In her eight novels, which include New York Times Editors’ Choice picks Anna In-Between and Boundaries, Elizabeth Nunez explores the dichotomous worlds of characters who, much like the author herself, are divided between the norms of Caribbean island life and American self-invention, the love-hate of British influence, and the divergent and pervasive outlooks on race and color encountered in the United States and her native Trinidad.
In her latest memoir, Not For Everyday Use (Akashic, $15.95 in paper), Nunez — also a professor at Hunter College-CUNY — lifts the veil of fiction to explore how those themes fit into her own narrative. Nunez, who appears at Miami Book Fair International on Sunday, frames her story around the four days she returns to Trinidad after her mother’s death, which gives her pause to reflect on her mother’s detached formality, her parents’ long-enduring marriage — which survived distance and betrayal — and her revered father’s declining health.
After eight novels, why a memoir?
I probably have been writing a memoir in all my novels, meaning that probably in all my novels I have been dealing with that sort of theme of the woman who immigrates to the United States and what’s lost, how she remains an outsider both in America and her homeland. But particularly, I have been writing about the quiet tension between that girl and her mother. While my mother was alive, it was very difficult for me to confront that tension directly. It was easier for me to conclude every one of my novels with a sort of hope and a romantic version of that subject, seeing the daughter I portrayed in the novel as me. But once my mother was no longer here, I dared to face it. So I think I could only face my life directly when my mother was no longer on earth.
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You describe your parents as stoic and self-possessed. The family mantra was “Emotions are dangerous. They can derail you.” But to be an artist, didn’t you have to defy the family code?
Yes, which is what put me in trouble in my family. It made me the odd man out. That family code helped me, in the sense that it put me on the path of my academic career. It helped me to deal with any kind of struggle I may have had as an immigrant and focus on my goals. But I was much more introspective. I was looking under the surface of things, which, if you’re going straight ahead on a specific goal, it can in fact derail you. As you can see in the memoir, most of my family moved to science, mathematics and business. And here I was in the humanities. Although, the fact is my siblings love the arts. One of my brothers was a visual artist, one of my sisters who became a lawyer loved interior decorating, but we grew up in a colony, so the whole point was we had to get educated and prepared for beating the system.
You write: “To some extent, all novels are camouflaged autobiography.” In memoir, you are no longer buffered behind your characters. Will you be held accountable by your 11 siblings?
Generally, they have been respectful about this as the way I saw things as they occurred. My father was very admired and adored in our family, and although they were very clear that he was unfaithful to my mother many times, some of my sisters objected to that portrayal. … When they said that to me, they said, “But we like the rest of what you said.” But they were unhappy with the way I took my father down a peg or two.
But with all writing, you make discoveries, and I discovered something about my father that I hadn’t known which they were grateful that I brought up. My father, in spite of his many successes and in spite of the fact that he was admired for his intelligence, he was very insecure. I know that through the years we talked about my father’s insecurity, but we talked about it in admirable terms. We would say how he never liked to put on airs, he never liked people to praise him. But the fact was he was insecure because of his color in a society which gave a lot of praise and attention to people who were light-skinned. [In Trinidad] we didn’t have so much problems with racism, but rather with, as with what Michelle Cliffs called “colorism.” Shades of color rather than racial differences were more important. His siblings were much lighter than he was. In the memoir, I allude to his male and female siblings who both passed for white, one in Canada and one in England, so for him being the darkest, I think he always felt he had something to prove.
You also explore the influence of colonialism on you and your family.
What I discovered was how colonialism really affected us — us doubting our identity. This is something that everybody wants to know: What is my identity? Everyone tries to work that out through their lives. When your identity is so defined by the other, the struggle is between how the other has framed your identity and what you know is not your identity. So what is it?
You trace your family’s confrontations with racism and colorism in the memoir. Do you think things have improved over the generations?
I think racism remains one of the biggest problems that the world faces. Again, I think it’s because we have not faced the roots of it, particularly in this country. We don’t want to face how the consequences of that still persist to this day. There is an advantage for whites even if they arrived yesterday.
At the fair
Elizabeth Nunez appears at 4 p.m. Sunday in Room 8303 at Miami Dade College, 300 NE Second Ave., downtown Miami
Tuesday at the fair
5-8:30 p.m. at The Swamp: Jai-Alai Magazine reading; “Science and Art: Transformative Experiences in the Everglades”; live music by Kazoots.
6 p.m.: ‘An Evening With Dave Barry and Sandra Tsing Loh,’ Chapman Conference Center; $15.
8 p.m.: ‘An Evening With Nicholas D. Kristof,’ Chapman; $15.
For tickets and more information, visit www.miamibookfair.com.