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Uneasy in the islands

Full of vivid characters and fiery prose, these debut stories navigate cultural complexities in the Caribbean

By Margot Livesey
February 28, 2010

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“But the biggest part of the magic,” a man called Cooper tells us, “was the trick of convincing your audience that you have indeed yielded everything - look, my hands are empty, nothing behind my ear, my sleeves are loose.” Cooper’s magic hasn’t been working so well recently - he’s talking to us from his prison cell - but that of his author, Tiphanie Yanique, is utterly convincing.

In her debut collection, Yanique, a native of the Virgin Islands who teaches at Drew University, introduces her readers to an engaging and cosmopolitan cast of characters and to the various worlds they inhabit. One of the several significant pleasures of “How to Escape from a Leper Colony’’ is the degree to which Yanique’s fiery prose transports us principally to the Caribbean, but also to England and America.

The title story, which opens the collection, is a good ambassador for the book as a whole. Like several other stories, it is divided into wittily titled sections (e.g. “3rd Kill a nun”); has a strong first-person narrator; is sharply aware of the importance of money and work; and reveals a complicated mix of cultures, races, and religions. The story opens in 1939 when Deepa, age 14, is sent to a leper colony on the small island of Chacachacare off the coast of Trinidad. She is sent there by her Christian mother because her Hindu father has just died on the island and because Deepa, too, has the first signs of leprosy on her arm. The nuns, Deepa’s mother tells her, will take care of her.

Deepa’s first friend on the island is a boy named Lazaro, so called not because he has been resurrected but because he refuses to die. “One could not tell if Lazaro was African or Indian - there was talk that there might be French in him, too.” Lazaro is two years older than Deepa and much smaller. She confides in him that she is thinking they will bury her father instead of cremating him, “Even though he Indian.” “You thinking wrong,” Lazaro tells her. “Here we all Indian, no matter how much African we have in us.” Later Deepa describes the doctor who is going to operate on her arm: “Only his eyes showed and I couldn’t tell if he was French and tanned, or African but light, or Indian even.”

This mix - indeed confusion - of races is something that recurs, crucially, in several stories. In “The International Shop of Coffins,” two girls are encouraged to become friends because “each family felt the other would help with the assimilation to island life. The Manachandis thought that Leslie’s family was Creole - the white French they had heard were native to some of the islands. The Dockers thought Gita was Trini - Indo-Caribbean from Trinidad. But neither family was from the islands. . . . The Manachandis were from Bombay. The Dockers were actually from Leeds.” These stories vividly demonstrate globalization, although I don’t think the word is ever actually used.

Yanique’s characters can’t escape living in multiracial societies, but race is not at the center of every story; it is sometimes just one more fact about these complex characters. In other stories, however, it plays a pivotal role. In “Kill the Rabbits,” for example, a young white man is asked to don a rabbit costume during carnival and allow himself to be “killed” in accordance with the popular song lyrics. (Rabbits are white people.) Whether it is central or more peripheral, Yanique writes about race with a frankness and humor that allow her to revisit familiar questions - Can we judge by appearances? Can we escape our race? - from a new angle.

Indeed, humor is another crucial pleasure of her work and is often evident in her deft characterizations. “Father Simon is below the Western average in height. . . . He is balding and has a great big head, so that balding seems quite natural as you can never imagine hair making it across the entire skull. . . . But never does Simon appear short and fat and balding with a big head. He walks and speaks and gestures as if he is a very handsome man.” Simon is one of three principal characters in the absorbing novella “The International Shop of Coffins.” The other two are Anexus Corban, owner of the shop with its various coffins - one shaped like a soccer ball, another like a lollipop - and Gita, the girl from Bombay. Each gets his or her narrative, and each has had, or in Gita’s case hopes to have, a passionate entanglement.

This longer work displays Yanique’s gift for writing with equal empathy about men and women. Father Simon, while not a very appealing character in the present of the story, becomes much more so when we learn how he, inadvertently, made his way from poor apprentice carpenter to priest. Corban’s route to the coffin shop has also been convoluted, and Yanique does an excellent job of depicting his ambivalent relationship not only with his mistress - a painter - but with himself. Both men are in the grip of their separate pasts, and each finds a kind of solace in the shop. The third and last part of the novella follows Gita, who, on her way to a party, comes into the shop on a lark. Although she is much younger than the two men, Gita is already old enough to learn that past and present can sharply divide, and that love and death may commingle. I won’t give away the remarkable climax.

I reached the end of “How to Escape from a Leper Colony’’ with the exhilarating sense that I had been on the best kind of journey - not, finally, to the Virgin Islands nor Trinidad nor Houston nor London, but to the imagination of a wonderfully talented young writer who has many more stories to tell.

Margot Livesey is a distinguished writer in residence at Emerson College. Her most recent novel is “The House on Fortune Street.’’

HOW TO ESCAPE FROM A LEPER COLONY By Tiphanie Yanique

Graywolf, 184 pp., paperback, $15