Elizabeth Nunez was showing spunk and creativity when she was only seven years old. Unknown to her parents, she submitted a short story to a tiny tot writing contest in the Guardian, and won. "Since then, says the now grown up Elizabeth Nunez-Harrell, "I have wanted to write a novel. I wanted to create something of my own."
Thirty-five years later she produced a work that writer John A. Williams says is "filled with care and detail." Her ability to "crack open language and dialect, magically convert her "rocks "into dazzling, dancing diamonds." says Williams, who told the Guardian that "When Rocks Dance" is the best novel he's read in years.
Dr. Nunez-Harrell grew up in Cocorite, then moved to Diego Martin when she was sixteen. She went to elementary school at Tranquility before winning an exhibition to St. Joseph's convent in Port-of-Spain. After convent she worked with the Shell Oil Company.
A priest recruited her for a women's Catholic College in the United States' Midwest. She and Pat Ramdeen, another Trinidadian, and two Haitians were the only Blacks at Marian College in Fond du Lac, a Wisconsin industrial town where only one Black family lived at the time.
The young women discovered that the college community at Marian held some severe misconceptions about islanders. "They thought we were not far removed from savages", says Dr. Nunez-Harrell. "They expected us to be fascinated with basic conveniences like running water and electricity. At first we humoured them," she remembers, "then we realised they were quite serious.
The girls were expected to work for their room and board although they were on scholarships. That cut into their study time, but all four excelled academically, amazing both the faculty and their classmates. "They under-estimated our level of intelligence, says Dr. Nunez-Harrell. "I think we helped to alter the stereotypes they held of non-white people."
She made the Dean's list every year. By something of a fluke she won the student presidency - "No one thought I would win, but everyone voted for me." When the school published its yearbook, however, her picture was left out. The day she took her final examination at Marian her luggage sat outside the classroom. "I didn't want to stay there one minute longer than I had to," says Dr. Nunuz-Harrell.
After six frustrating months in Trinidad applying for a teaching position, she gave the Ministry of Education a piece of her mind - "I made a big noise about all those Canadian teachers." The Ministry couldn't take that kind of jamming, so it assigned her to Woodbrook Secondary, but paid her at a scale below that for degree-holders. "I was damn angry about it,"she fumes.
That, among other things, convinced her after year to return to the United States. "There were no opportunities for me here," she says. "I realize now that the women who made it then, did so in spite of the odds. I wanted to be a wife, a mother, a career woman and a writer," she exclaims. "That's why I left Trinidad." She didn't want to return to the intolerant Midwest. New York City's cosmopolitanism beckoned. She began school at New York University in the fall of 1968 with money saved from teaching. She soon went broke and some Iranian students put her up until she found a job. It wasn't until the following summer that she could return to school.
She received both her Master's degree (1971) and Doctorate in English Literature from NYU. Since1972, she has been on the faculty of Medgar Evers College, a unit of the City University of New York that has a large West Indian student body. Three years ago, she became chairman of the Department of Humanities there. She was made a full Professor a year and a half ago. "At that point, I could afford to write fiction full-time."
The story of "When Rocks Dance" , says Dr. Nunez-Harrell, contains nearly everything she wanted to tell the world. "It should have been my last novel", she says.
"The book is really about the problem that has plagued me all my life", she concedes. "And that is: Why am I not considered as important as white people of the same accomplishments?' I always thought I was as good as anyone, but grew up with no role models."
That didn't seem to stop her development, in any direction. An attractive woman, who wears finely tailored conservative clothes, Dr. Nunez-Harrell is extremely articulate, creative and has a mind that moves faster than her story plots. She has wit and charm too, and is precise in her use of both.
She saves neither for the Western literary tradition. "I'm tired of the arrogance of Western thought and their approach to truth," says Dr. Nunez-Harrell. "They castigate anything else as primitive or ignorant.
She decided that Western myths wouldn't fit in her work. "I followed (writer) Toni Morrison's lead." she admits. "She had the audacity to create her own myths."Dr. Nunez-Harrell thinks Ms. Morrison is one of the finest writers around, and that her book, Song of Solomon, is the best book she's read. "Toni elevates the simple southern Black folk and their experience," says Dr. Nunez-Harrell.
Another writer, John Killens, read the manuscript of "When Rocks Dance" after she completed each chapter and acted as a mentor. "He advised me to be faithful and honest to the people I write about", she says. "He taught me to have respect for my characters."
Killens also alerted her to look for organic imagery that worked with the people and the landscape. "But my relationship with the landscape and how I use it is very much influenced by George Lamming," says Dr. Nunez-Harrell.
These days she spends a lot of time reading, and re-reading. "I marvel now at technique," she says with the bright-eyed astonishment of a child. "Having gone through the process, I can admire the writer's ability to create moods, characters and world."
She writes on literary criticism quite often, with her work appearing in nearly a dozen scholarly journals. A second book is in its early stages, with the working title "A Very Emotional Woman". The author says it looks at what women in the 1980's are willing to compromise to keep a man.
Dr. Nunez-Harrell now lives in Hempstead, New York, with her husband and their two sons.