Book Reviews · 02/07/2011

How to Escape from a Leper Colony by Tiphanie Yanique


Graywolf Press, March 2010

“Man, who the hell is they and who the frig is us?” asks one of the characters in Tiphanie Yanique’s story “Kill the Rabbits” from her 2010 collection How to Escape from a Leper Colony. The phrase “kill the rabbits” comes from a popular song, and it means, one character explains to another, to kill white people. They have an argument about who counts as “white”:

“The tourist color. I ain no tourist. I’s a Frenchy – a island man. Rabbits don’t mean me.”
“But you’re white, too, like me.”
“Not that. The song means you.”
“Not me either then. They mean tourist then. Like those assholes.” I pointed to a white couple who were dressed in shorts and walking into a café. I didn’t know if those tourists were assholes. I didn’t know anything about them.
“You are them,” said Dutch.
“No. I live here. They’re tourists. I’m local.”
“You live here for two years. They live here for two weeks. What’s the difference? You’re all going back.”
“That’s bullshit,” I said.

This exchange encapsulates many of the book’s concerns, from what it means to be white, black, or brown, to who belongs where. Who counts as a local or a tourist? An insider or an outsider? Someone who fits in and someone who doesn’t?

How to Escape contains six stories and one novella, most of them set in the Caribbean islands, where people from many ethnicities and backgrounds live together, sometimes harmoniously, sometimes not. In “The Saving Work,” two white American women have married black Caribbean men, but in spite of this superficial similarity, they hate each other and hope that their children will not become friends. The children do anyway, however, and off at college in the United States, they meet and discuss their feelings about their mixed racial backgrounds:

“You know. White or black? What do you feel more?” It was a question from her Race and the Essay class. It was a question about passing. About being something you were not or becoming something you were not meant to be. But it was also a question that she and Thomas had been thinking about all their lives.

They are not the only characters who spend their lives thinking about such questions. In “Where Tourists Don’t Go,” an African-American woman and a Jamaican man, both living in Houston, Texas, argue over how to decorate their apartment and settle uneasily on a neutral Asian theme to avoid having to choose between their two cultures. This disagreement is a harbinger of future misunderstandings to come. The novella, “The International Shop of Coffins,” brings together characters from Gambia, Trinidad, India, and England in a shop in the Virgin Islands that sells specialty coffins imported from around the world. The novella traces the intricacies of the characters’ histories and friendships as they interact during a brief moment in the shop.

What is at stake in these stories is not only a matter of racial and ethnic identity, however; How to Escape is also concerned with boundaries and divisions more generally. The title story tells of a young girl in 1939 who suffers from leprosy and has been sent off to the island of Chacachacare to live with other lepers and to be cared for by nuns. She and a friend shock the Catholic residents of the island by building an altar to the Hindu goddess Kali, and this transgression leads to a conflagration that shakes up the whole island. In “Bridge Stories,” the theme of boundaries becomes more abstract, as four brief vignettes explore the manner in which bridges both connect and separate islands and their residents. For some, bridges offer a means of escape, but for others they disrupt livelihoods by ruining the fishing trade. A bridge becomes a metaphor for unity, but they are also in-between things, as one character who flees to a bridge discovers:

A full day on the Bridge. Not on the land, not in the sky, not in the water. She saw the sun set and then rise on this limbo life.

One of the chief pleasures of reading this collection is experiencing the range of characters and voices that Yanique offers. She is capable of evoking a sense of a full life in just a few pages, and she successfully negotiates extremely varied times, places, and cultures in the space of a single story. Some of the stories veer toward magical realism, but most stay in a solidly recognizable world. She is particularly good at capturing voices, both in the narration and in dialogue. There is a whole range of speakers here, from traditional third-person limited narrators to first-person narratives, sometimes told in formal speech and sometimes in colloquial language.

“Bridge Stories” contains the most complex narrative structure but is perhaps the least successful. Each of the story’s four sections begins with a subtitle that identifies the subject of the story and its narrator, for example, “The Story of the Burka and the Habit: as told by a Catholic Lady in a big hat,” or “The Fisherman’s Tale: as told by someone’s grandfather in a corner rum shop.” It’s not clear, however, why these particular narrators were chosen, or what the connection is between the stories and the storytellers. Nevertheless, other pieces strike the right balance between structural complexity and thematic unity. “Kill the Rabbits,” in particular, weaves together the stories of its three main characters in an intricate pattern that holds together beautifully. Most of the stories display Yanique’s talent at its strongest: conjuring up complex worlds that challenge us to think about the vexed question of who we are.

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Rebecca Hussey lives in Conneticut, teaches English and blogs at Of Books and Bikes as “Dorothy W.”