For novelist Helen Elaine Lee, life is about creating art out of loss. Lee, an assistant professor of writing, is the author of The Serpent’s Gift and Water Marked, two critically acclaimed novels that delve deeply into the territory of personal loss and redemption. A graduate of Harvard Law School, Lee worked for nine years as an attorney while discovering her voice as a fiction writer. Now busy writing her third book and raising her young son, Lee says she hopes readers will take from her work a new sense of their own capacity for renewal.
“Life brings loss to everyone,” she says. “But can you take your story of difficulty and pain and make it into something else? That’s the question facing all of us.”
In Lee’s first novel, The Serpent’s Gift, the pain of domestic violence and death of a father launch two families into a decades-long alliance that encompasses both sorrow and joy. The heroes of the book, says Lee, are those characters, like LaRue the storyteller, who embrace the entirety of their experience, both good and bad.
“Life includes this spectrum of experience, and in order to be fully alive, you must embrace the whole of it,” says Lee. “Being the hero of your own life means taking an inheritance that may be ugly and painful and making something positive out of it.”
Lee grew up in a family where books were a kind of religion. Her mother was a professor of comparative literature who encouraged reading; her father was a criminal defense attorney. “My parents both really loved their work, and I knew I wanted to feel that way about my work too,” says Lee, who admits she knew law was not her passion before she even finished law school.
Her first published story, which appeared in the Harvard Blackletter Review, told of an African-American attorney who sells his soul trying to make partner at a big firm. “For nine years I made my living doing something law-related,” says Lee. “But I was really trying to liberate myself from the law the whole time through my writing.
“The storyteller plays a critical role in our culture by passing down history and offering different ways to imagine the world,” says Lee, whose influences include Virginia Woolf, Tolstoy, Cervantes, and Toni Morrison. “Writers have the potential to be very powerful in people’s lives – to expand their consciousness.
“Books have gotten me through every difficult moment in my life and provided so many of the joyful moments as well,” says Lee. “If I could do for my readers what those writers did for me, that would be wonderful.”
Lee says she teaches her students that writing requires discipline, paying close attention to the world, and embracing mystery and uncertainty. “Writing fiction can be frightening for MIT students because there are no right or wrong answers,” says Lee. “I try to instill in them a sense that uncertainty can be okay.”
In addition to teaching a general fiction workshop, Lee also teaches a writing course where students read women of color. “My students in that class sometimes jokingly ask when they’re going to read a happy story,” says Lee, who acknowledges that literature about the African American experience is often filled with pain. “It’s part of being Black in America, at this time or at any time,” she says.
It’s a theme that reappears in her current writing project, a collection of interconnected stories about people in prison. “The challenge for these characters is how to reach for dignity and maintain their humanity in this situation. I’m also interested in how wrong-doing and goodness can co-exist in people,” says Lee. “It captures my imagination because I always write about how people pull light out of darkness.”
Family connections are another recurring theme in Lee’s work. Her second novel, Water Marked, depicts the uneasy relationship of two adult sisters who are constrained by a difficult history and a legacy of silence. “I don’t have a sister, but readers tell me the relationship I’ve drawn really resonates with them,” says Lee. “Sometimes what interests writers is the flip side of what they’ve known in their own lives.”
Lee became a mother for the first time in 1999, and she says the experience has transformed not only her writing, but her entire world view. “Being a mother is the most remarkable thing that’s ever happened to me,” she says. “The world looks really different to me now. With each discovery my child makes, the world is new for me again too.
“Having a child also underscores how redemptive family is and how important it is to pass down what you know,” says Lee, who adds that as a fiction writer, she has many more stories to tell.
“I hope I make my readers think and feel deeply,” she says. “I hope I can make them see their own possibilities more broadly and recognize the gifts in their own stories, however complex they may be.”