Tiphanie Yanique Dreams of Literary Call and Response

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03/22/2010 4:00 AM |

Tiphanie Yanique is the author of the debut story collection How to Escape from a Leper Colony. She reads at McNally Jackson on Wednesday, March 24.

For our readers who may not be familiar with your work, what’s the most accurate thing someone else has said about it?
Someone once called my writing “lush.” I love that word. It makes me think sensuality, beautiful excess, baroque. I like the idea of being overwhelmed by writing. I don’t know if my work is accurately lush, but I write it with that hope.

What have you read/watched/listened to/looked at/ate recently that will permanently change our readers’ lives for the better?
Read: I’ve just finished reading Kei Miller’s The Same Earth. Kei is a fiction writer and poet from Jamaica who lives now in Europe. He’s such a funny and loving writer. For me that book complicated the relationship between the community and the individual. I couldn’t figure out which I resented or embraced more.

Watch: I just went to Broadway to see Fela! It was my first Broadway show. My husband bought the tickets as a way too extravagant Christmas gift. Fela! showed how music can be political, not in the words even, but in the music itself. In the choice of rhythms, in the choice of instruments. And it was so much fun! I had to go home and practice my hip rolling dance moves.

Look and listen, then do something: I’m responding to this questionnaire from South Africa where I’m working with students who are studying to be activist writers and scholars. We’re far from the West but everything we’re hearing and looking at from America is about the earthquake in Haiti. The images and information are obviously horrendous, but I know that looking and listening may cause some of us to act, to do some service for others. I really believe that type of action or service would change us for the better.

Not eat but drink: We got a blender as wedding gift. A blender, my people, is amazing. I made my first batch of coquito this past Christmas. Coquito with Cruzan rum. A little rum makes everything better.

Whose ghostwritten celebrity tell-all (or novel) would you sprint to the store to buy (along with a copy of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius so that the checkout clerk doesn’t look at you screwy)?
I have a friend who is a ghostwriter. It seems like being in a ventriloquist team, except that the audience thinks the puppet is actually speaking. Strange. But I am fascinated by romantic love. I’d want to know the real deal, ventriloquist or not, between Angelina and Brad! Between Jada and Will! JLo and Mark, P Diddy and what’s his name [Her name? -Ed]. But I would never buy the book. I would sneak read it in the bookstore when I thought no one was watching.

Have you ever been a Starving Artist, and did it make you brilliant, or just hungry?
I grew up in a rough and broke ass neighborhood. But my grandmother, who still lives in that rough broke place, has always believed in enjoying life. No matter what, enjoy! When I was in high school we lived through Hurricane Marilyn and didn’t have electricity for three months, but she made sure we had cookies and what she calls “nice things” to eat. Talk about poor, we were some poor folk those three months. I know people romanticize poverty and for the most part I think that’s a whole lot of b.s. If you’re hungry you’re not thinking about writing a beautiful poem. You’re thinking about stealing some bread. But I’ll tell you that during the hurricane, when we were eating army rations for months (months!), my grandmother would pass the time by telling us stories. Cookies and Anansi stories. What else could a young almost writer need?

What would you characterize as an ideal interaction with a reader?
I believe in the person who writes. I believe writing, especially fiction where you often have to create and then love intensely flawed human beings, can make you a better version of yourself. I believe in the reader as a real human being who can also be moved by witnessing/reading. So for me the best connections between writers and readers are the things that look like real communication, like real call and response. In my dream I’d be reading my story with the audience whooping at the parts they like, hissing when they’re upset, crying if it’s a sad part, spontaneously kissing a lover if there’s a love scene, rolling to the floor in laughter if it’s funny. Then afterwards we’d turn on Fela Kuti and all dance until we’re sweaty.

Have you ever written anything that you’d like to take back?
When I was about twenty I wrote a response review to a pretty famous critic where I bashed her negative review of a book I thought was really good. I felt she was critical of the book because she resented the author and the author’s politics. I attacked the critic worse than she had attacked the author. But I was twenty and didn’t know that critic, or frankly, the author, from cat or dog. I was responding from this soapbox of moral authority. The editor of the journal, who had actually solicited my review, told me he would not published it because he wanted to protect me from myself. Dude, thank you for real.