“I was raised in a house in the Virgin Islands with lots of books,” says author and Emory University associate professor Tiphanie Yanique. “My grandmother was a librarian. My mother grew up to be a librarian. I think that’s probably the source of it. There were books everywhere.”
At the time, Yanique had no idea she would grow up to become an award-winning author — she just knew that she loved to read. She was heavily exposed to sophisticated literature from a young age, in part due to a rule her grandparents had: If you can read it, you can read it, meaning if she could understand the words and syntax in the novel, she was considered mature enough to consume the content. Surrounded by polished prose and supported by her family and teachers, in retrospect it seems almost inevitable that the Virgin Islander would one day have published a poetry collection, a book of short stories and two novels. One could even call it fate.
In Yanique’s own words, “We are always part of where we came from. We never escape our childhood or our families; we’re always very rooted.”
It applies to her life, and it’s also how she described part of the inspiration for her latest novel, Monster in the Middle. Released last month, the book explores how falling in love with someone is rarely singular but, rather, a journey of falling for their history and ancestry. The novel blends romance and history. It follows Fly and Stela, two young people of color, from their childhoods in the American South and the Virgin Islands respectively, to 21st century New York City where they meet each other. Unlike a typical love story, Yanique traces Fly’s and Stela’s histories back to their parents’ own stories. Each section of the novel follows a different character, from Fly’s dad, Gary, to Stela’s mother, Mermaid. At the core of Yanique’s novel is this history of intimacy.
She is passionate about crafting stories that are ultimately rooted in something real and being emotionally honest. “The book is about what it means to be intimate with someone and how it might actually mean that you’re connecting to a community, a family or a nation,” Yanique says.
Vulture and The New York Times recently named Monster in the Middle a most anticipated book of fall 2021, with Vulture describing Yanique as “a writer’s writer” and “one of the most inventive stylists of her generation.” The author has also won several awards for her writing, among them a listing as one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 for her first book, How to Escape a Leper Colony, and the 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize from the Center for Fiction for Land of Love and Drowning.
It’s high praise that comes off the back of a lot of hard work. The road to getting published is a winding, challenging one for any author, though Yanique is quick to mention the banality of calling it so (“That’s the life of an artist,” she says). She emphasizes the importance of mentorship, crediting her own mentors as the keys to her success in getting published. “The world isn’t waiting for you to put your art out there,” Yanique says. “You are on your own in having to convince yourself that what you’re doing is worthy, and I just don’t think any artist gets to a place that might be considered success without support.”
Yanique’s conviction in having strong, supportive leadership within the field explains why the author chose to pursue teaching as well. Her passion for education is evident in the way she talks about her job at Emory University. Unlike some writers, she says, who go into teaching half-heartedly out of necessity, she does it out of genuine enjoyment. “I’m not a reluctant professor,” Yanique says, laughing. “I love teaching and I’m very passionate about what I do in the classroom.”
Before teaching English and creative writing at Emory, Yanique taught at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where she directed the creative writing program. In 2019, the author moved to Atlanta. She immediately fell in love with the city, and its artistic and academic communities. Georgia’s capital holds a special place in Yanique’s heart; it even makes an appearance in Monster in the Middle, as the home of the character Fly.
Monster in the Middle is only a slice of the metaphorical pie that is Yanique’s body of work. She’s published four books so far, her very first being How to Escape a Leper Colony. Wife, a poetry collection, and Land of Love and Drowning, her inaugural novel, round out her body of work.
While the four are very different in terms of structure, there are common themes. Yanique explores community and belonging in all her work, and there are heavy cultural influences, specifically from the Virgin Islands, in what she writes. Monster in the Middle explores community from a romantic standpoint, tracing one love story through generations. Land of Love and Drowning principally follows three orphans on the island of St. Thomas as they explore their identity in the wake of their father’s death and the transfer of the Virgin Islands from Danish to American rule. Even her poetry collection has sections on belonging and community. An excerpt from A Traditional Virgin Islands Wedding Verse reads, “When you are born you are passed to your father’s arms or your mother’s chest . . .You belong to them. Before you even know you are your own, you know that you are someone else’s. You are bonded.”
In a way, it feels like Monster in the Middle is a natural next step in the journey that is Yanique’s writing. The novel addresses two aspects of life that are important to the author and influence everybody in some way, shape or form. The first is that as much as people are individuals, they’re all connected to community and they all belong to someone. The other is that reflecting on one’s history and considering where one came from can help someone figure out where they’re going, be it romantically or otherwise.
“We are all agents in our life,” Yanique says. “And yet, we are also never alone. Eventually, we have this horrifying recognition that the choices available to us are often not of our own making, and the baggage we arrive with in the world, we had very little to do with. It all affects us and influences how we live our lives.”
Simona Lucchi is the inaugural ArtsATL Fellow, a year-long annual fellowship designed to mentor a post-graduate aspiring arts writer of color. She is a recent graduate of Kennesaw State University with a double major in dance and journalism. Lucchi is also part of the ImmerseATL dance artist program. Her ArtsATL Fellowship is made possible through a generous gift from National Black Arts.