For Tiphanie Yanique, who studied and taught creative writing as a Master’s of Fine Art candidate at UH from 2003-2005, last week represented both the culmination of a life-long ambition and an important first step on her journey as a young author.
With the March 2 release of her first book, a collection of short stories titled How to Escape from a Leper Colony, Yanique has made good on a desire born in childhood to bring Caribbean literature to both the world and her fellow Virgin Islanders.
“Being from the Virgin Islands in particular, I grew up not even knowing there was such a thing as Caribbean literature, which seems impossible because the Caribbean has impacted global literature tremendously,” Yanique said. “I think this is particularly because we’re an American territory, and we don’t necessarily have as much access to what is going on creatively in the region.
“I thought how ridiculous it is that we live in this place that’s amazing and beautiful, but people come here to lay on our beaches and drink margaritas and don’t know anything about the intellectual and cultural stuff that is happening on the island.”
Her passion for her native culture extends to wider plains than simply her writing. After completing her undergraduate degree at Tufts University, Yanique was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship.
This scholarship sends promising and accomplished young scholars abroad with the mission to “increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and people of other countries,” according to its Web site.
There was no doubt in her mind as to how she would use the opportunity.
“I went back and taught in my high school for two years, which was the ‘give back’ thing I wanted to do. I wanted to teach Caribbean literature,” Yanique said. “While I was there, I also started a creative writing organization called Rock Lounge, which continues without me now, which is really exciting.”
After completing her time off, Yanique knew she wanted to continue her scholarship. Loving literature and writing equally, she initially was unsure if she wanted to pursue an MFA in creative writing, which would act as a terminal degree, allowing her to teach at the college level, or pursue a doctorates degree in literature and write on the side. Her path to UH was the result of both a shot in the dark on her part, and the enthusiasm UH showed in wooing her.
“I did it in a weird way,” Yanique said while laughing. “I basically went to the Web sites that list ‘best of’ schools and applied to the top five creative writing programs. And then the one that gave me the most money, I went to.”
Yanique said UH was very generous with the aid package.
“But the other reason was that they had a tradition where the professor who champions you in the admissions process is the professor who calls you to give you your acceptance,” Yanique said. “So I just got a phone call from Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni saying, ‘I want you to come be my student at Houston.’ And that’s kind of irresistible. If the person you want to work with calls you and says they want to work with you, that’s kind of amazing.”
Today as an assistant professor of English at Drew University in New Jersey, Yanique is preparing to begin a whirlwind book tour with 19 readings scheduled in North America for the next three months, including an April 18 reading at Brazos Bookstore in Houston.
“I’m all over the world. Well, not the whole world, but definitely North America and the Virgin Islands I really hit hard,” Yanique said. “I’m going to be really busy, but I’m also excited. I’ll need to remember to take my vitamins.”