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  • An Interview with Helen Elaine Lee
  • Thulani Davis (bio)

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Helen Elaine Lee photo by Deborah Atkinson.

In October and November, 1995, Helen Elaine Lee and I talked and corresponded about her work. Later, after our correspondence and these early discussions, we had the following conversation.


Let’s talk first about your novel, The Serpent’s Gift. You have said that the night of oranges is an experience that expresses duality. Is this the thread that unifies the book?


When we meet Eula Smalls, she is running from the violence her husband, Ontario, has inflicted on her; she is in need of an open door. For her daughter, Vesta, through whose memory we learn about that night, the experience was defining. It was an expression of the failure of safety and trust, both because of Ontario’s surrender to the smaller part of himself and the unwillingness of the white neighbors to help. But it was also evidence of the small gifts that do happen, because after all, Ruby Staples does open that door, reminding us of the capacity of the spirit to stretch and heal. It is both things. As are our lives.

The closing line for that scene indicates what that experience, which visits and revisits Vesta, means to her. It reads, “That night of oranges where loss and receiving had met. Lined unknown hands and a gift of fruit. Running and an open door.”

I think the book is unified by several things: by the theme of risk-taking, expressed in part by the color versus whiteness symbolism, and amplified by the Miss Snake stories; by the concept of renewal, for which the snake is a mythic symbol; by the problem of whether and how to be or provide a doorway for others; and by LaRue’s storytelling, which is an attempt to create art out of both loss and receiving, and to do what Zora says in Their Eyes Were Watching God: “We passed nations through our mouths.”

And the announcement of duality, through the symbol of the orange, is a way of talking about the cycle of death and rebirth, also expressed concretely with the winter solstice and the snake. That’s the central thing I am interested in: loss . . . and what we are able to pull out of it . . . and how. I guess all of literature is about this, so that’s the universal of it. And what my tribes have got to say about it is the particular.


I recently took part in a panel discussion in which a South African writer said, “We have never paid our dues voluntarily. What are we willing to do to heal ourselves?” I thought your book was about paying dues voluntarily. The things [End Page 266] people do to keep family together and taking responsibility for each other is paying dues voluntarily. People who are willing to and have a tradition of taking on the care of others.


It is about that, in part. About the open door and the gift of fruit. About what it means to strive to be family to people. I guess you could say that the people who are unable to open their doors to Eula, and later to Ouida and Zella, cannot pay dues voluntarily, but Ruby is that big inside. She is that in touch with her own humanity, and with the world around her. She is not a person without pain, but she claims her pain and uses it as a guide.


Where does that come from? Where do you get the sense of people having that generosity when they have next to nothing to give?


I saw my parents giving back in the ways in which they exercised their gifts, my mother through teaching literature, and that’s definitely a way of being a doorway, of opening the world. And my father through his work as a criminal defense attorney, which was an expression of his politics. He loved his work, as intellectual challenge, competitive arena and creative performance, also, and he was quite talented at it, but one important thing it...

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pp. 266-275
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