Black literature was any literature written by a black writer, the expectation being that it would have relevance only to black readers. Bookstores and, unfortunately, too many libraries organized themselves according to this new genre under the pretext of accessibility. . . .
. . . Academia followed suit. There was Nineteenth-Century American Literature and then there was Nineteenth-Century African American Literature, as if African Americans were not also Americans.
—Elizabeth Nunez, Boundaries
What are the limits of identity-based boxes in the world of book publishing, and how do such boxes impact our own academic critical practice? And, how do racial and ethnic boundaries manifest among Caribbean immigrants living in the United States? These provocative questions undergird Elizabeth Nunez’s latest novel, which explores the racial politics of imprints embedded within larger publishing houses and the ethnic politics of historically black college settings. Aptly titled, Boundaries serves as a metaphor for boxed limits. Thus the very title guides readers through the series of limitations that face Anna Sinclair, our 39-year-old Caribbean American editor, as she navigates her immigrant American life.
The Anna novels, as I like to call them, are Elizabeth Nunez’s seventh and eighth novels—Anna-in-Between (2009) and Boundaries (2011).1 Readers first meet Anna, an only child, as she returns to her Caribbean island home to spend an extended summer vacation with her aging parents only to discover that her mother has breast cancer. Set on an island that resembles Trinidad, Anna-in-Between explores spaces between the hyphens: Anna’s sense of not belonging to either her Caribbean homeland or the United States, of not knowing how to express affection to her mother, of not being able to reconcile her old and new world cultural values. Boundaries continues these explorations as we meet Anna in her American—Fort Greene, Brooklyn—surroundings. And in this Brooklyn landscape, Anna joins classic iconic figures of Caribbean American immigrant literature such as Selina and Silla Boyce in Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl Brownstones (1959) and Sophie and Martine Caco in Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994). Even though Anna is an adult, because she is the daughter in a mother/daughter relationship, readers are inclined to read Anna as the grown-up version of Selina and Sophie rather than the age-parallel mother figures. But that we meet Anna at thirty-nine years old reminds us that she is in fact older than the aforementioned mothers of the early texts. And where economic and sexual crises propels those mothers’ migrations to the United States, with Anna readers dwell on the angst of a middle-class protagonist—realizing that in spite of educational and economic comfort Anna still suffers from a crisis of identity. Tracking the specificity of a Caribbean American identity crisis is the strength of these novels. Whereas novels set in the Caribbean region focus on interethnic tensions, novels set on American soil often tell us that black immigrants give up their ethnicity as they become socialized into the US racial logic. In these Anna novels, Nunez pursues the uncomfortable and unpopular topic of interethnic tensions among blacks in the United States.
The novels explore three boundaries: one, between mother/parents and children; two, between immigrant and American born; and three, between high and low art within the publishing industry. The generational boundary between Anna and her mother means that despite Anna’s perception of her mother’s stoicism, her mother prepares Anna for a life unimaginable for women of her own generation: “I wanted it all: marriage, motherhood and meaningful work. But I couldn’t have it all. Not in my day. So I wanted to give you the chance I did not have” (Boundaries, 153). While this boundary is not resolved in Anna-in-Between, it dissolves in Boundaries as Anna comes to terms with the generational and the class expectations of her mother’s milieu. The second boundary, that between immigrants and American citizens, moves from the more generalizable theme of the tacit agreement between the immigrant and those who stay home that only good news is to be shared about life abroad, to the existential immigrant question about who one would have been had he or she stayed at home, to, finally, the ability of the second generation to absorb ideas of American freedom and individuality.
But it is the third boundary, between identity-based limits in the publishing industry and its academic corollary, that I attend to in the remainder of this essay. The central conundrum that Anna faces as an editor for Equiano imprint is that her idealism, which gets framed as a distinction between high and low art, is at odds, or a step behind, a market-driven book industry. Understanding that the book industry now recognizes a black audience for black-themed books, the industry churns out formulaic novels. Anna reconciles herself to slipping in a few good books a year within the press’s standard roster of bestsellers. This idealistic commitment leads to Anna’s eventual demotion, since she is perceived not to have a real sense of the consuming desires of a black reading public.
When Anna returns to New York after taking care of her ailing mother, she quickly realizes that Tim Greene, a young Cornell-educated African American male editor, has been hired to replace her. Ostensibly, Tim better understands the sensibility of black readers and market demands. Anna’s idealism is replaced with Tim’s pragmatism. Ironically, even while Tim pedals racy fiction with steamy book covers, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man remains his gold standard of black literature—and Tim has a leather-bound copy of this classic on his bookshelf. With this step up, Nunez then stages a discussion about the cultivation of book taste and literacy. Tim believes that readers can graduate from low art—“ghetto and chic literature”—to an appreciation for high art like Ellison. Anna of course views this trajectory as disingenuous, at best, since it does not cultivate blacker readers but instead maps a racist limitation on their reading desires.
That Anna’s best friend and foil, Paula, works in an academic setting allows Nunez to demonstrate the academic parallels to the limits of identity-based boxes. Both Anna and Paula loose promotions to glass ceilings based on their ethnicity. In Anna’s case, she does not know the sensibility of black popular readers; and with Paula, she is expected to defer to the history of civil rights struggles in the United States and let the African American heirs reap whatever minor racial rewards were gained from the Civil Rights struggle. This version of the Caribbean American being passed over stands in sharp contradistinction to the more popular discourse of West Indian exceptionalism in institutions of higher learning—where they outnumber American Blacks in college settings—especially in the Ivy League and elite liberal arts colleges.
This discussion resonates in our academic settings in which the materials we teach are marked off in such boxes: Caribbean, African, African American, and African diaspora. The academic subject headings under which we labor as specialists can serve as limitations when our critical attention to specific texts enables those texts to transcend, or cross over, to the more generalizable contemporary American fiction and so on.
In staging a quarrel between highbrow and lowbrow culture, or good fiction for the cultivated reader versus bad formulaic fiction for mass consumptions, Nunez effectively underscores that there is a space in between. Arguably, her own fiction unsettles such rigid boundaries (the readership and content of her writing bears this out). Nunez nonetheless prompts us to ask whether, and in what ways, identity politics still matter? Should we give up our area specificities for American, British, or even world literature? On the one hand, such identity-based restrictions, Nunez seems to suggest, are the boundaries of America. Yet, the novel also underscores that in our contemporary American cultural politics race and ethnicity within blackness matter still, or might even be deployed more. Pursuing the politics of giving up such cultural and racial moorings, Boundaries engages in a meaningful debate about the tensions of living in between race and ethnicity—rather than simply dwelling in the more comfortable (and static) American location where only race matters.
Donette Francis is an associate professor of English. She has recently joined the English Department faculty at the University of Miami (in Coral Gables, FL).
1 Elizabeth Nunez, Anna In-Between (New York: Akashic, 2009); citations are to the 2010 paperback edition. Elizabeth Nunez, Boundaries (New York: Akashic, 2011).