Author Q&A: Elizabeth Nunez

  • November 15, 2011

Told in spare and transcendent prose, Boundaries is a riveting immigrant story, a fascinating look into the world of contemporary book publishing, a beautiful extension of the exploration of family dynamics that began in Nunez’s previous novel Anna In-Between, and a heartwarming love story.

Wendy Coakley-Thompson Q&A’s with Elizabeth Nunez, author of Boundaries

Why did you choose to write Boundaries in the present tense?

Most novels are written in the past tense. Writing in the present tense is challenging. The writer has to remain focused on the present action even though to develop characters more fully, the writer generally needs to tell back story, which means using the past tense. But I like the immediacy of the present tense and very much admire how writers like J. M. Coetzee and others use it effectively.

What precisely about the character Anna from Anna In-Between made you wish to explore her further?

At the end of Anna In-Between, Paul, a possible love match for Anna, observes: “Over there, in America, I’m Caribbean-American, but that hyphen always bothers me. It’s a bridge, but somehow I think there is a gap on either end of the hyphen. Sometimes I think if I am not careful, I can fall between those spaces and drown.” I wanted to take Anna and Paul to New York to see if they would fall between the spaces. For the epigraph to Boundaries, I quote Michael Ignatieff, the Canadian intellectual and politician, who, frustrated in his ambitions to advance in the important positions he held in England and America, says: “I know quite a bit about expatriation. You always hit a glass ceiling.” Of course, I was also curious about the relationship between Paul and Anna, whether it would develop into something deeper.

What do you want all Americans to understand about the experiences of Caribbean immigrants?

There is a need for dialogue between Caribbean immigrants and African Americans to address the tensions that too often keep them apart. Like all immigrants, Caribbean people come to America to improve their life situations. They are focused on their ambitions, and, for the most part, they are successful. But Caribbean people need to acknowledge that their success is directly due to the opportunities made available to them because of the sacrifices of African Americans that led to the establishment of Civil Rights laws. African Americans need to remember that the children of Caribbean immigrants are not immigrants; they are Americans, most of them African or Indo Americans. Together they can be a powerful force for improving the lives of blacks and other people of color.

How is Anna’s story both similar to and different from other immigrants’ tales of reconciling the ways of the old country with the freedoms of – and, at times, disillusionment with – life in America?

Anna’s story is different from other immigrants’ tales in one essential way: Anna, like most Caribbean immigrants, is not white. White immigrants easily assimilate into white America, the dominant group in America. They can change the color of their hair and eyes, even the shape of their noses. Black people wear their skin color wherever they go and they are judged by this country’s history of racial stereotyping.

How do Anna’s experiences at the fictional Windsor Publishing Company imprint Equiano mirror the realities facing writers of color in publishing today?

Unfortunately, too many publishers view fiction by black writers as a genre unto itself. For these publishers, this genre is defined by strictly commercial literature that is plot driven, without much attention paid to character development, artistic style, or reflection on the human condition. Publishers seem to assume that there is no audience, black or white, for literary fiction by black writers. Though white writers face similar opposition, publishers are more willing to take a risk with white writers of literary fiction than with writers of color. They believe that there is still an audience of white readers for literary fiction by white writers, but too few black readers for literary fiction by black writers.

Caring for an ailing parent is a challenge under any circumstances. How are Anna’s efforts to do this compounded by the fact that her parents live literally and figuratively a world away from Anna, their only child?

The tragic reality is that while parents encourage their children to leave home to seek their fortunes, they also take the risk that their children will grow apart from them not only in terms of physical distance but also in their views on life. This is true for children who move from one area of the US to another as it is for those who leave their countries for another. Much is lost in this separation and it is a challenge to connect to parents in some meaningful way when one has had experiences that may have changed the way you view the world. Anna loves her mother and wants to comfort her during her illness but her feelings are complicated by unresolved issues with her mother exacerbated by their long periods of separation.

Tim Greene, Anna’s new co-worker, accuses Anna of not understanding American culture in general and African-American culture in particular. Anna herself says that she and Tim Greene “have the same skin color but we belong to different tribes.” Given Anna’s own assertion and her constant navigation of the yawning and, at times, perplexing chasm between her and American-born citizens, how is Tim Greene’s assessment of Anna not a valid one?

Anna is being sarcastic when she says she and Tim Greene “have the same color but we belong to different tribes.” She is making reference to the tribal warfare that continues in some places in Africa and in the Middle East and that existed for centuries in Europe, leading to world wars. There is some truth in what she says: She and Tim Greene belong to different cultures, but that does not mean that they cannot work together for common goals. For Tim Greene, Anna is competition. His judgment of her is based on her ethnicity, not on her competence to do the job.

Anna states that “chick lit, urban lit, ghetto lit will pay the bills, but literary fiction is essential for advancing the culture. What if no one had published Baldwin, Ellison, Wright, or Hurston?” Is it not possible for the aforementioned genres to serve the same end as well – that is, advancing aspects of the culture of people of African descent?

As entertainment, I have no objection to “chick lit, urban lit, ghetto lit,” but in a society that continues to be plagued by racism, it worries me that such fiction perpetuates racial stereotypes. Though all art should entertain, a novel should give the reader more than simply the thrill of an exciting plot. Fiction should leave us thinking about issues that affect us and society in general. It should give us a deeper understanding of the human condition. Good fiction takes us out of our comfort zone to appreciate the other, to be more tolerant of difference. Good fiction provides the thrill of a composition artfully crafted.

Alexandria-based journalist, author, and award-winning commentator Wendy Coakley- Thompson covers the publishing industry. Her new novel, Writing While Black, is forthcoming.

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