How to Escape From a Leper Colony

Advance Praise for
How to Escape from a Leper Colony

“In this Widest of Sargasso Seas Tiphanie Yanique gives us the pan-Caribbean, from the old lepers’ colony on Chacachacare, off the coast of Trinidad, to St. John, Accra, and London. It’s an astonishing debut collection—as brutal, sexual, magical, and seductively disturbing as if Jean Rhys had written it today.”—Robert Antoni

“How To Escape from a Leper Colony
is fiction of the first rank. Tiphanie Yanique explores the ferociously complex terrain of her native Caribbean to show what it means to live in a world where accidents of culture, country, history, race, and place figure so bewilderingly in, as the author puts it, ‘the divine risks of love.’ Every single one of these extraordinary stories delivers a necessary revelation. So few of us can hope to see with any clarity, much less make sense of, this world, but Yanique—and we should be profoundly grateful for this—sees and understands a very great deal indeed.”—Ben Fountain

“With turns to the wild, clever, and magical that seem at once fantastic and inevitable, Tiphanie Yanique has crafted a beautiful collection of short and not-so-short fiction. This is an exciting new voice.”—Percival Everett

“This splendid debut collection reveals a storyteller of multiple gifts and ample heart. Yanique’s writing is very fine, her characters are authentic and memorable, and her vision is deeply humane.”—Sigrid Nunez

“Tiphanie Yanique has written powerful stories, in luminous prose, that reveal a Caribbean beyond tourist brochures, stories that tell of human triumphs and failures. A wonderful read.”—Elizabeth Nunez, author of
Anna In-Between

“These are fiercely original, poetic, and bold stories from a writer who is a force to be reckoned with. I loved every minute of this book and was in awe of nearly every paragraph.”—Cristina Henriquez, author of
The World in Half

“In these powerful, poetic stories set in landscapes real and imagined, Tiphanie Yanique explores beautifully race, family, and the complicated movements of the heart.”—Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, author of
Sister of My Heart
The Palace of Illusions

“Tiphanie Yanique has a gift for writing about physical displacement and the longing for connection that ensues. The unique stories in
How to Escape from a Leper Colony
meditate on confused expressions of love and spirituality in fresh and surprising ways.”—Emily Raboteau

“Tiphanie Yanique is a writer to watch. Although
How to Escape from a Leper Colony
is her debut, she writes with the wisdom and confidence of an old soul. The title story alone is worth the price of admission, but each of these stories contained in this gorgeous collection are clear-eyed, honest while still zinging with emotion. Tiphanie Yanique is blessed with an electric imagination, an expansive heart, and an unflinching gaze. I can’t wait to see what she does next.”—Tayari Jones

How to Escape from a Leper Colony,
Tiphanie Yanique takes as her subject the outsider, the immigrant, the uprooted. A boy from Ghana is transplanted to Brixton, trading his palm-wine-drinking friends in Accra for new football-playing mates. A Gambian priest finds friendship in a coffin shop in the Caribbean; a one-time Pentecostal leaves her birthplace and dons a burka in an effort to win back her Muslim husband. The stories of these men and women, and the extraordinary grace and sympathy with which they’re told, serve as urgent, vivid reminders in this age of displacement and migration, of how powerfully and urgently each human heart aches for its home.”—Kathleen Cambor



A Novella and Stories

Tiphanie Yanique

Graywolf Press

Copyright © 2010 by Tiphanie Yanique

Publication of this volume is made possible in part by a grant provided by the Minnesota State Arts Board, through an appropriation by the Minnesota State Legislature; a grant from the Wells Fargo Foundation Minnesota; and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which believes that a great nation deserves great art. Significant support has also been provided by Target; the McKnight Foundation; and other generous contributions from foundations, corporations, and individuals. To these organizations and individuals we offer our heartfelt thanks.

This book is made possible through a partnership with the College of Saint Benedict, and honors the legacy of S. Mariella Gable, a distinguished teacher at the College. Support has been provided by the Lee and Rose Warner Foundation as part of the Warner Reading Program.

Special funding for this title has been provided by the Jerome Foundation.

Published by Graywolf Press

250 Third Avenue North, Suite 600

Minneapolis, Minnesota 55401

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States of America

ISBN 978-1-55597-550-0

Ebook ISBN 978-1-55597-053-6

2 4 6 8 9 7 5 3

Library of Congress Control Number: 2009933820

Cover design: Kapo Ng @ A-Men Project

Cover photo: “Lover’s Tree,” Moses Djeli

For the Virgin Islands

“Lead us toward those we are waiting for,
those who are waiting for us.”

From the prayer to Saint Raphael,
patron saint of lovers and travelers


How to Escape from a Leper Colony

The Bridge Stories

Street Man

The Saving Work

Canoe Sickness

Where Tourists Don’t Go

The International Shop of Coffins

Kill the Rabbits



Babalao Chuck said that when they found the gun it was still in the volunteer’s pulsing hands. The child was covered in his mother’s blood and body. Her red sari redder. The volunteers at the leper colonies were young Trinidadian doctors and British journalists and criminals trading time in jail for time among lepers, and sometimes young people who carried tiny Bibles in their pockets. No one ever told me which kind killed Lazaro’s mother. The volunteer was asked to leave and that was to be the end of it.

What evil thing Lazaro will do later we will forgive him for without remorse, because we know his past and because we know he is one of us. For a leper, many things are impossible, and many other things are easily done. Babalao Chuck said he could fly to the other side of the island and peek at the nuns bathing. And when a man with no hands claims that he can fly, you listen. He would return and tell us about the steam in the nuns’ showers. About how they had soap that lathered. How they had shampoo that smelled like flowers.

1st Burn the dead

When I came to Chacachacare it was 1939 and I was only a girl of fourteen. I came for two reasons. The first was to bury my father who had lived there for three years and only just died. The second was because I had become a leper. It was in my arm. The same arm my mother held with her own hands, said a prayer over, before leaving me on the dock. Her cotton sari swishing the ground as she ran back to the junction to catch a wagon that would take her to the train that would take her the whole day to get back to Siparia, way down South in Trinidad. I thought of her sitting for hours, her face against the glass, the hole in her nose empty because she had sold the gold to buy me a used red sari and a bag of sweets as a gift to my new caretakers.

I also sat that whole day. I was waiting for the nuns to come get me. I pretended I could hear the sounds of the junction where the wagon driver had dropped us off. The junction wasn’t San Fernando or Port of Spain, which we had only rushed by in the train, but it was the biggest loudest place I had ever really been. It was like a wedding in my village with all the food laid out for me to stare at. Men crowded around a small stand that sold raw oysters. They dipped the shells in hot pepper sauce before slurping the meat down their throats. Women reached up for brightly colored buckets and brooms that hung on display. My mother and I rushed by, avoiding getting close to people. We only stopped once to stare at an automobile that roared by in smoke and shielded an African driver who wore bright white gloves. I could not see his passenger. Besides the big work equipment on the plantation, I had never seen an automobile before.

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