By Nadia Ellis
How to Escape from a Leper Colony: A Novella and Stories,
by Tiphanie Yanique
(Graywolf Press, ISBN 978-1-55597-550-0, 192 pp)
The second story in this first book by Tiphanie Yanique is called “The Bridge Stories”. It’s a great story, and besides that I’ve decided it’s excellent for showing you what this short fiction collection is about, and what this fine new writer can do.
Four passages are loosely connected by a fantastical bridge designed to span the whole of the Caribbean, or, as the narrator of one section puts it, “stretching from Guyana — the place in the world most south — to Miami — the place in the world most north.” The bridge explodes. Or better to say it dissolves into the sea after a blinding flash of light. First we are reminded of how tenuous our connections can be, how delicate they are when pressed upon. Then we are immersed into three related but distinctly told tales in each of which connections are sundered, often suddenly, and in spite of all attempts to link them more sturdily. The eight stories in How to Escape From a Leper Colony imagine and re-imagine what it means to need a bridge (to someone else, to some place else), what it is to become a bridge, how it feels to perch on the edge of one trying to take flight or to descend, or both. The collection takes as a fact, not a matter of novelty, the wide world that is the Caribbean. And it names the chasms between people in this world and what can draw them together.
Bridges come to mind as well when I think of one of Yanique’s preferred structuring techniques — sections partitioned by formal breaks. In “Kill the Rabbits”, for instance, we move between three storytellers: Xica, a local girl abandoned by her mother and living with her Carnival-costume-making grandfather (the sequins and glitter in his workshop, his habitual quiet, give Xica’s tale a kind of mythic quality); Herman, a white American desperately in love with Xica and desperate to belong in the Virgin Islands (the same thing); and Cooper, a jailed magician-thief, son of a policewoman, whose singular ability to lie reflects the story’s larger interest in the kaleidoscopic quality of the truth. Here in this story, and elsewhere in the collection, we walk from one end of a narrative line to another and look back to see something new. Or again, in the space between the sections, we cross over time, leap over story, and land up in another place entirely.
In this way the stories grow on you. As you keep reading, you start to feel what you read before differently. It is as if an echo revealed a melody more clearly, as if the fuzziness of memory were more trustworthy than seeing with your eyes. The stories come in waves. Their cumulative effect is like what happens in my favorite story of them all, the one almost at the end of the book, “The International House of Coffins”. Three distinct stories spin out from one encounter in the unlikely hang-out spot of a coffin shop. There is one moment in which everyone meets — the shop owner with the improbable name Anexus Corban (though apparently real; Yanique thanks her friend in the acknowledgements for letting her use it); a Gambian priest named Simon Peter; and two school girls, one of whom, Pinky, gets her own story. In each section, the narrator focalises through one character so that we get the same details in that curious shop in three different ways. (The most striking thrice-told detail is the simple pine coffin which in one telling is “most requested by the Jews on the island,” in another is quite assuredly for the Muslims, and in yet another is surely for the Baha’is.) For a moment in each section, right when Pinky and her friend stride into the coffin shop interrupting Simon Peter and Anexus’s habitual cup of coffee, Yanique uses almost exactly the same words. Now that I’ve described this, you won’t experience the confounding thought that you must have read these pages already, making you feel slightly foolish. But the sense of the uncanny Yanique has set up will surely come through. It makes the distinct narratives that follow upon each version of the initial encounter, each of them narratives of lost loves of various sorts, that much more surprising and resonant with each other.
Tiphanie Yanique. Photograph courtesy Graywolf Press
All of which is to say that my experience of the book when I began it and when I ended it were very different. That difference was finally only a slight shifting, but it had a profound effect. Because of where it began, I worried a bit about this collection (more on which later). By the end, the stories had seeped in like late afternoon sun — there, quietly and powerfully doing their thing in the room.
The shift began with “Street Man”, a romance told with great economy in which poetry somehow becomes a matter of suspense. It took hold with “The Saving Work”, a deftly structured story that begins with a church on fire. Two white women, immigrants to the Virgin Islands from the United States, find themselves staring at the fire immobilised. The catastrophe induces shock, which in turn induces memory and narrative. For Deirdre, it is the church burnings of the US south she thought she would never have to think about again, intermingled with intense resentment of her narrative counterpart, Violet. The women’s mutual dislike locks them in a dyad that becomes a portal to yet another narrative, one unfolding between their children, college students in an unnamed northeastern American city that seems very much like Boston. Violet’s only child Thomas, a boy who is skittish and unsure, falls quickly in love with Deirdre’s daughter Jasmine, the first of five daughters, whose shyness and caution temper her sharp intellect. She does not love Thomas. His naïveté wildly surpasses hers. And when he decides they should marry at eighteen — her “virgin” conception a mystery only Thomas doesn’t understand — Jasmine goes along with it not for lack of ethics or will but from some complicated surfeit of both. Despite the space and air in the story, Yanique renders Jasmine’s emotional terrain with such vividness that we understand the procedure of her muddle. We see that to a smart teenager certain choices are manifestly clear. And that these choices then require a dissociative compulsion to accomplish, often with explosive consequences.
“The Saving Work” introduces themes of race and cultural identity, but most memorably in a meta-commentary: Jasmine and Thomas, both biracial, talk in a café about the American college courses they are taking. Jasmine is taking a class called “Race and the Essay”, and she describes what she is learning this way: “You know . . . how ethnicity marginalises the experience with the world and is reflected on the text . . . and all that.” Those ellipses and the ironising “all that” suggest Yanique’s wry acknowledgement of how her stories might be used as academic course texts on Caribbean cultural diversity, for discussions in which people become themes. The ellipses, however, are also a symbol of how the stories might elude attempts to reduce them; the unspecified vastness of “all that” is how Yanique avoids the problem of cliché. She populates her stories with the variety of characters we find in the world — white “Frenchies” in Tobago, Jamaicans in Houston, Indians on a leper island off Trinidad, mixed-race folks from all over, and all of the above and more in the Virgin Islands, a place not sufficiently the setting of Caribbean fiction, and thus, at least for me, a place filled in my imagination by a mysterious quiet. (Such a pleasure and a relief to see more of St Thomas, to hear its particular vocal inflections, to sense its unique terrain!) Yanique releases herself from the burden of explanation about identities and instead lets these people be free and constrained in the precise and varied ways that they are.
Perhaps the thing I most admire about Yanique is her mastery of a variety of styles. She writes parables — small, quasi-magical tales that are perfectly poised above, just barely touching, the political, the humanistic, the miniaturistic. Then she turns around and writes family narratives in the mode of classic realism, and then stories of long-lost love in the magisterial tone of emotional renunciation. Her narrators use standard English, and then again creoles of various provenance. She’ll write a story of migrancy that emphasises the quotidian and is driven by subtle emotional distemper (“Where Tourists Don’t Go”, say, or “Canoe Sickness”). And then she’ll write a sex scene between boys in Gambia, with a startling image of violent repercussion. She’ll do filmic set pieces — a club scene, a car crash. She is sometimes poetic (the resonant symbolism in “Kill the Rabbits”, for instance) and she is sometimes, one has to say it, prosaic (the way that symbolism becomes insistent). Either way, you sense an imagination that is richly peopled and full of expressive potential. You are never immersed here in one kind of water.
It is surprising, then, that the book’s first and title story still leaves me unmoved. I’ve read it and re-read it, and besides the final image — I’ll let you discover it yourself, since you really should buy and read this book — I find my attention waning, my sympathies refusing to attach in one place or another. How is it that the story that is potentially most full of incident, heaving with period details, forbidden love, an old, symbolic illness . . . well, writing that list begins to answer my question. Perhaps all of these things overburden the story. Despite Yanique’s characteristic lightness of touch, something does not quite take off here. Which, as I mentioned, is why I was at first worried about this collection.
I was wrong, of course. But just in case you find yourself worried too: please, proceed.
Nadia Ellis is from Jamaica. She teaches literature at the University of California at Berkeley.