Elizabeth Nunez and the Universal Character

Elizabeth Nunez is soft-spoken, articulate, elegant. She must be somewhere in her sixties, but she carries herself as if she had always been this age – with grace and comfort. Her features are sharp and her expression, even with her small spectacles, oozes a sense of jovial candidness. She is provost at the Medgar Evers College, City University of New York, and it is obvious that she has grown used to speaking in public. She was born in Trinidad and left to the United States to pursue a degree in English when she was 19 years of age. Whether that makes her Trini, North American or something in between is anyone’s guess, but this question certainly features prominently in her literature. She has written seven novels, including Bruised Hibiscus (2003), for which she won the American Book Award, Discretion (2003), Prospero’s Daughter (2006) and her most recent product, Anna In-Between (2009).

Nunez. Photo: ecaroh.com.

Anna In-Between tells the story of a thirty-nine year old editor who, caught at the heart of her middle-age crisis, takes an unusually long summer holiday at her parents’ house in a generic Caribbean island, which we can safely assume is loosely based on the example offered by the writer’s native Trinidad. Anna, the protagonist, has come looking for closure in her troublesome relationship with her mother in particular, but also with her father, both of whom seem to her to stem from another planet, rather than simply from a different time (time as in epoch, colonial times, more than the usual generational gap opened by chronological time). Anna’s subconscious – or at least subconsciously covert – yearning is complicated by the discovery that her mother has been secretly harboring a tumor in her breast and lymph nodes for the past two years, which unravels a stream of passions between the three family members that otherwise would have remained restrained.

However, the real protagonist in Anna In-Between, and, indeed, in Nunez’s work is language. Absolutely meticulous in her description of everything, from the routine of domestic chores, to the details of indigenous culinary preferences, to the lushness of tropical landscapes, Nunez manages to set the pace and the mood of her narrative through the use of specific, although refreshingly simple, language. Nunez attaches a value to words that goes beyond simple appreciation; she displays a fondness for them that seems closer to affection and that is transmitted to the complicit reader through the effortless, pleasurable experience of delving into her books.

Indeed, in this sense, her plots are often little more than circumstantial. Anna could be a successful banker in New York, rather than a successful editor; her mother might have been left in conscious agony after suffering a car accident, rather than have allowed cancer to eat her up for two years; the whole story could be told over one long dinner, rather than over four weeks. Or, even, the whole plot could be borrowed from Shakespeare, and it would not make a difference, because what truly concerns Nunez as a novelist is the shape her characters adopt. In end effect, what Nunez tells in her novels are personal stories, are individual inner tales, which, in her own words, are the means fiction has best to achieve universals concerning the human condition.

Which is ironic, because if the high point of Nunez’s art is her mesmerizing narrative style, then the development of her characters must be its most disappointing aspect. Prospero’s Daughter, an astute rewriting of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, is divided in three sections, each of them focused on specific characters of the plot: the two Englishmen, one a despicable doctor, another an unlikable police inspector; Carlos, Nunez’s Caliban, who is accused by the doctor of raping his daughter, Virginia, the final piece in the puzzle. But Dr. Gardner, a modern day Prospero, is too obvious in his deceitful ways, and Inspector John Mumsford is so concerned with integrity, so obsessed with making sense of the world through preconceived categories that Nunez gives him no room to progress. Indeed, he closely resembles John Sinclair, Anna’s father in Anna In-Between, “A man of integrity, a man of uncompromising principles.”

It is both a shame and a wonder that Nunez remains uncompromising in the principles with which she builds her characters, because the subject matters she often addresses are highly relevant issues that lend themselves perfectly to more malleable approaches. Like most Caribbean writers, she is concerned with issues of identity both within the multifarious blends that shape societies throughout the Caribbean as well as in the specific individuals who, like her, moved away from their roots to settle elsewhere. Issues of racism, colonialism, colonial attitudes prevalent in the islands even after the departure of the colonizers, social snobbery, women’s rights as well as family and romantic relationships all find their way into Nunez’s explorations. Frustratingly, however, Nunez speaks far more lucidly in public than through her characters and, consequently, her ability to pose fascinating questions is not mirrored in her novels by her ability to develop those issues to their full complexity: Dr. Gardner’s racism in Prospero’s Daughter strikes as stale – as old-fashioned – as Anna’s childish argument against her mother, when the latter accuses the United States of institutionalized racism.

Nunez’s also treads a dangerous line between the sophistication of her style, highlighted with subtle, though recurrent, references to the established English literary canon, and an occasional tendency to drift onto the sort of platitudinous sensibility found in soap operas and cheesy Hollywood features. And yet, despite all its flaws and contradictions, Elizabeth Nunez always manages to stir an emotion on the reader through the sheer force of her fiction. A new book by her is an opportunity to look into matters that might easily escape our usual frame of mind and, sooner or later, she too will find the perfect formula to fulfill the potential she has shown through almost two decades of literary practice. Hopefully, her next effort will prove me right.





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