How to Escape From a Leper Colony
Tiphanie Yanique
Graywolf Press, 2010
Review by John Palen

When two middle class Caribbean families face the flaming wreck of wedding plans for their son and daughter, readers are told that they have "never sat in a circle and told each other stories. They have never even prayed together except at church. They have never before talked to each other about the divine risks of love." Such risks are a recurring theme in this vivid, adventurous first book by a young writer from the Virgin Islands.

In that story, "The Saving Work," two protected young islanders, Thomas and Jasmine, experiment with sex at college in the States. On impulse, shy Jasmine hops on a train and offers herself to another island boy away at school, Moby, an athlete on whom she has a crush. Pregnant by Moby, she quickly gets engaged to Thomas, and they return home to be married, throwing both families into turmoil. "I just wanted to do it," Jasmine explains to her younger, sexually experienced sister Daisy. "It was just a one-time thing. Just one brave thing that I did. And now it’s done. Okay?" In a wise and comic touch, Daisy presses two condoms from her stash into Jasmine’s hand — "For the next time you contemplate bravery." The whole arrangement, including both families’ complacency, goes up in flames — literally — after Jasmine torches the church in desperation.

Tiphanie Yanique likes the linked story form and explores it with technical virtuosity. Other stories in this collection explore the intersection of sex, love and the sacred, in sentences as apt as they are fresh. In an ambitious novella "The International Shop of Coffins," Yanique draws three independent but related stories from a seemingly casual encounter in a shop that has among its wares children’s coffins from Africa. These are "in shapes that a child’s body would be happy to lie in living or dead. One is shaped like a sneaker. It sits in the middle of the room as though a giant lost it in his stroll through the building. It is white and has a Nike swoop on the side."

With the shop as a focal point, Yanique explores the lives of the owner, his priest friend, and two young girls who seem to have wandered in out of idle curiosity. We learn that the priest became who he is because he was sent away after being caught in a childhood homosexual encounter. For his part, the shop owner has found himself after a long, confusing and obsessive relationship with a secretive artist. In the third story, one of the girls comes to the shop in disguise, as part of her mourning for her mother. Soon, though, her grief turns as wild as Carnival — with ultimately tragic rel="nofollow"consequences.

According to her blog, Yanique has won a Pushcart Prize, the Kore Press Fiction Prize, a Fulbright Scholarship in writing and other honors. Her fiction, poetry or essays can be found in Best African American Fiction, The London Magazine, Callaloo and other journals and anthologies. She is a professor of creative writing and Caribbean literature at Drew University in New Jersey.

John Palen, a poet and journalist, is working on a book of short fiction. His poetry has been published by Mayapple Press, March Street Press and Pudding House. Recently retired from Central Michigan University, he lives in Midland and teaches as an adjunct at Delta College.

© John Palen, 2010