A couple of weeks ago, one of my professors sent out snippets from a book called How to Escape From a Leper Colony by Caribbean author, Tiphanie Yanique. Mrs. Yanique was coming to visit my college and my professor wanted us to be up to speed on her works before she got here. Tiphanie Yanique has won several awards for her literature including a Fulbright Scholarship and the Boston Review Fiction Prize. She has had her works published in both the United States and in Europe.
From the snippets I read, I saw that How to Escape From a Leper Colony, written in 2010, is a brilliant and intriguing piece of Caribbean literature. To me, literature is writing that speaks to its readers both today and 100 years ago, and will continue to speak to its readers in 100 years from now – it’s timeless. Literature accomplishes this feat by speaking to the human condition, which is the experiencing of emotions, thoughts and the physical world in addition to the interpreting of the implications of those experiences. Effectively, it is what it means to be a human being. Naturally, all people have the human condition and always have had it and always will have it. That is why literature remains relevant to all people from all times.
Mrs. Yanique’s writings are not simply just good writings; they are literature. Her writings also teach their readers about a new place: the Caribbean. By reading How to Escape from a Leper Colony, my eyes were opened to the culture in the Caribbean, namely in the island of Chacachacare during the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. Chacachacare is one of the Bocas Islands which lie between Trinidad and Venezuela in the Atlantic Ocean. I really didn’t have many of my own ideas about Chacachacare before reading this book. In fact, frankly, I didn’t know it even existed. That is part of why reading this was such an amazing, eye-opening experience for me.
In this story, I visited a train junction which also served as a market place in Trinidad where raw oysters, buckets and brooms were sold at stands. We traveled there by wagon and then walked on a dirt road for hours, from there to the ocean’s edge where I continued with Deepa, the main character of the story, a girl of 14 with leprosy, the rest of the way to Chacachacare by boat. Once in Chacachacare, we found our new home, a leper colony and hoped we could be happy there. The colony was ran by a conglomeration of Catholic nuns, Trinidadian doctors, British journalists, criminals and Christian missionaries, all volunteers there to do good deeds, hoping to earn forgiveness from God.
Mrs. Yanique’s story immersed me in a completely different world in a completely different time. It was a world where altars were built in the forest to Hindu gods and then burned by Catholic nuns. A world where lepers try to escape by jumping into the ocean. It was a time when penicillin was still new and peoples of different faiths from different nationalities all lived and worked together because they all shared a common reverence for “God”, regardless of who that god was. Imagine, just imagine that.