I FIRST ENCOUNTERED the magic of Tiphanie Yanique’s writing while a student in her seminar, “Writing the Other” at The New School’s MFA in Creative Writing program in 2013. Her debut story collection, How to Escape from a Leper Colony, illuminated the beauty and wholeness of Caribbean life and culture. She showed, as she wrote in the eponymous story, that “an island can be a world.”
This month, Riverhead Books publishes Yanique’s first novel, Land of Love and Drowning, a book that continues this theme and responds in many ways to Herman Wouk’s 1965 novel Don’t Stop the Carnival, a controversial tale about life in the US Virgin Islands from an American mainlander’s perspective. Yanique breathes complexity into Caribbean characters, who Wouk had represented as members of an absurd chorus. In Drowning, Caribbean locals are depicted with new and necessary depth, beyond the limited perspective of Wouk’s world.
But Drowning is much more than a treatise on identity politics. It is a love letter to the Virgin Islands, both the land and spirit of the place. It is an intimate portrayal of a people and the impact of colonization on a culture and a particular family. At the center of the story are two young, orphaned sisters, Eeona and Anette Bradshaw, who must together navigate a changing world, as the Virgin Islands transition from Danish to American control. — Brooke Obie
BROOKE OBIE: What I took away from your decision to tell this story through two sisters is that the older sister, Eeona, represented the Virgin Islands themselves. She’s described as being as yellow as the sun; her beauty is a mark of purity, and people don't want to defile her, but they do anyway. She’s controlled by external forces, like the Virgin Islands. Whereas the younger sister, Anette, is the spirit of the people who will survive no matter what; they'll fight back against life-denying forces, supernatural or otherwise.What was your intent in telling the story through the two sisters?
TIPHANIE YANIQUE: I love your interpretation. I believe that the reader brings as much interpretation, sometimes more, than the writer. When you write a book, it's never complete until another person experiences it. You don't know what you've done until you have a reader.
I've worked on this novel for 11 years and what these characters represented to me in the beginning and what they represent for me now are so different. I'm a different human being. I started it in graduate school. This is my MFA thesis. Eeona's body and her presentation were for me, as you say, connected to the landscape of the Virgin Islands. I wanted to connect personhood directly to the natural environment. Attention to ecology was a large part of my identity at the time, and that was something I wanted to explore.
When you think about the Caribbean and this particular place, the US Virgin Islands, you think about the “US” in the front. What does it mean to be American in this very specific kind of way? This has not been well explored, I don’t think. Anette, in her act of survival and rebellion, is exploring this identity.
Eeona and her mother suffer mental “episodes” every so often; was this a way of exploring what it means to be American in the Virgin Islands, with multiple identities thrust upon them, seeing themselves as they are but also forced to see themselves through the lens of others? Were the “episodes” like the Caribbean version of Du Bois’s double-consciousness?
There's a long, unfortunate tradition in literature set in the Caribbean, written by Americans or Europeans, of crazy women. Either women from the Caribbean are crazy, or women go to the Caribbean and end up crazy. During the Victorian Era, the idea was that if the slave master goes down to check on his plantation in the Caribbean and he takes his wife, he is taking a risk because she might lose her mind. That was a real thing that people thought — white women were going to go crazy. It was thought that genteel women, women of a certain class, would not be able to stand the heat.
But probably when you think about what was really happening, the women couldn't stand the violence of slavery. We have lots of records of women going to the Caribbean with their husbands, and finding— as they should — slavery so completely abhorrent that they were constantly in emotional turmoil, and some of them went crazy. And some of them left and wrote about how awful it was to be there and how they felt insane and they felt culpable in this awful thing and how everyone around them was acting as though it was normal. And so it was a kind of crazy place.
A lot of Caribbean women writers like myself locate our literary beginnings in Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea. She takes the story of Jane Eyre and flips it on its head. She takes that mad woman in the attic, who's an impediment to two aristocratic white people marrying each other, and Rhys writes her story. Why is there a crazy Caribbean woman in the attic, and what makes her go crazy? Jean Rhys examines that. I'm interested in that for [my] characters too. What happens when someone like Eeona and [her mother] Antoinette, who think of themselves as being of a certain class, think of themselves as being genteel, and desire to be accepted by a white American or European aristocracy, have to come to terms with the reality of their situation? That in and of itself is enough to drive a person crazy.
Speaking of the long tradition of unfortunate literature set in the Caribbean, you made a note in the Afterword about your book largely being a response to Don't Stop the Carnival. Why did you feel the need to respond to Herman Wouk, and why now?
Don't Stop the Carnival is the Passage to India of the Virgin Islands. If people outside of the Virgin Islands have read any book about the place, that's the book they've read. And when newcomers want to learn more about the Virgin Islands, their fellow settlers read that book and share that book with them. I didn't know this until I was a high school teacher myself and had friends who were new to the Virgin Islands, Americans who had come down, and I realized that they were passing this book around.
Virgin Islanders don't really give the book much thought. We don't think it's a good representation of who we are, and yet this was the book being marketed as a credible anthropological text. The Virgin Islanders in the book are buffoons. They're the other in the book, so it allows newcomers who read this book to continue to think of local Virgin Islanders as outsiders.
Characters like Hypolite, I wanted to redeem them. I wanted to make them a little more human. In my story, Hypolite is more than just the crazy, probably white guy, who goes insane in the Caribbean. He's someone who is rooted in the culture. Same with Sheila. I’ve given them last names. Hopefully I’ve made them more human than Herman Wouk was able to. And hopefully made them not farcical. I wanted to show the other side of that story. I'm going to sound crazy, but — I wanted to write a text that might be held up alongside that text. That sounds very big, very braggadocio. But I wanted to write something that people would say, “If you're going to read the Herman Wouk, you have to also read the Yanique. If you haven't, you haven't read the whole story.”
This is totally presumptuous, because Herman Wouk is a gigantic writer, [an] important writer. But if you don't want to go big, maybe you shouldn't bother. [laughs]
Structurally, you use a narrator speaking in Standard English, in third person, for most of the book, but then Anette speaks from the first person in a Caribbean vernacular. Anette tells her own story in her voice. What was behind your choice to allow Anette to speak for herself, in the local vernacular?
So the word “choice” is a funny word when it comes to art. Initially, when I am writing, I do what feels mandatory. Initially, I ask myself, how does this story arrive in my psyche, what kind of sounds arrive to me? And this project arrived to me in multiple sounds. In fact, it had more voices than just the five in the finished novel. It had maybe 10. But once I've done what seems mandatory, I then feel compelled to be the craftsman. Then I have to think about what my choices mean, artistically, and politically. Then it is a choice. It's a political choice to say I'm going to allow Anette to speak the way she speaks and allow the reader to struggle through that, if it's a struggle, and enjoy it, if it's enjoyable, or get annoyed with it, if it's annoying—whatever the case may be. I'm going to allow Anette to do that and know that it will turn off some readers and attract others.
Artistically, I'm trying to say that this way of speaking can be beautiful, can be poetic, can be as big and large as any other way. Because I think that often, when we have dialect or vernacular in literature, it is comic, or it is meant to demonstrate the otherness of that character. Let's go all the way back to Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Huckleberry Finn. [Dialect was] meant to demonstrate the ignorance of the character. I wanted to show that this other way of speaking might be actually the opposite of ignorant. It might actually be incredibly sophisticated. This has changed somewhat in the past seven or eight years, with writers like Junot Díaz, Robert Antoni, and other Caribbean writers.
Anette is no dummy. She's the historian, she's educated, she's choosing this manner of communication, and she revels in it. I hope it also says something about black English across the diaspora. We've accepted [black English] in music, but we haven't yet come to a place where we've accepted it in literature. A lot of people who see the vernacular aren't sure that the author has actually crafted it or just spit it onto the page. People aren't quite sure that [vernacular literature is] as crafted as what a Standard English writer has written. It is.
I’m interested in how language communicates who we are and who we decide to be at a particular moment, in a particular community. And, ultimately, of course I hope to portray the complexity of what it means to be a Virgin Islander, and a big part of it is how we talk. And it's fun. It's fun to write. To me, it's interesting.