It is not easy for me to read reviews of my novels. Like most writers, I write in solitude, plumbing the depth of my subconscious. I am in a space that I alone know, that I share with no one, except, of course, I do. For, in the end, I willingly share that space with total strangers when the novel is published. My instinct, however, is to hide. What am I afraid of? That I may have exposed my inner self too much? That people may see my scars? Of course, fiction is not memoir or autobiography, but it seeks the same truths about the human condition, and to get to those truths, the fiction writer must be willing to explore his or her own psyche and past. My mentor, the essayist and novelist John Oliver Killens, used to say to me, “Elizabeth, you won’t be a writer unless you are willing to stand naked at high noon in Times Square.” And after I have done that, what then? How should I cover my naked self? It is the answer to that question that troubles me.
Still, I am deeply honored by the attention that Stephen Narain and Donette Francis have given to my two most recent novels, Anna In-Between and Boundaries—the Anna novels, as Francis calls them.1 But I read their essays with my hand over my face, peeking through the spaces between my fingers. What have they unearthed? What have they discovered about me?
Narain and Francis seize upon the mother-daughter conflict in both novels, especially evident in Anna In-Between. I am surprised they do not criticize me for being too harsh with the mother and overly sympathetic with the father, though he has betrayed his wife’s trust in him by his extramarital affair. Is it because they, like me, grew up in a culture that was tolerant of the common occurrence of infidelity among husbands? An English writer, male, observed to me that my father must have loved Anna In-Between because, as the writer said, I portrayed “him” so positively. The father in Anna In-Between is not my father, though he shares many characteristics with him. My father had at least one extramarital relationship that I was aware of, for example. But my English friend’s point is well taken. Perhaps it is our cultural differences that make me more tolerant and forgiving of Anna’s father’s adulterous affair than my English friend is willing to be.
Anna is in between, as the title of the novel suggests. Narain puts it aptly: “Anna struggles to define her individual values in relation to the identity politics that impact Caribbean and American social structures” (para. 3). My path into exploring Anna’s struggle was through those very social structures, particularly through the relationship between mother and daughter. My interest was not in the usual conflicts between parent and child; rather, it was in the specific conflicts between the mother who has remained in the Caribbean and the daughter who has immigrated to America.
In her collection of stories Bodies of Water, Jamaican-born Michelle Cliff, who lives in the United States, writes about the child immigrant whose mother sent her away to another country for her own good. Jess, the character who dominates most of the stories, struggles to reconcile her feelings of abandonment and alienation with her mother’s good intentions. As an adult, she anxiously presses a woman she has barely met about the fate of a boy child she does not know: “She, the child-immigrant, knows intimately the removal of children. She takes the boy’s part, her suspicion drenched in assumption. ‘Didn’t you want him?’”2
Anna harbors similar suspicions about her parents’ intentions, specifically her mother’s. And now, after living several years in America, Anna discovers that the space has widened and deepened between her mother, Beatrice, and herself. There are values her mother treasures that make no sense to Anna, but if she is to reclaim her cultural identity, she will have to find a way to empathize with her mother’s positions. Her mother has concealed a tumor in her left breast that has grown to the size of an orange, and one under her arm, the size of a lemon. Her father confesses that he had seen blood on his night shirt that his wife wears to bed, indisputable evidence that Beatrice’s cancer has ulcerated and bled. What is Anna to make of her parents’ silence—their conspiracy (it seems to her),—that could result in her mother’s death? Her father claims to love her mother, and Anna lashes out at him: “Love her and you do nothing? You tell me something about privacy, respecting her privacy? Were you planning to respect her privacy until she died?” (Anna, 61).
Not only is Anna confounded by her father’s attitude, but so am I; for there is truth in that fiction. My mother in fact admitted to me that there was a tumor in her breast only when the cancer was almost in its terminal stage. My father too was complicit in her secrecy. He had seen the blood on the vest she wore at night. It was in trying to understand my parents’ position that I stepped on the “tightrope” Narain describes and placed Anna on Narain’s “suspended bridges” (para. 2). Anna must learn, as must people in the Caribbean diaspora, how to negotiate her way in America, carefully balancing her footsteps so that she does not fall into the gap her boyfriend, Paul, also a Caribbean immigrant, tells her exists on either side of the hyphen that connects their identity as “Caribbean-Americans.”
At first Anna is scathing in her condemnation of her parents’ behavior. She attributes their attitudes to mimicry of Victorian mores and colonial values adopted by the colonized as their own: Keep skeletons in the closet; don’t wash your dirty linen in public. She contrasts these values with the freedoms and the openness she admires in American society. Yet she has disdain for “the grown men and women who bare their souls” on national TV in America, and “tell their darkest secrets, before audiences of millions” (Anna, 55). By the end of the first novel, Anna is less willing to dismiss middle-class Caribbean people as mimics of the culture of a people who had colonized them. So Narain is correct when he writes that “by more deeply empathizing with the social roots governing [her mother’s behavior], Anna moves from flatly dismissing her mother’s intractable standards” (para. 5).
I continue Anna’s story in my next novel Boundaries. I am often asked if I had planned this sequel when I was writing Anna In-Between. The answer is no. I had actually started another novel, but Anna kept pestering me. She wanted me to take her back to New York to see how she lives there and to find out what happened to the literary novel she was so urgently trying to protect when she sensed her boss was not too enthusiastic about publishing it. I was curious too, so I followed Anna.
In her essay, Francis focuses on what she identifies as the “third boundary [the novel addresses] between identity-based limits in the publishing industry and its academic corollary” (para. 4). In Boundaries, I write that the mid-list or literary novel, regardless of the ethnicity of the writer, is a hard sell, yet publishers are more likely to publish these novels when they are written by white writers, or, if by black writers, when there are white characters who are given prominent roles. The excuse publishers give is the realities of the marketplace. They claim there are few black readers for literary fiction by black writers and fewer still white readers of these works. Anna, who heads a small imprint for writers of color within a mainstream publishing company, wants to prove the publishers wrong and hopes to persuade her boss to publish a literary novel written by a black writer she admires. In comes Tim Greene, an African American. Anna’s boss has hired him to take over Anna’s position, believing that he will make the imprint more profitable because, as she says, “Tim understands African-American readers. He knows what they want” (Boundaries, 67).
I had been thinking of writing a novel about the tensions between Caribbean immigrants and African Americans, and when Anna’s boss made this statement early in the novel, I stumbled upon the opportunity to do just that with Boundaries. Then, quite by accident, I saw an article in the New York Times about Michael Ignatieff, who was running for Prime Minister of Canada. Frustrated with positions he held in England and America, Ignatieff concludes, “I know quite a bit about expatriation. You always hit a glass ceiling.”3 This statement became the epigraph to Boundaries and gave focus to one of the main questions I pursued: Is there a glass ceiling for immigrants in America, particularly for immigrants of color? Ignatiefff is a white immigrant, and while his ceiling may be made of glass, too often the ceiling for immigrants of color is solid steel.
Recently, Touré, music and cultural critic and author of Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?, lambasted CNN’s Piers Morgan for avoiding uncomfortable questions when he interviewed the brother of George Zimmerman who shot the black teenager Trayvon Martin.4 Touré seemed to imply that Morgan was sympathetic with Zimmerman’s plight. Morgan protested and showed clips where it was evident that he had lobbed difficult questions at Zimmerman’s brother. He argued that he is a professional journalist who asked questions that any professional journalist would ask. To which Touré, who is African American, countered that Morgan, who is English, was out of his depth, for he had little knowledge about the American experience. When Morgan claimed he had lived in America for the past six or seven years, Touré sneered. I thought of my novel Boundaries as I listened to the heated exchange between Touré and Morgan. In Boundaries, published just months before this program was aired, Tim Greene makes Touré’s very argument as his defense for why he, not Anna, is better suited to head the publishing imprint. And I realized all over again that the lines between fact and fiction are thin indeed and, more often than not, blurred. Would Touré have the same doubts about Morgan’s ability to understand fully America’s complex race relations if Morgan were a black immigrant rather than a white immigrant? I think Tim Greene would say yes, for he does not hesitate to refer to “my people” when he makes the case to Anna that he, as an African American, has an advantage over her in knowing the kind of stories African Americans like to read.
The immigrant writer faces similar doubts about her ability to represent the American experience accurately when her roots are planted elsewhere. But what about her ability to write about her home country when she has not lived there for years? Literary critics contend that aesthetic distance, essential for good literature, is best achieved when time and location separate the writer from her subject. Yet the immigrant writer is often accused of being too removed, for too long from her birthplace to write about it with any authenticity. Both Narain and Francis note that I do not name the island where Anna in-Between is set, though both scholars recognize that island to be Trinidad, my birthplace. The scholars do not ask why I made this choice, but the answer relates to the question of authenticity. I have heard enough murmurings to make me skittish. One writer from Trinidad told me that he could not get past the first couple of pages of my novel Bruised Hibiscus, which won an American Book Award, because I had my characters in a cane field in Trinidad where the wind was blowing in the wrong direction. So though I take pains to give accurate descriptions when my novels are set in Trinidad, I do not name the places. I leave it up to readers to make that identification, as inevitably they always do.
One of the most disturbing scenes for me in Anna In-Between, however, occurs when Anna tries to follow her parents into the forest on the north coast of the island. Her parents pass through the forest trees without incident, but Anna is pricked, stuck, and prodded by twigs, branches, and nettles. This scene confirmed for me what I had learned in George Lamming’s novel Natives of My Person. The landscape is in harmony with the native; it is a foe of the foreigner.5 I cite Caliban’s lines here too when he tries to put Trinculo and Stephano at ease: “Be not afeard: this isle is full of noises, / Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.” Anna has to remind herself of these lines when the cry of a crow sets her heart hammering. “This is her island, her rain forest, but she cannot quiet her heart” (Anna, 206).
I was thrilled when NALIS, the National Library and Information System Authority of Trinidad and Tobago, selected my novel Prospero’s Daughter for its 2009 One Book, One Community program. As it turned out, I had named places in that novel set on Chacachacare, one of Trinidad’s offshore islands, so perhaps I need not be skittish. Perhaps that honor, after all, was validation of my status as an authentic Caribbean writer.
Elizabeth Nunez immigrated to the United States from Trinidad after secondary school. She is an award-winning author of eight novels, including Boundaries (2011), Anna In-Between (2009), Prospero’s Daughter (2006), and Bruised Hibiscus (2000). She is a distinguished professor of English at Hunter College, CUNY.
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 Michelle Cliff, Bodies of Water (New York: Dutton, 1990), 114.
3 Michael Ignatieff, quoted in Ian Austen, “Looking to Lead Canada, and for a Little Name Recognition,” New York Times, 11 March 2011.
4 Piers Morgan Tonight, CNN, 30 March 2012.
5 See George Lamming, Natives of My Person (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972).
6 William Shakespeare, The Tempest, ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Pat Werstine (New York: Washington Square, 1994), 3.2.148–49.