The Book That Made Me a Reader
Elizabeth Nunez on Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice
I grew up in colonial Trinidad, my education similar to that of a British public school, excellent, but clearly intended to reinforce the superiority of the British Empire. When I was an elementary schoolchild, I devoured the novels of the English mystery writer Enid Blyton. I loved the thrill of following the adventures of girls and boys my age who solved problems that baffled adults. Fighting to have my voice heard in my cramped world of ten siblings, the smart young detectives in Blyton’s novels were a source of hope: If they could make their voices heard, then maybe, just maybe, one day, when I grow up….
Blyton’s novels opened a wide world to me. Television had not yet come to Trinidad and the offerings at the cinema were limited, so I depended on words to recreate in my imagination situations and places that I could not see with my physical eye. Then someone gave me a copy of Pride and Prejudice and I finally read the book that made me a reader for life.
I had just turned twelve and my body was changing rapidly into adulthood, fanning my curiosity about the birds and the bees. And there, in Pride and Prejudice, I found what I wanted to know. I entered a world of romantic love and sexual attraction; I learned about the heartbreak that ensues when one makes the wrong choice and about the incredible joy in being in the arms of one’s lover. I read the novel twice, some parts more than twice, especially the ending when Darcy admits his love for Elizabeth and she for him. I couldn’t have enough of Jane Austen. I read all her novels that were in our local colonial library, but Pride and Prejudice remained my favorite. Few people know me now by my nickname Betty. When I immigrated to the US at age nineteen, I permanently banished that name, insisting that I be called by birth name Elizabeth. But I had begun that transformation into my identity as Elizabeth long before nineteen, when I first read Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth Bennet was the kind of young woman I wanted to be: independent, brave, honest, loyal, and above all, determined not to be subservient to any man simply for financial support. Of course, in the end, Elizabeth got her prince charming—handsome, besotted with her, and rich. I should have been so lucky! Oh, the joys of reading! From Jane Austen I went to Naipaul, Hodge, Morrison, Hurston, Roth, Vassanji, Fitzgerald, Coetzee, McEwan, Banville, hundreds of others. Oh, the joys of the imagination!
Elizabeth Nunez is the award-winning author of eight novels and a memoir, Not for Everyday Use, which won the 2015 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for non-fiction. Both Boundaries and Anna In-Between were New York Times Editors’ Choices. Anna In-Between won the 2010 PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award and was long-listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Nunez also received the 2011 Writers for Writers Award from Poets & Writers and Barnes & Noble, and a NALIS Lifetime Literary Award from the Trinidad & Tobago National Library. She is a Distinguished Professor at Hunter College, CUNY, where she teaches fiction writing. She divides her time between Amityville and Brooklyn, New York. Even in Paradise is her latest novel.