Tiphanie Yanique: Lessons in Culture, History and Literature


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.

Mrs. Yanique’s story reveals the human feelings of uncertainty and fear when moving to a new place, the discovery of love as seen when Deepa falls in love with Lazaro, the experience of religious condemnation, and the exploring of a new culture.  Mrs. Yanique takes a foreign place and its history and culture, and makes it real and tangible, connecting readers to her characters through shared emotions and discoveries.  Then she brings this experience to the rest of the world as her books have been published all over.  How to Escape From a Leper Colony plays a vital and impactful role in the life of Caribbean literature by being an invaluable piece of educational and thoroughly enjoyable writing that will live on for generations to come.                     
Want the book? Purchase it from Powell’s here: http://goo.gl/56O8hD
Link to learn more about Tiphanie Yanique: tiphanieyanique.com

Rewards of Empathy and New Perspectives

Image Credit: Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 4.0

Image Credit: Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 4.0

Perspectives are diverse and how any given person observes the world is unique and beautiful. Poetry speaks in images, theories, joy, pain, and has the ability to change views, alter beliefs, and present common threads through artistic uses of language. When we dance down enjambments and hang from impactful line breaks, we are knowingly or unknowingly engaging in a journey that serves as a social ground for souls to mingle. Let us mingle amidst words, rhythm, and images that speak many stories of who we are, but most importantly toward all that we might not see.

How does any form of literature apply to my own life or experiences? Jericho Brown’s book of poems, The New Testament, gave even more weight to this often asked question. Every time I open the cover of a book reading becomes a journey, a there and back again experience that returns me to my world with new ways to see it.  The theological explorations, allusions and themes brought forth from the Bible weave an amazing tapestry of suffering, tragedy, commonplace misperceptions, and rebirth into new understandings and ideas. We had the pleasure of having Jericho Brown visit Pacific University.

My poetry class shared good conversation and delicious sushi with Mr. Brown. His playful manner and wild laugh welcomed us all to engage with him in jokes and lively banter. Jericho Brown spent time in our classroom as well, a more serious setting where we discussed his poems, how he interacts with his own students, and his admiration of Langston Hughes and the influence Hughes has had on him and his love of poetry.

Jericho Brown had a wonderful sense of humor, but I could see his seriousness as a writer, poet, and professor; his presence and energy at the podium during his reading captivated those in attendance.  His passion for poetry and words that he gained through his time as a youth in church and library helped me see why theology and poetry should be explored in the way he examined it. I feel it was all about perspectives and new thought, as the doctrine of Science of Mind Church in which he attends might seem to encourage through the studies of life, nature, and tenants of thought in a spiritual universe. The church has connections to the essays and ideas of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a great detail in adding the unique perspectives in The New Testament to my own.

Poetry is powerful; words hold meaning that can destroy or create, cut or heal, and show us how to see through different eyes. Empathy is one such reward that is bestowed upon its readers. Life is full of battles, and living scars us inside and out.  Those who share those scars and growing pains make living a richer experience.  Jericho Brown’s collection of poems shares many scars of racial intolerance, adversity, poverty, identity, and society. The sharing of the scars and blessings that shape a life or identity is one of the many things that make poetry one of the best ways of showing and sharing what it is to live and experience.

The voices of the speakers in Brown’s poems do not speak in hatred or animosity; the voices speak in sadness, frustration and anger. “The Interrogation,” a poem within the collection speaks through gritted teeth toward hope for change that exists within the words that speak toward truths of intolerance and fear projected by a mislead society. The poem, “Colosseum,” has images of struggle, pain, and scars outside and inside. The gladiators being fed to the lions or fighting for their lives had every day to fear; they also and every day to embrace while dealing through the pains and suffering of adversity. Brown’s words allude to life being a colosseum where all the battles are fought or lost throughout every day of living. Life is fleeting and sometimes ends all too soon, but the scars pile on while the living gets done. Poetry is the gift that is born out of how society and the world at large affect us.

The matter of society, class, race, and sexual orientation come together through many of the poems found within The New Testament. While I could not plug my own life into all the experiences in these poems, there are some that translated through empathy. One of the important rewards of reading is empathy and understanding beyond our own limited perspectives, and the poems from this collection gifted new sight beyond my own little rat race. The poetry from Jericho Brown is deep and meaningful and there is much understanding to be gained through his writing.

Jericho Brown’s website: http://www.jerichobrown.com

By: Steven Childress