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Boundaries, by Elizabeth Nunez.

September 21, 2013

Boundaries, by Elizabeth Nunez.   Akashic Books (2011), Hardcover, 275 pages


 Another fine novel by a favorite author highlights the themes of parental care, romance, and a career in the life of a Caribbean-American women’s life.

 In Boundaries Elizabeth Nunez continues the story she began in Anna In Between. (Readers who have not read the first book are brought up to date in the first chapter of the new book.)  Like many women, Anna Sinclair is caught up caring for her aging parents, beginning a relationship with a man, and pursuing her goals as a respected publishing executive.  In all of these, Anna’s options are shaped by the fact that she is in America as an immigrant from the Caribbean.

 Anna has always had troubled relations with her mother; a reserved woman whom Anna believed never loved her.  Now her mother is in the United States to have surgery for breast cancer.  Observing her parents, Anna considers their relationship and comes to appreciate why her mother has been so distant.  Paul, the surgeon who performs her mother’s operation, is also a Caribbean American, the son of a friend of Anna’s father.  He and Anna are obviously attracted to each other, but Anna still has scars from her marriage and divorce from an African American.

Creating a main character that works in publishing allows Nunez to write explicitly about her own ideas about books. Anna has worked her way up in her publishing company and now heads a subdivision that discovers and releases books by people of color.  Anna’s goal has been that some of the books she publishes have literary merit that allows them to be meaningful to all readers. Her dream rests on

the importance of publishing books by black writers that reflect the universality of the human condition regardless of differences in skin color, culture, class, age. If there is hope for the world, Anna believes, it is in our ability to see ourselves in others, in persons who do not look like us, do not talk like us, do not live like us, but who in every essential are exactly like us.

Her dream has been to publish

books by black writers who do not play into the stereotype of black people as oversexed, grossly materialistic, money-grabbing, greedy individuals who might seek violent ways to get what they want.

 In such statements, Nunez articulates exactly what I value most about the GLOBAL WOMEN OF COLOR books I have been reading and reviewing.  I feel myself expand when I empathize with characters who are like myself, despite the fact they lead lives utterly unlike my own. I appreciate Nunez’s novels because this is exactly what she does in them.

 While Anna has been away, her company has been planning a reorganization that prioritizes profit over quality.  An African American man is hired as her assistant because, it is claimed, he more in touch with “his people” and what they want to read.  Anna protests when a literary novel she is editing is given an explicitly sexy cover.  To her and the author the book is

more than about an adulterous man getting it on with a sexy mistress. Her novel tells a story, but it also tells the truth about the human condition, about the universality of temptation, about the unending battle between reason and passion, about our proclivity for the carnal in spite of our best intentions.

 In the conflict with others at the press and in Anna’s relationship with the man from whom she is divorced, Nunez raises the issue of the relationship between African Americans and other people of color who migrate into the United States.  Despite having become a US citizen, Anna sees how she not accepted as one.


 I regularly try to write reviews that do not reveal what happens in a book, but this time I believe that it is important to address the way the book ends, an ending that disturbed me.  Anna and her mother grow closer, the surgery is successful, and her parents return to their beloved Caribbean, in the process affirming that place matters in people’s lives.  Anna and the surgeon predictably move toward marriage.  But Anna loses her battle at work. She is forced to take a reduction in status, a cut in pay, and to work under those who do not share her literary dreams.  What hurts her most is that she is forced to give up her dream of publishing books that transcend rather than ignore differences. Her father and her lover urge her to accept the situation, although her mother unexpectedly stands up for Anna.  Both men acknowledge that the way she has been treated is not fair, but they believe African Americans must be allowed the space to explore their own identity and history.  She takes their advice, saying that she enjoys editing and working with authors, even though she has lost much of her ability to advance their cause.  The book ends with Anna and Paul accepting that they are not fully Americans.  They can only hope that their children will not face the prejudice against immigrants that they must endure.

 At one level, I see wisdom in Nunez choosing to end her book in this way.  As an immigrant from the Caribbean, she has figured out how to function in the United States. In addition, for Anna to have seen success in all three areas of her life would have been too rosy a conclusion for this book.  But I remain uneasy with the idea that African Americans have a right to claim their authority over people of color who immigrate to my country.  I believe all Americans, including those descended from those enslaved, have an obligation to treat others fairly.  Nunez quotes Toni Morrison who says in Beloved that what is fair is not always what is right.  I remain unconvinced that is true.

 Although I have emphasized the ideas in this book, I do not mean to imply that it is polemic.  Nunez is too good an author for that to be true.  Her characters and their feelings are carefully drawn, and the book is a delight to read.  I simply get excited about the ideas that good fiction raises, especially the idea that all human beings share basic experiences although those play out differently according to our time and place.

 I read a review copy of Boundaries sent to me from Akashic Books. They are a publishing company that actually does what Anna envisioned.  They publish books of literary merit that are written by people of color.  Check them out.

 I heartily recommend this book, and Akashic Books, to all readers who want both their books to be rich in both ideas and emotions.  I particularly urge readers who share Nunez’s commitment to books by people of color which are grounded in our common humanity.

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