PERSONAL: Female. Education: Barnard College, B.A.; Columbia University, M.F.A.
CAREER: Has taught at Amherst College, Columbia University, Smith College; New School for Social Research (now New School University), New York, NY, former faculty. Writer-in-residence, Sarah Lawrence College, and Washington University, St. Louis, MO, 2006; member of faculty, Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, and the Rope Walk Writer's Retreat; Lannan Foundation resident.
AWARDS, HONORS: Best novel of the year, Association for Asian American Studies, for A Feather on the Breath of God; Rome Prize Fellow in Literature, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 2000–01; Literature Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2003; Holzbrinck Berlin Prize Fellow, American Academy in Berlin, 2005; Whiting Writer's Award; two American Academy of Arts and Letters awards; Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award, American Academy of Arts and Letters, for Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury; Fiction Fellowship, New York Foundation for the Arts, 2006; two Pushcart Prizes.
A Feather on the Breath of God, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1995.
Naked Sleeper, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1996.
Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury, HarperFlamingo (New York, NY), 1998.
For Rouenna, Farrar, Straus, & Giroux (New York, NY), 2001.
The Last of Her Kind, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 2006.
SIDELIGHTS: Sigrid Nunez is a novelist and educator who is also a creative writing teacher. A Feather on the Breath of God is Nunez's well-received debut novel. With inspiration drawn from her own childhood, Nunez tells the story of a young woman born of Chang, a Chinese-Panamanian father, and Christa, a German-immigrant mother. The narrator's parents met during World War II, when Chang was in Germany. Though the two can barely communicate, and seem to have little affection for one another, they move to New York when Christa gets pregnant. The narrator is born in New York, where the family lives in severe poverty. As the narrator grows up, she consistently sees how her parents are unable to communicate. Her father dies when she is young, leaving her confused about his background and influence on her, and also leaving her in the care of her angry, overbearing mother. When she grows up, she becomes a teacher of English as a second language. In this role, she meets Vadim, a Russian immigrant with whom she has a stormy relationship. Much as her parents did, she has difficulty communicating with Vadim, but as he learns more English their communication improves. Ultimately, the better she understands him, "the less she likes who he is and what he has to say," observed Jane Gordon-Yarbrough in the Antioch Review. Nunez's writing heads "straight for the heart of each personality she evokes," observed Donna Seaman in Booklist.
Naked Sleeper is Nunez's second novel, and is "even more resonant than her first," commented Booklist reviewer Seaman. The novel presents a "haunting portrait of a marriage viewed from the point of view of the wife," observed People reviewer Louisa Ermelino. Nona is a woman whose childhood, dominated by a largely absentee father, with whom she has totally lost contact after her parents' separation, has left her emotionally troubled. She is married to Roy, an understanding man, but is tempted to infidelity by Lyle, a married professor and womanizer she meets at a writer's retreat. Nona makes an impulsive decision to accompany Lyle, but she slowly discovers his rakish ways and realizes her mistake, leaving Roy and herself to face the damage her decision cost them both. "Nunez exhibits impeccable control of her narrative," commented a Publishers Weekly reviewer, while Ginia Bellafante remarked in Time that Nunez tells Nona's story "with some impressively elegant writing, which gives this book its true appeal." A Publishers Weekly critic concluded, "This is a haunting story, resonant with hard-won wisdom."
For Rouenna centers on a middle-aged female novelist who has just broken up with her boyfriend and who lives a lonely life in the aftermath. She is contacted by one of her readers, Rouenna Zycinski, a retired Army nurse and a nearly forgotten childhood friend of the narrator's. Rouenna asks the narrator to meet with her, and she reluctantly agrees to do so. The cultured, literate narrator and the rough-hewn, practical Rouenna are dramatically different, yet a friendship forms between the two. Rouenna asks the narrator to chronicle her life in Vietnam, which she considers her greatest accomplishment. The narrator cannot grasp the effect that Rouenna's Vietnam experiences had on her, but when the woman unexpectedly commits suicide the narrator becomes determined to tell her story in the way Rouenna wanted. "Nunez's outstanding quality as a stylist is her transparency," commented a reviewer in the Atlantic Monthly. "There is a conspicuous lack of pretension about her writing, a refreshing earnestness." The novel is a "sad, touching tale of friendship and a smart, subtle dialogue on just where a culture's stories come from," observed a Kirkus Reviews contributor. Library Journal reviewer Judith Kicinski called For Rouenna a "deeply moral look at memory and friendship."
In reviewing Nunez's 2006 novel, The Last of Her Kind, Library Journal critic Eleanor J. Bader commented: "Every so often you close a book, and the only word that comes to mind is 'Wow.'" Set in the rebellious years of the late 1950s, the novel tells the story of unlikely friends Georgette Gorge and Ann Drayton. While attending Barnard College, impoverished, working-class Georgette finds herself rooming with Ann, a daughter of wealthy parents who has rejected the materialism of her upbringing. The two drop out of college but remain friends, until a virulent disagreement seems to signal the end of their friendship. Georgette becomes a successful editor for a fashion magazine, and Ann's whereabouts become unknown. Years later, Georgette recognizes Ann as the defendant in a notorious national murder case. When she meets Ann's recently widowed father, Georgette has an affair with him, finding in the relationship a way to better understand Ann. Meanwhile, perpetual activist Ann works on prison reform from inside jail, and she reveals that she has not completely purged Georgette from her life. A Kirkus Reviews contributor named Nunez's work a "masterful construction of the troubled conscience of the era and its aftermath." In Publishers Weekly a contributor stated that the novel's "rich, almost scholarly prose" propels a story with disparate parts that cohere to "capture the violent idealism of the times while illuminating a moving truth about human nature." Bader called the novel "stunningly powerful," while Booklist reviewer Kristine Huntley predicted that "this engrossing, beautiful novel will enthrall readers."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Antioch Review, winter, 1996, Jane Gordon-Yarbrough, review of A Feather on the Breath of God, p. 107.
Atlantic Monthly, December, 2001, review of For Rouenna, p. 145.
Booklist, December 15, 1994, Donna Seaman, review of A Feather on the Breath of God, p. 738; September 1, 1996, Donna Seaman, review of Naked Sleeper, p. 63; May 15, 1998, Frank Caso, review of Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury, p. 1597; October 15, 2001, Marlene Chamberlain, review of For Rouenna, p. 383; January 1, 2006, Kristine Huntley, review of The Last of Her Kind, p. 55.
Entertainment Weekly, May 22, 1998, Daneet Steffens, review of Mitz, p. 66; December 23, 2005, Lisa Schwarzbaum, review of The Last of Her Kind, p. 83.
Houston Chronicle, February 20, 2006, Joyce Johnson, "Rich Girl, Poor Girl," review of The Last of Her Kind.
Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 2001, review of For Rouenna, p. 1319; November 1, 2005, review of The Last of Her Kind, p. 1162.
Library Journal, April 15, 1998, Yvette Weller Olson, review of Mitz, p. 114; October 15, 2001, Judith Kicinski, review of For Rouenna, p. 109; March 1, 2006, Eleanor J. Bader, review of The Last of Her Kind, p. 79.
New York Review of Books, May 11, 2006, Claire Messud, review of The Last of Her Kind.
O, The Oprah Magazine, January, 2006, "Risky Business: Four Truth-Telling Books about Loving, Grieving, and Daring to Embrace Your Dreams," review of The Last of Her Kind, p. 90.
People, December 16, 1996, Louisa Ermelino, review of Naked Sleeper, p. 38.
Publishers Weekly, July 29, 1996, review of Naked Sleeper, p. 69; March 16, 1998, review of Mitz, p. 52; October 10, 2005, review of The Last of Her Kind, p. 33.
Time, October 7, 1996, Ginia Bellafante, review of Naked Sleeper, p. 98.
Sigrid Nunez Home Page, http://www.sigridnunez.com (April 14, 2006).