About Helen Elaine Lee
Helen Elaine Lee’s first novel, The Serpent's Gift, was published by Atheneum and her second novel, Water Marked, was published by Scribner. She recently finished "The Unlocked Room," a novel about the lives of a group of people incarcerated in two neighboring U.S. prisons, and "The Hard Loss," a novel about a DNA exoneree’s first week of freedom after 24 years of incarceration for a crime he did not commit. Stories from "The Unlocked Room" have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Callaloo, Hanging Loose, Best African American Fiction 2009 (Bantam Books), and www.solsticelitmag.com.
She was educated at Harvard College and Harvard Law School. She is Director of the Program in Women's & Gender Studies and Professor of Fiction Writing in Comparative Media Studies/Writing at MIT. Formerly the Associate Chair of the Board of Directors of PEN New England, she served on its Freedom to Write Committee and taught in its Prison Creative Writing Program, which she helped to establish.
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“I draw from my homeplace, my family, my various tribes, and write about what matters to these people...their languages and their landscapes and histories.”
An Interview with Helen Elaine Lee
CHARLES H. ROWELL: What can you tell us about what causes you to go to your computer and begin writing?
HELEN ELAINE LEE: Now that’s a hard question, because it’s such a matter of a long term commitment to a mysterious process, a process where there are no external rewards and no givens. I tell my students about the idea of negative capability, the ability to live with uncertainty, doubt and mystery. These are part of the territory of making art, and partly why it’s so difficult, terrifying even. You know that what is required of you is to sit down and begin, or return to what’s in progress, even when the words or ideas don’t come, and you must commit to trying in a regular, disciplined way. So that’s one piece of my answer: I sit down and try, painful as it might be, with the help of habit and ceremony, which varies from time to time and might involve the morning newspaper, journal writing, tending my plants, listening to favorite music, even lighting candles on my altar. And I do this knowing that I don’t know what the result will be.
I can’t lie; it hurts to see the writing raw and clumsy on the page, and to live with it until it evolves. I remind myself that it usually goes down raw, even inchoate, and that it will get worked into greater rightness. But you have to be able to live with that uncertainty and coarseness, as well as with the porous nature of being an artist with the gift of sensitivity, which is a hard gift for you and the people around you.
The creative writer has to bring her whole self and her whole experience to her work, the bad news as well as the good news. And she has to struggle for the care and devotion to language that is necessary to being awake. It hurts a lot to be awake. Can you be in the world like that, I ask my students, with such doubt and the difficulties of awakeness and sensitivity, and also can you commit to showing up regularly, and to trying really hard at something for which there are no rules and few external rewards?
Those who choose it do so because they can’t do otherwise. It’s the way they participate in the world...
ROWELL: Earlier you alluded, I think, to the relationship between writing and reading, which I truly believe is necessary for the making of a serious writer’s sensibility. Not only did you grow with law, as represented by your father’s practice; you also grew up with a mother, who is an English professor, who reads extensively. You have often spoken to me about how you read and talked about books with your mother.
LEE: That’s right. Those experiences shaped me profoundly, and my mother is still the most profound influence on me, because she passed down a love of stories. And you know, I received family stories on those weekend afternoons in addition to the ones we found between book covers. In the canon of our own making was the story of an ancestor, a slave, who sneaked through rows of cotton teaching other slaves to read. So oral storytelling has been important to me, along with reading. My very favorite thing is to read late into the night, and it feels like deep breathing. I am always reading several books, and I think literature has borne me through every difficult moment in my life. My family teases me about how, a few years ago I blurted out excitedly that I loved to go to the library because anything can happen there. And I guess that I really still feel that way about the library and about books. And it’s also true of writing, that anything can happen there, and that’s a source of terror and joy.
I also teach writing through reading, by teaching students how to pull apart and look at the component parts of a story or a novel and how to attend to each word chosen and to the writer’s efforts at selection and construction.
It is also important to me to read broadly. Important for my humanity as well as for my art. The two, art and life, are, after all, inseparable, and I think this reading and writing that I’m doing, this integration of living and writing, frames the question of how I’m going to be in the world. So I want to read writers who are Latin American, European, African, Asian and South Asian, Caribbean, American, Canadian . . . and everything else. I read nonfiction, though not really critical theory, and poetry, but I love fiction, and novels, best. I have a special interest in writers of African descent and women writers of color . . . my tribes, you could say . . . but I am interested in everything. As a comparative literature person, my mother’s approach was one that aimed for depth and breadth, and I guess she instilled a far-reaching curiosity in me.