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Not for Everyday Use, by Elizabeth Nunez.

May 23, 2014

Not for Everyday Use, by Elizabeth Nunez.   Akashic Books (2014), Paperback, 256 pages.

GLOBAL WOMEN OF COLOR

A sensitive memoir by a favorite Caribbean author about herself, her mother, and the impact of colonialism and racism.

The Caribbean is home for many excellent writers, and Elizabeth Nunez is one of the best. She was born in Trinidad and lived as an adult in the U.S.  Her eight novels are about people whose lives follow the same general path.  Her style is not flamboyant, but reserved, a quality she learned to value growing up. Just under the calm surface of her writing lies a wealth of understanding about the contradictions and conflicts we all know well.

In Not for Everyday Use, Nunez tells her own story, not in a neat chronological narrative, but as a journal covering the time between the phone call that her 90-year-old mother was dying to her mother’s funeral four days later, a time filled with memories and insights.  Nunez has dealt with the story of her life and family before in two semi-autobiographical novels, Anna In Between and Boundaries, about a Caribbean woman with a position at an American publishing company who returns home to visit her aging parents. In her new book she retells that story with new depth and returns it to its factual base.
Nunez tells us a great deal about herself in this book: about her marriage, which never gave her the loving support that she had seen in her parents’ lives, and about her encounters with American prejudice, which differed from that she knew in the Caribbean. She recounts how she loved English literature, finding in it universal themes that included her, and how she discovered her own African roots and literature. Sharing her enthusiasm for good writing with her students brings her continuing joy.

Much of Nunez’s memoir is about her mother and the troubling relationships they had had. Nunez long felt that her mother never loved and accepted her, but she had slowly come to understand why she had acted as she did.  A devout Roman Catholic, her mother was caught between her refusal to use birth control or to say no to her husband’s sexual desires.  In addition to the 2 children from her husband’s former marriage whom she raised, she gave birth to 11 living children and had 5 miscarriages, 3 of which threatened her life.  For her, displays of motherly affection were “not for everyday use.” The oldest of this large brood, Elizabeth felt unloved, neglected, and never good enough for her mother. She believed that her own life as an adult had been affected by her emotional neediness.  In visits home shortly before her mother’s death, she had gained understanding and began to become closer to her, discovering that her mother was not as fragile as she had thought.  But the distance remained.

Colonialism and racism helped to shape Nunez and her family. Growing up in Trinidad, she was taught to admire and respect all things British, something that took time to unlearn. Her father had been humiliated as a child for being particularly black. As British control lessened, he was hired in a managerial level position at an oil company working in labor relations and was able to move the family out of poverty. He became wealthy enough for his family to have advantages in a society where class can sometimes trump race. When Nunez came to America, however, she found that race discrimination was more powerful and that all blacks were vulnerable, even those who were educated and relatively affluent.

I enjoyed this book immensely and gladly recommend it to readers, especially those who care about mother-daughter relationships and Caribbean writers.

Other books by Nunez that I have reviewed and recommend in my reviews.
Boundaries
Anna In Between
Bruised Hibiscus.
Prospero’s Daughter.

Thanks to Akashic Books for sending me a review copy of this fine book and for making her other books available.

 

5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 23, 2014 5:11 pm

    Have you read any of Jamaica Kincaid’s work? Your description of Elizabeth Nunez really reminds me of her writing. Not just because she’s a Caribbean emigrant whose writings are semi-autobiographical or autobiographical, but also because she writes about a similar relationship with her mother and resentment of younger siblings for taking too much attention.

    • May 27, 2014 11:37 am

      I read some of her early writings when they first came out, before I had learned to appreciate her style of writing. I think it is time to go and read her again. Thanks for reminding me.

  2. May 25, 2014 4:19 am

    Thanks for sharing your review of what sounds like an insightful memoir, I like it when the writer has had time to come to an understanding about how the life of the mother must have been, always providing a very different perspective to how the child sees the mother.

    It reminds me of Maya Angelou’s last book, Me & Mom and Me which caused some readers to question, how the author could have arrived at a position of and forgiveness for the same woman whom many years before she had written about with much less compassion. The issues are different but that arriving a place of understanding all important.

  3. May 27, 2014 11:41 am

    Absolutely. I love the way some writers use memoirs to return to and revise what they thought and felt earlier. Especially in mother-daughter relationships. I understand and appreciate anger, but to me forgiveness where we should aim. It is so good when authors–or any of us–reach that point.
    And thanks for following my blog.

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