by Sandy Cabada
Tiphanie Yanique’s list of accomplishments is long and impressive. She won the 2011 BOCAS Prize for Caribbean Fiction, Boston Review Prize in Fiction, and an Academy of American Poet’s Prize. She has been listed by the Boston Globe as one of the sixteen cultural figures to watch out for and by the National Book Foundation as one of the 5 Under 35. Author of the Pushcart Prize winning short story collection “How to Escape from a Leper Colony” and picture book “I am the Virgin Islands,” Tiphanie’s first novel, “Land of Love and Drowning” was published this July and has been getting rave reviews.
When she is not teaching the MFA and Riggio Honors Program at the New York School, you can find Tiphanie and her family residing in her place of birth, St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. She is traveling to Los Angeles from New York to teaching a Personal Novel class on Saturday, Sept. 27th at Writing Pad and will also be speaking at our From The Ordinary To The Extraordinary: Magical Realism panel on Thursday, September 25 where she will sharing her secret techniques on how to write stories so specific and whimsical, you feel transported to another time and place.
She took time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions about her life as a writer.
1) In what ways did growing up with a grandmother who was a librarian shape your path to becoming a writer?
This was essential for being becoming a writer. My grandmother told stories and she had tons of books in the house. I was allowed to read anything I wanted that I could find on her shelves. Which means I read things that were often way too advanced for me in content and even reading level. But having to reach for understanding was a wonderful experience. I came to really love books that allowed for many readings…the kind of books that are multi-layered. I hope I am writing those kinds of books now! So my grandmother loved books and I loved my grandmother immensely. I wanted to be like her. Writing came, I suppose, from love of a person–my grandmother. She was one of the first people to tell me that I was very good at writing. And then she never stopped telling me. Her example started me off and then her belief in me carried me forward.
2) You’ve gotten a lot of attention for writing some of your stories from a male perspective. How would you suggest aspiring writers go about writing in the voice of their opposite gender?
Have I? I hope it’s good attention! I suppose I would encourage writers to write only what they want to understand. Never write from a perspective not organic to you just because you think you should. Do it only out of sincere and respectful curiosity. My main suggestion to writers when going into unfamiliar terrain is to go knowing that you are in danger, knowing that you can easily fuck it up–then hopefully you will give the work the time, effort and respect it needs. And hopefully then you will pull it off. I hope I did.
3) You’re well known for your fiction as well as poetry and personal essays. How does your mindset differ when you’re writing each, and which is your favorite medium?
I was first a poet. Though I am more of a fiction writer now I still try to hunt down beautiful language and a sublime line even when writing prose. In prose, we have the same tools of poetry–repetition, silence, etc. I try to be a poet no matter what genre I’m working in.
4) As a professor at The New School, what do you see tends to be the most challenging roadblock for students trying to write personal stories, and how do you help them overcome it?
My undergrads are often too precious with the character that most resembles themselves. They protect themselves and thus the “self” character lacks humanity. My graduate students often have the opposite problem. The graduate students have committed to being serious writers and this means being brave. When using their own personal narratives in fiction they do the “brave” thing and write every single awful thing in about themselves. But then the characters are still not fully human. I encourage students to pull away from that kind of work and revisit it only when there’s enough distance to see the characters objectively…with both love and ruthlessness. Then you can liberate these people from your true life into a more true representation of humanity.
5) You have a family and a teaching position, how do you still find time to write? What is your writing practice like?
I don’t have a set practice, in the strict meaning of that term. My life is haphazard, so my “practice” is as well. This is not to say I’m undisciplined. I think I’m actually quite disciplined, but I’m not precious about my writing time or space. I write when I can and where I can. I don’t have a room of my own or a schedule of my own. So I write at 5am or 5pm. I write on the train. I write while my kids are napping. I also read a lot. All writers are supposed to say that, but in my case the reading is actually the most consistent part of my writing practice. I read much more than I actually write, but I see the reading as a kind of writing. Reading is an apprenticeship, it’s a way to study the craft that is more flexible than actually making words. I can read while I’m nursing my infant daughter, but actual writing would require more dexterity than I have!
6) A lot of your stories and your new novel are inspired by your experiences growing up in St. Thomas. Tell us why St. Thomas inspires your tales.
We all know that the Caribbean is one of the most beautiful spaces on earth. That’s why people vacation there. The Virgin Islands is exceptionally beautiful. That in itself is inspiring, but it can also lead a writer easily into cliche. While I use that natural beauty in my work, I try to use it in ways that challenge our understanding of that beauty.
Right now, what I find most interesting about the Virgin Islands is our political (and therefore social and therefore personal and therefore intimate) relationship to nationhood. Along with Puerto Rico (and also Guam and American Samoa in the Pacific), we are colonies of the United States. We find ourselves being both entirely American, but also being entirely of our Caribbean region. We are anomalies within our region (the Americans in the Caribbean) and within America (the Caribbeans in America).
Our beautiful islands sit in the Caribbean sea, but our bodies walk on US soil. This is strange and therefore might allow for a strange kind of beauty both evoked by the land and by our bodies. I’m interested in how that strange political space influences our most intimate interactions. Like how does the passport we carry lead us to the person we fall in love with?
7) What advice do you have for aspiring fiction writers?
Read and read and read some more. It is also writing.
Thank you so much for such an interesting interview, Tiphanie!
Catch her class Tales From the Home Front: Writing the Personal Novel on Saturday, September 27 and don’t miss her at the Magical Realism Panel on Thursday, September 25 at 8 p.m. along with award-winning writers Ben Loory (New Yorker) and Amelia Gray (McSweeney’s).