3:14pm

Sun July 27, 2014
Author Interviews

'Love And Drowning' In The U.S. Virgin Islands

Originally published on Sun July 27, 2014 4:52 pm

In the new novel Land of Love and Drowning, the Virgin Islands and the ocean around them make for a magical setting.

The book follows three generations of one family living through the modern history of the territory as it passes from Danish to American hands.

It's also laced with magical realism: One main character can sense people's arrival; another family only gives birth to men, generation after generation; and one woman has a hoofed leg instead of one of her feet.

Author Tiphanie Yanique grew up on the island of St. Thomas, she tells NPR's Eric Westervelt. Her mother and father grew up in the Virgin Islands too, as did the generations before them.


Interview Highlights

On the setting of Land of Love and Drowning

My great-grandfather was the captain of an important ship in the Virgin Islands called the Fancy Me. It was said to be such an important ship that when it went down every Virgin Islander lost someone in their family. So it was sort of our Titanic. So that ship going down also happens in my book.

The family that is left behind is whom we follow for the rest of the novel. But at the same time, something very unusual politically is happening in the U.S. Virgin Islands. We used to be the Danish West Indies, and in about 1917, we are bought by the United States and become the United States Virgin Islands. So these two things — what's happening politically and what's happening with this family — are tracking alongside each other in the novel.

On the use of the Lord Invader song "Rum And Coca-Cola"

I grew up hearing that song [and] I didn't think anything peculiar about it. ... Lord Invader is just singing about World War II actually and about what happens when the Navy men come to the Caribbean. ... And it's funny because the rum and Coca-Cola end up being a sort of metaphor for the mixing: the rum is the Caribbean people and the Coca-Cola is the American people, mostly the Navy men coming to the islands.

On her one of her character's experiences with racism in the U.S.

In the Virgin Islands at the time [of the book] we didn't have TV, we had very little radio; for the most part the Americans, the white people who were living in the Virgin Islands, were supportive of integration. So we didn't really understand that this was happening. And then when we began to understand, we were pretty sure it didn't apply to us. That somehow we were special, and that's what Jacob is experiencing. "This can't apply to me," is what he's thinking.

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Transcript

ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:

In a new novel called "Land Of Love And Drowning," the Virgin Islands and the sea around them make for a magical setting. The book's laced with magical realism and follows three generations of one family, as they move through the modern history of the territory as it passes from Danish to American hands. The author, Tiphanie Yanique, grew up on the island of St. Thomas and the novel is very much rooted in the history of her own family, which has lived on the Virgin Islands for generations.

TIPHANIE YANIQUE: My great-grandfather was the captain of an important ship in the Virgin Islands called the Fancy Me. It was said to be such an important ship, that when it went down every Virgin Islander lost someone in their family. So it was sort of our Titanic. So that ship going down also happens in my book. The ship goes down very early on, so I'm not ruining it for anyone. And then, the family that is left behind is what we follow, is whom we follow for the rest of the novel. But at the same time, something very unusual, politically, is happening in the U.S. Virgin Islands. We used to be the Danish West Indies. And in and about 1917, we are bought by the United States and become the United States Virgin Islands. So these two things, what's happening politically and what's happening in this family, are trekking alongside each other in the novel.

WESTERVELT: And there's a song that encapsulates some of these issues that you write about in the novel. It's a song by Lord Invader called "Rum And Coca-Cola."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUM AND COCA-COLA")

LORD INVADER: (Singing) And when the Yankee first went to Trinidad, some of the girls were more than glad. They said that the Yankees treat them nice and they give them the better price. They buy rum and Coca-Cola.

YANIQUE: I grew up hearing that song, you know. I didn't think anything so peculiar about it. (Singing) Rum and Coca-Cola.

Lord Invader is just singing about World War II, actually, and about what happens when the navy men come to the Caribbean. And not only to the Virgin Islands, but all over the Caribbean. And it's funny because the rum and the Coca-Cola end up being a sort of metaphor for the mixing. The rum is the Caribbean people, and the Coca-Cola is the American people, mostly the navy men, coming to the islands.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUM AND COCA-COLA")

LORD INVADER: (Singing) They bought rum and Coca-Cola. Went down Point Cumana.

WESTERVELT: The book also touches very much on race issues. In the book, three Virgin Islanders are sent to New Orleans during World War II. They sort of get their first big taste of Jim Crow racism when they go to eat at a restaurant called Mama's Place.

Why don't we have you read a little bit?

YANIQUE: Sure.

(Reading) Sure, Jacob had had some awareness of Jim Crow when in college. But he'd never really believed it applied him. Sure, his school was all Negro and the wait staff at his job was all Negro. But that's how home was on the island to. There was no American Jim Crow in St. Thomas, in the Virgin Islands. Negroes, light and dark, were the majority and he assumed that's what it was back in D.C. And now in New Orleans, too. And how could Jim Crow apply anywhere now that they were here in uniforms? Soldiers pledge to die for everyone in Mama's joint. Besides, New Orleans was so like St. Thomas - the verandas, the ladies smiling at him, the music thrumming in the streets. How could he be anything less than the coveted mangrove man that he was?

WESTERVELT: So it's a bit of a shock, to kind of, come to New Orleans. It looks a little bit like his island and, you know, one of the most mixed race cities in America at the time. But yet, he still faces this racism of - gets kicked out of the restaurant.

YANIQUE: He does. In the Virgin Islands at the time, we didn't have TV. We had very little radio. And for the most part, the Americans - the white people who were living in the Virgin Islands - were supportive of integration. And so we didn't really understand that this was happening. And then, when we began to understand, we were pretty sure it didn't apply to us, that somehow we were special. And that's what Jacob is experiencing. This can't apply to me, is what he's thinking. And actually, this story was passed down to me from numerous servicemen, including one of my uncle's and my grandfather, who had stories very much like this, especially when they were serving in the U.S. South.

WESTERVELT: It seems some of that tension exists today; that the Caribbean, you know, relies so much on tourist dollars yet there's also this built-in resentment that these folks are invading, you know, to party on their beach.

YANIQUE: Well, tourism is such an unusual industry. Your true, regular, authentic self is on display. I remember being a little girl in my Catholic school uniform and having tourists take pictures of us as we walked home from school. You know, that's not a good place to be, I think on a day-to-day basis. At the same time, I really love the welcoming visitors to the Virgin Islands. I love knowing that friends and family, and friends of friends, and family or friends are going to be landing on St. Thomas soon. I can't wait to let them know which beach to go to and which beach has the best sunsets and which one has the great sunrise. I can't wait to do that.

But I think there's a difference, maybe, between a tourist - and this might be a cliche - but between a tourist and a traveler. Between someone who goes somewhere just to be, sort of, passive and lay on the beach, or someone who goes to explore and to learn and who goes to a place out of curiosity. And I do wish people would visit the Virgin Islands with more curiosity, with more hopes of finding a vibrant culture and not just a beautiful beach to lay on.

WESTERVELT: Less rum, more exploration.

YANIQUE: Well, maybe rum with your exploration.

WESTERVELT: (Laughing) There you go. Well, here's to authentic traveling. Thank you, Tiphanie.

YANIQUE: Thank you.

WESTERVELT: That's Tiphanie Yanique. Her new novel, "Land Of Love And Drowning," is out now. You can read an excerpt on our website, npr.org. And for Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West.

I'm Eric Westervelt. We're back next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.