Helen Elaine Lee
Creative Writing / Author
Short stories published in Callaloo,
SAGE, and several anthologies. Novels include: The
Serpent's Gift (Atheneum Publishers, 1994), and Water
Marked (forthcoming, Scribner, 1999).
Helen Elaine Lee grew up in Detroit in a home
where tall tales, storytelling, jokes, and a general reverence
for the power of language held sway. Her father George, a trial
lawyer who had gone to Harvard Law School in the 1940s,
expressed a love of words in his work, his wit, and his
table-side yarns. Her mother Dorothy - a professor of
comparative literature and the first black woman to get a PhD in
the subject from Harvard - had her daughter reading widely and
discussing books broadly. On weekend afternoons, mother would
recite and perform poetry for child, just as the mother's mother
and great-aunt had done before. "Books were like a religion,"
recalls Lee, "and I still feel that way."
In the intervening years, Lee - an assistant
professor in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies - has
joined the ranks of the venerated. Her first book, The Serpent's
Gift (Athenaeum), came out to critical acclaim in 1994.
"Beautifully crafted and profoundly insightful, this
staggeringly accomplished first novel redeems the adjective
'heartwarming' from cliché," heralded The Washington Post Book
World. The New York Times Book Review also gave it favorable
With rich imagery and vivid metaphor, the
novel traces the emotional and spiritual journeys of two
African-American families in a fictional Midwestern town,
between World War I and the 1970s. Due out in the spring is her
second novel, Water Marked (Scribner), which highlights the
reunion of two sisters coming together to find their father, who
they thought had committed suicide years before.
A roundabout route
Lee's arrival to the world of belle lettres
came circuitously. Graduating from Harvard Law School in 1985,
Lee worked for the next nine years as an attorney, first for a
corporate firm in Chicago and then in several positions in
Washington, D.C. Sensing immediately that she and the law were a
mismatch - that it was a way to make a living, not a career -
Lee practiced writing on the side. "I felt passionate about
writing in the way my parents had modeled feeling passionate
about their careers," she says, "but I had to find my voice."
Not that there was any dearth of clues that
she and fiction had something going. As an undergraduate at
Harvard College, Lee found herself gravitating towards
literature courses. In law school she wrote her final paper on
three Latin American poets as revolutionaries. She penned her
first published story while filing legal briefs by day at the
Chicago law firm. "I found myself retreating to fiction more and
more and being drawn to this place that had greater meaning for
me," she says.
Writing has greater meaning, but it also can
be excruciating. "Writing is hard because you have to confront
yourself and face difficult emotional territory," she says. "It
doesn't abide by a formula - there are no right and wrong
answers. There's something frightening about that open-endedness
because of what might rise, but it's also totally exhilarating
Lee feels a similar sense of enthusiasm for
teaching; currently her courses are 'Fiction Workshop,' 'Writing
and Experience,' and 'Writing by U.S. Women of Color.' "It's a
total gas to talk about literature and to feel that 'yes' going
on in the students, when they see the beauty of how a work was
put together and appreciate the choices the writer made," she
says, adding that "when you see you're expanding somebody's
notions of their own possibilities or ways of looking at the
world - that's very exciting." Teaching MIT students is also
challenging: "They've often been on a narrow track in their
disciplines and haven't read much or thought much about their
lives in the way one has to in order to write stories." But, she
adds, "when you break through, you can often get some remarkable
work from them."
Breaking through is what she most appreciates
about being a writer. "I write because it makes me feel most
alive and it seems a powerful way to participate in the world.
Books have borne me through every difficult and important moment
in my life. It's meaningful to know that just as I was expanded
by reading [James Baldwin's] Sonny's Blues or Virginia Woolf, my
work could mean something similar for others. That's powerful."