Helen Elaine Lee

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The Serpent's Gift
This unforgettable novel lyrically portrays the stories of two African American families united by loss who go on to live, love, and survive. These memorable characters pull light out of darkness and teach us about risk-taking and renewal. Their lives are a testament to the strength of family, the power of storytelling, and the transformation achieved through both joy and sorrow.

Water Marked
A note in the mail, announcing, "He's been alive. He died last week," summons artist Sunday Owens from Chicago to her native town. It's been five years since she's seen her sister, Delta, but more draws her to their childhood home than a desire for reconciliation with Delta; Sunday returns to claim her story and to unearth the secrets that have shaped her since her father disappeared, over 30 years ago.

Looking for clues to their father's past, they comb through the accumulated mementos of their old house and trade stories and childhood memories. A new portrait of the Owens family gradually emerges as these sisters grapple with why their father chose to abandon them. Meanwhile, they confront their own personal struggles and work to repair the tattered bonds of sisterhood and to figure out how to live "in the quick," the place, as their grandmother told them, where we are most plugged in, where we bleed most freely.

Resonating with mesmerizing language and deep emotion, Water Marked shows how family can both heal and hurt, how we never really leave behind the past, and how we all make the stories, about ourselves and our lives, that we want and need.

In this story we hear from Boo, one of the 10 people who are locked up in Life Without. Boo, or Tomás, has recently learned to read, and through his re-telling of the alphabet, he reveals his experience and perspective on prison life. This character was inspired by a prisoner with whom Lee has worked in creative writing workshops, who was illiterate when he entered prison, and has now earned both undergraduate and graduate degrees inside. Boo discovers the power of words, and thereby, how to raise his voice instead of his fist.

Selected Works

"To read The Serpent's Gift is to experience rebirth."
--Walter Mosley
"An ambitious saga, written with the skill of someone born to the art of storytelling."
--Paule Marshall
"A novel of great ambition and achievement. . . about the power and the pain of memory, about the stumbling, staccato rhythms of family, about finding a way to go home again."
--Valerie Boyd, The Washington Post
Short Story
This story (quick link on the left) is part of the novel, "Life Without," about the lives of 10 characters who are incarcerated in two neighboring prisons, serving various sentences for a range of offenses.