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Tiphanie Yanique's 'Monster in the Middle' tackles love and religion

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Fly and Stela meet early in the pandemic lockdown. Fly Lovett is in grad school - music theory. Stela Jones is in teacher training. Fly, who was born with the name Earl, comes from a family with a multiplicity of religious influences. Stela grew up a Catholic schoolgirl in the Caribbean. And in Tiphanie Yanique's new novel, they - and all of us - carry the strands and colors of forebears and former loves whose paths somehow deliver us to the time and place we meet one another or sometimes just walk away.

"Monster In The Middle" is the new novel from the acclaimed author of "Land Of Love And Drowning." Tiphanie Yanique joins us now from Atlanta, where she's a professor at Emory University. Thanks so much for being with us.

TIPHANIE YANIQUE: Oh, it's such a pleasure, Scott. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: I have a burning, intensely practical question for you.

YANIQUE: OK.

SIMON: Because this is such a beautifully intricate novel that ranges from New York to the Caribbean and Africa, how do you plot it all out?

YANIQUE: (Laughter).

SIMON: Index cards, wallpaper - what do you do?

YANIQUE: I know writers are notoriously anal about these kinds of things. But I'm a reader, so mostly what I do is I just read and reread. Like, I've read this novel so many times myself so that I could do it in a way that made a reader feel excited about it.

SIMON: Tell us, please, about Fly's father Gary - religious and then some, longing for a lost love well past what I'll call the expiration date.

YANIQUE: Yeah. Gary is - he's a person of deep and complex emotions. And he's someone who believes in things that are greater than himself. And this is a gift that he has, but it's also - as many of us who experience the world in this way - it can be a curse. I mean, being able to let things go is an important part of becoming an adult.

SIMON: Yeah.

YANIQUE: And it's something that Gary really struggles with.

SIMON: And tell us, please, about Stela - growing up in St. Thomas, the Virgin Islands. Her mother was an orphan. How do we see this perhaps affect the view of love that she develops and that Stela takes on as well sometimes?

YANIQUE: You know, we often think of ourselves as solitary people moving around in the world as individuals. But I think that it's - our individuality is much more communal than we probably realize. Stela herself is a product of her mother. She's a product of her island. She's a product of her nation. Her mother has a lot of anxiety about not having had parents. And then that affects the daughter. We think, where did I get this anxiety or this depression or these concerns from? You just have to look a few generations back.

SIMON: Fly, as we noted, is a musician. And I think it's fair to say he was almost nursed on weed.

YANIQUE: (Laughter) Can we say that on NPR? I love it.

SIMON: Stela has an artistic view of the world. And something I think people can particularly relate to now - she has very vivid dreams. She almost doesn't sleep. She goes to the movies.

YANIQUE: Yes. In a way, she's really different than Fly, her perhaps beloved, who lived in a household where he was constantly being bombarded by exterior things. For Stela, her interior life is her - the place where she can go to protect herself, which is, you know, true for a lot of us, too. But the other truth is that we are social beings. So what's happening inside of your mind is really not - it's not the all of you.

SIMON: Let me ask you about some of the words you use to address the reader. You write, (reading) you are not falling in love with that one person. You're bringing it all. You're bringing us. When you meet your love, you are meeting all the people who ever loved them or who were supposed to love them but didn't love them enough.

That's a breathtaking idea.

YANIQUE: Yeah. I mean, I think that's the truth. When - you know, any kind of intimate relationship, you are meeting that person's traumas, their wounds, their delights, their pleasures, not even theirs, but you're also meeting the delights and traumas and pleasures and pains of their parents and their grandparents. Now, our parents have given us a lot. And some of it has been things that we struggle with. And some of it is things that we are delighted and grateful to have. But it's all in there.

SIMON: Yeah. Fly, we will explain, has what I'll just refer to as vivid desires sometimes.

YANIQUE: (Laughter) You like Fly. We (laughter)...

SIMON: I'm kind of having a lot of fun with that character.

YANIQUE: I loved writing him. So I'm glad that you enjoy reading (laughter) him.

SIMON: Yeah.

YANIQUE: I actually gave the first reading from this book in a church...

SIMON: Oh.

YANIQUE: ...About two weeks ago. And I really did not think through that - the part I - reading that - it said indicator in the book - is also a part where there's a pretty graphic masturbation scene. But I can't shy away from the difficult or uncomfortable stuff. So Fly is about 16 when he starts thinking about, what does it mean to be - to have this body? What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to desire a woman? It's all complicated for him.

SIMON: Stela has challenges. Let's put it that way. On the one hand, it brings them together, yet on the other hand, that can ruffle stuff up between them, too, can't it?

YANIQUE: Isn't that the truth, though? I mean, the people who we find ourselves attracted to are often the people who have the kinds of wounds that sort of fit right inside of ours. And I think what's happening with Stela and Fly is that they are, in some ways, a match for each other. And the wounds that they have are complementary, which means that they can bring a lot of pain for them.

SIMON: And without giving anything away, I spent so much of the novel trying to figure out, OK, where's the monster in the middle? I'm going to try something on you...

YANIQUE: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...The anxieties we live with but often can't put a name on.

YANIQUE: That's beautifully said. I dedicate the book to my children. And I call them my monsters. I mean, children are also anxieties in some ways that we - things that we hold close but that give us a lot of discomfort sometimes and fear. How that becomes actually physically realized for each of us might be different. You know, it might be your children. It might be your spouse. It might be your own interior self. Or it might be all of it.

SIMON: Tiphanie Yanique - her novel, "Monster In The Middle" - thank you so much for being with us.

YANIQUE: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.