Last month, Tiphanie Yanique was awarded the Center for Fiction's Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize for Land of Love and Drowning (Riverhead). Yanique, who lives in New York City but hails from St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, offers a multigenerational story set in her homeland that, per our starred review, "traces the ambivalent history of its inhabitants during the course of the 20th century." We caught up with Yanique to chat about winning the prize, representing the Virgin Islands in fiction, and what she's working on now.
Congrats on the win. How does it feel to have your first novel recognized in this way?
Thank you! I feel sort of like it never happened. The day after the Center for Fiction gala I hustled my three-year-old to school. The other parents and I talked about fund raising for the school and the toy drive. No one knew or cared. Everyone was bleary-eyed and in need of coffee. But then I feel simultaneously like the life of the book has changed dramatically because of this recognition. My family and friends sort of feel vindicated (they all claim that they knew I would win...I was pretty certain I wouldn't). And back home in the Virgin Islands, the governor's office put out a press statement. Like wow. It's like watching a child go off to kindergarten. The novel is less and less about me and more and more about who it engages with and touches as it reaches more people. The Center for Fiction Prize is already allowing it to reach more people. To have a life of it's own.
What is it like to be a writer representing the Virgin Islands, and winning awards for this portrayal of your home?
I am a daughter of the VI soil and history. I suppose I feel like any daughter: Proud that I am representing my family, my islands in a positive way, but also quite fearful that I might do something to embarrass my family, my islands. And then there's that other thing that I know even good daughters have, but often don't admit...I'm also hopeful that I'm forging something different within my family, my islands. Something that will provoke and challenge, maybe piss off a little but still never get me kicked out of the fold.
What other writers from the Virgin Islands inspire you?
The Virgin Islands writers who I am most inspired by are the lyricists--both the song writers and the poets. Carol Henneman and Dana Orie are two VI poets whose writing I hold closely. Nicholas Friday, known on island simply as "Daddy Friday," was a calypsonian who wrote highly danceable but often politically charged and complexly crafted lyrics. I could go on for a while. I have this dream of going back home and teaching a Virgin Islands literature course on the high school level. This is the first time I'm actually voicing that dream in print. Who knows...maybe the right person will read this and they'll be like...yes, come teach at our high school.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on a collection of poems called Wife, which will be out with Peepal Tree Press. I'm also working on my next fiction--a novel, I think--called Monster in the Middle. So far this novel is about a young couple living in Harlem, New York. The novel goes back in history to discover the narratives and vital turns of fate that have caused these two people to find each other and fall in love. Like Land of Love and Drowning it uses romantic love to say something about the more vexed political issues of our time--like racism and sexism. It will be published by the wonderful Riverhead Books.