An Interview with author Elizabeth Nunez
Author of Anna In-Between
Elizabeth Nunez is the author of six novels, including Bruised Hibiscus, winner of an American Book Award. Elizabeth emigrated from Trinidad to the US after completing high school. She received her Ph.D. in English from New York University. She is provost at Medgar Evers College, the City University of New York.
Nunez is a former fellow of Yaddo and MacDowell artist colonies. A cofounder of the National Black Writers Conference, and director from 1986-2000. She received grant awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities, as well as grants from The Nathan Cummings Foundation and the Reed Foundation for these conferences. She continues her work in support of writers of color with her radio program on WBAI 99.5FM and as chair of the PEN American Open Book committee. She is executive producer of the 2004 NY Emmy-nominated CUNY TV series Black Writers in America.
MF: What was it like growing up in Trinidad?
ELIZABETH NUNEZ: I grew up under British colonial rule in Trinidad. In school we read only British authors, learned British history and the geography of Great Britain and its colonies. We were not taught the history of the Caribbean or asked to read a single book by a West Indian writer. That was what happened at school, but at home I lived a Caribbean island life, listening to the music of the Caribbean and stories of our past as well as folktales. We lived in the capital, but spent all the holidays—Christmas, Easter and August—in the country and at the seaside. I come from a huge family—ten siblings and many aunts, uncles and cousins. My grandparents played the violin and the piano and were well read, as were my parents. Our family is very mixed ethnically.
MF: How has that experience affected your writing?
ELIZABETH NUNEZ: I was always sensitive to the tension between our public life as people living on an island colonized by the British, and our private life bound to Caribbean cultural traditions. In most of my novels I write about this tension, particularly as it relates to issues of class and color.
MF: I'm sure you get asked this all the time, but I'm going to ask. How much of you is in the character Anna in ANNA IN-BETWEEN?
ELIZABETH NUNEZ: The characters and places I write about are modeled on bits and parts of people I know, including myself, but no one is exactly as she/he is in real life. The characters in my stories take on a personality and life of their own as the narrative demands.
MF: When you have that first spark of an idea for a new novel does it start with a message, a character or a plot?
ELIZABETH NUNEZ: It starts with a question, an inquiry, something I am thinking about but haven’t figured out the answer. I create a world with characters that I free to grapple with the questions I have. Through their story, I discover answers that lead to more questions and more novels to write. But the first sentence of the novel is important to me; it sets tone, voice, tense, mood, cadence of the lines and begins to shape the characters. I listen and listen with my inner ear until I have that first sentence in my head fully formed and then I write it down and I’m off.
MF: Your description of the quirks of Anna's parents was fascinating. Did you do a lot of research for that or draw from real people?
EN: I spend a lot of time observing people, noticing their idiosyncrasies, what makes them distinct from each other. Anna’s parents are very much modeled upon my parents.
MF: You touch on promoting authors of color in ANNA IN-BETWEEN. Can you tell me your philosophy about promoting authors of color - providing opportunities just for them versus mainstreaming them?
ELIZABETH NUNEZ: I wish it were not necessary to promote writers of color as a distinct group. One is a writer or one is not. It’s simple as that. But too often writers of color are ignored, their fiction not considered to have universal relevance. I just want to throw a light on writers of color, to make them more visible to all readers.
MF: Your inner dialog is exquisite. Have you always been able to convey the tortured thoughts of your characters so convincingly or did you learn it over time?
ELIZABETH NUNEZ: Thank you for that compliment. As a child, I always loved the world of my imagination. I guess I had formed the habit of listening and imagining characters and their voices. I was always interested in the “other side” of the story.
MF: What are you working on now?
ELIZABETH NUNEZ: I am working on a new novel. As I mentioned, I begin a novel with questions and my hope is that in creating characters and a world in which they operate, I will eventually discover the answer to the questions that consume me. The question that I am currently pondering is whether or not all human beings are born with a moral compass that points them in the direction of good and at the same time points them away from evil. I am wondering if human beings are essentially good or do we begin with a blank slate—a tabula rasa—on which we write good or evil. Mostly, I am wondering if it is possible for us to achieve our ambitions without compromising our moral values.
MF: Great question! We look forward to seeing how you answer it. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us.
Read our review of Anna In-Between at MostlyFiction.com