BASS 2020: Tiphanie Yanique, “The Special World” from The Georgia Review, Winter 2019

“Invisible Man” sculpture by Elizabeth Catlett, Riverside Park. Photo by Trish Mayo
The collection that this story is part of is, as a whole, an exercise in fiction forms.… I wanted to think about form in the way I had been taught to think about form as a poet. As a writer from a colonialized place, I was also weary of form as yet another way to impose colonial ideals of beauty on the colonized, but I did love me a sestina. So I knew that pre-existing forms had their value. The most ubiquitous fiction form is probably the Hero’s Journey, first made famous by Joseph Campbell. Interestingly, Campbell always claimed that this form was not a colonizing one because it already existed in most cultures. He was just giving it a name and articulating the detailed parts of the form. So I decided to see what the form made possible for a story, and what it could do for me as a writer . . . and maybe what it might articulate for me as a reader and thinker, and even as an agent myself in the world.

Tiphanie Yanique, Contributor Note

 I have to admit up front that I think I’m leaving a great deal of this story unexplored. That’s kind of interesting in itself, given its intersection with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man; it’s as if there are parts of this story that I, as a white older woman, may not recognize, parts that would be more recognizable to young black men. But there are also universals. That’s a place to start. The caution is to not assume the universals are all there is, to be willing to work for the parts I can’t see at this time.

The Hero’s Journey is, as Yanique says, ubiquitous. Numerous descriptions in various degrees of detail are available online, and the story is itelf labeled in sections with steps on the Journey. Yet this is not a completed Journey, as we discover through Yanique’s Note:

Fly is one of the main characters of a novel in stories / linked story collection that I have been revising for about nine years.… In “The Special World” we find him as a young adult. It does seem to me that this is when men are made to believe that vulnerability either has its merits or is bullshit. If they can’t handle these almost adult vulnerabilities with bravery, then outgoes vulnerability. Before the story’s end, Fly loved his religious faith, his family, a girl, his solitude, his own body. But then all these loves get tampered with.

Tiphanie Yanique, Contributor Note

So we have to take the story here in front of us as an uncompleted arc, to be continued. In the larger scheme of the collection, the question might become, how does this part of the Journey affect the future parts? But isn’t that part of reading any story, to see how a character changes, and to consider how that might affect them going forward for better or worse. And, as with any story presented on its own, we have to work with what we’re given, as if that’s all there is.

A key scene (for me, at least) occurs fairly late in the story. Fly learns his parents are divorcing, which he takes as a terrible blow, “an embarrassing admission, either of failure or a deeply consequential mistake. Either was awful.” He returns home from college – for the second time in two days – and finds his father living in the office he kept in his house.

But the elder man didn’t seem to be talking to Fly at all, haven’t looked at him yet. He had a book in his hand and was placing it in a box. Instead he looked at the book. Then he finally looked at Fly. He passed the book to Fly wordlessly – Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison. Fly’s first copy. It should have been a thing . An occasion, religious-like. But it wasn’t.
This affected my read of the entire story. I should confess at this point, I haven’t read Invisible Man; I’ve tried twice, and just couldn’t get very far. It’s a book I’ve read a lot about, but haven’t read. It’s a book I’ve seen described as a Hero’s Journey itself. If nothing else, this story has inspired me to try a third time. So much of the story has to do with Fly’s racial and sexual identity. When he arrives at his dorm room, there’s a piece of paper with his “government name” on it.
He took it off, crumpled it to a jagged ball. He wanted to eat it. Chew it down to paste and then crap it out. Instead, he let it fall to the floor, roll sadly under the extra-long twin bed.

He introduces himself as Fly thereafter; we never learn his “government name.” This seems to me a rejection of the identity his parents have given him – and of the identity through which the government sees him – and the assertion of his own identity as Fly. But he can’t competely reject that identity, so it hides away, unseen but present.

His RA, Clive, shows up. Clive’s a recurring character through the story, a kind of intrusion of whiteness – his hair is very blond, almost white – and an attempt of whiteness to assign an identity to Fly. Since Fly has a single room, Clive figures it’s because he has allergies. Later, he thinks it might be because Fly is gay. Eventually he just assumes he’s lucky. But is he lucky, or is he isolated? It’s not intentional  racial segregation – there are plenty of black kids on the floor – but does it feel like it is to Fly?

The Special World is somewhat built around a church and the conflation of religion, race, and sexuality that also occurs in his classes. He percieves Arthur and Suzie as white – Suzie as Jewish – but later realizes Arthur is Asian and Suzie is a light-skinned black. He has the same racial confusion at school:

Walking out of the dining hall, Fly would pass a whole section of the cafeteria where the Black and brown kids hung out. He longed for them. But how did those kids of color all know each other already in week two? There were only like one or two brown kids in his classes. Where were they all and how could he get in?

In his World Religion class, this combination of religion, race, and sexuality continues. Fly sees “religion as the only safe route to masculinity” for black men; “The secular Black man as a man is too dangerous.” Someone else talks about “Judeo-Christianity is a way for straight men to admit their attration to other men,” with God, and/ or Jesus, as the object of forbidden attraction. These sound like the bits and pieces from various thinkers that college kids everywhere throw around when they want to sound kind of outrageously sophisticated and provocative. With Fly’s involvement in the Church, they take on more meaning.

In the end it all falls apart: Fly gets sick, Suzie gets engaged to Arthur, his parents are divorcing. This is the collapse Yanique refers to in her Note. Fly returns to the Ordinary World, and is changed to some degree, but it’s not a good change. But he has The Book: maybe that will become a Special World, serve as a guide for growing into his identity.

There’s a touch of self-reference in the story:

For the midterm they had to memorize the various stages of “The Hero’s Journey,” a form the teacher professed was the basis for all Great Narratives. This seems like such a stupid thing to say that Fly lost all respect for the professor immediately.
.…Anything that followed a formula was useless anyhow. Still, alone in his room lonely Fly started charting his own life in his notebook – applying the hero’s quest to the life he’d lived thus far. But no matter where he started to the story he couldn’t find his way to a resurrection. So he plugged in his father’s life, what he knew of it. There must be a complete narrative in there – his dad had lived long enough. But no, there was no heroic return for Fly’s father. There never would be.

Given his observation that he’s now alone again, it’s kind of clever that his illness was the ubiquitous mono. His spleen was enlarged, the spleen being the metaphorical seat of anger. Convenient that so many college students do in fact find themselves ill with mono at some point, and convenient to Ralph Ellison’s prologue to Invisible Man:

It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves. Then too, you are constantly being bumped against by those of poor vision. Or again, you often doubt if you really exist. …You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful.

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

I wonder how Yanique continues Fly’s journey in her collection. She hints that Fly will go through some rough territory. I suspect that, just as the scene where the Book is passed from father to son changed the story that went before for me, Fly’s future will change how his past is read.

* * *

Other takes on this story:

Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic:  “…[B]eing authentic and vulnerable and intimate is so automatically linked to homosexuality; since Fly knows he’s not gay, he feels like all the other things that are assumed to be part of homosexual identity–things Fly really needs–are not for him. Fly has been made to think that his loneliness is because he longs for an unmanly intimacy, when in fact, it’s got nothing to do with sexual identity.”

Tiphanie Yanique reads the story in its entirety at This This This