A Virgin Islands Author On Irma
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
When writer Tiphanie Yanique watched Hurricane Irma smack into the Caribbean, it immediately took her back. Yanique is from the island of St. Thomas. And she was a high-school student when Hurricane Marilyn hit in 1995.
TIPHANIE YANIQUE: School was out for months. There was no electricity for months. I remember standing in breadlines and getting MREs from the U.S. military. So I think these conditions are actually the kind of conditions that the Virgin Islands is going to be in for many months.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The history of the islands, and how they're perceived in the popular imagination are very much a focus of Yanique's writing. And she told me the islands don't get very much attention from Americans.
YANIQUE: If Florida is dealing with a natural disaster, and Texas is dealing with a natural disaster, the Virgin Islands is thought of as being one of those Caribbean islands, which we definitely are. We are a group of Caribbean islands and we are Caribbean people, but we are America's Caribbean people...
YANIQUE: ...And America's Caribbean land, and we shouldn't be lumped in with the region when it comes to America giving us aid.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right, but these islands are in fact - you know, they belong to the United States. In fact, you wrote this week in The New York Times - maybe you've heard of the Virgin Islands - St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John. It's a good place to go on vacation, to fall in love, to have a wedding. In fact, I even saw someone refer to these islands on a Facebook post recently as resort islands. You write about the colonial history, so remind us how these islands became part of America.
YANIQUE: I write about the Virgin Islands imperial history in depth in my novel "Land Of Love And Drowning." In fact, in "Land Of Love And Drowning," I begin my novel with the transfer from Danish to U.S. rule. The Virgin Islands, in 1917, was bought by the United States.
Our thinking at the time in the Virgin Islands was that America was an economic powerhouse, and they were going to pay us a lot more economic attention. They were going to help us build up our economy. Of course, there were a few things that we didn't know in the Virgin Islands about the United States. One is pretty obvious. We didn't know that segregation existed in major, major ways.
We didn't know what black and white racism looked like United States style. But the other thing that we didn't understand economically was that America was about to head into prohibition. And the Virgin Islands - our main economy up until that point had been the exportation of rum and rum products.
So all of a sudden, our major economy is now illegal in our new nation. So the hopes that we had had that we were going to integrate economically and benefit economically by being under the U.S. flag were just erased.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So a country that was bought by the United States 100 years ago - you're celebrating the centennial this year, and there are still so many other islands that are essentially controlled by European countries, as well - like the Netherlands, France and Britain - that were impacted by Irma. And we've seen a pattern in the response. How has the United States talked about it in your view?
YANIQUE: The United States has talked about us as if we are effectively a colony, which is that we are secondary. We are perhaps secondary types of Americans. Now, we do carry American passports in the Virgin Islands, but we don't have federal representation.
We cannot vote for president for example. Our congresswoman, who - we vote for her - she cannot vote in Congress. So we really have no say. But I also think that this has to do with just the way that we are thought of in the national imagination as a place for a vacation and respite. And it's a beautiful place. The Virgin Islands is as beautiful as everybody says.
It is a gorgeous, pristine, absolutely divine place. However, it's a place where human beings also live. So, you know, when Americans travel to Europe, for example, they know that they're traveling to Europe to engage with the cultural history. When people travel to the Caribbean, they are often traveling to avoid the human beings and to just engage in the beauty of the space.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So they're in resorts. They're lying in the sun. They're drinking tropical, rum-infused drinks, but they're not necessarily there for the culture or to talk to the people who live there?
YANIQUE: Right, you go to the Caribbean to avoid other people. And, in fact, often what people do is they ensconce themselves in these hotels where locals are not welcome. And so they just engage with the beauty of the space but not with the intellectual import of the people.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So how is that impacted this response to Irma?
YANIQUE: Well, I think what that has meant for Irma is that when the national media first began to finally pay attention to the Virgin Islands, we were paid attention to because tourists were being evacuated. And these tourists were being called the Americans as if in the Virgin Islands tourists and American are equal, when, of course, they are not.
And Virgin Islanders were sitting back and hearing this coming through their news stations and seeing this online - those who had internet access - and were befuddled and astounded and frankly angry. If we're going to be talking about the Americans in the Virgin Islands, which we should, we should be hearing from actual Virgin Islanders who are American.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tiphanie Yanique is an English professor at Wesleyan University. Thank you so much.
YANIQUE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.