Excerpted from Grace by Elizabeth Nunez. Copyright © 2003 by Elizabeth Nunez. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Conversation with Elizabeth Nunez
Q: Elizabeth, you are a professor and you teach at an urban public college in New York. In Grace Justin Peters is a professor and he teaches at an urban public college. Is Justin Peters you?
EN: Well, in the first place, Justin is a man. But, yes, there are some similarities between my life and Justin’s experiences.
Q: But you decided to tell this story from the point of view of a man. Why?
EN: I was curious. I am always curious about lives that are different from mine. Yes, there are some experiences I share with Justin Peters, but I have experienced life as a woman, not as a man, and I was curious to find out how a man would react. This is not the first time I have written a novel from the point of view of a man. My previous novel, Discretion, is told in the first person, from the point of view of a man. It is a novel about adultery, and, of course, as a woman who was once a wife, I have very strong feelings about husbands who cheat on their wives. It was uncharted territory for me to get into the mind of a man who commits adultery. I found the experience interesting and challenging. I learned a lot, so I thought I’d try it again. Of course, Grace is not about a man who commits adultery. In fact, it is the man who suspects his wife is having an affair. For me the excitement in writing comes from all that I learn and discover in the process of writing.
Q: You say that there are similarities between your life and Justin Peters’s life. What was there to discover?
EN: When I began writing this novel, I didn’t know what there was to discover. That’s the wonderful part about writing. You find yourself in places where you had not planned to go and you discover things you did not know before, even things you did not know you wanted to know. All I was aware of as I began to write Grace was that I wanted to tell a story about a marriage in trouble. I knew the husband was going to be a professor, who though he has a Ph.D. from Harvard, (my Ph.D. is not from Harvard) teaches at an urban public college. Some of the issues that Justin deals with at that college are issues I have had to deal with: whether it makes sense to teach the so-called great books to students who must confront the daily challenges of survival in a city; whether an academic, who has the responsibility of transmitting knowledge, should also be willing to deal with a student ’s emotional problems.
Q: Should he or she? What is a professor’s responsibility when she is faced with a student who is obviously depressed, like Mark Sandler in Grace, for example?
EN: That’s just the point. I wasn’t sure of the answer to that question. I mean I have had students, one student in particular, who I knew had emotional problems. He was a student very much like Mark Sandler. He called me one day to tell me that he was videotaping himself in a mirror. He sounded very sad, suicidal even.
Q: What did you do?
EN: What I did is not important here. The point for me in Grace was: What would Justin Peters do? The situation for Justin is complicated by the fact that he is having problems of his own. He is afraid that his marriage is falling apart. He is worried about the future of his four-year-old daughter. I mean, professors are people too. They have feelings; they have worries. How do you put aside your problems to deal with the challenging task of motivating students to get interested in learning, particularly when they do not see the value of the subject you are teaching.
Q: And what subject is that?
EN: Literature. Students come to college to earn a degree so that they can get a job and make money. They don’t see literature as advancing their marketability. But that’s another topic. I was talking about the professor who has to be an entertainer in the classroom as well as a teacher, while coping with her own personal problems. Then the professor notices that there is a student in her class who is obviously in emotional pain. What does she do? What does Justin Peters do?
Q: Just a minute, Elizabeth, I thought you said you had set out to write a novel about a marriage in trouble.
EN: That’s just it. What a writer sets out to do may not be what she ends up doing. Once Justin Peters began to take shape and come into his own, I had to deal with his whole life, not part of his life. So the story of his marriage to Sally runs alongside the story of his life as a professor. Justin teaches literature. Here, I want to touch for a moment on the point I made earlier about students not seeing the relevance of literature to their marketability. Literature allows us to explore questions about the human condition and the human dilemma in a relatively safe space. Justin Peters is teaching Shakespeare ’s Hamlet at a time when he is convinced that his wife is having an affair. What does he do? Should he act or not act? In Discretion, the novel I wrote before Grace, the wife is faced with the same question. She decides not to act. She chooses to pretend that her husband is not having an affair. Many of my readers think that the wife in Discretion made the right decision, for, in the end, she kept her husband.
Q: I notice that the students in Grace have different opinions as to what Hamlet should do.
EN: Yes. Actually, that is what is so exciting about teaching at a public college.
Q: Where do you teach?
EN: At Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York. The students in Justin’s class give the answers that my students give. For some students, Hamlet is a coward for hesitating to take revenge. After all, he is pretty certain that his uncle, who is now married to his mother, murdered his father. For other students, especially my religious students, Hamlet is correct to hesitate. They quote to me from the Bible: Vengeance is mine . . . saith the Lord. Then there was that one student. He is the student who says to Justin Peters that he works as a prison guard at Riker’s Island. I still remember that day when he stood up in my class and warned the other students about the perils of acting on passion.
Q: Elizabeth, it seems to me that you are saying that Justin’s story is very much based on your life.
EN: In some ways. But I didn’t know the answer to the question I posed. I mean, I have read Hamlet many times, but I never before noticed the curious juxtaposition of Hamlet ’s conclusion that he would leave his decision to God and the stage directions that follow. Hamlet says: "Let be." What follows are all the instruments that would lead to his death and the death of almost all the main characters. Now, I was faced with another question: Are they right, those who relinquish their future to the will of God? Justin must answer this question as it relates to his marriage. At a point in the novel, Justin has done all he knows how to do to save his marriage. Yet he feels he is still losing Sally. What next is there for him to do?
EN: Justin describes himself as an apostate. He has become an apostate because he believes that when he was a boy his prayers to have his parents return to him were unanswered.
Q: But he does pray. What makes him change his mind?
EN: Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. Again, I would not have made this connection if I were not writing this novel. I’ll tell you what happened to me. I was flying back to New York from Paris. The plane took off. As you know, we have to cross the Atlantic to get to New York, so the ascent was quite steep. I was sitting at a window near the wings of the plane and I could hear this grinding sound. The third time I heard it, I looked outside. Sure enough the flaps on the wings of the plane were still open and were having a hard time closing. The fourth time the grinding noise came, the pilot announced what I had feared. He told us that he had to dump all the fuel before we could return to Paris. In those fifteen minutes, as we circled in the air and I watched the fuel jetting out of the wings, it struck me that it would be only by the grace of God that we would be saved, that there was nothing anyone in the plane could do, in spite of their brilliance and knowledge, to save us. I may have been wrong, but that was what I thought. Then, teaching Oedipus Rex, I understood in a way I had not done before that Oedipus’s hubris was his total reliance on reason, his refusal to accept that human intelligence is limited. I mean, to what degree can we change our apparent destiny? So Justin has reached the same place where I was on that plane. He must pray.
Q: And his prayers are answered?
EN: He has no assurance that his prayers will be answered. They are answered because he is blessed with grace.
Q: Is that the meaning of the title of your novel?
EN: Grace is a gift. Like a gift, it comes to us whether we deserve it or not. It is the giver’s decision that we will get it.
Q: How do Mark Sandler’s emotional problems fit into this story of Justin’s troubled marriage?
EN: Justin learns about another definition of grace. Though Mark has problems of his own, he has the grace to care about Justin. I give several definitions of grace in the front of the novel. The first is that grace is a disposition to be generous or helpful.
Q: I wonder if you would talk about another resemblance between you and Justin Peters. Both of you are immigrants from Trinidad, and I believe you were also married to an African American. Is there a special reason that you gave Justin this background?
EN: Fortunately for me, my parents were not among those many parents who had to make the difficult decision of leaving their children behind as they sought work in the U.S. True, I was married to an African American. Our problems were not the same as Justin and Sally’s. However, I am very concerned about the relationship between immigrants of color and African Americans. I think too many immigrants forget that our presence here is directly related to the civil rights struggle. The single barrier to the immigration of people of color to the U.S. was the country-of-origin quota system. That was struck down one year after the passing of the Civil Rights Act. You see, there was a connection. Sally and Justin are aware of the connection. How should appreciation, if not gratitude, be expressed given this history?
Q: Finally, I want to talk a little bit about your life as a writer. When did you first realize that you wanted to be a writer?
EN: My family has a running joke about me. They say that you should divide what I say in half. They don’t call me a liar, but they take all I say with a grain of salt. I suppose they are right to do so. Ever since I was a very young child, l always found myself adding color to the realities around me. I suppose that was one indication that I would be a writer. My imagination was always in overdrive. Even when I made an effort, I would still end up adding this or that to a factual story I was telling, I guess to make it more exciting. When I was around seven, a story I wrote was published in the "Tiny Tots" section of the local newspaper, so you could say I was bitten by the writing bug very early in my life. And I loved to read. I would get punished for reading, because I would always get lost in a book when I should be doing some chore.
Q: Which brings me to the question: Who are your favorite writers?
EN: Any writer of a good book. My taste in literature is eclectic. My criteria are beautiful language, vivid imagery, interesting characters, good story, and ideas to ponder about.
Q: Who are you reading lately?
EN: Recently, I reread all of Jane Austen’s novels. Ian McEwan and Percival Everett make me think. And I love the music Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez make with language.
Q: What do you want to accomplish with your novels?
EN: I want to achieve what any good book does for me. I want to entertain my readers, but I want to engage them in exploring the big questions about the human condition and the human dilemma, the questions that trouble me. I guess, ultimately, that is why I write: I am pursuing answers to questions that I find difficult to answer: What does it mean to be one ’s brother’s keeper. That’s the question that concerned me in Grace. How far should one go to help another in need?
1. At the beginning ofthe novel Justin comes to the conclusion that his wife, Sally, does not love him. What evidence does he have to lead him to this conclusion? Is he justiﬁed? Would you say that his response is a typically male one, or would a woman, given the same evidence, react in a similar way?
2. Sally tells Justin that she is not happy and she knows he is not happy either. In what ways do men and women differ in how they confront, or cope with, emotional problems?
3. What does Sally mean when she says she wants space? How does Justin interpret her expressed need?
4. Justin claims that “love is not something you try to do.” He says to Sally, “Either you love me or you don’t. Either you want to be with me or you don’t.” Is he right, or does sustaining love require effort?
5. To what extent are we responsible for the happiness of others? Justin knows that his wife is unhappy. Is he responsible for making her happy or is she responsible for her own happiness?
6. Justin thinks that Sally should be happy because they have a comfortable life. Are material comforts sufﬁcient to make us happy? Why or why not?
7. Justin has little respect for the current trends in self-help books and television talk shows where people air their difﬁculties and are given advice. For one, he thinks that, paradoxically, such trends encourage people to be dissatisﬁed with their lives. He also contends that these programs discourage people from doing the hard work necessary to cope with difﬁculties by deluding them into thinking that problems can be solved with quick-ﬁxes. Do you agree with him?
8. It is said that the difference between a contribution and a commitment is the difference between what a hen and a pig provide for breakfast. Given this context, how would you deﬁne the commitment required to make a marriage work? What are the limits of such commitment?
9. Justin and Sally disagree on whether or not parents should stay together for the sake of the children. What are their positions? With whom do you most agree and why?
10. Sally is American; Justin is Trinidadian. To what extent has their marriage been made more difficult because they come from different cultural backgrounds? Can people who do not share the same cultural, social, religious, racial, and ethnic backgrounds, or who differ greatly in age, have successful marriages?
11. Justin is a professor at an inner-city college where most of the students are either African American or Caribbean. His colleagues argue that students need to be informed about their own cultural heritage; the works of dead white men are irrelevant to their lives. Justin claims that the works of dead white men are part of the human heritage and so belong to the heritage of his students. He says that a good book, regardless of the ethnicity of the writer, is relevant to the lives of readers, regardless of their ethnicity. Who is right, Justin or his coleagues?
12. Justin is considered a conservative at his college. His colleague Lloyd Banks thinks that such a description is far too kind. He calls Justin a traitor to the progress of peoples of the black diaspora, yet he and Justin find common ground on their position on reparation. What is that position? What do they hope to achieve by taking this position?
13. Shakespeare ’s Hamlet seems to influence the decisions Justin makes regarding his relationship with his wife. He is particularly affected by his students’ critique of Hamlet’s behavior. What do his students say and what do they lead Justin to do?
14. What is the tension between Hamlet’s conclusion “Let be,” and the stage directions that follow? How is this tension reﬂected in the decisions Justin makes?
15. There are two plots in this novel, the main plot being the relationship between Justin, the husband, and Sally, his wife, and the subplot the relationship between Justin, the professor, and Mark Sandler, his student. What do these two plots say about the responsibility we have for each other, particularly when we are in a position of leadership?
16. At the end ofthe novel, as he searches for answers to save his marriage, Justin draws on Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and he is rewarded by grace. What lesson does he learn from Oedipus Rex? How is grace deÞned, and why is it necessary?