In her novel Monster in the Middle, which spans generations and continents, Tiphanie Yanique, A00, challenges us to think bigger when it comes to romance
Boy meets girl. They fall in love, overcome obstacles, and live happily ever after.
That’s what you might expect when you pick up Monster in the Middle by Tiphanie Yanique, A00, a novelist, poet, essayist, and short story writer who teaches creative writing at Emory University. Published late last year by Penguin Random House, the book is a love story, centering on a young New York couple, Fly and Stella.
But it’s not your typical rom-com. For one thing, besides being a novel, it’s also a collection of linked short stories, with each chapter containing a multilayered tale with a beginning, middle, and end. For another, you don’t even meet Stella and Fly until halfway through. The first part of the book is devoted to the stories of Fly’s mother, father, and father’s first girlfriend, and Stella’s mother.
That’s because Monster in the Middle isn’t just about the connection between two individuals. It’s an exploration of the whole world that a person brings into a relationship—including race and culture, family and identity, trauma and healing, spanning generations and continents. And in keeping with the messy, constantly evolving nature of human beings, it doesn’t have anything as simple as a happy ending.
Like Yanique’s first book, a family saga called Land of Love and Drowning, her latest novel takes place partly in the Virgin Islands, where she grew up. “In one chapter, my character Stella is learning to jump off cliffs and swim in the open ocean. I also spent my high school years jumping off fifty-foot cliffs into the Caribbean Sea,” Yanique says. “So I could really write about what that felt like—the exhilaration, the fear, and the physical realities.”
A Fulbright Scholar who was also named one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 in 2010, Yanique spoke with Tufts Now about the experience of writing Monster in the Middle, and what Fly and Stella’s story has to teach us.
Tufts Now: What inspired you to write this book?
Tiphanie Yanique: I read a beautiful, accessible piece of literary criticism by Vivian Gornick called The End of the Novel of Love, which argues that the marriage plot, or a novel that ends in romantic love, is not valuable in a profound way in our culture anymore. Golnick argues that because we have a lot of romantic literature in our history, we've kind of moved past it—and as a culture, we don't really value romantic love as a space for which to have profundity.
I thought that sounded sad, and I wondered if it was true. As humans and individuals, I think we still desire and are moved by romantic love, and for many people, one of the most important choices of their lives is who to love and who to live their life alongside.
I also thought about how post-colonial literature from Africa and the Caribbean and parts of South Asia feature narratives about nation building and political upheaval and anti-racism. I thought, maybe there is space there for romantic love to be a potential profundity.
I wanted to find ways to complicate Gornick’s assumption and introduce a different way of understanding—the possibility that romantic love can be the main element of a literary, sophisticated novel, and still be smart and profound. So I thought, I’m going to write a book about two people who fall in love, where we still learn something important about human nature and about ourselves.
Can you talk about the structure of Monster in the Middle?
The book is structured as a labyrinth—a kind of a maze in which there is one way in and one way out. The stories lead you in and then lead you back out.
If you ever walk a labyrinth, you can feel kind of lost in it. You sometimes think you're getting into the middle, and then you are way off to the end. And then you're there in the middle but you're not done. You have to now walk back out and go and repeat the journey again.
I was also experiencing a little bit of labyrinthianness myself in writing the book. It took me seven or eight years to write and then some. A student who read and researched my book as a requirement for a class found that I had published some of the early stories as long as fourteen years ago and I was like, “Oh snap. I have actually been writing the stories for twice as long as I thought.”
I was unaware of where I was heading, and then at some point I figured out where I was, and then I was writing intentionally and finding my way out. That journey was in some ways unknown to me for a long time.
Where does the title come from?
There’s a Greek myth in which Theseus must fight the Minotaur—a mythical creature that’s part man, part bull, and lives at the center of a labyrinth—in order to save his nation. And there’s also a religious use of the labyrinth, especially in Western religious systems like Catholicism, where we walk a labyrinth in order to meet God at the middle.
I think there is a monster we must fight, as Theseus did, to save our nation—and this monster is also the divine, which we must love as Catholics or Christian believers do, in order to save ourselves. In a way, what we love and what we fear are the same thing. The divine and the monstrous, a lover and a warrior, are the same thing. And that’s the human condition.
Why did you decide to tell this story as a succession of standalone short tales?
Monster in the Middle is a novel about America and what it means to fall in love within an American context, in this current historical moment. And it’s a novel that’s meant to honor the narratives that we've inherited.
We learn what love is about and what we are about based on the stories that have been passed down to us. That passing down is how the structure of the novel works. We start in the past, around the time of the Vietnam War, and we build forward to the present day, to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. So we actually don't meet the lovers until the very end of the book.
What we experience instead is something—I hope—that’s unusual in fiction, but also still satisfying. We experience the stories that these characters have inherited, in capsule form—like how their parents first fell in love, their parents’ heartbreaks, their own early loves and heartbreaks. And this helps us understand why and how they fall in love with each other.
All the characters are so distinct and well-rounded, even if we meet them only for a chapter. How did you accomplish that?
I worked hard on making my characters as fully human as possible. I don't think that it’s appropriate to think about anyone as a secondary character. All characters are primary—even if they are not the main subject of a story or a novel, they are still subjects in their own narratives. So although I may not take as much time with them as I do with the characters who are central to a particular narrative, I take just as much care to honor their specificity and their profound nobility as humans.
That means their voice, the way they look at the world, and the way that they create syntax in their grammar. It means the way that they understand their bodies, the way they move, and the way they relate to other people. All of those things are important to attend to. That's my theory about humans in general: We're all important to attend to. So I try and embody that in my work.
What does Monster in the Middle have to teach us about love?
Romance novels have taught us that romantic love is when two individuals come together and magic happens. It’s particular to the two people in that relationship.
I think that is true. But in the process of writing this book, I’ve also come to realize that when two people meet each other, it is not only an individual act. It’s also a historical act that has been generations in the making. When you meet a person, you also meet their parents. You meet their siblings. Even if you don't literally meet them, in a way you do, because your beloved is carrying their family inside of them.
Even the things we think of as purely private and intimate, like who we fall in love with, are not ours alone—they are also social and political. And that's horrifying—but also really beautiful.
How is Stella and Fly’s story relevant to our current moment?
Right now, we as a nation are so focused on our individuality. We forget how tribal we really are. That ongoing tension between freedom and belonging, between desiring to be part of the group and desiring to be an individual, is a part of what it means to be human. But if we’re not aware of it, or we’re in denial about it, then we can do dumb stuff.
Monster in the Middle shows us that we have to hold those desires and balance them at all times. It asks us to consider our most private and intimate decisions and actions as ones that have social repercussions and social antecedents.
I do want my book to make people want to fall in love, to make them feel joy and beauty, but I also want it to make people consider their individual and community decision-making.
The last chapter ends with a feeling of not knowing exactly where we have landed, or how things might end up. Can you talk about that ending?
In commercial fiction, things tend to end happily ever after. And that tends to feel unreal, because life has a lot of complexity, and a life well lived is going to have ups and downs.
On the other hand, there are many happy moments in life, and those can have intellectual heft, as well. I am interested in writing a novel in which the trauma of Americanness, Blackness, Latinx-ness, and woman-ness is there, but in which joy is still the underlying reality of people's lives. Because we are still human, and we long to be happy and at peace.
I think the way commercial fiction and Hollywood movies make joy and peace overly simplistic is by ending with it. So I intend for the ending of Monster in the Middle to allow for a complexity, an ongoing-ness. We are always OK and yet we are never all OK, and that's part of having a happy life—recognizing that it's never perfect.