Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Not for Everyday Use

(This review was originally written for and posted at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography's site. I received this book from its publisher.)  

Not for Everyday Use, Elizabeth Nunez
Read: 5 to 10 March 2014   
4 / 5 stars  

Writing about the death of a parent presents the tempting trap of invoking cheap sentimentality to tug at readers' heartstrings; sidestepping those easy clich├ęs is the mark of a mature writer who knows how to craft a powerful tale with the arsenal of unique details that makes a person irreplaceably dear to their loved ones, illustrating the extent of the void that their passing has created. Elizabeth Nunez's memoir, Not for Everyday Use, takes the four days between the frantic phone call that has her rushing to her native Trinidad from her adopted home in New York to the burial of her mother and couches that surreal blur of emotions and necessary tasks in a past that goes far beyond her own lifespan in a testament to the immortality of personal history and the vivacity of one's heritage.

The third-oldest in a family of 11 children, Nunez grows up with a vantage point perhaps a bit too mired in adult responsibilities at too young an age. While this has imbued her with a strong sense of familial responsibility that remains with her through the present day, she ponders that perhaps a little less preparation for the real world and a little more parental affection might have made her a little more well-rounded in terms of the balance between her emotional needs and passionate determination to succeed. The forced retrospection that comes with death, however, shows that Nunez has long ago reached the point where she can observe her mother and father as flawed but well-meaning individuals separate from their parental roles, appreciating all the good they've done for her and accepting that their lesser moments embody the dueling forces alive in every person.

Indeed, Nunez cannot call forward the myriad roles she plays--daughter, sister, mother, woman, educator, writer, storyteller--without acknowledging that everyone else is a collection of components that are constantly fighting for prominence as different situations call for different personas. As her memoir progresses, the reader gets a glimpse of her vastness of character through all the identities roiling within; the implication is that if she wears so many hats and is pulled in so many directions, her parents and siblings must be, too. As a natural spinner of fictions, Nunez confesses early in Not for Everyday Use that she has a tendency to conflate facts for the sake of bettering the story: This admission makes Nunez immediately believable and even more likable, ready as she is to lay bare her inability to resist polishing reality to fit her narrative standards. But it also hints at her self-awareness and her own flaws while simultaneously underscoring the fact that she recognizes when a story needs no embellishments because of its inherent significance and emotional weight.

Being both an immigrant and a native of a former British colony that is still in touch with the dark underbelly of colonialism's prejudices have put Nunez keenly in touch with the way places leave their own individual impressions on a person just as much as living relations do. Trinidad is as alive as the people influencing Nunez's past and present, its tropical locale adding natural color to her narrative, right on down to her parents' two mango trees that serve as subtle metaphors for their decades-long marriage, having grown indistinguishable from the other save for the flavor of the fruits they yield. But it is not just the local atmosphere that Nunez captures: The class divisions, oppressive Catholicism and slowly shifting gender stereotypes of her home color Nunez's upbringing, especially by contrasting the stifling attitudes of her parents' younger days with her generation's more liberated perspective. Furthermore, it highlights the divide between the judgments cast by different cultures: Many of the Nunezes bear darker skin, the stigma of which they have mostly transcended by living in a class-based society's upper-middle class; in countries like America, their expansive educations, elite jobs and enviable salaries do little to deter strangers from assuming that their generous doses of melanin pin them as thieves, junkies and sub-par parents.

Nunez's inner conflicts are rooted in something much deeper than societies' superficial prejudices, though: She has her own family, her own gender and her religious upbringing to contend with. Reconciling her lofty ambitions, determination to leave the world in a better state than she found it, the maternal desire to be surpassed by both her son and her students in talents and achievements, and her long-held religious doubt with the old-fashioned world in which she was raised fuels Nunez's ongoing battle within herself. Ever the academic, she tackles each issue point-by-point, laying out how she came to each bump in her road via past beliefs and modern understanding, such as resenting a society where mothers were burdened with veritable litters because birth control was a one-way pass to eternal damnation, robbing otherwise strong, motivated women of a life outside the home and leaving her with a lingering sense of feminine failure when her marriage crumbles and she produces only one child.

But Not For Everyday Use is ultimately a celebration of understanding and empathy, as Nunez scrutinizes herself and her loved ones with a curious intensity that betrays her need to examine individuals as fiercely as she loves them. It is a demonstration of both the intellectual freedom her parents encouraged her to pursue and the strength they pushed her to discover---the end result more than justifying the means, well-intentioned but perhaps not always flawlessly executed as they were. It is proof that family doesn't have to be in close proximity to remain close-knit. It is confirmation that blindly extended affection is but a wan facsimile of the kind of love that grows from accepting a person for everything that they are, imperfections and all.

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