RACE, POWER AND STORYTELLING: AN INTERVIEW WITH TIPHANIE YANIQUE
Tiphanie Yanique is a critically acclaimed American author of the poetry collection Wife, which won the 2016 Bocas Prize in Caribbean poetry and the United Kingdom’s 2016 Forward/Felix Dennis Prize for a First Collection. Her novel, Land of Love and Drowning, won the 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Award from the Center for Fiction, the Phillis Wheatley Award for Pan-African Literature, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Rosenthal Family Foundation Award, and was listed by NPR as one of the Best Book of 2014; it was also a finalist for the Orion Award in Environmental Literature and the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award. Her first collection of stories, How to Escape from a Leper Colony, won her a listing as one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35. Yanique's children's picture book, I am the Virgin Islands, was published in December 2012 by Little Bell Caribbean/Campanita Books and was commissioned by the First Lady of the Virgin Islands as a gift to the children of the Virgin Islands. Yanique’s work has also won the Bocas Award for Caribbean Fiction, the Boston Review Prize in Fiction, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers Award, a Pushcart Prize, a Fulbright Scholarship and an Academy of American Poet’s Prize. She has been listed by the Boston Globe as one of the sixteen cultural figures to watch out for and her writing has been published in the New York Times, Best African American Fiction, The Wall Street Journal, American Short Fiction and elsewhere. She is Associate Professor in the English Department and Director of the Creative Writing Program at Wesleyan University. She is from the Virgin Islands and lives in New Rochelle, New York with her family. More at tiphanieyanique.com.
Namrata Poddar writes fiction, nonfiction, occasionally translates Francophone writers of Afro-Asian diaspora into the English, and serves as Interviews Editor for Kweli. Her work explores the intersection of storytelling and power via race, class, gender, place, and migration, and has appeared in Transition, The Margins, The Progressive, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, CounterPunch, Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly, The Feminist Wire, Hayden's Ferry Review, Necessary Fiction, The Aerogram, and elsewhere. She holds a Ph.D. in French Studies from the University of Pennsylvania, an MFA in fiction from Bennington Writing Seminars, and a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship in Transnational Cultures from UCLA where she taught postcolonial literatures in the departments of English, African, Global, French and Francophone Studies, and Honors Collegium too. More at www.namratapoddar.com.
Namrata Poddar: Since the current American publication industry is 87% white at executive levels of decision-making, I’m always curious about the journey of young women writers of color navigating the scene. Was it easy for you to get published, especially when you were sending out those first poems or stories into the world? Was it ever a concern that the literary gatekeepers would edit your voice through a white gaze? In other words, what were some of your biggest challenges and joys in walking that early road to publication?
Tiphanie Yanique: I had a finished draft of my novel before the story collection was finished—but the story collection was published first. Why? Well, regardless of race and gender, there is quite a lot less riding on the publication of story collections. With story collections, the writer gets less money, the press puts less support into the publication, book stores hand-sell less, etc. These are generalizations, to be sure, but still broadly true. Publishing my story collection first was a safer bet. And then, it was the esteemed but small Graywolf Press who took a risk on the collection. Graywolf, also being a nonprofit, didn’t have to worry as much about the bottom line.
My work, and indeed me as a part of the package, were seen as hard to package for sale at bigger places. Is Tiphanie Yanique an American? But I write about the Caribbean. Is she Caribbean? But then how does she fit into the post-colonial conversation? Publishers didn’t know what to do with me or my work.
Indeed, many editors said so much. I had glowing, and yet, deeply offensive rejections. One editor said my work reminded her of a young Toni Morrison, but she just could not convince the marketing team that anyone would buy my books. Another reassured me that I would do very well, but her imprint already had an Afro-Caribbean woman on the roster and they couldn’t figure out how to market me without hurting that woman’s sales.
Sad shit. And quite a narrow vision for individuals who otherwise are sincerely working towards expanding the various ideas of who reads and who gets read. We often talk about the “industry” of publishing being fucked up, and it is, but we have to think about the individuals who make up that industry. Each of us (even you and I as teachers of the literature) are part of the industry’s gatekeepers. Everyone reading this interview is also. They can click on a link and buy a book or they cannot. They can read this entire article and help Kweli get more hits, or they cannot. That is power. How are we wielding that power? Many of the editors who rejected me and my novel now speak to me kindly and with regret when they see me at events. They say they wish, they say what a mistake. I get it. As someone who is also making tradeoffs constantly in my life, I know that sometimes I go safe when I could have gone bold—because it’s easier and I have to get tenure or I have to, what? Just go home and make dinner for my three kids and easier is just easier. But each of us has to take responsibility for the state of our industry. Editors need to help their marketing people see with more complexity. Marketing needs to see, that duh, good writing sells when you put the effort behind it. Readers are as racist as anyone else, but also perhaps more open to being changed than non-readers. Yes, readers put their money behind things that feel familiar or that present difference in a familiar way—but the editors and marketers can help readers with their own myopia, by saying, hey this is a good book that will speak to you if you have the openness to, well, read it. This takes work. It’s not easy. But most of us are not getting rich off of writing or publishing literary fiction, so we might as well honor our own ethics when we can.
Which is to say, it wasn’t easy for me. And it wasn’t easy for the professors, agents, editors, publicists and publishers who each took a risk and supported my work in first getting published. But fucking miracles of miracles—it happened. I deserved it, for sure. But so do a shitload of others for whom the miracle hasn’t happened as yet. We’ve got to try and do right by those writers and those books. And even those of us who have one or three books published—we have to keep proving ourselves and the industry has to keep taking a chance on us.
NP: Besides the demographic makeup of American publishing, 90% of the books reviewed by the New York Times are by white writers as a recent study by Roxane Gay has shown. Even when 2016 VIDA count on Women in the Literary Arts showed a higher percentage of women’s voices in publication, an overwhelming majority of them were still Caucasian. Besides, we’re waiting for ethno-racial statistics to be published on the number of core faculty or directors of creative writing programs or on the directors and administrative decision-makers for writing conferences, residencies, retreats, and literary awards, even if we all know what that report would look like. Do you think our writing and publishing industry will come closer to reflecting the diversity/reality of America within the next five years, now that Trumps’ presidential victory and the aftermath have created a slightly higher awareness on issues of white supremacy amid the predominantly white gatekeepers? How do you envision our community’s literary future and where do you think the biggest change will come from?
TY: Five years!!!??? Hells no. Academia and publishing are too damn slow. And besides, I don’t buy into ideas about the arc of progress and that bullshit. I mean, when Toni Morrison was an editor everyone thought that publishing was about to get appropriately diverse. Sike! Then, a few years ago, publishing had the electronic crisis and editors started dropping like flies … white editors, too, but boy did it seem like it was the South Asian and Latinx editors and the African American literary agents who were overly represented in that exodus. And let’s not even fucking start on academia—which is the industry where I hold most of my gatekeeping power. I mean people have to literally die for jobs to free up at the upper levels of universities. And then, many of the old-school powerhouse creative writing programs do like Ivy Leagues and mostly hire their own—self-perpetuating the problem. Again, this is about ease. It’s easier to hire someone with a Yale undergraduate degree and an M.F.A. from Iowa. I mean, I get it. Someone else said they are good, this candidate clearly busted their ass; is clearly talented even. How much harder is it to really look closely at the person who went to a big public university for undergrad and then maybe just slid their butts into the M.F.A. program that was nearest to where they grew up (maybe because they have kids or because they were helping care for a younger sibling). It’s harder to look for that in the paper work while you’re deciding who to bring to an MLA interview for a job. But, again, if we don’t do that work, we perpetuate the problem.
Most of us writers of color have to work hard and have other people working hard on our behalf. Takes a village to make a writer of color.
NP: What fascinated me when I first discovered your work through How to escape from a Leper Colony was how ethnically diverse your characters are. As a literary critic, I’ve noticed a conspicuous ease toward writing characters of diverse ethnic or racial backgrounds in contemporary fiction from the Caribbean or Indian Ocean islands as I do in works by South Asian diasporic writers too. Yet in the North American setting, year after year, we have Caucasian writers who “don a sombrero” or bemoan a “cottage industry” of “sensitivity readers” to defend creative freedom toward writing minority characters, much to the dismay of minority writers in the West. Where do you think lies the line separating woke attempts on writing a diverse world from a reckless defense of cultural appropriation in the name of artistic freedom?
TY: I mean, poor Shriver. Her skin is so thin that she can’t take criticism without biting back. And where was her creative writing workshop? The fact that she is well known, well off (comparatively) isn’t enough to allow her to be humble in the face of genuine feedback. I mean, that is a soul thing. I have pity on her soul. If I ever meet her in person, I will smile at her, and give her a hug if she lets me. The world is hard for folks with privilege. I mean this sincerely—who is more fragile than the powerful? Plus, she looks ridiculous in a sombrero.
The first thing I tell my students is that they must write bravely. That means writing towards the things that most make you uncomfortable—and part of why that is brave is mostly because it’s not easy. Brave writing means failing a lot of the time—even when writing well, there will be failures in the work. I teach a class on writing toward the unfamiliar, the un-organic, writing what you don’t know. When we are in a position of power with what we don’t know (a male writer writing women characters, for example) the work is much, much greater. This is not only an ethical issue, though I do think writers should have some personal ethics (just like doctors or hair dressers or any human being), but this is an issue of craft. I mean, doesn’t Shriver want to write well? That means listening to critics. When someone says your work is racist, they are suggesting that you are not writing well. Period. Your characters are reductive. Your plots are simplistic. It may be that they are that way because of racism—which is impacting the writer’s ability to write a fully realized character. Or it may be that character development is generally hard for that writer, and so, when it’s a character who is less familiar, the lack of talent or hard work is more starkly shown. So, just write better. Accept criticism and the reader saying, write better for fuck’s sake. Just write better.
I think North American writers struggle with this because there is a performance of integration here in the States. Take Shriver saying that growing up in the American South means she had a good ear for Blackness. I mean, maybe. But as an artist, I wouldn’t rely on “I grew up around it” as a good enough evidence. Readers might, for example, accept a poet saying that they learned how the ghazal works by visiting Iran. But any actual poet would know that a writer would have to study the working of the ghazal, study other poets who use the ghazal, practice the form for years, before mastering it. If anyone ever said, well, I grew up near a Native American reservation and I would sometimes see the old men in Native get-up, so I really do understand Native American rituals, we writers would think that is bonks. The lay reader who doesn’t know about making literature might accept “I live nearby” but other artists know this is bullshit. And let’s face it, it’s not lay readers who are hating on Shriver. Her books sales are stellar. It’s other artists, also readers, who are reading her work closely and deeply, and are like … nah, sis. “I’m a white woman who grew up in the South,” doesn’t cut it for making good art about Black Southerners. What cuts it is actually making good art about Black Southerners. Then we can talk about appropriation. First off, it’s like, are you writing well? And in most cases, that is what people are taking offense to. Your awful ass writing. I mean, not to start anything, but I’ve heard no one fucking with Ben Fountain for his writing of people of color. He is a straight, White Southerner who, among other fucking things, has written about Afro-Caribbeans. Does he get a pass? Hells no. As an Afro-Caribbean person myself, I first read his work with deep suspicion. But you know what? He writes well. Is it fair that white people writing about people of color are read first with suspicion by people of color? No, it’s not fair. But neither are the conditions—slavery, Jim Crow, colonialisms, continued and systematic racism—that lead us to be rightfully suspicious fair. I’m always surprised that white people expect people of color to be generous to them in ways that white people historically and now (see previous comments on the whiteness of publishing and academia) never are to us.
In my case, to write various Caribbean characters I had to research and study and practice and fail and revise and listen and get feedback. And this is besides feeling that I can write any Caribbean character of any race with an inside knowledge, because in the Caribbean, ethnicity tends to supersede race. So, an Indo-Caribbean person is a Caribbean person. I can access them with similar ease of accessing Afro-Caribbean writers. But I work very hard at both. To write an Afro-Caribbean character I have to work just as hard (sometimes harder to get over my false feelings of mastery, because you know, I lived the Afro-Caribbean life). Culturally, the real difficulty for Caribbean writers seems to be when they write outside of class—because that’s the real social separation for us in the Caribbean. I don’t think we have so much trouble writing outside of race (not that we don’t) because our socio-historical fuckeries have presented race with more complexity than the North American binaries of white and black. And even though we, in the Caribbean, have a history of slavery and colonialism and now the racialized, capitalist tourist industry—race is complex for us. And complexity always allows for more ways in than simplicity does.
For me personally, the real challenge is writing African Americans. But because I believe in writing towards what we are afraid to write, that is what I’m doing in my upcoming book. I have had to read deeply and broadly in African American literature, enter humbly and fully into conversations about African American literature, practice writing African American characters in smaller chunks first, live among African Americans in some serious guerilla research, and even become a bit of an African American myself where I now am a Black person in America who looks and often systemically and politically just is African American. I’m even now a professor of African American studies—and still, I guarantee I’ll get maaaaaaaad Af-Am readers and scholars calling me on some shit I fuck up on in this book. I guarantee it. And while I hope the feedback comes with some praise, because I’m a human being with feelings and shit, I’ll still be so damn grateful for that feedback. Because, yo, I too want to write better.
NP: Land of Love and Drowning is a rich multilayered novel that gives an insider’s perspective to the Virgin Islands through an intergenerational, intersectional feminist lens. Oral storytelling, local folklore and oral versions of the islands’s history play a huge role—be it through one of the protagonists, Annette, the self-proclaimed historian, or a more omniscient first-person narrator via the “old wives.” Similarly, your story “Street Man” in How to Escape from a Leper Colony has a narrator-protagonist, Anton, who talks to us in a creolized English of the Caribbean. Is orality or oral storytelling a conscious tool of craft in your work? Do you see it as a political device, a feminist strategy, or perhaps, both?
TY: I mean, for real. This is why scholar readers are so important. They are the invested readers that literary fiction needs to stay dynamic and vibrant and just good. In my case, the intersectional aspects are not intentional. Though this is something I am learning, from my own students, from other writers, from scholars, to make more considered choices in my writing. The idea, however, of orality as a craft tool is entirely intentional. Using dialect, the vernacular, is a political consideration for me that comes out of wanting to write a community (the idea of using the multiple third person narrative) and wanting to write outside of myself effectively (writing a male, as in “Street Man”). I’m a feminist, and my feminism serves me to write women with more fullness—because that is all the fuck my feminism is asking for—that women be given full humanity (which in literature might look like acknowledging a character’s subjectivity and agency). I want to write men well for the same reason. I use craft tools to this—because writing is what I have to offer. I want to do it well and I want to do it ethically. I mean, we all should. Why do we think artists get to be assholes and motherfuckers in our art just because it’s art? Would we think that about surgeons? Like it’s okay if this plastic surgeon leaves scars on a black body because he doesn’t leave scars on white bodies? We’d be like, don’t go to that surgeon. That surgeon sucks. That surgeon is racist. That surgeon needs to study how black skin scars. It’s an ethical thing for a surgeon. It’s ethical for an artist. It doesn’t mean you have to write your characters as all good and beautiful. Right? If you’re a plastic surgeon, no one expects you to also represent your patient in a court of law. A plastic surgeon is not a lawyer. You do what you are supposed to and you do it well. In the case of fiction writers, we’re making persons from scratch. Just do right by your person’s skin and genitals and the history that comes with those things.
NP: You write across genres—poetry, novella, short stories, children books, and the novel. Is there a literary genre that you hold closest to your heart? Why?
TY: No. Each genre is giving me something that the other only half-asses for me. Or it might be that I am sometimes going to a short story because of my half-assed ability to be sustained by a novel, or the opposite. A failing in me, a failing in each genre? I can’t say for sure. Maybe it’s the same thing either way. I’m grateful for each way these types question the world. I’m grateful when they blend into each other. I’m grateful when they stand alone. It’s a gift to have multiplicity. I feel bad for people who say they don’t read poetry. Or something otherwise, narrowing. I feel like, wow, you would close yourself to something potentially beautiful?
NP: Who do you see as your literary influences? And your literary brothers or sisters?
TY: My answer is always the same. Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jamaica Kincaid are the writers whose work I am most enamoured with and influenced by. I suppose one can’t choose one’s parents. And this is how it is for me. But the siblings, the aunties and cousins of one’s literary family continue to accumulate for me. And dang. Some of these writers have been writing since I was in in high school, like Edwidge Danticat. Some of them are more my clear contemporaries, like Aracelis Girmay or Jericho Brown. But I mean, who can deny some of these writers? And some other influences are just like duh. I mean, is there a writer today who hasn’t read Toni Morrison? I mean, a good writer?
NP: In the wake of recent hurricanes, Maria and Irma, both American and global media have predictably kept the spotlight on the mainland or a continental USA. When media moved momentarily toward the American islands, Puerto Rico has received a higher attention than the Virgin Islands, even if both are situated geographically close to the U.S., in the Caribbean. What do you think accounts for a mainstream media’s skewed perception of America, especially when it comes to its political or natural disasters?
TY: I think it’s fucked up. I think it’s racist. I think it should be expected. Puerto Rico does have a larger place in the American imagination than the Virgin Islands, and that allowed PR to get more attention and resources. This should tell us something about the importance of imagination, and therefore stories, on our everyday political realities. Virgin Islanders, in particular, hold some imagination for and of Puerto Rico. Many of us were actually born there. Others of us were educated there. But what we all need is Virgin Islands novels and TV shows and movies and musicals. We need to culturally put a claim on ourselves, for ourselves … but also so that others will know we exist. If they don’t think of us as a place of people, but simplistically, as a touristic performance of people, then when we are devastated by a natural disaster, who will send FEMA?
This is unfair, to be sure. Why should part of our making art be about convincing the imperial power that we actually exist? Well, that is imperialism.
I’m certainly very grateful that Puerto Rico got, and is getting, some desperately-needed attention and funds. I mean, really—it wasn’t even close to enough. We have to keep PR, and the VI, in the national lens. We have to advocate for each other. We have to write about each other. We have to sing about each other. We are in this together. When St. Thomas was devastated first by Irma, who was among our close neighbors helping our tiny island? Puerto Rico.