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As If In a Glorious Hell

By (April 1, 2010) No Comment

How to Escape From A Leper Colony: A Novella and Stories
By Tiphanie Yanique
Graywolf Press, 2010

There’s a scene in “Meet Joe Black” (Martin Brest’s 1998 adaptation of the dorky old black-and-white classic “Death Takes a Holiday”) in which Death, incognito as Brad Pitt, visits a hospital. He’s fallen in love with a mortal woman, and she works there, and he moonishly follows her and encounters an old woman being admitted for a malignant tumor in her abdomen. The old woman (played by the redoubtable Lois Kelly-Miller) immediately knows that her doctor’s fawning suitor isn’t in fact Brad Pitt but the Grim Reaper. Later in the movie she aggrievedly asks him what the heck is going on, why is Death loitering around a hospital giving flowers to a pretty young woman? Answering her own question, she realizes that Death is simply lonely. We’ve been told that the old woman is “from the lslands,” and in a rich accent, she almost taunts him: “You want a ‘come to the islands’ holiday, where the sun don’t burn you red-red, just brown. You sleep, and no mosquito eat you … but don’t be fooled. We lonely here mostly too.”

The debunking of pretty illusions (that neat little sardonic echo of Jamaican tourist ads) is well done for the moment, but neither Death nor the movie ever wonders for a second how the old woman knows she’s not talking to Brad Pitt. Nobody else figures it out or even guesses close. The implicit assumptions are twofold: first, that old women ‘from the islands’ just naturally have mystic insight, and second, that they’re equally well-stocked with plain old ordinary life-insight. Such assumptions are not made about senior ladies from Omaha.

The minute you look for them, you realize these two assumptions are literally everywhere in modern culture, and this makes the layered achievement of Tiphanie Yanique’s debut story collection How To Escape From A Leper Colony all the more impressive. Yanique sets almost all of the eight stories in this collection in the islands – Jamaica, the U.S. Virgin Islands, etc. – and she freights her work with the sights and sounds of travel videos: there are carnivals aplenty, picturesque white churches, and even a sagacious old lady or two. The contemporary fiction market in America (her book is published in a pretty paperback by Graywolf Press) is absolutely mesmerized with the exotic: if you move your setting at least ten plane-hours away from Omaha in any direction and sprinkle your pages with some italicized bits of local patois (food names are always good, and the book groups love a discreetly untranslated cuss word now and then), you significantly increase your chances of being called ‘impressive.’

In other words, it would have been the easiest thing in the world for Yanique to write a ‘come to the islands’ version of How to Escape from a Leper Colony. A culture built on condescending travel-stereotypes is already primed for such a book, and it’s been over twenty years since Joe Olshan’s Clara’s Heart filled the bill.

She doesn’t do that at all. How to Escape from a Leper Colony is very firmly set in the real world, in a series of real, often squalid, always intensely human settings, sometimes specified, sometimes not. There’s an often seedy practicality to these stories that just has to be in part defiant. Here the plucky young track star in “Canoe Sickness,” living in Brixton (but born in Ghana: “Even in Brixton we were always an African family”) and coming to suspect that his father is having an affair, utterly fails to do the expected Hollywood thing – confrontation, hilarious misunderstandings, reconciliation – and instead contracts the metaphorical illness of the title:

A Carib often sits in his canoe waiting in quiet, being as still as possible. This is the way they hunt shark. Sometimes the stillness takes over and the man, the husband, the father, the breadwinner realizes that he cannot move. His spear across his lap is sterile despite the poison at its tip. His quiet becomes him and he cannot shout or even whisper. The only way he can fight through this paralysis is by leaning his mind into the sea breeze or breathing into the shadows as they move across the canoe.

Here the bedrock-solidity of the island ethnicity is always at issue, always hotly debated (characters often feel as if their very races change, depending on who’s looking at them), as in the Texas-set “Where Tourists Don’t Go,” in which young Jamaica architect Mason has an ongoing argument with his black American girlfriend:

As the train glides through the city, Mason thinks of the black leather couch that Robin has chosen. She is looking for white accents. She wants them to have an Asian-themed living room. “This is stupid,” Mason had said. “We’re not Asian.”

“So what? I’m African American and you’re Jamaican. You always remind me that those are two different things. I’m not having this place all islanded out and you don’t want my African American things … so we’re choosing a neutral ethnicity.”

And here the pretty white churches are burning, as in the masterful story “The Saving Work,” in which two old white women, Violet and Deirdre, both long-term island residents, both married to island natives, stand watching as their church is engulfed. For Violet, whose daughter Jasmine will figure prominently in the tale, the sight is nothing new:

Violet is already crying as she eases out of her rotten station wagon and feels the heat of the fire. She knows what a burning church means. She was a child in the America of the sixties. She doesn’t understand how this had has followed her. How her father’s Klannishness has found her on this island of black people. She wonders if somehow her father has burned down the church. Somehow he has hunted her down, and this is her punishment for marrying a nigger and having half-nigger children.

Even before Violet remembers that her father is long dead, we have been rudely pushed out of the complacency of our expectations by Yanique’s fine, strong prose and her happy willingness to keep complicating the stories she tells us.

That complexity is nowhere more clearly on display than in the collections’ novella, “The International Shop of Coffins,” an extraordinarily deft three-part narrative in which three characters – a flamboyant priest whose inner morality is rotting, the identity-shifting coffin shop owner who still pines for his first love, and an innocent schoolgirl who is seen in each segment of the story trifling with the idea of death. The tragedy that ensues is no less harrowing for being somewhat telegraphed. The mechanics of the plot are secondary here in any case to intricacy of the execution. “The International Shop of Coffins” is a perfectly controlled triple helix of narrative strands, as are the collection’s other two standout pieces, the aforementioned “The Saving Work,” in which young Jasmine indulges in one night of passion with a brainless local high school jock before thinking she’ll settle into a dutiful marriage with an impossibly naïve college boy, and “Kill the Rabbits,” in which the destinies of Cooper the thief, Xica the island girl, and Herman the well-intentioned outsider, wrap around and around each other in a masterpiece of meticulous plotting.

“Kill the Rabbits” is partly set during the annual island carnival, when we’re told the carefree American tourists are “laughing as though in a glorious hell,” and the imprisoned thief Cooper has occasion to contemplate just what exactly those tourists are seeing, or think they are:

But the biggest part of the magic was the trick of convincing your audience that you have indeed yielded everything – look, my hands are empty, nothing behind my ear, my sleeves are loose. The confidence it took to say ‘look inside the cup, see nothing is there’ even though you know that if they decide to touch the cup, if they ask you to pour water in the cup, if they even walk around to your side of the table to see the back bottom ledge of the cup … the trick would fail. Confidence is the biggest trick.

Yanique knows what she’s talking about when she writes about confidence: this collection is brimming with it. ‘Impressive’ and ‘masterful’ are easy words to throw around, but the plain truth is, debuts like this don’t come along that often (it’s tempting to think Yanique knows this on some level – when Jasmine takes the train to visit her jock one-night-stand, she brings along “a luscious collection of short stories” – no author given, naturally, but I’m hoping there’s a little mischief in the invocation). She has successfully avoided the twin pitfalls of ‘come to the island’ fiction: her old ladies are often as dense and misinformed as everybody else, and nobody’s insights are mystical – the pragmatic and the pyrrhic are drawn along altogether finer lines. If Yanique can avoid the two besetting perils of the typical sophomore effort – Potemkin regionalism and baroque overcomplication – she may well prove a major new voice in American letters.

Rita Consalvos works for an architectural firm in Sao Paolo, Brazil, and is a frequent contributor to Open Letters Monthly.

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