Thursday, October 1, 2009

Meet the woman behind 'Anna In-Between'

By Meredith Deliso

As a novelist, Elizabeth Nunez finds inspiration everywhere in Brooklyn.

“You look out of your window in Brooklyn and life happens,” says Nunez, who splits her time between Bedford-Stuyvesant and Amityville, LI.
“You don’t even have to go outside, just look through your window.”

When Nunez looks through her window in her current novel, “Anna In-Between,” she sees a woman dealing with a sense of place, which, with nearly 40 percent of Brooklyn comprised of immigrants, many readers can associate with.

An immigrant herself, Nunez moved to the United States from Trinidad as a young woman, receiving a Ph.D. in English from New York University and working her way up in academia to become Provost at Medgar Evers College in Prospect Heights, which she has been teaching at since 1972. Her last novel, “Prospero’s Daughter,” was the New York Times Editors’ Choice and 2006 Novel of the Year by Black Issues Book Review.

Her seventh novel, “Anna,” another Times Editors’ Choice, came out of a question, and a sadness, says the author, “a sadness where I found myself, that as an immigrant in the early part of my move here, I was moving forward, working on my career, looking to the future. Finally the future caught up with me and I looked around and I said, where do I belong? Where are my roots?”

Wanting to explore that identity crisis in a novel, Anna Sinclair was born, a woman in her forties who returns home to her native Caribbean island and finds everything is no longer so familiar. Up come issues of class, colonialism, discrimination, as well as marriage and mortality, as her mother battles breast cancer.

Though it started with this sadness, “By the time I worked through the novel, there was a lot of hope and optimism and brightness,” says Nunez. “One learns to live with complexity, that life isn’t simple. This beating up on myself and trying to find my roots, it ends up the girl is a hyphenated person.”

In the novel, Anna, a New York book editor, discusses the plight of the black literary writer, where the bottom line in publishing is the decision maker, and black writers are often looked at for their commercialism, something not unfamiliar to Nunez.

“Literary writers have a hard time where you’re competing with a more commercial writer, so publishers tend to throw all their attention there,” says Nunez, a self-described literary activist. “They don’t see much of an audience for literary fiction by black writers. It’s unfortunate.”

Johnny Temple, founder of the Brooklyn-based independent publisher Akashic Books which has a focus on Caribbean literature, also finds it unfortunate — a crime — that more Caribbean writers aren’t published. Approached by Nunez at a Brooklyn Borough Hall literary soiree last spring, he jumped at the chance to publish her work.

“As soon as Elizabeth told me she was going to be going on her new novel, I practically wanted to see it sight unseen because I love her work,” said Temple. “I read it and knew immediately it was something I wanted to publish. It’s a real honor that she would come to us.”

Always writing, Nunez is already in the early stages of her eight novel, as she’s continuing to look out the window for inspiration and find answers to her questions through the written word.

“I like to say I read books, I write about books, I quote books,” says Nunez. “Books are the center of everything I do.”

Elizabeth Nunez will be at the central branch of the Brooklyn Public Library (1 Grand Army Plaza) October 10 at 4 p.m. in a conversation with Leonard Lopate (WNYC) as part of the Cosmopolis: Immigrant Writers in New York Series.


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