The narrator of the title story in How to Escape from a Leper Colony, an adolescent girl whose mother sends her away at the first sign of disease, observes, “Christians love leprosy…. Jesus cured lepers. Leprosy gives the pious a chance to be Christ-like. Only lepers hate leprosy. Who wants to be the one in the Bible always getting cured? We want to be the heroes, too.”
The lepers are the heroes of Tiphanie Yanique’s debut collection. So are the drug dealers, the Carnival dancers, the coffin makers, the missionary moms, the lovelorn rich kids and the lovelorn prisoners. They are black, white, Creole and Indian; Christian, Hindu and Muslim. They are funny and full of longing. Yanique is invested in telling the many stories of the Caribbean (especially her native St. Thomas), and, as her tangled narratives and clear sharp prose demonstrate, the task isn’t simple.
Most of the eight stories in the collection are beautiful, intricate knots in terms both structure and culture. “The International Shop of Coffins” is a novella in three parts, set in the store of the title. Each section begins with the same scene, at times word for word, illustrating how a moment can spin out and be considered from infinite angles: “When the door opens with a jingle it is okay that Corban is smiling big. It is Father Simon. He is not a customer…” We go on to learn of the priest’s exile from a woodworking shop for fondling his (mutually interested) co-apprentice; the shop owner’s love for an island artist; and a visiting school girl’s first real night on the town after her mother’s death.
About the latter and her best friend, we learn:
[Gita] and Leslie Dockers were a pair. Their mothers had approved of the friendship when the girls were young for the mistaken reason that each family felt the other would help with assimilation to island life. The Manachandis thought Leslie’s family was Creole—the white French they heard were native to some of the islands. The Dockers thought Gita was Trini—Indo-Caribbean from Trinidad. But neither family was from the islands and by the time each family began to question the need for this friendship, it was too late. The Manachandis were from Bombay. The Dockers were actually from Leeds.
This seems to sum up Yanique’s take on post-colonial life: It’s one of mistaken, mashed-up identities. Sometimes you need to revel in the resulting chimera. But don’t think this means inequality and danger aren’t still rampant: Before the story is over, one of the characters will occupy one of the shop’s colorful, extravagant coffins. Nike swoop, blinged-out Virgin, plain pine box—there’s something here for everyone.
Many of Yanique’s other stories are novellas as well, or perhaps warm-ups for a sweeping, epic novel yet to be written (she certainly seems to have one in her, although I sort of want her to keep doing what she’s doing and usher in a new era for the novella). “The Bridge Stories” is also broken into sections, each told by a different offstage narrator such as “a Catholic Lady in a big hat” or “someone’s grandfather in a corner rum shop.” A new bridge will connect the islands between Guyana and Miami, and that fact is the only bridge between the lives of a Muslim woman, a cuckolded husband and a teenage beauty queen. The story is delicate and whimsical—good qualities for fiction, bad ones for a bridge, as it turns out.
Yanique’s characters, as you can tell by now, are not prone to happy endings. In her universe, ugly events occur for baffling reasons, but this is no reason to lose faith in whatever someone might have faith in. I imagine her whispering to her characters, “I’m sorry, it’s true: No one loves you. But I do.”
Her beautiful-intricate-knot stories are her best ones—“Kill the Rabbits,” the long end story named for a song about rejecting white tourists, is another must-read, at turns sweet, melancholy and chilling. Some of the shorter, more traditionally structured stories feel less substantial. Ambiguity works best when there’s something striking to anchor it.
How to Escape from a Leper Colony is a perfect example of what everyone says about small presses—that they’re publishing the most innovative new work—but which not enough indie books live up to. This Graywolf Press collection not only raises the bar, but heats it up and bends it into lovely and unfamiliar shapes.
Cheryl Klein is the author of the novel Lilac Mines (Manic D Press) and The Commuters, a collection of connected stories, which won City Works Press’ Ben Reitman Award. An alum of UCLA and CalArts, she works for the California office of Poets & Writers, Inc. She lives in Los Angeles, where she blogs about art, life and carbohydrates at breadandbread.blogspot.com.