A Conversation with Tiphanie Yanique

Tiphanie Yanique is the author of the story collection, How to Escape from a Leper Colony, and I Am the Virgin Islands, a poem and children’s book illustrated by her husband, photographer Moses Djeli. Yanique has been recognized by the National Book Foundation as one of their “5 under 35.”

Her newest book, Land of Love and Drowning has won the 2014 Center for Fiction’s Flaherty Dunnan Prize for a first novel. She is Assistant Professor Writing at The New School.

Managing Editor Charlotte Slivka caught up with Tiphanie over the phone to have a fascinating discussion about writing, mothering, teaching, and tourism.

STREET: What is your daily writing practice?

YANIQUE: You know that parenthood itself can put demands on whatever your dream process might be. I have a dream, an ideal process where I would wake up in the morning and read an excerpt of a novel and then have a nice breakfast with coffee and then go to my desk and write for three hours straight. But the reality is that I have not been able to do anything close to that for many years.

My process really is sort of created by the demands on my life, which is to say that it changes every single day. I sometimes have half an hour when I can sit down, as I’m doing now with you, to think about writing after the kids are asleep—if I’m not too exhausted. But mostly I’m writing in snippets throughout the day. So if there’s a time on the train when I can pull out my notepad and scribble some notes, or if I’m commuting to an event on the Amtrak, or even on the plane, and I happen to not be travelling with my kids—because I often do travel with them—I’ll write then. If I’m at work, and if for some rare reason don’t have a student in my office for office hours, I’ll write then. So I really write whenever I have the space and the time.

But one thing I do is read a lot of poetry, which I think has been very helpful in my process. Just reading poems helps me think about the importance of language. Even if I’m not going to actually write something down for days, just keeping my mind in tune to the beauty and importance of language itself is something that I do try to do.

STREET: Do you have any special tricks to bring you into the writer’s mind when you do have a free moment?

YANIQUE: You know, I don’t think I have any special tricks, except to remind myself that even when I’m not writing, I’m writing. So if I am walking my son to school, and we are having a conversation, maybe he notices something that I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise, and I take a mental note—”Oh that’s interesting.” That is writing, too. I think often that before I had kids, I took for granted those moments in my life when I was experiencing beauty or oddity, and I might have just noted them and carried on, but now I think of those moments as a sort of pre-writing—writing.

So when I do get to the actual work, it’s often that I’ve been thinking about something for a long time. If I have a deadline for three months down the road, it used to be, honestly, that I would write it the first month and spend the rest of it revising, tweaking, or maybe just be done with it really early, because I had a lot more time. But now it’s more likely that I’m waiting until closer to the deadline. But I’ve been thinking through the subject matter, and even the language I will apply to the subject matter, for months before I start typing. So it turns out that just the thinking, even if I don’t have a computer or a piece of paper, is also in itself the writing.

This is probably true for everybody, but we don’t always recognize or acknowledge the thinking-it-through aspect of writing. We don’t always need to because maybe we have the time to gather our thoughts for hours at a time, even as our fingers are sitting on the keyboard. But it might be helpful to sort of recognize that the thinking process is just a way to feed into the actual writing.

STREET: Do you think this is something that children teach us how to do?

YANIQUE: I’m not sure if children teach us, but I do think that having children teaches us how to be disciplined (I mean, if we are going to be disciplined). The demands of children tell you if you are going to be able to handle all the demands that all of life will throw at you while still creating literature. I mean we have these apocryphal stories of authors who were either awful parents because they were really focused on writing or had to take a really long break in their writing when they had kids because they wanted to be good parents.

But I guess I always thought to myself, “If I can’t write with kids then I’m probably not going to end up being a writer.” Because having kids is as important, more important, actually, to me than being a writer. If I was going to be a writer, it was going to have to fit into my true life. I’m going to have to be able to still live, you know, the full complexity of humanity. My humanhood includes motherhood and wifehood, among many other hoods. Some of it is will, I guess—like “I will do it.” Then you just do it. Or you don’t. You might recognize that you’re not going to be able to live your full life and be a writer. You say, “Okay, I’m not going to be writer”—not in the way you thought you would be anyhow. And hopefully you are good with that. You embrace the other aspects of your humanity. Or you say, “Okay, I’m going to be a writer while embracing all the aspects of my humanity.” And then you end up a writer.

STREET: It’s awe-inspiring how much you’ve been able to accomplish as such a young person. In all the pictures I’ve seen of you, Tiphanie, you only have one head.

YANIQUE: Last time I checked, yeah.

STREET: So how do you manage to do so much and keep your sanity?

YANIQUE: I’m not one of those writers who talk about the torture of the process or even consider the process torturous. I wouldn’t be doing any of these things, not one of those things, if I didn’t love them passionately. I passionately wanted to be a mother. I passionately love teaching and writing. I wouldn’t be doing any of them if I didn’t love them. So I think part of it is that I really love what I do, and I think I’m pretty good at all of them because I love them. And I think that when you really love something, you find a way to do it.

And it’s true that if I weren’t so passionate about teaching, I’d have more time to write; if I weren’t so passionate about my writing time, I’d have more time with my kids; and if I weren’t so passionate about my kids, I’d have more time to plan my syllabi. So it’s true that they take away from each other. But when I’m with one of those things, I’m very dedicated to those things. When I’m planning my syllabi, or teaching my class, or sitting with a student, that’s really the most important thing that’s happening in my life at the moment—and I feel the same way when I’m with my writing, or when I’m with my kids. I love each of those different time-sucking elements of my life enough to not want to compromise any of them. I hear of writers who say things like, “I hate writing; I do everything I can do to avoid writing.” I think, “Shit, go do something else.” There are too many people who are talented and love it but don’t make it. Why take their space? If it’s torturing you, then go be a lawyer; you’ll make more money.

I know that sounds sort of mean. But, truly, I don’t understand it. Maybe it’s about growing up working class or poor or black or a woman or something. I just don’t have the luxury to do art that I hate. I need to do what I love; there’s enough hate coming at me from elsewhere. But then again, maybe people just say they are tortured by art because they think they are supposed to be tortured by art. But really, if you’re tortured by it, please stop. It seems sort of narcissistic somehow to claim that you are so meant to be a writer that you are sacrificing your own sanity for it. Sounds like bullshit to me. If it’s hurting you, then maybe we’d all be happier if you did something that, well, made you happy.

STREET: Some writers know their endings before they start their stories. Do you know your stories before you write them, or do they just kind of come out of the mist? Have you always been a storyteller?

YANIQUE: I do not write by outline. I don’t ever really want to know where my story is going, where my novel is going, where my poem is going. I want to feel excited and anxious and concerned. I want my reader to feel that, too. So I’m not really interested in knowing what comes next, but I do want to get to what comes next. That keeps me writing.

I follow the language and the characters. I follow the words where they take me, and I follow the characters where they go. I keep writing based on what they say, or how they move, or how the language marches forward. I follow the metaphors and the rhythms of the words. I use that to get me to what happens next.

STREET: It sounds like you’re describing an act of faith almost. When you enter the space, you don’t know what’s going to happen.

YANIQUE: I’m stepping out on faith when I write. Yeah! I do think that, as with all things that we do by faith, I probably spend a lot of time revising being fraught, going down meandering avenues that I then have to back out of. Your calling it an act of faith helps me understand why I enjoy my process so much. Whenever in life I am able to surrender to faith, I’m always more gratified.

STREET: When did you know you’d be a writer, and what propelled you to go for it?

YANIQUE: My grandmother was a children’s librarian, which really means—especially in the Virgin Islands—that she told stories. I grew up hearing her stories. She loved to tell stories, so I grew up with that story telling. I definitely came to understand who I was based on the stories my grandmother told me, about who I was and what our family was. Stories were very important to me early on—all kinds of stories. History, radio shows, gossip. I just always remember being fascinated by stories themselves.

I was a writer as early as I can remember. I have memories of myself writing what I thought were novels in first grade. I think I was only just learning to write in first grade. Maybe it was all scribble scrabble. I have no idea what I was doing, but I do remember thinking to myself, “I’m writing a novel.” Still, I don’t think I knew until I went to grad school what it meant to be a professional writer. I had no concept of the writer as a profession.

I kind of thought you wrote this thing, you bound it, somebody put it together and put a cover on it, and then it showed up in the library. I don’t think I really understood that there was a whole community of people who were writers—that there were traditions; that there were reviewers, publishers, editors; that there was a whole machine. But I did, always,            know that I was writing. Writing was separate from wanting to be a writer. I think that is an important distinction. Of course, now that I am actually an author, I see the value in having a platform. But I think for a very long time, I didn’t really care much about that.

STREET: So you wanted to be a writer, but you didn’t really realize what it was to be a writer in the world until you went to college?

YANIQUE: Oh yeah. I mean, I would say even after college. I would say not until I went to grad school. I came to the States for college when I was seventeen, and then I went back home and taught at my old high school. I got a Fulbright scholarship, and I ran this poetry nonprofit. I did all kinds of stuff, and then I applied to grad school four years later. So yeah, maybe I was twenty-four.

I was so ignorant about the whole deal. I mean, I just knew I understood that people went to grad school and that people went to med school and law school. I applied to the schools listed in one of those magazines—maybe U.S. News & World Report or whatever. There was a list that claimed to present the best writing programs in the country. And because I didn’t understand how the machine worked, I made a huge mistake. I had been mostly a poet through undergrad, and I was still mostly practicing poetry. I thought, “Oh, graduate school is about learning, so I’m going to apply in fiction instead because that’s what I need to learn about.” Once I got to graduate school, I realized how naive I had been, and I started to understand how the machine worked a little bit better. I had been a poet, but I became a fiction writer more concretely in grad school.

STREET: Do you think that your naiveté actually helped? If you had any foreknowledge of how the process worked, do you think that would that have stopped you, or would you have had reservations about going forward in the same way?

YANIQUE: Let’s go back to acting on faith. Acting on faith is always a naive choice. I mean it makes more sense to go on concrete knowledge and to gather as much information and to act on expertise and wisdom. I value knowledge and wisdom, too.

But who knows. If I had known how hard it was to get into grad school, I might never have even applied. If I’d known how difficult it was going to be the only black woman in my graduate program, I might not have gone. If I’d known how hard it was to get a tenure-track job, I probably wouldn’t have put in my application. So I think it’s true that, especially for someone who has come from my background—I didn’t grow up with money, I didn’t grow up with any sense of entitlement—assuming the best has probably been a great gift for me.

Stepping out on faith has definitely caused me to make mistakes, has caused me to believe in the good of situations that were not actually good for me. But for the most part I think when you assume good, then, more than likely, good tends to come.

STREET: In your book Land of Love and Drowning, you are unflinching. Right away you go to where most writers would stay miles away from: the sexuality of very young girls. From the opening sentence, there’s a very young girl, and she is vulnerable and posited as an object for use without any say or voice. She’s alone, and the reader is immediately protective of her. We have this feeling of a great disturbance that is coming, and it sets us up the whole book. Does she represent the “girl experience” in a larger sense?

YANIQUE: I do want that girl to have subjectivity. It’s true that we never come to know what her background is, how she arrived on the island, who she becomes. Although we might not follow this specific girl, we do understand, I hope, the possibilities of girlhood in the Virgin Islands in general. Girls are up to many things in the book. One of the things that the book is also about is incest and about the way that girls are abused for their bodies. Even appropriate romantic love can destroy girls. Love can cause girls and young women to make decisions against themselves.

One of the books I’m teaching this semester in my graduate class, Girls: the Girlchild in Modern Narratives, is Nabokov’s Lolita. The girl in that book is really lacking in subjectivity. As Nabokov paints her, Lolita is unchanging. She has one tone to her personality, and she sticks to it for her entire adolescence. These are the formative years of her life, when most of us women have changed multiple times in dramatic ways. I find it so sad that this great master was unable to write a girl who is withstanding incredible abuse for the whole novel with any true subjectivity. I hope my novel says that girlhood is hard, and that girlhood is only survivable with bravery and reinvention.

STREET: You brought readers into her mind with just one very short sentence. Just in that very short sentence all of a sudden we are inside of her head and we know what she’s feeling, and this gives her dimensionality. It made me wonder about process of molestation, if it had to be violent to be considered legitimate molestation.

YANIQUE: Well, of course not. Whatever we have to keep secret, whatever festers, caused abuse. Whether it’s physical or emotional. I don’t think, for example, that my character, Eeona, experiences any kind of what we would call physical violence from her abuser, and yet I would definitely say that she has experienced abuse. She’s never been beaten, but she carries her sores with her. I don’t think she ever recognizes, or at least not until the end, that so much of her trials in life are based in that early abuse.

And I don’t think anybody else recognizes it. The whole community ends up being somewhat complicit in Eeona’s abuse. I don’t expect every reader to grasp every particular narrative element that I’m attempting, but I do intend for Eeona’s early abuse to bear weight on the entire novel—not just her plot, but on the other characters…on the whole community.

STREET: Besides the human characters in the story who tell the story, there are also bodiless narrative voices—like the old wives, which could be voices of the island itself—and there are myths, and there are the elements, wind and sound. If we were to cast this book as a play, how many characters would there be?

YANIQUE: I would want any playwright or filmmaker interested in my novel to treat it as source material for their own artwork. I’d want them to use their own interpretative and analytical skills to decide if that omniscient narrator would be a Greek chorus or a voice-over or an actual old wife or simply the angle of vision that the director of photography takes.

STREET: I found a few bad reviews of the book, and I just wanted to talk to these because I feel they are rooted in a confusion of perception. Some of these reviewers were shocked by the taboo that you bring us into the heart of. A composite of the complaints went something like this: “I thought I was going to read a nice book about the Caribbean, and I wasn’t prepared for all of this.” So many people don’t want to look at the hard truths of life.

Is it common to find a confusion of perception in what Caribbean literature is or what it should be?

YANIQUE: At least one reading of the novel is that it’s about tourism, especially tourism as another form of colonialism or an expansion of colonialism. I do find that readers who seemed to misunderstand what I’m saying the most are the readers who sort of approach the text as tourist-readers—as readers who are hoping for a certain pre-packaged and clean happy version of the Caribbean. These readers are annoyed to the point of being angry! It rained on their vacation, and they want their money back. Interestingly, in some cases these very readers have been to the Virgin Islands. They assumed to understand the Virgin Islands, based on their visits of a couple of hours or days or a week or, in some cases, even years.

I find that critique especially hilarious because I’m from the Virgin Islands. My family is from the Virgin Islands as far back as we can trace our roots. While I don’t think there’s really such a thing as authenticity, it is true that tourism specializes in manufacturing a false authenticity. The Virgin Islands’ entire economy is dependent on tourism, so we are particularly good at presenting a version of ourselves that is palatable for the visitor. Every place, especially a place reliant on tourism, becomes adept at shielding its secrets.

So I do think that the element of tourism in my book sometimes ends up being a meta sort of thing. The reader thinks, “I’ll go to the Virgin Islands and I’ll take this book with me,” and then you’re like, “Oh fuck, what the hell!” Perhaps you end up feeling uncomfortable with your own tourist self. Maybe you even feel complicit in a problematic system. That’s what I want. But I can imagine it would be jarring to be on the beach reading the book and suddenly realize that you are a character in the book and maybe not the character that you had hoped you would be.

STREET: In the book, the characters Franky and Annette are tricked into being in a soft-core porn movie being shot on a beach. Pornography in its simplest definition is love separated from sex—the removal of the complexity of relationships and the human-ness—to create a commodity. Does pornography transfer to tourism?

YANIQUE: That is often what tourism to places like the Caribbean is about. Visiting the Caribbean is often about nudity and about sex and about having sex on the beach. You go to the Caribbean, and you get drunk. You are free, and you are wild, and you are your disrespectful and unrespectable self.

You are not the self that you would show at home. This is about race and racism. Because when we travel to say, France, we want to go to the Louvre, and we want to visit the Eiffel Tower. We want to walk on the streets, and we want to drink fancy French wine and eat nice cheese. We want to have these experiences that are based in the culture that the human beings have created, not based on just the bodies of the human beings, or, in some cases, based on the removal of those bodies altogether—a beach that is free of any evidence of human beings, for example. That feels, to the tourist, like the ideal Caribbean.

When we go to Caribbean, do we want to know where the poetry scene is? We should.

So much of how we travel is raced—is framed by our histories, framed by the bodies we live in, and by how history arrives on our bodies and on the bodies of those people we visit while travelling. But when travelling to places where brown and black people are native, the average tourist seems supremely uninterested in the various types of things that the humans are creating. There’s no genuine interest in the humans at all. I do hope that my novel might be a bit of jolt, a bit of announcement—the humans of the Virgin Islands are creating things! That’s one thing I want my novel to yell. I’m not the only one.

STREET: Any connection between your Franky and Annette in the book and Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, who starred in the beach movies of the sixties that depicted vapid and oppressive representations of ideal American youth—or was this a happy accident?

YANIQUE: I never considered Frankie Avalon or Anette Funicello! But now that you’ve brought that to light…well, damn. That is a really cool connection. If I am lucky, some undergrad or grad student somewhere will write a paper about that connection. And they’ll be right. The author is not the only authority of any text.

STREET: Can we talk about mirrors for a moment? I found reflection to be a theme running through the work as a whole. I read in another interview you’ve done that Virgin Islanders are outsiders, so even though you are clearly an insider there, you’re also an outsider. It made me think about Alice through the looking glass.

YANIQUE: On the most simple level, a lot of my mirroring or repetition comes from my training as a poet. I am interested in the kind of weight repetition causes for the reader. So I think my repetition first comes from questions like what if I bring this back? what does that mean? I’m not sure what it means yet, but let me try it and see what happens in the reading when I bring this back.

On a more socio-political level, I also wanted to write a book about sisterhood and a book about people, a whole people: Virgin Islanders, who are caught between two versions of equally authentic identities. Are we Americans, or are we Caribbeans? Are we West Indians, or are we part of the United States? And the idea that we could be part of them both—it makes absolutely no sense. How can you be from these two geographically and culturally distinct places at the exact same time? And yet we are.

STREET: There was one word that jumped out at me: “chiaroscuro”—light and contrast. Were you thinking about human contrasts when you chose that word?

YANIQUE: I am married to a photographer, so I’m very aware of the way that light works. “Chiaroscuro” is a common term for visual artists. I was aware that word was going to be sort of ominous in the text. It comes very late, so there’s been a lot of language already. But it is, I think, a word that is metaphoric for the whole novel. The novel is about things that come to light, things that we come to know and things that we keep hidden—especially the hidden things that haunt us because of their hiddenness.

STREET: What are you working on now?

YANIQUE: My next project is a collection of poems called Wife. It comes out in October 2015.