14. How to Escape from a Leper Colony by Tiphanie Yanique

Published in 2010 by Graywolf Press.

An S. Mariella Gable Book (an award given by the College of Saint Benedict for an important work of literature published by Graywolf Press)

Winner of the Fiction Category Prize, OCM Bocas 2011.

Shortlisted for the overall OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature 2011.

“I get her arms in front and see words written on them. It freaks me out. But it’s just words. ‘Stop looking,’ she says. ‘Stop reading.’ Lord Harry the Judge. I lay back in my seat and I just ask, ‘This is stupid. You couldn’t find no paper?’ She shakes her head, ‘I left my notebook.’ I open the golf and show her the roller paper, like a small notepad. ‘I didn’t think of that’ she say with her voice going all Yankee now. And then she crying like I hit her or something. She sit on her hands the whole drive back. Keep her arms tight by her side. Tonight, I think, I going kiss those arms. I going lick every word if she let me.”

from “Street Man”

I loathe exaggeration, especially when it comes to enthusiasm. I prefer my praise to be as precise as possible. Sadly, this means that much of my best loved phrases must languish, unused, waiting for true beauty to capture them. One such is borrowed from a film: to feel something “like a riot in the heart, and nothing to be done, come ruin or rapture.”

Tiphanie Yanique’s premiere publication is impressive. A collection of short fiction and a novella, How to Escape from a Leper Colony is remarkable in that it feels neither solely craft nor character-driven, yet reads as a spellbinding marriage of both. Here is short fiction to get you excited about the genre entire. Here is a novella you will want to reread until the people in it are achingly familiar to you, a novella which shows its full lustre in its unabridged format, as opposed to the more dim showing it made in Akashic Books’ 2008 anthology, Trinidad Noir. At a handful of pages shy of the two hundred mark, Yanique’s prose begs to be read in one sitting. I  read it cover to cover in bed, bleary-eyed with intensity, and when I reached the last line of the last story, “Kill the Rabbits”, (which I would have loved to see even further fleshed out) I felt that I had not had enough.

How to Escape a Leper Colony features eight pieces. The titular story will show you some of the reasons why an island of lepers and the nuns treating them walk into the sea. “The Bridge Stories” is a compendium of narratives that tells the same story, marking it multiple ways for tragedy and release. “Street Man” reads like a tale you’d hear from the man himself, in a crowded bar, over beers and your interjections of, “Nah, man!”, “Oh gosh, man!”, “For real, man?”. In “The Saving Work”, two white women who’ve moved their lives to the Caribbean puzzle out the truth at the root of why they hate each other so (with a burning church providing the backdrop). “Canoe Sickness” offers a retrospective of a young boy’s thwarted dream of pro-football glory (the least evocative of the pieces, for me). Mason finds a hideaway chapel in Houston that reminds him of his Jamaica home (in strangely erotic tones, too) in the exquisite “Where Tourists Don’t Go”. In the vein of “The Bridge Stories”, “The International Shop of Coffins” is a multipart exposition of grief, distance and the things we’ll do for love. Finally, “Kill the Rabbits” (as authentic an account of the sweet madness that is Carnival as ever I read one) introduces us to three seemingly-different people in the Virgin Islands, and the unusual ways they are fettered, to each other and to love.

Straddling a swinging bridge betwixt magical allegory and gritty realism, these stories are superbly-wrought. Yanique’s eye to detail is exceptional; her attention to a credibility of tone and voice—to the way a person speaks, or internalizes a situation—is finely-tuned. There are numerous delights here for the careful reader that will be missed, and no mistake, by any page-skimmers.  Unearthing sleight of hand contradictions, such as the difference between what characters say and what they do or mean is a particular treasure. What makes it sweeter is that Yanique never contradicts herself; we spend no time running after her sentences, filling in plot holes with frustration. There are no perfect, sparkle-toothed island exotics waving for the approval of tourists here, and this is a relief.

For all that How to Escape from a Leper Colony is a debut offering, nothing about Yanique’s work heralds it as mawkish or sickly desperate to please. Can my desire for this book to have been a longer collection truly be a complaint? Hardly not, though I do wonder how two or three more stories would have affected the impact of the reading. That is a bold-faced hypothetical, however, so I will precisely declare: I love this writer’s writing, and I look forward, impatiently, to reading another riot in the heart from Tiphanie Yanique.

“One of my teachers once said that history has no influence on land, that land is outside of history. He lied or he was mistaken. History has carved down mountains. History has drenched out rivers. History has made the land, and the land has, when under duress, made history. […] No one and no thing is unmoved by human history, and it is a sad, sad truth. But that Carnival the land had decided to defy history. And this, like my body, was a bit of an impossible thing —  but an admirable thing as all impossible things are.”

from “Kill the Rabbits”

This book, and 11 more, are part of my official reading list (which can be found in my sign-up post here) for the 2011 Caribbean Writers Challenge. 

8 thoughts on “14. How to Escape from a Leper Colony by Tiphanie Yanique

    1. Thank you, Jason, for both reading and commenting. 🙂 I’m curious; have you read any work from Caribbean authors? I’m always interested in the level of exposure that literature from this region receives.


  1. Pingback: Caribbean Writers Challenge 2011 @BaffledBooks | Novel Niche: A Place for Books

    1. Thank you, BP! (Hopefully it’s alright if I call you that 🙂 ) I’m curious, so I’ll ask you the same question I posed to Jason above: what have your own experiences been with Caribbean literature? (Also, if you do get around to reading Yanique’s collection, I would dearly love to know what you thought!)


      1. Oh dear, it now occurs to me I should have picked other initials 😦 We have been lucky enough to travel to a few places in the Caribbean, but I don’t know that I’ve read authors other than Edwidge Danticat. Perhaps that is one of the reasons I enjoy this blog so much – lot of nostalgia for some wonderful places 🙂


    1. Thank you, Amy 🙂 it would be particularly interesting to know what you think of this book, but I wouldn’t want to lead you astray from your TBR challenge (which I hope is going well!) Also, congratulations on the site upgrade! 🙂


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