by Tiphanie Yanique
When I left graduate school I just knew I was going to have a book immediately. I had an agent, I had a novel that had just been picked up, I had all this drive, and wasn’t I talented, too? Well, maybe all of that was true, or maybe not. Either way my agent had a baby and then retired from agenting; my novel was taken by a press, and then that press closed its Caribbean line without publishing my book; I moved to New York and being a full time tenure track professor had sucked out all my drive…and maybe I wasn’t that talented. I appealed to friends. More than one said, “It took me ten years!” At a writer’s retreat a very successful author held up the rejections from her first book that went on to be a best seller and corner stone of American literature. There were more than thirty rejections.
Again and again, when they weren’t commiserating with me, my friends said, “Just keep writing.” This was hard. I felt betrayed by fiction and the whole system of publishing. I felt betrayed by readers who bought used books, or who didn’t buy books by writers of color at all. I was watching really talented friends tank and less talented ones soar. I liked to believe I was amongst the talented tankers, but who knew? And what did it matter, if you couldn’t get published?
I’d always been a poet even before I decided to take an MFA in fiction, and now poetry became a kind of salvation for me. It kept me writing when I didn’t trust prose. And since I teach fiction, I could read poetry and feel I was doing it just for myself, for the pure pleasure of it. I kept writing poems and then, every now and then, when I could stand it, I edited stories in a collection of which I had a draft. I wasn’t writing with a mind towards publication—I knew the novel was the ticket to publication, not poetry or stories. I was writing because I just wanted to be writing
Almost a year later, Fiona McCrae of Graywolf called me. I knew she had already felt my novel wasn’t right for Graywolf. We had sent it to her when I’d made the mistake of giving it to the other press that then canceled its line. Still, I was hoping, maybe, she’d help me take it to another level before I started sending it out again. When we met her at her office she said that she had read my short stories. My short stories. Not the novel. The only problem was that there weren’t enough stories to make a collection.
I peered over her shoulder. “But you only have about half of the collection. I’ve written more.”
“Well, that’s great news,” she said.
The collection, How to Escape from a Leper Colony, comes out with Graywolf Press on March 2, 2010.