PictureAn Interview with Tiphanie Yanique

Interview conducted by Erin Stalcup 

Erin Stalcup: Sincere thanks for your visit to UNT this semester. The students and I loved listening to you read your work and answer questions about it. And thank you for extending your generosity and agreeing to answer some additional questions here.

The back of your first book, How to Escape from a Leper Colony, declares that this collection of stories is “part postcolonial narrative.” On the drive from DFW airport to Denton, you said to me that you weren’t crazy about theory, and you wondered sometimes if theorists even liked to read literature. I agreed with you then and now. While I do find many postcolonial critics insufferable, the secondary focus of my studies here at UNT is still postcolonialism, because it’s a framework that does help me read texts and the world more clearly. (Side note—I’d argue Walter Mignolo’s term decolonial applies more accurately to my studies and to your book, since it applies to movements originating in the Caribbean and Latin America.) How do you feel about the term “postcolonial” being applied to your collection? It’s the first time I’ve seen a theoretical framework applied to a text from the outset, and while I was excited that the term has acquired enough credence to be used to describe a book for a wide audience, it also made me wary. I wonder if you had a similar response, or one quite different to my own. 

Tiphanie Yanique: I do think that literary theory often circumnavigates, disregards or even maligns the texts to which it refers. It seems clear that liking a book isn’t the point of doing smart theory from a particular text.

It’s probably important to remember that theorists were once students trying to find something to say, something smart and important that has never been said. That might lead them to spend time with texts, even become expert with texts, that they don’t even enjoy reading. Well, okay. Good for those writers who get attention (and maybe then stay in print), good for those theorist who find something to say (and maybe then get in print!). But what it does, maybe, is de-emphasize that great literature might not only be smart and important but also beautiful.

That being said, so much of literature written by women or even written by people of color is often overlooked for its intelligence. Writing by women might be beautiful; writing by people of color might be important. But is it smart? Because my book was marketed as being postcolonial it did allow readers (and perhaps future theorists) to assume that this book, by a woman of color, might also be smart. 

ES: Well said. I think that’s exactly right. As I tried to articulate when I introduced you before your reading, for me this book is very much about island life, but it’s about much more than that as well. These stories take place in countries around the world (St. Thomas, where you are from, sure, but also Jamaica, India, Ghana, Gambia, Leeds and Brixton in England, and even Texas!) so they aren’t “just” about the insularity of being from a bound place. Instead, I see this book as being very global, about the ways in which people from different cultures can reach across boundaries and communicate, and the ways we simply can never understand each other. I think it’s important to admit and explore both truths. I told you that I think this is an important book, and I do, because of its range and depth. I think it’s a necessary book for writers and for readers, in order to help us understand how to interact in this increasingly globalizing world, and to see what the form of the short story can tell us about communication and its limitations. (I would argue each story in the collection is in a different form, another element that impresses me). Do you have any thoughts about that—about the fact that many have called this book pla