American Author: Sigrid Nunez

Meet the face of our newest alum pin, Sigrid Nunez ’72. To pick up a pin, stop by the Barnard Library!

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Sigrid Nunez is a published author of seven novels: A Feather on the Breath of God (1995), Naked Sleeper (1996), Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury (1998), For Rouenna (2001), The Last of Her Kind: A Novel (2005), Salvation City (2010), and The Friend (2018).

Brief Backstory 

Nunez is the daughter of a Chinese-Panamanian father and a German mother. As a child, Nunez desired to become a dancer. She started off with a drive to write and, wrote stories about animals and children among others. As she grew older, that passion still stuck. However, around the age of 12, Nunez dove into studying ballet, and began pursuing it in high school. Throughout her study, she realized that not only did ballet pose to be really difficult, but it was also physically painful. Having started late in the game also significantly affected her confidence in pursuing it as a full-fledged career. Moreover, coming to Barnard took another unexpected toll. Nunez chose Barnard because “it was in Manhattan” and because she didn’t intend to go to college: “no dancer goes to college.” Nevertheless, she still chose Barnard. But throughout her first academic year (1968), she was a complete wreck; she didn’t even attend her academic classes, let alone her dance (ballet) classes. It’s not to say they weren’t great; Barnard has an amazing dance department. Rather, it was the realization of losing a childhood dream that she so desperately wanted to pursue that turned Nunez’s world upside-down.

Nunez eventually returned to attending all of her classes. She describes her experience with dancing, however, as:

I still have that in me. I know I know what it is to dance and to be a dancer. But what I feel is probably close to other kinds of loss. Like say you’re young and you fall in love with someone, and then you lose that person. And you go on and love other people and have a life and so on, but you know that that person was the one you loved the most, and that you’ll never love like that again. And though you move on you don’t ever completely get over it. That loss is part of your life and who you are forever.

She studied creative writing with Elizabeth Hardwick, an American literary critic, novelist, and short story writer, who also happen to be her professor, and later graduated from Barnard in 1972 with a Bachelor of Arts Degree (B.A.) in English.

Beyond Barnard

After Barnard, Nunez went onto obtain her Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) from Columbia University alongside working for Robert Silver as an assistant at the New York Review of Books. She soon switched and began working as an assistant for Susan Sontag, a formidable critic, essayist, and novelist in 1976 instead, an arrangement suggested by the editors. With Sontag battling stage IV breast cancer, such an arrangement was much needed.

Nunez recounts her rocky relationship with Sontag in her memoir for Sontag, Sempre Susan. While working for Sontag, Nunez became romantically involved with her son, David Rieff, which was a majorly complicated aspect of their relationship. In the memoir, Nunez writes how Sontag referred to herself, Nunez and Rieff as, “‘the duke and duchess and duckling of Riverside drive,'” which, to Nunez, raised a red flag. Aside from Sontag’s intimate relationship with Rieff that Nunez felt to be rather invasive, Sontag was actually “generous in her comments” and she encouraged Nunez to remain optimistic about her potential of becoming a successful writer. However, because Nunez didn’t find Sontag’s fiction in any ways appealing, and she was at that stage where most 25 year-old unpublished writers desire encouragement over criticism, she didn’t respect any of Sontag’s critiques about her writing.

Sontag passed away in 2004.

Post Sontag

Nunez has also taught at Columbia, Princeton, Boston University, and the New School. Additionally, she has recently been a visiting writer (writer in residence) at several institutions including Amherst, Smith, Baruch, Vassar, and the University of California, Irvine. She plans to visit Syracuse University in the spring of 2019. Nunez has also been “on the faculty of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and of several other writers’ conferences across the country.” Her honors and awards include “a Whiting Writer’s Award, a Berlin Prize Fellowship, and two awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters: the Rosenthal Foundation Award and the Rome Prize in Literature.

Resources

Read Sigrid Nunez’s interviews with The Morning NewsThe Paris Review, and Signature to learn more about her life and career. In addition, her novel, The Friend (2018) and Sempre Susan (2014) each alone provide an opportunity to obtain an in-depth insight of Nunez as a person and the parts of her life that don’t meet the public eye.

Aziza Rahman ’20

Sources

Birnbaum, Robert. “Sigrid Nunez.” Interview by TMN, The Morning News LLC, March 29, 2007. Summary article, https://themorningnews.org/article/sigrid-nunez.

Camp, James. “‘Sempre Susan’: Sigrid Nunez Studies Sontag While Smooching Her Son.” Observer, editorial@observer.com, March 22, 2011, accessed June 18, 2018, http://observer.com/2011/03/sempre-susan-sigrid-nunez-studies-sontag-while-smooching-her-son/.

La Force, Thessaly. “Sigrid Nunez on Susan Sontag.” The Paris Review, The Paris Review, April 4, 2011. Summary article, https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2011/04/04/sigrid-nunez-on-susan-sontag/ .

Muscolino, Joe. “Behind the Books with Sigrid Nunez, Author of Sempre Susan.” Interview by Signature. Signature, October 6, 2014. Summary article, http://www.signature-reads.com/2014/10/behind-the-books-with-sigrid-nunez-author-of-sempre-susan/.

Nunez, Sigrid. “Bio.” Sigrid Nunez, Chloe Art and Design, accessed June 14, 2018, http://sigridnunez.com/bio/.

Smith, Wendy. “Sigrid Nunez’s Love of a Dog,” Publishers Weekly, PWxyz, LLC, November 17, 2017, accessed June 18, 2018, https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/authors/profiles/article/75421-sigrid-nunez-s-love-of-a-dog.html.

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