The novels of Elizabeth Nunez examine the cultural unease that West Indian blacks like herself have experienced both at home in the Caribbean and as immigrants to an America deeply divided by racism. Her 2006 novel Prospero's Daughter was hailed by critics as a trenchant fictional exploration of the clashes between British and blacks in Trinidad, her native land. Elizabeth Schmidt, writing in the New York Times Book Review, called it a "gripping and richly imagined" work, while Black Issues Book Review critic Marjorie Valbrun praised it as "a rich story that moves back and forth easily between the past and the present, between reality and fantasy, and between falsely perceived truth and the truth that ultimately sets the characters free."
Nunez was born in Trinidad in the mid-1940s and grew up during the final years of the island's struggle for independence from Britain. As a young girl she won a scholarship to a prestigious academy established by colonial authorities. She then came to the United States at the age of 19. By 1967, she had earned her bachelor's degree in English from Marian College in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. After a brief return to Trinidad, where Nunez found it difficult to find satisfying work, she returned to the United States to further her studies. She earned her doctorate in English from New York University, and entered academia in 1972. For much of her career she has taught at Medgar Evers College, founded in 1970 as a Brooklyn campus of the City University of New York (CUNY) system, where she has advanced to serve as distinguished professor and chair of the school's humanities department.
Debuted as Novelist in 1986
When the esteemed novelist John Oliver Killens became a writer-in-residence at Medgar Evers in 1981, he urged Nunez to join one of his writing workshops. One of her fellow students in the fiction seminar was Terry McMillan, who was working on what would become her 1987 debut novel, Mama, at the time. Nunez and Killens went on to organize the National Black Writers Conference at Medgar Evers College, which Nunez ran for 13 years following Killens's death in 1987. Nunez secured funding for the project from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, and the Reed Foundation.
Nunez's first novel, When Rocks Dance, was published by Putnam in 1986 and featured a fantastical plot involving a voodoo ritual. A dozen years passed before its follow-up, Beyond the Limbo Silence, appeared. Its story recounts the journey of a young West Indian woman who arrives in the United States for college at the height of the civil-rights movement in the early 1960s, and her political awakening comes with the help of a young African-American man active in the struggle for equal rights. "Nunez integrates a wealth of Trinidadian culture into her tale," wrote Barbara Mujica in Americas. "Descriptions of music, folklore, customs, and foods enrich her narrative and make it a celebration of Afro-Caribbean traditions as well as a sad reminder of a difficult time in U.S. history."
Bruised Hibiscus, Nunez's third novel, won critical acclaim in 2000 for its exploration of interracial ro- mance in Trinidad in the early 1950s. Its dual protagonists are Rosa and Zuela, childhood friends who meet again as adults when both are locked in abusive marriages. A Publishers Weekly review commended "the incantatory, authentic Trinidadian dialect with which Nunez deftly infuses the dark, devastating tale with spirit and heart," while New York Times reviewer Jana Giles asserted that Nunez's "substantial research results in illuminating and sometimes moving insights into the entanglements of race, class and gender in the heterogeneous and geographically limited society of Trinidad a half century ago."
Viewed Personal Loss through Male Viewpoint
Nunez's next tale, Discretion, finally moved away from the Caribbean settings of her earlier works, and featured her first male protagonist. Of the genesis for this 2002 story, Nunez explained to Denolyn Carroll of Essence that the fact that "women get their hearts broken" had long driven her fiction, and "I wondered whether men suffered the same torments of the heart." The story centers around Oufoula Sindede, a diplomat from an unnamed African nation trapped in a loveless marriage. Posted in Washington, he falls in love with the wife of a colleague while on a visit to New York City. Initially he does not reveal to the woman, an artist named Marguerite, that he is married. Though for much of his life he has adhered to Western cultural values as a way to show disapproval of some of the less admirable aspects of his heritage, he does begin to rethink the concept of polygamy, which his culture condones. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Sarah Towers found the work "refreshingly ambitious in its intellectual scope, and in Oufoula, who's a decent, thoughtful man, she's created a persuasive, sometimes deeply moving character, a man who remains haunted by his early betrayal by his mother, who left him and his father for another man."
The protagonist of Nunez's next novel, Grace, is also a man who suddenly finds himself confused by the institution of marriage after several uneventful years as a family man. In this case the character is Justin Peters, a Trinidad-born professor of literature in New York City who is married to an African-American woman. She leaves him one day, placing their union in jeopardy, and Justin struggles to understand the causes of her discontent and remain a presence in the life of his beloved young daughter. In the end, he finds some answers in the works of classic literature from the "dead white writers" that others in his English department urge him to reconsider in his course syllabi. "Nunez's skill as a writer and storyteller," noted Denolyn Carroll, this time writing in Black Issues Book Review, "is…evident in her portrayal of Justin's slow recognition of his own failings," and described this fifth novel from Nunez as a story that "speaks to our propensity for self-delusion that cripples our relationship with ourselves and with those we profess to care deeply about."
At a Glance …
Born in 1944(?) in Trinidad; naturalized U.S. citizen. Education: Marian College, Fond du Lac, WI, BA, English, 1967; New York University, English, PhD, 1972.
Career: City University of New York, Medgar Evers College, professor (now CUNY Distinguished Professor of English), 1972-; National Black Writers Conference, co-founder and director, 1986-2000; WBAI 99.5 FM, Sunday with Writers, host; CUNY TV, Black Writers in America, executive producer, 2000s-.
Memberships: PEN (chair, American Open Book committee).
Awards: Independent Publishers Book Award, for multicultural fiction, 1999; American Book Award, 2001 and 2002; Institute of Caribbean Studies, Outstanding Contribution to Literature Award, 2004.
Addresses: Home—Amityville, NY. Agent—Ivy Fischer Stone, Fifi Oscard Agency, 110 W 40th St, 16th fl, New York, NY 10018.
Nunez's 2006 work, Prospero's Daughter, earned her more critical accolades for its re-imagining of a classic Shakespeare play, The Tempest. The original plot centered on the scholarly Prospero, who was shipwrecked with his daughter on an island and finds there Caliban, a dark-skinned slave, and a sprite named Ariel. As the play begins, Prospero has jailed Caliban, whom he has spent several years educating, for what he believes to be an attempted sexual assault on Miranda. One of Shakespeare's most enduring and analyzed tales, The Tempest is widely considered an allegory on colonialism and its pitfalls. Nunez first encountered the play in the classroom of her private school in Trinidad, and she recalled in an article she wrote for Black Issues Book Review in 2006 that she felt a deep sense of shame at the time, for "even at 14, I cannot miss the parallels between my situation in a British colony and Caliban's. In both our cases, Europeans have come to our islands, and though surely they have laid claim to our land, they have given us much in return. I am proof of their beneficence, sitting in a classroom, getting an education they have been kind enough to provide for me."
Re-Imagined Shakespeare's Tale
Nunez revealed in the same article that throughout her academic career she had periodically revisited the play and considered different interpretations of the symbolism of Caliban and Miranda. Finally she decided to explore the issue herself in the novel form. Prospero's Daughter is set in the mid-twentieth century when a disgraced British physician, Philip Gardner, arrives with his infant daughter, Virginia, on an island off Trinidad's coast that is home to a colony of lepers and few others. The doctor takes over the home of an orphaned boy named Carlos. While he uses Carlos to carry on his medical experiments, he also tutors the boy alongside his own daughter. The two children develop a strong bond with each other and grow closer as they mature. The story begins in the early 1960s just as Gardner has jailed Carlos for what he termed improper behavior toward his now-teenaged daughter, Virginia. A British police official from Trinidad comes to investigate, and the story unfolds in flashback.
"Carlos's traditional education—even at the hands of a creep like Gardner—helps him grow and eventually challenge Gardner," noted Schmidt in the New York Times Book Review. "In this sense, Carlos's fate represents a plan for post-independence Trinidad; going backward, ignoring the traces of European influence isn't a realistic way to move forward." Nunez said that the four years it took her to write Prospero's Daughter marked a turning point in her life. The process, she told Essence, "helped me realize I can be a proud Caribbean person without having to apologize for being the beneficiary of a colonial system that inspired my love of classical literature." Black Issues Book Review named Nunez's book the Best Novel of the Year in 2006.
While spending the majority of her time writing, Nunez remained a mentor others. Continuing as a professor at Medgar Evers College, she also chaired the PEN American Center Open Book program and served as Chairman of the Board for the Center for Black Literature and the Friends of the Calabash International Literary Festival. She produced the 2004 Emmy-nominated series, Black Writers in America, a CUNY TV television program featuring interviews with prominent black authors. And served as host of Sundays with Writers, a radio program for WBAI 99.5 FM. Whether writing her own works or working with with others, Nunez found her life revolved around books. Summing up her experience to eCaroh Communications writer Cedriann J. Martin, Nunez said, "I read books, I write books, I write about books."
When Rocks Dance, Putnam, 1986.
Beyond the Limbo Silence, Seal, 1998.
Bruised Hibiscus, Seal, 2000.
Discretion, One World/Ballantine, 2002.
Grace, One World/Ballantine, 2003.
Prospero's Daughter, Ballantine, 2006.
Americas, May 1999, p. 61.
Black Issues Book Review, March-April 2002, p. 30; March-April 2003, p. 43; March-April 2006, p. 24, p. 26.
Essence, April 1990, p. 36; March 2002, p. 104; April 2006, p. 72.
New York Times, April 9, 2000.
New York Times Book Review, March 10, 2002, p. 9; February 26, 2006.
Publishers Weekly, February 28, 2000, p. 59; January 20, 2003, p. 54; October 17, 2005, p. 39.
"Authors: Elizabeth Nunez," Random House,www.randomhouse.com/author/results.pperl?authorid=22421 (July 2, 2007).
"Book Talk with Caribbean Writers," eCaroh Communications,www.ecaroh.com/bmp/think/caribbeanwriters.htm (July 2, 2007).
"Trinidad Author Recognized by ICS in DC," Trinidad and Tobago Association of Washington, DC,www.ttdc.org/tantan/features4.htm (July 2, 2007).
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