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Callaloo 23.1 (2000) 139-150

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An Interview with Helen Elaine Lee

Charles H. Rowell

Part 1: In the Family

This interview was conducted by telephone on August 12, 1997, between Charlottesville, Virginia, and Dorchester, Massachusetts.

ROWELL: There are people who would say of you the following: "She has such a wonderful educational background, a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard College who went on to receive the J.D. degree from the Law School of Harvard University. She must be mad to sacrifice herself, making so little money teaching and writing novels." What drove you to sacrifice what these people would say was important and instead write fiction--that is, what led you to the writing life--and to teaching courses in creative writing and literature, as opposed to the practice of law?

LEE: Although I have often been tempted to look on it as a wrong turn, I think law school was, instead, a detour that led me to the right thing. I have great respect for those, like my father, who have chosen that route to make a contribution, but the practice of law was not my passion or my gift. Perhaps because of how misplaced I felt, I struggled to find the way I wanted to participate in the world, the thing that made me feel most alive.

Reading was a kind of religion with my family. My mother was a literature professor and, growing up, we read together and talked about books. On weekend afternoons, we sat together in the living room and read poetry, Keats and Robert Hayden and Emily Dickinson, and stories like "Sonny's Blues" and "The Death of Ivan Ilych," and then we pulled them apart and talked about what kinds of difficulty people face and how art, and communion, can be made from them. I think I learned how to read closely, analytically, for implication, on those afternoons. So literature had always had this central role in my life, and in college I took many courses in this area. Everybody in my life was very surprised when I decided to go to law school, because I had always been a humanities and social science person, and I think recognized as soon as I got to law school that it was not going to be the right path. While I was there, I found a way to take literature classes at Harvard College and receive partial credit, and I wrote my third year paper on the Latin American Poet as Revolutionary. It was about Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz and Ernesto Cardenal. In fact, I remember one day, sitting at the back of a lecture on commercial transactions or some such subject that felt impenetrable to me, and I was reading Dostoevsky instead of the class material. And it hit me how excited I was by the novel I was reading, and how misplaced. So it became clearer and clearer that I was not going to be in the world as a lawyer.

As soon as I graduated and took a job at a law firm, I wrote my first story and started trying to think about what my gift might be. But after all, finding one's voice and the courage to raise [End Page 139] it is a process. And given how little support there is, institutional, emotional or monetary, for electing to be an artist, especially for black folks and women, those really are powerful acts.

I have taken my primary nourishment from the companion activities of reading and writing literature. You know, in the novel I am now finishing, called Water Marked, two young sisters ask their grandmother why the music that she sings sounds so troubled, and she says that music and art have joy and trouble in them and should reach you in the place where you bleed most freely. In the quick. In this novel I am writing partly about the effort to live in the most plugged in place, in the quick, and making art as a way of doing that, but with some...


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