Elizabeth Nunez: Interview

By Renee Michel

When Dr. Elizabeth Nunez was all of nine years old she entered in the Trinidad Guardian newspapers Tiny Tots writing contest. Her first prize victory was more than news to her parents who were not even aware that she’d been a contestant. The honor was well suited for a little girl whose mother tirelessly confronted her about her tendency to embellish the truth well, lying is what she called it. I loved to embellish the truth always seemed so dry to me I love words and what they do. Nunez confessed impishly. It was not without effort, she added, that her parents were able to pull her away from her books and her bedroom where shed read all day  to accomplish her chores. An enthusiastic reader who loved to write, Nunez’s favorite authors were male descendants of the British who colonized her island at the end of the 18th century.

Trinidad, Nunez’s native country, is also homeland to Sara, the main character of her current award-winning novel, Beyond the Limbo of Silence. The work, which was published by Seal Press in October 1998, is a coming-of-age story about a young girl who eventually leaves the West Indies, via scholarship, to attend college in Wisconsin. In many ways the novel parallels my life, asserts Nunez whose early education was shaped by colonialism. Consequently, she believed that becoming an author was unattainable. It was not until she herself began college in Wisconsin that she was introduced to female and Black writers. She is thankful to author John Oliver Killens with whom she studied while on sabbatical from her professorship. She was encouraged by Killens over ten years ago to secure publication of her first novel, When Rocks Dance.

Having received both her MA and Doctorate degrees in Literature from New York University, she now teaches there seasonally. Her heart though is with the students at Medgar Evers College where she has implemented the writing courses she instructs full-time. Among several posts, Nunez served as the college’s chair of humanities for six years. Something criminal has taken place, Nunez states about students who enter college without rudimentary writing skills.

Though most of her students are bright, they often fall short in writing. She is passionate about them taking their rightful place in a literate society. Once given the basics she noted that her students embrace the process of writing.

Much of her time is spent promoting and reading from her novel and she is especially grateful for the independent press. Large publishers, she points out, invariably support black authors of popular fiction. We have gotten to a point where the only value literature has is that it can make a publisher rich.

In keeping with her charge to educate, Dr. Nunez wrote Beyond the Limbo of Silence to illustrate how, throughout American history, African Americans have gone out on a limb for the sake of community and race. The heroes she says have consistently overlooked the direct threat to their own lives. She also wanted to depict how liberal white schools in America in the 1960s recruited students from the West Indies rather than admit black American students under the guise of assisting in the struggle.

While authoring novels and teaching, Dr. Nunez is Chair of the National Black Writers Conference and Co-Chair of the National PEN Open Book Committee. She is committed to the advancement of black literature specifically and the humanities in general. The arts, she offers give us an appreciation for our humanity. They allow us to have more tolerance and compassion for each other and to see our connection to the rest of the world.

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