Tiphanie Yanique on Moving Beyond Traditional Hero Narratives
Jane Ciabattari Talks to the Author of Monster in the Middle
I first read Tiphanie Yanique’s work in 2010, when I reviewed her first story collection, How to Escape from a Leper Colony, for The Daily Beast. Set mostly in the Caribbean, the stories invoke a chorus of distinctive voices, yokes past and present, and fluidly juggles points of view. The title story, set in 1939, revolves around a 14-year-old sent to a leper colony on an island off the coast of Trinidad, whose secret meetings with an older boy named Lazaro lead to disaster. A haunting disaster “The Saving Work” is a more modern tale about two white American women who marry Black island men, and whose hatred grows as their children are to be married. “Between Deirdre and Violet there is more than a fire,” Yanique writes. “There is something more destructive. It is something like history and the future converted into flesh. They have children between them. And now they have their similar histories and their common futures like a leash from one to another.”
This generational theme continues in her first novel, Land of Love and Drowning, which I reviewed for my BBC Culture column. (Land of Love and Drowning won the 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Award from the Center for Fiction, the Phillis Wheatley Award for Pan-African Literature, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Rosenthal Family Foundation Award.) Her narrative covers six decades and three generations, beginning in 1917, with Owen Arthur Bradshaw, owner and captain of a cargo ship docked in St. Thomas. A love triangle (the captain, his wife Antoinette, from the coral island of Anegada—the drowned land—and his mistress Rebekah, a market lady and healer who gives birth to his son) triggers an ancient curse. The tumultuous passions of love carry through the generations.
Her second novel, Monster in the Middle, is a story about romantic love and how it’s affected by social, political, ancestral and spiritual elements. What makes it immensely provocative and original is how she subverts classic narrative forms in each chapter—indeed, in the overarching structure of the book—and bends the novel to our current reality. Our conversation via email focuses primarily on her shape shifting of forms.
Jane Ciabattari: How has your life been changed by the tumult of the last year and a half? Have you been in Atlanta? Teaching? Writing?
Tiphanie Yanique: I have been in Atlanta living and marching in protests and writing and living and raising kids and loving adults and living and praying and living and teaching and living and learning swimming in lakes, pools and streams. Somehow, I spent about six weeks also doing all of this in the Virgin Islands, there I swam in the sea.
JC: What’s the meaning of your title, Monster in the Middle? And of your use of the labyrinth as a structure and image throughout?I want the book to consider how what is monstrous to us might also be what is holy.
TY: Ah, well. I will leave some of that meaning making to the reader. I will say that the monster and the labyrinth have the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur in common. Theseus has to fight the minotaur, who is imprisoned in the middle of a labyrinth, to save his people.
In many Christian traditions walking a labyrinth is a meditative experience that mirrors walking to the holy land. So is the holy land at the middle? Or is the monster in the middle? Will you have to destroy something or be blessed by something? How might those both be acts of transcendence? I want the book to consider how what is monstrous to us might also be what is holy. The book is structured in what might feel like a wending manner, as with a labyrinth. Labyrinths and other images of journey are used to metaphorize the idea of, well, love. Because what is more likely to destroy you or bless you than love?
JC: Let’s talk about the ways in which your novel in stories subverts the meaning of classic narrative forms. What inspired you to take on this multiple creative challenge to the limitations of those forms, to “lean into your character’s blackness,” as you’ve described it?
TY: I love literature. I love love books. My version of heaven is an infinite library. But so much of the conversation about what makes for great literature is informed by Western and white ideals of the human, of geography, of language. Take the hero’s journey as a fictional form. It assumes that a community needs one great hero to go forth and save the day. This is individualistic and would ring patently false in many cultures.What if the heroism takes two? What if it takes a whole family? What if it takes two whole families?
If you are from a place that values family over all, then maybe it’s a group of brothers that goes forth; maybe it’s a husband and wife. If we consider, say, slave narratives from the Caribbean and the American South, we know that people tended to free themselves by escaping in families and other groups, mothers with their children. But the hero’s journey isn’t even an escape narrative. It’s a coming of age journey. Which is a luxury not often afforded to Black boys in particular—who are often forced into adulthood long before they are emotionally ready.
So I wanted to test these fictional forms—see how they really stood up in the face of the Black reality or the female reality. What does it mean to be a girl on a heroic journey? Turns out these forms often fail us. So I wondered how I might make the forms serve Blackness. I wondered what other forms might serve womanness. I wondered if I could create forms to serve Caribbeanness. To serve a broader idea of Americanness. I mean for my book to be a love letter to literature in this way. The way how when you really love something you don’t just let it go fuck itself—you prod it, you good trouble it.
JC: Stela and Fly, the contemporary couple in Monster in the Middle, meet in New York City in Spring 2020. But their meeting is the last chapter of the novel. Your opening is a love letter written from parents to children who have fallen in love, noting, “…when two people get married, it’s two families coming together… when you meet your love, you are meeting all the people who ever loved them or who were supposed to love them but didn’t love them enough…” How are you shifting the epistolary form?
TY: The epistolary was one of the first forms I got really excited by as a kid. In so many ways letters are our most intimate literature—it’s someone who isn’t right in front of you, reaching out to communicate with you. Isn’t this what a great novel or collection of short stories feels like? Like someone communicating with you?
This letter at the opening of Monster in the Middle is from a group of people. They are writing it, as ancestors do—collectively and for your own damn good. We don’t often think of epistolary being pluralized. But I am really interested in community. I really don’t think there is anything more untruthful than the concept of “going it alone.” We are never alone. As I wrote this letter, the different lines are lines that different characters in the book are saying to their children; each in their syntax, their tone, with their chosen intention. I did some of the audio for this book, and some very talented actors did some of it. And each of us say a line in that opening letter—the audiobook is gonna be super cool.I wanted to test these fiction forms—I wanted to see how they fail and how they meet new challenges.
JC: Your second chapter is a road trip taken by a young couple—Eloise, a white woman, and Gary, a Black man. They’re young and in love. They drive south from San Francisco in the chaotic hours after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and through a circuitous route end up in Memphis. You trace the social and cultural landscape even as you mark off stops on the map, beginning with Saint Mateo, Saint Jose, then City of Angels, later Saint Antonio, where they drove “until they found the Black people.” How did you set out to re-envision the road trip? What are the freedoms these two are allowed? How do they compare to the traditional road trip?
TY: This story came to me from a real life experience of my best friend and her husband. Without giving too much of Oakland Gomorrah away, let me just say that yes, my friend and her then boyfriend ended up in the same physical space as my characters, and for the same emotional and physical reasons. In crafting this story, I wanted to think about how often the road trip is about bonding us to other people. How that it is a kind of journey toward something monstrous and holy.
But what kind of pressures does being an interracial couple put on a road trip in America? How does one perceive the American map, with all its horror and beauty, if one is very religious or very mentally ill? I wanted to see the road trip with new eyes—the “re-envisioning” in this was to see the geography of the US form the perception of these particular characters at their particular historical moment.
JC: Your geographic scope in this novel ranges from Puerto Rico, to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, to Ghana, to Saint Thomas, the Virgin Islands, your own birthplace, and Ellenwood, Georgia. How does enlarging the range beyond the continental US subvert or update the notion of the road narrative?
TY: The road trip is so very American. It asks us to get in a car (middle class!) and drive carefree across this wide country. But what if you actually consider the real map of this real United States, which is a map that leaves land behind? The easternmost point of the US is in the Virgin Islands, in the Caribbean Sea. The westernmost point is in the Pacific ocean. These are the true borders of this country. Physically.
But in another way, the true borders of our country extend far far beyond even that. Our nation is one that reaches its military, capital and culture around the globe. I was a Fulbright Scholar, and the whole point of that is to take America to other countries. So America is also there with you when you, an American, study abroad in West Africa. It’s also with you, when you, a soldier serve on a base in Korea. That too is America. I want to say that the road narrative which considers only the car is naive. The ocean is a road. The sky is a road.
JC: An early chapter in Monster in the Middle is “A Special World,” Fly’s first love story, set in Fall 2009 at George State University. The story is structured like Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, altering that form to suit Fly, a Black man. You even include a sly moment when Fly tries to fit himself into the hero’s journey formula for a class assignment, then tries to fit his father in. No luck. What was it like to create a fresh narrative drawn from this classic form? And to consider the overall novel from the perspective of the hero’s journey? What if the hero is a woman? What if the hero isn’t young? What if the character isn’t white?
TY: What if the heroism takes two? What if it takes a whole family? What if it takes two whole families? I am someone who likes to push on things. I consider it a great act of respect to challenge things. I am hardest on my most talented students. I am most honest with my bravest friends. I love form. And I wanted to test these fiction forms—I wanted to see how they fail and how they meet new challenges.
I don’t hate Campbell’s form. I disagree that it is universal. But once we know what it really is—about youth, about maleness, about ethnic privilege, about the individual—than we can really work with it. I tend to struggle with something until I can actually understand it. Once I get what it is for, I no longer find it frustrating. I find it liberating. I started out hating the hero’s journey for its prescriptiveness, it’s preciousness. Now I love it, because I see what is for. And I see how to make it work for my stories, and how it won’t work for my stories. That, too, embracing when needed, letting go when needed, is love.
JC: Stela’s “coming of age” story, a year abroad studying in Ghana, begins with romantic fantasies of understanding Africa as she prepares to marry a white South African. Afterward, she keeps secrets from him about her brutal experiences. Why does she choose to hide reality, and lie about her feelings? And how does that subvert the “coming of age” narrative?
TY: Girls come of age in literature often by illness, rape, or—if it’s a happy story—by marriage. Girls rarely get to take their body on a heroic journey. Instead, something has to happen to their body—generally sex has to happen. I really wanted to subvert that in this story.
But hell, it turns out that, at least as far as I can see, our society still doesn’t allow girls to grow up via adventure. Instead, I looked to bell hooks for some tragic truth. She shows us that all too often girls in narratives (and in life) end up lying about our desire for adventure, sex, love—because it is unsafe to be honest about these desires.
I do write magical realism, but here in this story I’m mostly working inside psychological realism. Learning to lie is a sign of growing up. This is a developmental reality. A child who cannot lie is a child who is lacking in emotional sophistication. A bit of lying helps society stay peaceful, helps marriages stay supportive—hell, studies have shown that lying to yourself a little keeps you happy and successful. But women have had to lie quite a lot (too much) to ourselves, to the men we love or are afraid of (often this is the same man), and to each other, in order to keep society intact. It’s a sad prerequisite for becoming a woman at this time. And ironically, I didn’t think I could avoid it and be, well, honest.
JC: Which writers have inspired you in the course of working on this novel? (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for one!)
TY: I created a whole form, the fiction sestina, in which I took the first line of Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, to make the six words that repeat and spiral around the story. I am always inspired by him. His joy, his belief in love and in people—it is so much of why he is vital to literature. But man, the inspirations for Monster in the Middle are numerous. I am never alone when writing. I started with the challenge from Vivian Gornick’s The End of the Novel of Love. When I read that book, I agreed with her completely. The novel of love is dead. And then I thought, but what if I can resurrect it?
JC: What are you working on now?
TY: I’m working on a collection of essays about joy. About the body. About how the body can be a thing of joy. If we let it be.