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Interview with Helen Elaine Lee

Pomegranate by the acclaimed author Helen Elaine Lee is one of the most significant novels of the last decade. It has received glowing reviews, and it was recently chosen by Amazon’s editors as one of the Best Books of the Year So Far, at #6.

How challenging it is to write with compassion on each page, yet also suspense, so one must keep reading to discover if the protagonist Ranita, a Black woman just released from prison for drug offenses, will relapse or recover.  Recovery for Ranita, however, means more than from alcohol and drugs, but also from the psychological scars left after losing custody of her children, from the deaths of her parents, and from abuse in her past.  Such trials would break some people. but through her prison lover Maxine, her aunts, and her two children, Ranita has a chance to rediscover herself.  She is no simple heroine, is still making mistakes, her past still embedded, in her present. Yet, as she says, she was “loved right.” Read this book to experience the multifaceted shapes of right love.

LEE: Ranita’s experience in prison has an authenticity. Could you comment on your volunteer work directing PEN /New England’s writing in prison programs and also other volunteer efforts of yours on behalf of the incarcerated and marginalized?  What drew you to do this type of volunteer work?  What drew you to write a novel of a woman released into the world-at-large rather than one still incarcerated?

HELEN: My connection to the lives of imprisoned people was instilled in me by my father, who was a criminal defense attorney. He taught me that everyone has a complex and important story, that many people grow up without love or opportunity or choices, and that justice is a fiction for some of us.  The people he represented were not invisible to me as I was growing up; their lives were connected to ours.

I wanted to write about the devastating emotional and psychological toll of our retributive carceral system and its connection to this country’s history of enslavement and racial inequality and brutality. And although a lot has been written about mass incarceration from an academic distance, fiction has the potential to move readers past fear and indifference to feel the lived and emotional truths of addiction, imprisonment, and recovery.

It’s the role of the fiction writer to imagine lives other than her own, and I felt a responsibility to use my access and privilege to speak out on the page. Since I had not been incarcerated, I tried to “earn” the story I wanted to tell by volunteering for many years as a leader of creative writing workshops for people who were incarcerated in several state and county institutions in Massachusetts.  And I helped to start PEN New England’s Prison Creative Writing Program, which ran for eight years.  Writing is an act of recovery and power, and for those writers behind the walls, telling their stories was an assertion of visibility, of meaning, of humanity. I’m indebted to them for sharing their stories with me.

With the framework of incarceration, and through my protagonist Ranita’s journey, I wanted to explore Black women’s relationships to our bodies, and how we are shamed and silenced by being looked at, but not seen.  I wanted to tell a queer love story with complex characters.  And I wanted to explore the possibility and power of love, generosity, respect, community, nature, and imagination, even in a world of deprivation and dehumanization.

I think of “Pomegranate” as a journey of healing, self-acceptance, and autonomy, and I wanted Ranita to grapple with the temptations of oblivion and all the things that could pull her down, limit her, silence her. I wanted to show her struggles to be in relationship with her daughter and son, the aunts who have stood by her and her kids, her cousin Judy, and her psychotherapist. I wanted her to grapple with her past and both accept her full and complex story and raise her voice about who she is.

Through Maxine, Ranita has felt what it means to be seen and respected, and deepened her understanding of the power of imagination, attention to ordinary beauty, intellectual exchange, and constructive defiance. But since I was interested in her path toward autonomy, she had to be challenged to step up and figure out what she’s got to sing about…apart from the comforting and emboldening presence of Maxine…back in the world that grew her, where her family and the sources of both loss and possibility exist.

I wanted her to deal with the pressures of examining and living her sexual identity, of accepting and being her whole self.  I wanted her to struggle with some of the opportunities and pitfalls of choosing that are not parts of life on the inside but are parts of a full and challenging life outside the walls, including the daily practice of showing up and living the codes she has been taught, encountering pitfalls and temptations, finding beauty and pleasure, the psychotherapeutic journey, the choice to be known and seen, speaking up and out.

The book includes a world of painful experiences, both from Ranita’s past and from her imprisonment.  But there is always hope.  And beauty, deriving from her refuges of stories and music, her curiosity and imagination, her attunement to nature and appreciation of wonder, the history of her people, and the love she had received, which is in her, alongside the loss.  There is abundance.  Above all, the book is about the abundance that exists within and around and between us.  About possibility.

LEE: In interspersed chapters, about half of this novel is in third person past tense and tells of the Ranita who is imprisoned and how she survived. The other half is Ranita’s first person present account of her life on the outs, on the outside.  What made you decide to split her tale into a more distanced third and an intimate present?

HELEN: I came upon the structure, with the help of an editor, as I tried to figure out how to reveal the aspects of the past that inform Ranita’s struggles with addiction.  I tried different strategies and ultimately found that the way the alternation between first person present tense and third person past tense allowed us to hear Ranita’s story as she is living it, in her own voice, and also to gain insights on her story that are beyond her understanding or her memory, or about which she is just coming to awareness.  The third person omniscient narrator gives us pivotal moments in Ranita’s story from her point of view, but also sees more broadly and deeply.  Together, they tell a fuller, deeper story than either one could alone.

LEE: Because of her family support, Ranita has more of a chance to make it in the world than some of those released. Her parents are deceased but her Aunt Val takes custody of the two children, and Aunt Jessie gives Ranita a loving, if temporary, place to live.  Although Ranita returns to the same milieu in which she became an addict, she is enfolded in her aunts’ different styles of love.  On the other hand, what effect did the rejection she felt from her mother contribute to her addiction and feelings of self-worth?

HELEN: First off…and I find myself wanting to say this often … I had a very warm and loving mother, and we had a close relationship until she died at 94.  She was a literature professor … a Black woman pioneer …and she gave me stories and books to see by.  She was there for me always.  She helped me raise my son. And she believed in me, as a person and a writer, even when I doubted myself.  But I think writers are often interested in examining the forces of the things we have not experienced.

So, I sought to imagine what it would be like to have the opposite kind of mother.  For Ranita, I was imagining what kinds of wounds are disabling and lead to disempowerment and addiction.  Her feeling that her mother has invalidated her emotionally is devastating.  And Geneva’s transmission of shame about the body and its appetites has a profound effect.  But I also wanted to portray Geneva as complex, in her own right and in terms of how Ranita perceives her.  She is a product of her individual and family experience, societal values, and cultural inheritance.  Indeed, we often pass down the things that have hurt us.

I wanted to explore how Geneva has been shaped by a racist and misogynist and classist society, looking in particular at the force of respectability politics and the complexities of self-rejection in terms of race and gender and class.  There are hints of her own thwarted dreams, her buried trauma, and her misguided efforts to toughen up Ranita which instead, demean and disable her.  Black women continue to receive the message, from family and institutions and the social context, that we are both too little and too much.  And I am familiar with that double bind.

LEE: It is Ranita’s love for her children that propels her forward. She is desperately trying to live a life that will enable her to regain custody even as she sees how her addiction caused her to fail her son and daughter.  She sees, as this novel progresses, the various shades and shapes of love and comes to comprehend that is not just words but practice. ‘’Love with accountability like Baldwin wrote about.” How do you see this type of love?

HELEN: As the novel builds toward its culmination, Ranita thinks back on the various kinds of love she has experienced and given, and the sheer struggle to love…what all it entails and asks of us.  And she declares, “Love is a practice.”  This is what she is learning, and part of the point here, conveyed by the word “practice,” is that we are never finished with this struggle, with this process.  It is ongoing.  And love is about what we demonstrate, what we are able to do out of what we feel and the codes we have learned.  We do not always get it right.  We are evolving, struggling for awareness and ability, correcting course and revising and growing and grappling to show up for ourselves and others. This connects back to Ranita saying, “I guess it’s a lifelong project, trying to be well.”  And to Auntie Jessie telling her, when she is heartsick over Ranita’s  absence and misdeeds, wishing she could get it right, once and for all, and fearful that she won’t, “All day, every day, we’ve got to keep on choosing, over and over again, who we’re going to be.”

Baldwin stripped from love the sentimentality with which it is so often approached.  He reminded us, in his fiction and his essays, that love is a matter of commitment, grueling self-interrogation, discomfort, hard and ongoing work.  In The Fire Next Time, he wrote:

“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”

A beautiful aspect of love is that it is not a finite resource.  But we have to choose the hard work.

Finally, I turn to Baldwin again: “Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.”


LEE:  Maxine is also key, even though still incarcerated for two more years.  “She was the water in the rock,” Ranita says to her therapist.  And her relationship with Maxine wasn’t “a gay-for-the-stay kind of thing.”  Maxine is an ardent Black lesbian feminist.  To what extent does being Black play a role in their love, and in Ranita’s steps toward healing?

HELEN: The intersecting and interacting forces of race, gender, sexuality, and class permeate our lives. These forces shape our every experience. I am never unaware of my experience as a Black queer woman who has had educational and economic privilege, but is, in the broader sense, still marginalized and doubted, no matter what threshold I’m crossing.  I also feel that as I cross, my people, my ancestors are with me.  I wrote “Pomegranate,” and everything else, out of what I experience and understand about the world.

As I tried to show the dehumanization and trauma of being warehoused and brutalized and rendered invisible and thrown away like trash by this society’s carceral system, I wanted to connect those things to the history of enslavement, convict-leasing laws, Jim Crow laws, racial terrorism, sharecropping, unpaid and low wage work.  I also wanted to illuminate the resistance and generative brilliance that are integral to our history and experience.

Black experience is shaped fundamentally by power exerted from without, by institutions and systems of domination and control … and by the “Master Narrative,” to use Toni Morrison’s phrase, which describes the ideological script imposed by those with social, economic, and political power on the rest of us.  And it is also shaped by power from within, by our resistance to and defiance of those definitions and limitations.  We are faced with the question of how to find and draw on the strengths and possibilities within us, around us, between us.  In “Autobiographical Notes,” Baldwin wrote, regarding his Blackness that “any writer … finds that the things which hurt him and the things which helped him cannot be divorced from each other.”

Ranita and Maxine have the shared experience of living in the world as Black women, in terms of cultural inheritance, daily practice, the ways in which we move through the world and how the world looks at and treats us.  They also both have histories of gendered, physical violence and struggles with addiction.  And they share a feminist and Black liberatory political vision.  Maxine has a deep understanding of history and politics that has come from educating herself in non-fiction, while Ranita reads the world through novels and stories, which are revolutionary in helping us to imagine the world differently.  They both have a basic connection as Black women. And all of the things that compound and grow out of that make for a transformative bond.

Also, as I wrote out of the world as I know it, I grew interested in exploring how Black women’s bodies are contended territory through which control, personal and societal, is exercised.  And I wanted to examine how the struggle between freedom and domination continues to play out through our bodies.  How social and cultural conceptions of our bodies shape our experiences. How our bodies cannot be denied. How they keep records of our lives.  And how, from enslavement to incarceration, we have had to manage being reduced to bodies; being denied the basic things that bodies need; remaining embodied and insisting on corporeal pleasure and joy; and sometimes psychically leaving behind our bodies, in order to survive.

I wanted to ask how we are shamed and silenced by being looked at, but not seen.  How we are shaped by being scrutinized, desired, measured, feared, stereotyped, eroticized, mythologized, reduced.  And how we can reclaim our bodies and our vision and our voices.

The things that make Maxine the water in the rock are her warriorship and her unsparing ethical sight and analysis, along with her compassion and generosity and tenderness.  The love between her and Ranita is not about domination, or oblivion.  With connection and kinship as a foundation, they try to bring their best selves.  Their love is about exchange of the head and heart, respect, generosity, correcting the imagination deficit they are faced with and asking What If.  It’s about being seen and not just looked at.  It’s a counternarrative in the fullest sense.


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