Johnny Temple Interviews Elizabeth Nunez and Tayari Jones
To celebrate the release of Elizabeth Nunez’s memoir, Not for Everyday Use, Johnny Temple spoke with Elizabeth Nunez (author of eight novels, including Boundaries and Anna In-Between) and Tayari Jones (author of Silver Sparrow, The Untelling, and Leaving Atlanta) about teaching, writing, family, memory, and more. Read the full interview below.
New York: see Elizabeth Nunez in conversation with Louise DeSalvo at the Center for Fiction tonight, 7pm! For more details on this and other upcoming events with Elizabeth Nunez, please click here.
Johnny Temple: For some fans of Elizabeth Nunez, it is a surprise that her new book is a memoir, since her previous eight books were all novels. Tayari, do you ever contemplate writing a memoir?
Tayari Jones: You know, I’ve never considered writing a memoir, but I’m not ruling it out. I just don’t think that I have any life experiences yet that would be beneficial to the world. That’s what you’re saying when you’re writing a memoir, you’re saying that your personal experience would be a valuable addition to a larger conversation. And honestly, I’m just not there yet. With a novel, it’s more like the author is adding her observations, or her ideas and her imagination is in service of that.
Elizabeth Nunez: Well, well, Tayari, you’re not saying only old people should write memoirs, are you? I know I’ve just had my three score and ten and have chalked up more life experiences than I can count, but I think it’s not the number of experiences that count, but, rather, the significance of a certain experience—though I warrant you, it takes time to understand the significance of an experience no matter how vivid it remains in the mind. But you have demonstrated in your novels a very perceptive understanding of human nature and the human condition. I’m struck, for example, by your novel, Silver Sparrow, about those two daughters of the same man who live different lives. I have no idea if that story touched you personally, but for a young woman you sure gave us some profound insights into such a dilemma. Is it, rather, that you are not ready for full exposure of your life?
One of the advantages of growing old is that you no longer care as much about what people think of you. I won’t write anything to hurt someone deliberately, but it’s important to me—a last chance, I suppose—to know who I am and why I am here. And though the novel allows us to explore those questions, I found exploring them directly, head-on, forced me to confront myself in ways I had not done before. I was surprised how relieved I was and at ease in facing myself. People who have read my memoir praise me for being brave and honest, but I didn’t think I was being brave. The memoir, in a way, was a gift to myself.
TJ: [Laughs] No ma’am! That’s not what I am saying at all! There are very young people who have written excellent memoirs—for example, Ishmael Beah. He was a teenager when he wrote A Long Way Gone. But his life had offered up experiences that were vital to an international conversation about children’s experiences in war zones. Then, of course, there is Anne Frank, an accidental memoirist, and a little girl. The difference, I think, is that very young memoirists generally reflect on extreme circumstances. Their stories are so urgent and shattering that their young voices must rise to the occasion. But more mature writers and thinkers have the insight and skill to explain the profundity in experiences that are more subtle. Take your beautiful story, Not For Everyday Use. There is a grown woman’s insight there. The wisdom of your years was able to reveal the extraordinary meaning of what may seem to be an experience that we all must face—the loss of our parents. The loss of home.
I am a great lover of memoir. I do appreciate the bravery of an author to tell the truth about herself. I recently taught Gregory Orr’s The Blessing, which is about living in the aftermath of an accidental shooting. When the author was just a kid, about nine years old, he accidentally shot and killed his brother. Orr is best known as a poet, and in my experience, poets make gorgeous memoirists.
I love novels just as much, but differently. This semester, I am teaching a course on Toni Morrison. I swear, every time I visit one of her novels, it feels like a different and more meaningful book. Right now, I am reading Tar Baby, and it’s like Morrison managed to read my heart. Of course, I am not a supermodel living on a Caribbean island, wrestling with issues of race and class, romance and family. On the contrary, I am a professor living in Jersey City, New Jersey. Way less sexy! But still I connected so deeply with Jadine. The idea of putting your own happiness before family, before lovers—even humble professors must face these questions.
JT: Elizabeth, can you name both a novel and a memoir that you’ve read in the past two years that have impacted you?
EN: I like memoirs that have the shape and tone of the novel, a memoir that keeps me hooked on the development of an interesting character and that has the arc of a sort of plot. I don’t necessarily seek out memoirs about some extraordinary happening in the life of an extraordinary person. I like memoirs that give me insights about this ordinary, and yet extraordinary, gift of life we have been given. I like memoirs that give me insights about how to fulfill my human potential: to be human rather than simply a human being. The memoirs that affected me are Joyce Gladwell’s Brown Face, Big Master (yes, Malcolm Gladwell’s mother is the memoirist here), and J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime, though he calls that an autobiographical novel. I read constantly and there are contemporary novels I like, but I tend to read over and over again a novel that teaches me how to pull off a work of fiction that seems effortless and yet is clearly a masterpiece. For me, one such novel is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
JT: Both of you are teachers. Does the teaching process very interfere with your writing process? Not in terms of schedule but in terms of the psychological/emotional factors that go into writing a book. Does teaching pull your creative mind into a different direction? Or does it, on the other hand, enhance your abilities to write literature?
TJ: I’m a teaching writer and I have taught for as long as I have written. You could say it’s the family business for me. My parents are also professors. I don’t think that teaching has affected my writing mind, if there is such a thing. Perhaps it’s true that spending so much time talking about writing keeps writing on my mind. If I am not getting my work done, I can never forget that there is work that needs doing. And besides, I am grateful for the job. Being able to take care of myself on a material level frees the mind to think about things like novels.
And I can’t really answer this question without the issue of time. Any job that you take seriously is going to eat at your writing time. Any life that you take seriously is going to do that as well. I think it’s new, this idea that the world will coddle artists and set them up with the ideal circumstances from which to create, that every moment we spend away from Yaddo is a tragedy.
EN: I agree completely with everything Tayari said. I can’t separate my teaching life from my writing life. I describe myself as both a teacher and a writer. I suppose, like Tayari, teaching is in my blood. I come from a family of teachers who, if they did not end up having a teaching career, started their working lives as teachers. I love teaching literature and am nervous about teaching creative writing. Teaching literature gives me the chance to explore works I love; I always find new ideas/techniques/insights that are helpful to my own writing. I’m nervous about teaching creative writing because I know all I can do is teach the craft, but my students long to know how to achieve the magic of the art. As Tayari says, most writers cannot survive simply on the returns from their writing, so the university has become a necessary patron for writers. That patronage still requires us to work, but still it seems a fair exchange for time to write.
JT: Both of your most recent novels, Silver Sparrow (Jones) and Boundaries (Nunez), explore the subject of “double lives” within families, albeit in very different ways. And Elizabeth, your memoir also touches upon this theme. Part of growing up and becoming socialized is learning that we put on different faces in different situations. In your work, is the family sometimes a metaphor for the self?
TJ: You know, I don’t think that family is a metaphor for the self. But I do think that family is kind of a trial by fire, as we prepare for our roles in society. With family, there is a sense that one is inextricably bound to a group of people. There’s no divorcing your parents, your siblings, etc. Not really. You can be estranged, but you can never sever the ties, and you must learn how to live within those relationships. It’s very much like society. Maybe I’m going out on a limb here, but I am thinking of my status as an American. This is a pretty thorny society into which I have found myself born. And even if I were to leave the country—do the James Baldwin expat sort of thing—I would still be an American writer. A black American writer. A black American woman writer. I’d just be one that happened to live in France, or Ghana, or wherever else I took refuge. My struggle with my original born identity would still be the struggle of my life.
EN: For me, too, the family is not a metaphor for the self, but, yes, sometimes I feel as though I live “double lives,” if not multiple lives. There is the me, the third in the line of my parents’ eleven children but the first to come to America for college, and the first to eventually immigrate here. Trinidad was a British colony and I was raised with the expectation that I would go to university in England or in a country within the British Commonwealth. All my relatives did, including my older siblings. Coming to America for an education immediately made me a curiosity, an outsider actually, within my family and our broader society. I had to play the role of the happy immigrant whether I was happy or not. After all, the Hollywood movies my family saw painted America as a place where the streets were paved with gold. We saw no movies about America’s shameful history of slavery and Jim Crow, nor were our libraries and bookstores stocked with books that depicted those aspects of America.
Then, when I relocated to New York, and lived in a black community and taught at a primarily black college, I had to invent a new self, the self of an ethnic minority, though I was often accused of not being black enough. These conflicts between my true self and the selves I continued to invent to fit into the expectations of my Caribbean family and the assumptions of both black and white America about a person of my skin color are major themes in my novels.
I want to hear more about what Tayari means when she says that her original born identity is “the struggle of [her] life.”
TJ: It’s funny. In many ways I have had an opposite experience of what Elizabeth describes. I laugh sometimes and say to my friends that I am just a “garden variety” black American. I was born in the South to southern parents. Sometimes I feel that my identity is a bit quaint these days, passé even, as I move through the literary world. It seems that the intellectual fashion right now is to “complicate” issues of blackness—I feel like I am left out with no asterisk. But I suppose that this is just the way the madness of race plays out. Elizabeth speaks of being accused of not being “black” enough, or the pressure to be a “happy” immigrant. And here I am as a black American, who is sometimes angry, who works hard sometimes not to be that stereotype of an angry black woman, but you don’t want to veer into mammy territory either. I believe that the society is set up where black folks are constantly kept jumping, dodging, and dancing. Trying to find a space where you are not too X, Y, or Z. I think being a grown-up is when you just are what you are, how you are. No doubt there are consequences to not dancing. And the music will go on and the waltz will go on, but thankfully, without you.
And this speaks to the struggle that I was talking about. I’ve never had any illusions about America and its history or current reality. I was what you might call a red-black-and-green diaper baby. My older brother is named for Patrice Lumumba. From a very young age, I knew the name Emmett Till. I read Richard Wright at age eight and was traumatized. That said, I didn’t know the names of the girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing. I didn’t know the name Fannie Lou Hamer. I feel so retro with my inner turmoil. I mean, didn’t we hash it out fifty years ago with the double bind of black women? I am of two nations, too. I am an American. And I am a Black American and I grew up understanding Black America to be its own separate place. But I feel, as a woman who is black, that I am stigmatized in both nations. Like the old song says, there ain’t no hiding place. But at the same time, my nations are the site of all the great joy of my life, too. Every pleasure.
EN: Until I came to America, I thought of myself simply as a Trinidadian female. My skin color was the same as almost all the people on my island, so there was never any necessity to describe myself as a black so-and-so. But I got tumbled around in America’s race wars and was forced to choose sides, if only on those official forms. The joy of being a senior is being able to declare my identity without regard for the pressures placed on me. So I declare that I am a human being. If more qualification is needed, then I am a female human being who is shaped by Caribbean, British, and American cultures.
JT: If you could wave a magic wand and change something about the American publishing landscape in 2014, what would it be?
TJ: That’s such a hard question because my first impulse was to think what I would want for my career, but I believe that would be a waste of a magic wand. And maybe that speaks to the root of the problem. I think that publishing has become too much like Hollywood or the music biz—but without the millions. There is so much emphasis on what’s hot, what’s right now. I am often asked for book recommendations, but the book must have been published in the last five minutes or they aren’t interested in using my recommendation for a magazine article or to choose the author to come and speak. I was recently asked by a reporter about a debut writer who has written a beautiful novel and the question was: why do you think she’s so hot right now? No question about her work.
I’m assuming that Elizabeth has a wand too, so I am going to use my wand not so much on the publishing landscape, but on our literary culture. Books are serious. Stories are serious. Yes they are funny, sexy, and entertaining, but they are also deeply serious. A novel is more than a Tweet, a Facebook post. I would like to draw the circle closer and let us think deeply about literature, engage with the ideas therein. I want to live in a world where people read books more than once. And I know I’m old-fashioned—I still write letters and send them in the mail. I compose my books with a typewriter and sometimes with a fountain pen. But there is something to be said for slowing things down, for introspection and rigor.
EN: I won’t repeat what Tayari has said so well, only add I’d use my wand to get publishers to understand that they are not in the business of selling Jell-O. Yes, publishing is a business and can only survive if there is profit. But one should no more go into the teaching profession for the salary than one should go into publishing for the money. Both these professions play the crucial role of transmitting ideas, values, aesthetics, culture, tradition, etc.; I could go on and on. Almost every major movement began with the book. Without the Bible, Old and New Testament, Judaism and Christianity would not have survived. Without certain political tracts, socialism and capitalism may not have flourished. Without the written works of certain psychiatrists and psychologists, we would still be imprisoning the mentally challenged in prison-like institutions. Without the novels of writers like Richard Wright, James Baldwin, C.L.R. James much of the world would have been left in the dark about the evils of racism and colonialism. Without books by our feminist writers, women would still be struggling for parity (as they still are) in a male-dominated world.
I worry particularly about the transmission of ideas and values in the black community if publishers continue to place their emphasis on the promotion of the kind of novels by black writers that I call bodice rippers. Yes, it is challenging to sell a book to an audience that has had reason to distrust the book, but it is a challenge the publisher must take on if he/she wishes to fulfill the magnificent possibilities of publishing. The public depends on recommendations to know what to buy, from clothes, to shoes, to furniture, to books. Look what Oprah managed to do with her book club! I worry that the academy is locked up in its Ivory Tower. Its residents teach works that have been analyzed over and over again, and seem to take on a new book only when Oprah tells them to. Is this a case of the tail wagging the dog? So, yes, I’d use my wand to get publishers to understand the seriousness of their profession and to take responsibility for doing more to get a well-written book in the hands of the public.
TJ: [Stomps feet] AMEN!
JT: Can you name at least one aspect of the evolution of literary culture in the 21st century that you think is encouraging/promising to young writers trying to get their careers started?
EN: Oh, you probably want me to say something about the new technology, something about Twitter and blogs and so on, none of which I use, but which I know the young writer needs to be good at. I know I had much to say about the responsibility of the publisher, but writers also need to work closely with publishers to promote and market their work and so expand their audience. I understand that the new technology is essential for getting the word out. Maybe I’ll get on board soon!
But more directly to your question . . . Fiction, or, rather, the publication of fiction, has always responded to some perceived trend. Fortuitously for me, that trend in literary culture at the beginning of the 21st century seems to be toward novels by writers of color who write about the immigrant experience. See, for example, the popularity of fiction by Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Díaz, Edwidge Danticat. But trends come and go, so I am most encouraged by the welcome given today to the long-distance writer. Here then is an encouraging/promising aspect of literary culture in the 21st century: A writing career can last a lifetime if, like writers such as Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson, J.M. Coetzee, young writers continue to hone their art, keeping the reader engaged intellectually and emotionally by the characters they develop, the stories they tell, and their commitment to a literary aesthetic that is interesting, even thrilling.
TJ: I think that the exciting thing about now is that there are a lot of ways for readers to find the books they want to read. Blogs, websites, discussion boards . . . These are all ways to find out about books and authors that you may want to read, even if no marketer out there thinks to market it to you in particular. Just the other day, I stumbled upon a book that was right up my alley—Give It To Me by Ana Castillo. It was a word-of-mouth thing, from the mouth of someone I have never met. I think someone knew someone who knew someone who praised it on Twitter. So I then read the book. Loved it. Anything that helps readers connect to the books they will love—this means it’s a good time to be a writer.
Not for Everyday Use has received a starred review from Booklist, who call it “a beautifully written exploration of the complexities of marriage and family life.” To read more about Elizabeth Nunez’s stunning memoir, or to purchase a copy, please click here.
Posted: Apr 9, 2014
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