrote a book review of Peter Pan or some story like that and she accused me of plagiarizing. I didn’t even know what the word meant. But she was convinced it was too good to have been written by a kid. She thought I must have stolen it from the back of the book. Part of the problem was that my grandmother, who was a librarian, gave me the unabridged version of whatever the book was.  Everybody else read the one we were supposed to buy for class.

Even though I didn’t get a good grade on the paper, it was still this twisted sort of ego boost. I knew I had written it, you know? If my teacher thought I didn’t, that must mean I was really good.

I wrote an essay once about how women— particularly women of color—we sometimes find out we’re good at things via some kind of rejection. We’ve been told we can’t be that good. Any success must be the result of affirmative action or someone doing you a favor. Or maybe your parents gave you the answer. And when you know that’s not the case, it gives you an incredible boost, even though it feels like you’re hiding somehow.

INTERVIEWER

How does it feel like you are hiding?

TIPHANIE YANIQUE

The essay is called “Super Hero Secret.”  In that I talk about how women and people of color often hide their brilliance to protect the ego of the powerful…be it fathers, husbands, teachers, bosses, mentors, etc.  That’s a dangerous hiding.  But we also do it in ways that aren’t created by us.  So the smart cheerleader seems to be hiding her intelligence simply because of the stereotype of the dumb cheerleader.  In my example, the good writer seems to be hiding her intelligence simply because she’s a sixth grader.

INTERVIEWER

Has that kind of ego boost, the kind that comes from being underestimated, driven you as a professional writer?

TIPHANIE YANIQUE

That ego boost doesn’t drive me because I find the circumstances around it—being underestimated—incredibly demoralizing. I think those circumstances keep women or people of color from pursuing things. They think, “I’m never going to get any recognition or people are going to think my accomplishments are because of something else and not because of me.” I think this fear causes a lot of talented people to keep their talents quiet and hidden.

INTERVIEWER

Many of the stories in your collection have multiple characters telling the same story. Why did you take this approach?

TIPHANIE YANIQUE

Creating a story is less important to me than creating a human being on the page. For example, the Anansi stories my grandmother used to tell me. I remember Anansi and how tricky and playful he was and what an ass he was most of the time. I remember these traits much more than I remember what actually happened in the story. So for me, the kind of fiction I enjoy and the kind of fiction I write relies on intriguing characters more so than a clever plot. I know plot is important but starting with that isn’t the most natural thing for me. It’s something that happens way after I develop my characters.

INTERVIEWER

Many of the stories in the collection use a male voice. What techniques do you use when you’re writing in the voice of a different gender?

TIPHANIE YANIQUE

I was afraid to do it. I was always sensitive to the fact that I was writing from a male perspective, a male voice. I was very careful about it. It meant treading slowly and being specific. You’re in danger, you know? You’re walking on glass. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done. But I think you have to be aware of the danger that you’re putting yourself and your character into.

Each character in the book demanded a different technique. For example, when I wrote “Street Man”, I spent time in St. Thomas. I just sat on the corner and talked to the guys there. I really listened to them, what they thought about love, how they spoke about it. And I listened to not just what they said, but how they said it. What kind of vocabulary did they use, what kind of sentence structure. I was being a kind of anthropologist—or maybe just a nosy-ass chick.  Those men helped me figure out how to create an honest, non-anthropological character.

INTERVIEWER

You spoke of being in danger when creating a character. What do you feel in danger of?

TIPHANIE YANIQUE

I mean that writing should be a dangerous activity.  You should be risking something large.  Otherwise, what really are you offering your reader?  Or yourself, for that matter.  I think when you write a character that is a different sex than you are you have to be aware that you are writing into a space that is foreign to you.  You are heading into foreign territory.  There might be landmines there.  Shit, you just didn’t know about the terrain of that character.

INTERVIEWER

Do you use the same carefulness when writing a character of a different race or ethnicity?

TIPHANIE YANIQUE

It’s very hard for me to write an American character, even though I’ve been living in the States for a couple of years now. Because it’s not where I’m from and growing up I often saw Americans as not me. They were outsiders, often threatening outsiders. Even in “Where Tourists Don’t Go”, the one story in the collection with an African-American character, I was as careful writing her as I was writing my male characters. But in this case, it was her nationality that placed her outside my understanding. I’m still not sure if I was successful with her.

I don’t feel as cautious writing about characters of other races, especially if they have some sort of Caribbean identity. I feel very confident because I know issues around Caribbean identity very well. I’ve been paying attention to it all my life.

INTERVIEWER

When you write your characters, do you consider them from an insider perspective or an outsider perspective?

TIPHANIE YANIQUE

I grew up in a rough neighborhood in St. Thomas, a neighborhood that is officially called Hospital Ground. But I went to a very prestigious private school on the island. I was always living between these two worlds, which isn’t necessarily peculiar. I may have had the extreme version, but a lot of Virgin Islanders experience that in-between thing. “Are you American or are you Caribbean?” It’s part of the Virgin Islands’ condition.

INTERVIEWER

In reviews, your stories are often classified as magical realism. Would you use that term to describe your work?

TIPHANIE YANIQUE

When people say my work is magical realism, they’re saying it’s a little like Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Jamaica Kincaid. And that’s an incredible compliment. While I don’t want to write science fiction, I do want to write stories that contain a kind of magic that can happen in the real world. If they call that magical realism, that’s wonderful. I’m glad there’s a term for it.

INTERVIEWER

I asked because there seems to be a backlash among some younger American writers against magical realism. Garcia Marquez in particular. They suggest that kind of writing is just a gimmick, and not a valid way of describing a particular way of experiencing the world. The intense rejection of magical realism from some corners is shocking to me.

TIPHANIE YANIQUE

Isn’t it, though? Those who think the magical is a gimmick say “oh we’re so beyond this stuff.” The stuff being elements of the spirit and imagination. As if to say, “If science can’t prove it then it has no place in my art form.”

I love realism. I love Carver. Those are really interesting characters. But I think that the realist’s interpretation of the world and logic is very Protestant, and very clean in a way. Maybe even puritanical. Many readers are somewhat afraid of magical realism.

Among America’s troubling bits of history, is the fact that many of its early settlers believed unmarried women over fifty were witches. Many of these women—these witches— were burned at the stake. We’ve cleansed ourselves of that tradition and that cleansing has produced some very beautiful literature. But we also have writers like Garcia Marquez, who has refused the entirety of that cleansing and wants to dig into the dirty reality of how we think about the world. He wants to say:  Listen, there are witches.

So let’s say you dated a guy named Antonio and you broke up and then dated another guy named Antonio. And then you broke up with him and married yet another guy named Antonio. That could be understood as a total coincidence. But even in realist fiction, like Jane Smiley, or someone who is very realist, if that happened, it would be treated as metaphor. It would be understood as metaphor. A lot of metaphor in literature is the presence of the magical. You could say, “What a coincidence, you like the name Antonio.” But many people would not experience it that way. Many people in your life would say, “(Gasp) It’s a sign.” And you would be wondering if it’s a sign, too.

Many of us believe in the possibility of magic and superstition and yet we are so afraid of that truth in ourselves. But what’s funny is that it still exists, even in realist literature. It exists on the level of metaphor, even if it doesn’t exist the same way it does in Garcia Marquez. We all live with the possibility of that stuff.

INTERVIEWER

A lot of your characters have a really strong sense of faith.

TIPHANIE YANIQUE

I think a lot of what we’re talking about—magic, different kinds of consciousness—for some people that difference comes from religion. And although religion has been incredibly damaging and destructive at times, for a lot of people it has been incredibly uplifting and has brought a lot of good into the world. Exploring religion through a fictional character can allow that character see the world in a much more beautiful way.

That’s a kind of reality many people have washed from themselves in America, except for really crazy fundamentalist right-wing people, who’ve stolen the religious discourse from the rest of us. There’s something really empowering about faith. I feel like my characters are playing with the notion of faith and what to devote themselves to, whether it’s God or a place, or something else entirely.

INTERVIEWER

Can you talk about your next project? Love has been a theme in your stories. You had a blog post a couple of weeks ago—

TIPHANIE YANIQUE

(Laughter) I was talking about love?

INTERVIEWER

Yes. You were talking about wanting to teach a class about love stories. And wanting to write a love story with characters of African descent where it doesn’t end violently for the lovers, which seems to be the default ending for the very few love stories with black protagonists in literature.

TIPHANIE YANIQUE

Ah, yes. I think we grew up with these wonderful stories of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, which have these little teaching tools of what love can be. But in all those stories the characters are white. So, if you were a little black kid, it could be very hard to connect with those.

We had stories about loving yourself or loving your hair or your skin. But we didn’t have much about how romantic love was going to work for us. Often we didn’t have that stuff in our families either. We didn’t have romantic love stories to hold us that we could look to and say, this is how love should feel and look. We need those stories.

In cultures of the African Diaspora, when we do have love stories, they’re love stories that are often dysfunctional. Things like, “Can she find a man?” And then the protagonist is dating all these crazy-ass dudes and they’re all cheating on her, and in the end, it turns out she’s been cheating too. And it’s all messy and pathological. Fun to read, but not necessarily helpful.

I’d like to be a part of a movement that creates narratives about how love can be transformative. Sometimes we’re afraid to fuck with certain assumptions in the black community. Committing yourself to a person doesn’t have to be puritanical. Committing yourself to another human being in a romantic and, yes, sexual way can be powerful and life changing in a good way. But it feels vulnerable, especially for people of color. And we’ve been vulnerable for so fucking long—

INTERVIEWER

We have to be vulnerable about so many other things—

TIPHANIE YANIQUE

Exactly. And now I have to be vulnerable to this woman? To this man? And yet love is the one place where you must be vulnerable to become strong.

The novel I’m writing now, that I hope will see the light of day, is about that kind of vulnerability. It’s about a couple that really decides to fall in love, despite the fact that people in their communities think this is kind of crazy.

A lot of people don’t even know if black people can love with the same sophistication and passion as other people. (Laughter). Often we’re not even sure ourselves because many of us haven’t seen it either. We’ve got Denzel, but we don’t have enough. I mean, what do we get? We get Ludicrous with some big-booty girl smacking her butt. That’s our image of how sex works in our community.

INTERVIEWER

What’s your regular writing schedule?

TIPHANIE YANIQUE

I don’t have a set schedule. I’m a flexible writer. I feel like whenever I can find the time I will take it. Otherwise, I’m not disciplined. I had two weeks this spring when I didn’t write a word and it was awful. I felt like I could see through my own hand and my body was disappearing. It was really frightening.

I hear that when you have kids, you have to become more disciplined as a writer. Because if you don’t you really will disappear. Ask me again in a year, and I’ll probably say, “At 5 AM, I am writing.”

Kaitlyn Greenidge currently lives in Brooklyn, New York. A 2010 graduate of Hunter College's MFA program, she was the recipient of a Hertog Fellowship, the Bernard Cohen Short Story Prize, a 2010 Bread Loaf Waiter Scholarship and is the Spring 2011 Visiting Emerging Writer at Johnson State College in Johnson, VT. - Show quoted text -

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