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2011 Bocas Retrospective: Tiphanie Yanique’s “How to Escape from a Leper Colony”

By Shivanee Ramlochan, 2012 Bocas Lit fest blogger


One of the highlights, for me, at 2011’s Bocas, was listening to Tiphanie Yanique read from her collection of short and longer fictions, How to Escape from a Leper Colony. Winner of the Fiction arm of the OCM Bocas Prize, this gathering of stories about place and identity politics, the compulsion of passion that bridges difficult gaps, about bridges themselves and their place in the Caribbean landscape, is an unforgettable one. I read How to Escape from a Leper Colony in one feverish, intense sitting, and since then I’ve been waiting for more of her work. Shortly after reading it, I reviewed it on Novel Niche. (I can only hope that this year’s longlist, to  be announced in the coming months, gives me as much ecstatic and pleasurable pause, but I daresay I’ve no need to worry!) Here are some other thoughts on the collection from regional reviewers, and beyond.From The Caribbean Review of Books (full review accessible here), Nadia Ellis says:

“Perhaps the thing I most admire about Yanique is her mastery of a variety of styles. She writes parables — small, quasi-magical tales that are perfectly poised above, just barely touching, the political, the humanistic, the miniaturistic. Then she turns around and writes family narratives in the mode of classic realism, and then stories of long-lost love in the magisterial tone of emotional renunciation. Her narrators use standard English, and then again creoles of various provenance. She’ll write a story of migrancy that emphasises the quotidian and is driven by subtle emotional distemper (“Where Tourists Don’t Go”, say, or “Canoe Sickness”). And then she’ll write a sex scene between boys in Gambia, with a startling image of violent repercussion. She’ll do filmic set pieces — a club scene, a car crash. She is sometimes poetic (the resonant symbolism in “Kill the Rabbits”, for instance) and she is sometimes, one has to say it, prosaic (the way that symbolism becomes insistent). Either way, you sense an imagination that is richly peopled and full of expressive potential. You are never immersed here in one kind of water.”

From Open Letters Monthly (full review accessible here) Rita Consalvos says:

“…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.”

Further Reading (Reviews/Interviews/Features):
♦ Review at NPR
♦ Review at BookForum
♦ Interview at Tottenville Review
♦ Review at Necessary Fiction

Closing with a bonus: here’s a WomenSpeakProject video of Yanique being mini-interviewed on her perspective of the role of writing in her own life, taken at last year’s Bocas, amidst the bookish hustle and bustle. If the atmosphere gets you even that teensy bit excited for this year’s festival — all the better!