Saturday, October 8, 2011

My review of Elizabeth Nunez's Boundaries

In Boundaries, a sequel to Anna In-Between, Elizabeth Nunez presents an important story about a protagonist’s professional struggle to publish literary fiction by Black writers in a commercial book industry that is more interested in pushing white supremacist propaganda than in actually selling books. The protagonist, Anna, is editor of Equiano books. Equiano is an imprint of Windsor, a large publishing company devoted to printing books by and about Black people. Anna fights the assumptions Windsor makes about their “niche” audience when her boss at Windsor Tanya Foster decides to market to a Black audience by using sexually explicit advertisements that degrade the meaning of the novel. Nunez’s narrator tells us: “she has been disregarded, disrespected. They did not consult her…It’s the same book, Tanya said. But it will never be read as the same book, Anna knows. Readers who are interested in literary fiction will pass over a book with such a sexually explicit cover. Readers who simply want to be entertained and not challenged will discard it after the first page when the sentences become too complex…when the ideas they are invited to ponder are too complicated” (57). Nunez shows how the publishing industry represented by Windsor assumes their Black readership belongs in the latter group and creates a niche market more by their arbitrary choices to create that market rather than trying to cater a market for literary fiction.
Along with her professional life, Anna as a Caribbean migrant in Brooklyn, New York, also manages a personal life in ways that mirror her struggle against the publishing industry. She tries to maintain a healthy relationship with her parents Beatrice and John who are coping with the diagnosis and treatment of Beatrice’s breast tumors. After much resistance, Beatrice is convinced to leave her island home, which is described (but not named) as Trinidad, for treatment of these tumors. However Anna has reservations about Beatrice and John staying with her in New York, mainly because she still struggles with resentment over her mother Beatrice never showing her any affection: “They are kind to each other, but they do not touch, they do not say affectionate words to each other…She [Anna] blames the colonial times. The Queen of England was not demonstrative” (108).
Anna also tries to retain hope in the possibility of a committed loving relationship with surgeon Paul Bishop even while she reflects on the reasons for her bitter divorce from her ex-husband Tony. The narrator tells us: “it’s hard to be stylish or to laugh when in the third year of your marriage your husband loses his job, when your income spirals down and you can no longer keep up with the payments for the expensive condo your husband bought, or the Benz he liked to drive” (95). Her friend Paula has long decided that “the bridge between immigrants and Americans born in America is a wobbly one” (115). She attributes Anna’s divorce to her not heeding her advice that she “should not have married out of her culture” (146). Paula also explains Beatrice’s lack of affection to being part of a time “when women rarely revealed their true feelings…too much coddling will give their daughters false expectations of opportunities that in reality will be available only to men” (146-7). However Anna’s reflection on her experience with Alice, another immigrant with whom Anna stayed in the States for the first time, convinces her that Paula is wrong: “She had stuck with her own kind and her own kind was not good to her. Lisa [a white co-worker of Anna’s], far removed from her own kind, had been good to her” (198).
Beatrice tries to develop a relationship between Anna and Paul Bishop, surgeon and son of Henry Bishop the beloved union organizer who holds Anna’s father John in high regard. They develop a relationship however, as Nunez suggests, not strictly because they are from the Caribbean, but because of Anna’s growth that came about from her struggles against the demands of the publishing industry, her mother, her ex-husband, and her friend. As relationship with Paul develops, Equiano is being dismantled because Windsor is merging with another company and has now become TeaHouse Press. Anna learns that Tim Greene, the African American co-worker who was initially assigned to be her assistant editor by Tanya at Equiano, is now her boss at TeaHouse. Nunez shows a fundamental issue of integration when Black men and women like Greene are placed in positions that uphold white supremacy with a Black face. Tim Greene justifies the use of these sexually explicit advertisement to a “niche” Black audience: “We can design print, electronic, and television advertisements targeted to specific groups” (169). Anna resents Tim’s participation in the white mainstream industry’s plan to create a “niche” Black audience by turning the art of reading into strictly an act of entertainment instead of potential reform. The narrator tells us that according to Anna: “He [Tim] and too many like him seem to lack faith in the possibility of remedying an inferior education, of resetting the clock for young men and women whose deficiencies in reading and writing have accumulated after years of neglect…these are the underprivileged youth whose notion of the good life will remain limited unless expanded by good books that could open the way for them to the beauties of the world” (220).
She concludes that if she stays at the now TeaHouse press, she will have to yield to Tim Greene’s racist vision. When Anna considers leaving TeaHouse press and relays her struggles with Tim to her father John and Paul, they both advise her to stay at her job at TeaHouse. This response to me however seems like a cop-out and neglects the various possibilities, especially with the Internet, that Anna could have used to engage a Black literary authorship and readership. Anna’s struggle for reaching this authorship and readership is representative of the need for such audiences especially after the end of the periodicals Emerge and Black Issues Book Review. Nunez ends the novel on a hopeful note with Anna’s personal life being salvaged; Paul proposes marriage, and she says that while she has to wait longer for racial justice in publishing industry, her kids, conceivably with Paul, will not have to wait. I personally don’t know about that. The relationship between Nunez’s Equiano and Windsor reflects several actual publishers we see today between Amistad and HarperCollins; OneWorld and Random House; Atria and Simon & Schuster. The larger publishers that own these imprints have significant holdings in other media industries. What Nunez shows in Boundaries is the potential for any of these mainstream publishers to do what Windsor has done and by allowing a merger with a larger company in order to neglect a Black literary authorship and readership.
In my mind, the boundaries that Nunez is referring to the boundaries within the white mind about the capacity of the Black mind, which has resulted in her struggles with her ex-husband Tony and an intraracial struggle with her new boss Tim Greene. The struggles against these boundaries are what make Anna a sympathetic, complete character. I happen to disagree with the responses of John Sinclair and Paul Bishop to Anna’s situation with Tim Greene. I thought that John Sinclair was absolutely too deferential to the so called way things are in the U.S. He told her that African Americans “paid a heavy price for the opportunities immigrants of color have today” and because of that, Anna should not challenge Tim Greene (240). I agree with the heavy price. Charlayne Hunter Gault and Hamilton Holmes opened the way for my father, a Jamaican immigrant to attend and graduate from the University of Georgia in 1975. However I do not agree that because of this Caribbean immigrants like Anna should shut their mouths and go along to get along the way that John Sinclair has told his daughter in Nunez’s novel. I disagree with John Sinclair’s advice very strongly. I thought that John should have told Anna to continue seeing authors on her own dime and to start a new venue for creating an authorship and readership that respects our rich Black literary readership and authorship. People from the Caribbean have been influencing racial justice work in the United States for a long time, and I would hope that John Sinclair would have been more sensitive to such influence, such as that of Malcolm X, whose mother came from Grenada; such as that of James Weldon Johnson and Rosamond Johnson, whose mother came from Bahamas; such as Marcus Garvey, Amy Jacques Garvey and Amy Ashwood Garvey whose parents came from Jamaica; such as Hubert Harrison, whose mother came from Barbados and whose father came from St. Croix; such as Z. Alexander Looby and Stokely Carmichael whose parents came from Trindad. And the list goes on. These are people who came to this country and developed very sophisticated opinions about race and used them to advance the struggle for racial justice in this country. And I don’t agree with John Sinclair that just because African Americans paid a heavy price that his daughter Anna should defer to Tim Greene just because he is African American. No. Wrong is wrong. Anna in my opinion was entirely in her right to challenge his attempt to condone what apparently was the larger mainstream publishing company’s attempt to force a niche market of oversexualized Black people that turn reading into solely a pleasurable or entertaining act rather than a more literary one. I was a bit miffed by Nunez’s ending of this last novel, but more than anything, I applaud her on a phenomenally written novel that exposes the problem of the mainstream publishing industry and its insistence on creating rather than respecting a Black audience. –RF.