While one wants to avoid judging a book by its cover, it is difficult to ignore that the titles of Elizabeth Nunez’s last two novels—Anna In-Between (2009) and Boundaries (2011)—call to mind space, oppositions, and limits.1 The novels’ protagonist, Anna Sinclair, is a native of a multiethnic, class-conscious Caribbean island that bears more than a passing resemblance to Nunez’s native Trinidad. For the past seventeen years, Anna has lived in New York, where she is a successful editor at Equiano, an imprint for writers of color at one of the city’s most revered publishing houses. At the beginning of Anna In-Between, Anna goes back to the Caribbean only to find that her stoic mother, Beatrice, is diagnosed with breast cancer. The beginning of the novel’s sequel, Boundaries, sees Beatrice traveling to America for treatment, while Anna’s position at Equiano becomes jeopardized during the company’s restructuring. Throughout both novels, Anna’s social consciousness, which constantly pits the Caribbean’s identity politics with America’s, is weaved into her most intimate secrets and revelations.
In both novels, savvy, cosmopolitan Caribbean immigrants are aware—at times, obsessively so—of the processes by which their identities are narratively constructed. Late in Anna In-Between, for instance, Paul Bishop, the oncologist who will become her love interest in Boundaries, likens the hyphen in his “Caribbean-Americanness” to a “bridge” (Anna, 314). “Somehow I think there is a gap on either end of the hyphen,” he says. “Sometimes I think if I am not careful, I can fall between those spaces and drown.” What is salient to consider here is Paul’s use of sociological language—Caribbean-American, hyphen—to describe his nationality. Anna especially, equipped with a graduate degree in English, engages in a complex pleasure with her back-and-forth relationship between the Caribbean and America. While I do not seek to flatten Nunez’s bicultural characters, part of the richness—and frustration—of empathizing with them involves navigating between the cultural oppositions they face. By interrogating the strategies they use to stabilize themselves on suspended bridges that, at times, feel as if they have the breadth of a tightrope, the reader can more closely consider the balancing act—between national allegiances, between gender roles, and even between the very functions of narrative—that many people in the Caribbean diaspora are forced to perform.
In both Anna In-Between and Boundaries, Anna struggles to define her individual values in relation to the identity politics that impact Caribbean and American social structures. In Boundaries, Anna recalls returning to the Caribbean from her Midwestern college only to find that her island “was still in thrall to British dominance, though the skin color of the rulers was not the same” (Boundaries, 23). While the preservation of colonial institutions during the island’s transition from colonization to independence is understandable, Anna is preoccupied with how the reification of these institutions affects the mindsets of Caribbean people in their quest for political self-determination. The narrator asserts that members of the upper middle class especially have a stake in preserving these attitudes. For families that have spent generations complying with British standards, any radical social change threatens the status they worked so hard to secure. Plum jobs and coveted addresses often involve painful sacrifices, however. In the case of the Sinclairs, maintaining their carefully crafted personas means chilling their rawest emotional truths. “In [Anna’s] parents’ social circles,” the narrator explains, “any weakness is a character flaw. Failure is a character flaw. Sickness is not to be discussed; death is not to be discussed. Sickness and death are the ultimate evidence of weakness and failure” (Anna, 67). If this isn’t irrational enough, self-control “is the holy grail of the upper middle class. To lose control over oneself is to be humiliated.” Success for the old guard, Anna realizes, means showing the rose bush, while keeping all the roots safely buried underground.
Anna is not willing to make such a compromise. She chooses to escape the pharisaicalness of her island, to bypass England with all its historical baggage, and to migrate to America, a country with a founding narrative built on fresh starts, a country “where every living person, with a few exceptions, can draw a straight line through ancestors not born there” (Boundaries, 27). But America’s history is by no means lily-white. Those “few exceptions,” it should be noted, are Native Americans forced to live on reservations, and Anna recalls firsthand how “snarling dogs, straining against leashes held by officers sworn to uphold the law” were loosed on Civil Rights protesters (24–25). Confronted with these memories, Anna bites her lip. She chooses which facts to express, which to conceal. The narrator suggests that all immigrants, to some extent, practice this type of selective amnesia:
In Brooklyn, Anna passes stores that cater to them, shops that advertise barrels the immigrant will fill with goods and food she will ship back home, proof of her success, proof to family and friends that the fantasy exists. The immigrant holds her tongue. She does not tell of the long hours she must work. She does not say that night falls before she returns to her one-room apartment where for months the view outside her window is desolate, a concrete jungle sprouting leafless trees in patches of dirt carved out on pavements. (22–23)
Anna endures cold nights in New York’s concrete jungle for a simple reason: she is able to pursue the career she loves. Nevertheless, Anna constantly places her pursuits in the context of the traditional gender roles to which she is expected to adhere. After her husband, Tony, loses his job at a brokerage firm, Anna is left to shoulder the couple’s financial burden even as he relentlessly berates her focus. “Work, work, work,” Tony tells her. “All you think of is work. That’s why you can’t make a baby” (Anna, 243). For much of Anna In-Between up to this point, Beatrice’s conservative cultural outlook serves as Anna’s chief conflict. Here, Anna—and Nunez—avoid an easy target. Beatrice, who has experienced her own marital turmoil, does not express shame at Anna’s failed relationship with Tony. Rather, she is concerned for her daughter’s well-being as she grows older. Beatrice is proud of Anna; she boasts to her girlfriends about Anna’s achievements at Equiano. With these things in mind, Anna begins to consider more closely the gender norms many in her mother’s generation followed. Anna reflects on her mother’s departure from her job in the island’s Treasury Department:
In those days a woman was expected to submit her resignation when she got married. [A married woman] had a spouse, a partner with a job. Hers could be assigned to a woman without a partner, a woman who did not have a job. But when a married woman got pregnant things were different: the expectation became a requirement. (Boundaries, 112–13)
Anna’s recognition of these deeper cultural currents is the balm that soothes the wounds in her relationship with Beatrice. Earlier in Boundaries, for instance, Anna realizes that her mother’s inability to display affection does not signify hatred for her. Rather, Beatrice’s “own mother had not hugged and kissed her. She learned from her not to hug and kiss her daughter” (108). By more deeply empathizing with the social roots governing gender relations, Anna moves away from flatly dismissing her mother’s intractable standards.
At her midlife crossroads, Anna affirms that the things her mother was denied—the opportunity to lead a fulfilling career, the freedom to unabashedly express her love—are among the ideals she values the most. Anna decides, reluctantly at first, to chart her own course with Paul, a fellow Caribbean American professional, who can directly relate to the messiness of her cultural life. Anna reflects that, whereas Tony “made love to her with an urgency she once thought was passion,” Paul “made love to the whole of her, to her body, her mind, her spirit, pacing himself, waiting until she felt what she had never felt with Tony, a slow, growing fire rising deep inside her” (104). With Paul, Anna develops a new sense of her sexuality—one no longer divorced from her spirituality. She gains a clearer sense of the balance required to succeed in a relationship. By the conclusion of Boundaries, Anna forthrightly explains to Paul that, should their romance deepen, she has no intention of sacrificing her career. Paul, in turn, gives a similarly straightforward reply: “Then keep on doing it” (256). No longer does Anna have to live by the ultimatums that Tony was eager to impose and that Beatrice was obligated to follow. Marriage is not simply a financial contract or a requirement to produce a child. A new kind of partnership, Anna discovers, is possible.
It is a merit to Nunez that her crisp prose and clear-eyed characterization keep us focused on Anna’s very human battles—the possibility of losing a mother, the search for love after a failed marriage, the immigrant’s quest for belonging. What makes Anna In-Between and Boundaries truly masterful, however, is the subtlety with which the novels wear their significant thematic ambition. At the heart of both, after all, lies a poignant postmodern preoccupation that both Anna—and we—are encouraged to consider: When is it right to perpetuate a myth? When is it right to deconstruct one?
While Anna is caring for Beatrice, Equiano faces a radical reorganization. Tim Greene, a charismatic new editor, gains increasing power in determining the company’s publication lists, marketing strategies, and distribution areas. While Anna works to champion “literary” novelists, Greene and his associates push to profit on the demand for “ghetto lit,” books where every page “sizzles with explicit sex” and where “neighborhood gangs slaughter each other” with little concern for the value of human life (49). We learn a tremendous deal about Anna by studying her reaction to this shift in company philosophy: she carries not simply an aversion to but a visceral contempt for any narratives that mock human life. “Ghetto lit,” Anna suggests, appeals to our basest impulses because it reduces a complex community of people—minorities, the poor—to their bodies, to their clichés, to their mistakes. The narrator writes,
One reads a strictly commercial novel by a white writer and one does not say, or secretly think: This is to be expected. This is the best these people can do; they are incapable of doing any better. This is who these people are: pimps, hustlers, thieves, golddiggers, abusive fathers, neglectful mothers, and oversexed lovers. (ibid.)
Some of the richest passages in Boundaries occur when Anna confronts the powers at the publishing company in the most direct terms possible. Anna forcefully echoes one of her author’s disgust at a salacious cover designed by Equiano’s marketing department. The cover is meant to lure readers into buying sex-as-product, even though the author has no intention of cheapening the erotic portions of the novel. The flashy cover belittles a book that, Anna feels, “tells the truth about the human condition, about the universality of temptation, about the unending battle between reason and passion, about our proclivities toward the carnal in spite of our best intentions” (61). In the midst of a cultural moment that rewards easy gratification, where reality TV producers often design pat plots for stock figures, where the twenty-four-hour news cycle often feeds the most sensationalistic story, Anna maintains an old-fashioned belief in the power of words to construct, to deconstruct, to protest, and to heal. In a conversation with Paul, she talks with unrestrained passion about how books “have influenced every great movement in history.” She reflects:
Without de Beauvoir and Audre Lorde, how long would it have taken the women’s movement to get off the ground? C.L.R. James gave us stories that helped us in the Caribbean begin to free ourselves from the shackles of colonialism. What our society needs is to be inspired again, to be reminded of the values that have sustained the human race over the centuries. . . . It is writers who remind us of our human condition, that we are all in the same predicament together, all banished from Eden, all condemned to die, all flawed creatures who should be tolerant of flaws in others. That we should be our brother’s keeper. (59)
Anna’s tone is august, politicized, even slightly self-righteous. This is a different tone from the woman we meet at the beginning of Anna In-Between, a woman divorced, broken, stuck in the most vulnerable, ambivalent place she has ever experienced. By the final chapters of Boundaries, we share in Anna’s epiphany that displaying ambivalence is not something for which one needs to apologize. Vulnerability, she senses, is natural and human. Anna becomes more content with embracing life’s incommensurable threads. When we go with her to a small French café in Brooklyn, we observe that a “black man (he seems an African) sits opposite a white man, obviously his lover; a Latino girl is talking animatedly to a black man; a black girl is sharing a raspberry tart with her white boyfriend” (251). Sitting across from Paul, surrounded by her community of beautiful misfits and unlikely pairs, Anna explains why she loves editing books. She explains that she loves challenging her clients to push their emotional awareness to the limits. “She prods and their stories open up again. Suddenly they are aware of patterns, motifs, tropes that had little personal significance to them before she led them to dig deeper. They begin again; they revise and revise” (255–56).
It is at this point that we realize that fundamental to Anna’s identity is a refusal to take any narrative as Gospel. Anna is incessantly concerned with how language can be made more precise, with how tone can be made more varied, with how resolutions can be made more logical. In entering Anna’s world, therefore, the reader must imagine living in a place with a constant supply of fresh (and sometimes false) starts, a place of never-ending revisions. Admittedly, this territory is not easy to inhabit. It is not circumscribed on a map. It does not have a vote in the United Nations. It does not, in reality, physically exist. Anna’s home, Borgesian, is a country of oppositions that are articulated but seldom cemented, mediated but seldom resolved.
Like a trickster character, Anna is the quintessential mediator. In his essay “History, Fable, and Myth in the Caribbean and Guianas,” Wilson Harris suggests that the trickster’s “gamble of the soul” can be profitable for those living both home and abroad:
It is this element of tricksterdom that creates an individual and personal risk absolutely foreign to the conventional sanction of an Old World Tribe: a risk which identifies him (the artist) with the submerged authority of dispossessed peoples but requires him, in the same token, alchemic resources to conceal, as well as elaborate.2
For Harris, the trickster’s Janus face provides him with unique powers of insight. Living on the border gives him a safe space to call for change in the place where he left and to carve out new paths for where he seeks to go. In Anna’s case, she lives each day in America constantly aware of the inequalities that drove her away from the Caribbean. In New York, conscious that the American dream comes hard earned, Anna channels her energy into pursuing her career to the highest rung possible. This experience unites Anna with the leagues of countless Caribbean immigrants before her, people whose unsung stories are often marked by a steady, strain of sacrifice. Yet, as Anna tells her mother in Anna In-Between, these sacrifices, at their most fortuitous, do not go unrewarded. Anna recalls a dinner party, where she hears older Caribbean immigrants share the accomplishments of their children—“doctors, lawyers, MBAs working at Fortune 500 companies”—whose outlooks have been undeniably shaped by the complexities of their parents’ stories (Anna, 129). Sitting in the French café, Anna thinks of this future generation and to the possibility of her own children when Paul proposes to her. In that moment, oppositions—between the Caribbean and America, between career and family, between “ghetto lit” and Simone de Beauvoir—seem to matter less. Anna feels acceptance, peace.
In the distance, she hears “an echo. Her father’s voice. Carpe diem.” Anna realizes that “though it may not be her turn . . . it will be her children’s turn, their children’s turn. They won’t have to wait” (Boundaries, 256).
And to Paul, she says, “Yes.”
Stephen Narain was born in Freeport, Bahamas, in 1986 to Guyanese parents. He graduated from Harvard University with an AB in English. Currently he is a student in the MFA Program in Fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he is at work on his first novel. He is a recipient of a 2012 Soros Fellowship for New Americans.
1 Elizabeth Nunez, Anna In-Between (New York: Akashic, 2009); citations are to the 2010 paperback edition. Elizabeth Nunez, Boundaries (New York: Akashic, 2011).
2 Wilson Harris, “History, Fable, and Myth in the Caribbean and Guianas,” Selected Essays of Wilson Harris, ed. A. J. M. Bundy (London: Routledge, 1999), 166.