Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth: Elizabeth Nunez ‘s Books of Caribbean Magic

Next week, Elizabeth Nunez will be read from her memoir, Not for Everyday Use, at the fifth annual ringShout event, which will be the Brooklyn Book Festival Bookend event. The event will take place September 16 at 7pm at the Franklin Park Bar and Beer Garden in Brooklyn, and also features Bridgett M. Davis (Into the Go-Slow), Saeed Jones (Prelude to Bruise), and Lauren Francis-Sharma (‘Til the Well Runs Dry). By coincidence, i randomly picked up two of Nunez’s works at the library a couple of months ago, Beyond the Limbo Silence, and When the Rocks Dance, and they were great introductions to her mythic and magic-filled writing. As I continue to look for Caribbean works that can be analyzed from an afrofuturist lens, I was fortunate to stumble across her work.

Born in Trinidad, Nunez combines Trinidadian and Caribbean culture with magic realist, mytho-spiritual and mystical elements. The first work of hers I read was Beyond the Limbo Silence, an alternate historical fiction set in 1960s Trinidad and America during the Civil Rights Era that infuses water myths, dreams, Voudou ritual and Obeah magic. The story follows Sara Edgehill, a young woman who feels like an outcast in her native land of Trinidad, enters a new space of self-discovery as she immigrates to Wisconsin after winning a scholarship to a small college. There she meets other Caribbean students, St. Lucian Courtney and Indian-descended Angela from British Guyana, along with Sam, an African-American civil rights activist. Through her experiences with them, Courtney who practices Obeah and Voudou ritual; Angela, who with Sara and Courtney, are the only students of color at the school and so is willing to permit the ignorance and strereotypes of her culture in order to fit in with the other women at the college; and Sam, who priveleges his pain as an African-American person over Sara’s specific cultural pain as an Afro-Caribbean person, she rediscovers a deeper connection to her Caribbean culture that she never had before and begins to understand the larger connection between the Civil Rights movement in America and colonialist oppression in the Caribbean. Through these collisions of race and ethnic cultures in the novel, Nunez shows that the celebration of specific spiritual and cultural traditions are powerful contributors to the fight for civil rights and that part of decolonization is decolonizing the mind from racist beliefs and fears about African-matrix religions and spiritual systems.

She explores similar themes in the next book I read, When the Rock Dance, which questions European and Western arrogant beliefs of superiority of religion and medical practices and their assumptions of inferiority of African-based spiritual traditions and practices, like Obeah rootwork.  This inherent superiority complex displays itself as either outward shows of disdain of those cultures and their people, or a patronizing pity of people of color. But it is also a story, in general, of not giving up what is our inherited possessions, whether it is spiritual/cultural traditions or land, because that is where our wealth is. In the novel, the main character Marina Heathrow struggles to come to terms with the clashing cultures of her African-descended mother, Emilia, who practices Obeah and instills in Marina the importance of land, and her European father and her mixed husband, Antonio, Eurocentric Catholic family. One memorable scene from the book is a discussion between Emilia and Marina about her mysterious birth in which Marina said to possess the spiritual strength of the eight boys of Emilia who died during childbirth and she survived with the help of Obeah. Marina is angered that her mother sacrificed her brothers for her to live and her mother asks how what she did is any worse than the Christian God who let people torture and kill his son so that the rest of mankind may be saved. Through that discussion and others in the book, Nunez calls us to question the traditions and beliefs we inherit, and whether they are healthy for our daily lives and our psyches or whether they are actually better than others.

In these work, Nunez’s main characters come to accept their identities and discover their spiritual and feminine power through Obeah. But Nunez’s work also importantly challenges the dichotomies of race, gender, class and religion in a  racist, patriarchal colonial structures with the incorporation of African-based and other non-Eurocentric spiritualities, and reclaims matriarchal lineage, wisdom and power in the form of goddesses, mythical women (ex. Calypso, mermaids,  the sea cow), priestesses, mothers, and grandmothers in her books.


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