How to Escape from a Leper Colony

How to Escape from a Leper Colony: A Novella and Stories BY Tiphanie Yanique. Graywolf Press. Paperback, 240 pages. $15.

The cover of How to Escape from a Leper Colony: A Novella and Stories

Tiphanie Yanique’s How to Escape from a Leper Colony is a skillfully crafted collection of short stories that offer ample rewards—vivid characterizations, evocative language—at their finish lines.

Like her protagonists, Yanique hails from the Caribbean; her stories are set in locales ranging from New York and Texas to Guyana and the ghost island of Chacachacare. “The Saving Work” follows two childhood friends: Thomas, named “after the island of his birth,” and Jasmine, who both attend college in New York. They fall clumsily into a romantic relationship while obsessing over the implications of their skin colors (Jasmine is biracial). Yanique tells us, “He is a kind of yellow color. Almost like gold. Her color is muted and therefore more mysterious.” Later, when the church in which they are to be married goes up in flames and their mothers are bickering nearby, Yanique mourns, “This family has never thrown a Frisbee around together at the beach. They have never sat in a circle and told each other stories.” Unlike a good deal of earnestly multicultural fiction, Yanique’s stories look beyond mere ethnicity to locate the subtler strands of human identity.

In her effort to cast Caribbean life in a magic light, Yanique sometimes relies on folklore’s well-worn tropes. In one story, a casket that resembles a mansion door works its way into someone’s dreams with supernatural force; in another, there’s a leper who claims he can fly. “Canoe Sickness” gets its name from a condition that supposedly causes shark hunters to become paralyzed in their vessels by the silence and stillness required for their task. When Yanique compares this to a young boy’s shock when he accidentally sees his parents having sex, it’s neither profound nor cute.

Still, Yanique shines at making her characters’ voices distinct and almost audible. “Let me tell you how I met this sweet thing,” raps a hardened Saint Croix drug dealer named Slick in the opening of “Street Man.” The “goody-goody college girl” he’s talking about is Yolanda. Home from college in the US, this newly independent young woman makes enemies among her old crowd, but Slick finds her attitude attractive. He brushes aside the differences in their backgrounds with a casualness that convinces not just Yolanda but the reader, too. Soon he’s taking her out, trying to make sure that the gun in his waistband doesn’t press up against her when they dance. When the relationship starts to fall apart, Yolanda makes a heartbreaking plea in the form of a poem she recites at an open-mic night. We last see Slick as he retreats into the night while the woman he loves chants “Change, nigger, change” to his back. The conclusion of the affair is both unexpected and inevitable, and the same can be said about the arc of these stories. Yanique finds apt expression for her characters’ struggles in these short but urgent sprints.