A riveting immigrant story of family, love, assimilation, and a fascinating look into the world of contemporary book publishing.
But Anna is divorced, nearing 40, coping with an ailing mother and facing complications at work. In Nunez's (Anna In-Between, 2009, etc.) latest, the author further explores immigrant life, a life where a hard-working woman can progress up the corporate ladder, buy an apartment in a soon-to-be trendy neighborhood, and still be plagued by outsider's angst. The story begins with Anna, edits completed on a promising literary novel, visiting her home island. She finds her mother refusing medical attention for obvious breast cancer. Anna pressures her to seek care. Eventually the case comes to Paul Bishop, a family friend and now a prominent surgeon in New Jersey. Paul agrees to perform the operation if Anna's mother agrees to have it done off-island. Paul also persuades Anna that they might find a personal connection. Anna's intrigued, but she is anxious about mother's condition and stressed by dramatic changes at work, including a new "assistant editor" hired without her input. The book expands to follow Anna into the jungle of modern-day publishing. After promises and subterfuge, the new hire, Tim Greene, an African-American with an unconventional childhood, becomes her boss. He closes her specialty imprint, making clear he believes her heritage leaves her disconnected audiences who want "chick-lit" and "ghetto-lit." Anna feels lost, trapped by cultural discrimination. She grows as a sympathetic character, and the author brings her reticent British-black culture parents to life as they travel to the U.S., cope with surgery, reveal themselves. Anna begins to understand her parents' love for her in spite of their reserved nature, and she finds their wisdom, and Paul's love, key to coping with the discrimination she faces at work.
A thoughtful literary novel exploring the shadows of cultural identity and the mirage of assimilation.
- Akashic Books
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- 5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)
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By Elizabeth Nunez
Akashic BooksCopyright © 2011 Elizabeth Nunez
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSeventeen years after Anna Sinclair chose to move permanently to New York and the pain that constricts the heart of every immigrant who has left behind familyy—a mother, a father, sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents—the land she loved as a child, the land that nurtured her as a child, has finally become unbearable. She decides to return to her island in the Caribbean, this time not for the week or two she goes every other year, but for a whole month, because her parents are old, her father in his mideighties, her mother fifteen years his junior; because she fears there is not much time left to be with them; because she wants to imprint on her mind's eye the color and texture of the earth once familiar to her as the markings on the palm of her hand; because she wants to savor the scent and taste of the sea she loved, trade winds that suffuse the air in every corner of the island so that even in the swamp-filled land of the prosperous enclave where her parents built their house more than twenty years ago, salt from the sea corrodes metal within weeks and houses bleed orange where nails are hammered into wood slats.
Anna's plan was all this: to spend time with her parents, to gather memories to sustain her through winter days and the suffocating heat of summers on a continent dense with people and the things people make that threaten to choke off forests, rivers, lakes, denuding mountains. It was about closure too. Paula, her friend, an immigrant like herself living in New York, has forced her to admit there are quarrels yet unresolved with her mother, resentments she still bears though she is an adult, a woman one year shy of forty.
Then everything changed.
She is three days on the island when her mother, Beatrice Sinclair, shows her the lump on her breast and the one under her arm lodged in her lymph nodes. The one on her breast bleeds. Neil Lee Pak, the family doctor and their friend, sends her mother to Dr. Ramdoolal, the best oncologist on the island. Dr. Ramdoolal does not need a biopsy to confirm what is plainly evident. Beatrice Sinclair has breast cancer. He tells Anna her mother has allowed the cancer to fester and bloom. Allowed, he says, making it clear that her mother is responsible. Because there is no way Beatrice Sinclair could not have seen, could not have felt the tumors rising inexorably under her skin. No way John Sinclair, her husband, could not have known. The doctor implies this with an accusing glance at John Sinclair, who is in his office, sitting in a chair, on the other side of his desk, next to Beatrice and Anna.
Anna is in shock, stunned by her parents' silence, their complicity in a shared secret that may cost her mother her life. There are four stages, she is told. Surely her mother's cancer is in the fourth stage, surely it is terminal. It has ulcerated, bled.
No, Dr. Ramdoolal says. Her mother has her age on her side and a cancer that is slow growing. She could live to be ninety, he says.
Hope swells her father's despairing heart. She will need chemo to reduce the tumors, Dr. Ramdoolal advises, before a mastectomy is possible. Her tumors are too large. "Bleeding, you know," he says. "We may not be able to stop it."
Color drains from her father's face; Anna's fingers turn cold.
"But not to worry; we'll reduce the tumors," Dr. Ramdoolal assures them. He has one caveat. The surgery must be done in the States. The island has good doctors—he is a good doctor, he says, studied at Cambridge—but the island does not have adequate hospitals. Gurneys in corridors serve as beds for overcrowded wards, and newspapers, not sheets, cover thin mattresses. "Go to the States, Mrs. Sinclair," Dr. Ramdoolal urges.
Beatrice Sinclair refuses. She is a patriot. She will not have surgery in the States. She will have surgery on her island home. She has faith in her country, in her doctors, she insists.
"Then stay here," Dr. Ramdoolal says. "Stay here if you want to die."
His bluntness angers Anna, but terrifies her too.
Prosperity has come to the island on the second wave of an oil boom and the government has built a new hospital, stocked it with the latest newfangled medical instruments and equipment, but no one, it seems, had given thought to beds and linens. Surgery was the thing. Every man for himself afterward. Yet it is not the scarcity of beds and linens that scares Anna; it is the inability of the government to solve the problem of electrical outages that occur with frightening frequency on the island, shutting down traffic lights and turning roadways into a nightmare of cars and trucks snarled for miles around tight bends on the narrow roads. When lights go out and air conditioners no longer operate, work ceases at offices plunged into the sweltering heat. In hospitals, surgery has to be abandoned. There is an article in the newspaper about a patient who died when the machines shut down. And there is another story Anna overheard, whispered to her mother by a friend who does not yet know of her mother's tumors. Bribes have to be paid to customs officers if you want your goods cleared from the shipping docks on time. The woman's cousin, suffering from brain cancer, is forced to wait weeks for chemo. The drugs have arrived on the island, but the doctor has refused to pay the bribe. This is what happens when the government controls the hospitals, say the detractors of the system of socialized medicine the island has inherited from the British colonizers. We forget we are flawed creatures, the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. We crave the incentives and rewards of capitalism.
"Go to the States," Dr. Ramdoolal implores her mother. "You get service for your money."
There are other considerations. Anna's mother gives another reason for her intransigence. For it is deliberate intransigence, Anna is convinced, that allows Beatrice Sinclair to remain defensive in spite of a death sentence that looms if she refuses surgery in the States, going so far as to accuse the good doctor of maligning his own country, of betraying his own people. She could die, Dr. Ramdoolal has said. But Beatrice Sinclair explains to her husband, John, and her daughter, Anna, that she fears having surgery in a country that has doctors and equipment for Americans and doctors and equipment for African Americans. She has seen the protest marches on cable TV; she knows about the statistics: American jails are crowded with black men.
Anna wants her mother to live. She wants her to go to the States for surgery, but her motives are not entirely altruistic. If her mother has surgery on the island, she, as the daughter, her mother's only child, would be expected to stay by her side. This is the natural duty of a daughter whose mother who is ill. The daughter abandons her work, she abandons her life. This is what Dr. Ramdoolal assumes that she will do, that she will stay on the island until her mother recovers from the rounds of chemo she must undergo to reduce the size of her tumors.
Naturally, she responds. Naturally.
Her father makes the same assumption. When Anna hesitates, he practically begs her to stay. There's no changing your mind? A question asked with all the tenderness and hope of a father pleading with his daughter to remember the days and nights he has loved her unconditionally.
Anna promises to stay, but she cannot stay as long as her father would like her to. She will remain there until her mother has her last round of chemo, but not for the weeks afterward while she recovers. If her mother insists on surgery on the island, she will come back, but in the meanwhile, she needs to be in New York. It has taken her years to climb up the ladder at Windsor, an internationally renowned publishing company where she is head of Equiano, Windsor's imprint for writers of color. Tanya Foster, her boss, has given her four weeks. Anna is afraid if she is away from her office much longer she might jeopardize her position. There are writers who need her, one writer in particular, Bess Milford, whose manuscript she has finished editing and has e-mailed to Tanya. Bess Milford is a true artist, her novel exquisitely written, but it is a literary novel and might not bring much profit to Equiano. Tanya Foster warned her of that probability when she reluctantly approved its acquisition simply on Anna's recommendation. Anna knows Tanya has not read the novel, so she includes a synopsis when she e-mails the edited manuscript, hoping that if Tanya is still too busy to give attention to a book she does not think will be worthwhile commercially, the synopsis will do the trick to persuade her to at least commit to a reasonable marketing budget. For Anna wants to try. She is determined to prove to Windsor that Equiano can still be successful if the company publishes literary fiction by black writers. She needs to be in New York to set the wheels in motion so that the novel will get the promotion it deserves.
Then a stroke of good luck. Paul Bishop, an oncologist who was born and raised on the island but now lives and works in New Jersey, is home for the celebration of his parents' fiftieth wedding anniversary. He drops by to visit the Sinclairs, who are happy to see him. Paul Bishop is the son of Henry Bishop, a union organizer whom Anna's father came to admire and respect when, as personnel manager of the major oil company on the island, he negotiated the end of the oil field workers' strike that was crippling the company. Anna suspects that Paul Bishop's visit is not accidental. She thinks Dr. Ramdoolal has sent him and she is relieved, for he arrives at a time when her mother has only one more treatment left to endure and the decision must be made soon as to where she will have surgery.
Dr. Bishop immediately allays Beatrice's fears. He tells her that what she sees on American TV beamed to the Caribbean is grossly exaggerated. America has changed, he says. There are laws now since the passage of the Civil Rights Act. In his hospital she will be treated the same as any patient, black or white. He offers to do the surgery himself. It takes him a while but eventually he convinces Beatrice to trust him. She does because Paul Bishop is a son of the soil, a compatriot. John Sinclair trusts him too because Paul Bishop's father is Henry Bishop. Anna is grateful to Paul since she can now return to her job in New York. She does not have to choose, to risk interrupting the life she loves in New York: work that is meaningful for her. Her mother has agreed: she will go to the States for her surgery.
But there is more than gratitude Anna feels for Paul Bishop. She likes him. He is not a particularly handsome man, but he has presence, she finds. There is something about him, something comforting and reassuring, which puts her immediately at ease. Though she cannot remember that they met when she was four or five, he seems familiar to her. It helps too that, like her, Paul Bishop is a hyphenated American, a Caribbean-American, with a foot in both worlds. He will be patient with her mother, for he understands the culture that shapes her views, her sometimes seemingly erratic behavior. The next day he calls and invites Anna to dinner.
"I thought you two would get along," her mother says, barely hiding a triumphant smile.
Anna grimaces. She was mortified when her mother kept insisting that her father tell them whether Paul Bishop is single or not. "Does he have a wife?" her mother had asked. But later, Anna must admit, she was glad her mother forced her father to answer. Paul Bishop is divorced; he does not have a wife.
"It's only dinner," Anna says to her mother. "He leaves the next day."
"And soon you'll be in New York."
"He lives in New Jersey."
"My surgery will be in New Jersey where he practices," her mother says.
They are in her mother's bedroom. Her father is in the garden, feeding his fish in the pond that faces her mother's prize orchids. At seventy-two, Beatrice Sinclair is still beautiful. Her husband reassures her almost daily that her head, almost totally bald now from the disastrous effects of chemo, makes her profile even more distinctive. He tells her she looks regal, like the image of an Egyptian queen on an ancient coin. He says he can see her beautiful brown eyes more clearly now, that he loves the way her high cheekbones contrast with the soft slope of her cheeks. He says he always thought her lips were perfect, and that without the distraction of hair, he can see how perfectly her fuller top lip balances the thinner lower lip. He says she has kissable lips. He says all of this within Anna's hearing, for everything has changed now that John Sinclair has breached the code of privacy they share. Her secret is out. She will need a mastectomy. It is the only way to save her life. When Paul Bishop confirms that Beatrice Sinclair has no other option, her husband reaches for her hand. "We'll take showers together, Beatrice." Anna and Paul Bishop were sitting close to them in the veranda when her father said this, but he didn't seem to notice or care. Now he speaks openly of his wife's kissable lips. John Sinclair loves his wife. Anna has no doubt of that.
"You can never tell," her mother says. "You may get lucky like I am."
And her mother is lucky. For over forty years she has been married to a man who adores her, a man who has provided her with luxuries she could not have imagined when she lived in a tiny one-bedroom house in an impoverished part of the city, with a mother who was forced to work in the kitchen of the governor's house because her husband, an inveterate gambler, had debts so huge there was little left to buy food or pay the rent. By contrast, at the end of his career with the oil company that had hired him when he was barely out of his thirties, John Sinclair was in charge of the company's assets in the Lesser Antilles. Until he was eighty, he was given substantial retainers by the government and private companies for his skills as an arbitrator in labor disputes. He has not needed a pension. Only recently has he made use of the considerable interests his shares in the oil company have accumulated.
Beatrice Sinclair is indeed fortunate. Not only does her husband adore her, he can also afford to indulge her whims, which, to be fair, are not many. She likes to keep an attractive home, she enjoys entertaining friends, her garden is a source of pride for her, she loves beautiful clothes (her secret obsession is shoes), she expects, and is given, domestic help: a gardener, Singh, who has worked for her it seems forever; a housekeeper and cook, Lydia, who has been with her for fifteen years; the weekly laundress who comes to her home to wash and iron the linens and clothes; the boys who mow the lawn and trim the hedges and trees. John Sinclair wants his wife to have a comfortable life. He does not deny her the help she requires.
And they resemble each other. Perhaps they did not when they were young, but now their expressions, molded from years of seeing in each other's faces a mirror of their thoughts, have chiseled places where the skin was soft and softened places where bone hardened their features, so that the nose on her mother no longer seems as short as it once was, her eyes no wider than her husband's, and both their smiles curve upward the same way, the furrows on their foreheads gather in the same tiny waves between their eyebrows when they are angry. It helps that they have the same skin color, a rich butterscotch brown that tells the tale of the island's history, the peaceful Arawaks almost decimated by the war-loving Carib Indians who in turn were almost decimated by smallpox and other diseases the Spanish conquistadors brought with them. Then came the Africans in chains to plant sugarcane and cocoa under the lash of French planters who had already established slave holdings in Martinique and Guadeloupe. By the time the English had won their wars with Spain and colonized the island, the range of skin color there was already on its way to varying from pitch black to mocha, chocolate, and coffee—noir and au lait. Anna herself is also the color of butterscotch brown. She looks more like her mother than she does her father. She has her mother's high cheekbones and her deep-set eyes, but the shape of her nose is not the same; she has her father's long nose that bends slightly at the tip. Her lips are neither as thin as her father's nor as full as her mother's. No one has yet said they are kissable. Her father has sometimes told her she is beautiful. Only once has her mother said so. Anna thought she was dreaming. Now her mother wants to be her matchmaker.
Excerpted from BOUNDARIES by Elizabeth Nunez Copyright © 2011 by Elizabeth Nunez. Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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