Helen Elaine Lee

April 7, 2023 
The following is from Helen Elaine Lee's Pomegranate. Lee grew up in Detroit, Michigan, and she is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School. She is the author of two other novels: The Serpent’s Gift and Water Marked. Helen was on the board of PEN New England for ten years, and she served on its Freedom to Write Committee, along with founding and volunteering with its Prison Creative Writing Program. She is a professor of comparative media studies/writing at MIT.

The first time Ranita got up the nerve to speak to Maxine, she had been trying to get to Planet Bookworld.

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She’d watched her at chow and in the dayroom, unable to look away from her proud, unfettered bearing and the salt-and-pepper locs cascading down her back. Next to “warrior” in the encyclopedia, Ranita thought, should be a picture of her.

She’d heard the talk. That sista always got her nose in a lawbook, people said, with a lot of respect and a little jealousy. Talking legal strategies, feminism, racial justice, liberation, 24/7. And she’d been to the hole for fucking up a predatory CO, that was the word.

Hoping to find a novel she hadn’t read, Ranita had gone to the Oak Hills “library.” She thought of it with quotes, far cry as it was from the refuge of the local branch with its warm lamplight, worn wingback chairs, and what felt like an infinite supply of books that might transport her. “Hey,” she said as she entered, and Maxine looked up from the habeas petition she was working on with a long-termer still bent on freedom. Their eyes had engaged, and when they finally broke contact Ranita turned to a new batch of donated books and found Parable of the Sower.

The next time all she managed was a nod. Reluctantly, she’d gone to a meeting with Naomi, who never let up on urging her to attend, for which Ranita felt alternately grateful and irritated. It was hard to do your time, let alone avoid temptation, on your own, but she didn’t like being someone’s project.

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Except for that Vicodin relapse that set her back with a D Report and a new reservoir of remorse, she had been clean for a year and a half. But she still had only one foot in NA. She caught a meeting now and then and spoke as little as possible, as she’d seen plenty of people do: put nothing on the line and get the buzz of affirmation. Keep coming back. And she tried to, but she still hadn’t figured out how to regulate the opening up.

Everyone was so broke down, so exposed. So ashamed. And proud that they’d gotten themselves there and were speaking, even if the destination was a windowless room in prison and what they were sharing was a low they’d never imagined.

She tried to get a sense of Maxine under the guise of checking out the congregants. And maybe she was imagining it, but she thought she felt some kind of invisible fiber humming between them. Bravery might be too high an aim, but she didn’t want to be cowardly in front of her. When Ranita’s turn came around, she said, “I’m not that big on talking,” and a few who’d heard her run her mouth during chow and rec raised their eyebrows. She heard someone suck her teeth, and glanced up to see Maxine, looking right into her. Pulling her eyes away, she said, “Anyway, I’m here; I’m surviving. That’s all for now.”

When Maxine started speaking, Ranita held her breath, and then tried to look nonchalant while listening to her gentle, raspy voice and the story she was giving up. She talked about struggling to find strength in the seemingly small aspects of life that are there to be noticed and recalled. And the only shame she spoke of was past tense.

When Ranita saw her in the yard the next afternoon, sitting by herself and working a crossword as she tried to catch a breeze, she made a point to walk by, say hey, give her a smile. And when Maxine smiled back her face changed from majestic to radiant, arousing and unsettling with its plain delight.

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When Maxine sat down with her the next morning at chow, she nodded and asked about the book that lay open next to her tray, “That the one that made your day at the library?” Ranita said yes and chattered on, feeling foolish as she gushed about how much she loved Octavia Butler and how lucky she felt to have found a novel by her that she hadn’t read. Then, feeling exposed, she turned to the dispiriting globs of congealed oatmeal and eggs on offer that morning and thought about the bread and sweets she still had left from the last time she’d made canteen and the veggies Eldora offered from her little garden plot.

“You a reader?” Ranita asked, fighting the shyness that had made her look away.

“Always have been. History, biographies, politics.”

Ranita nodded. She felt like a lightweight in those areas. “I’ll read anything, but I prefer fiction. It saved me, growing up. Even so, I got away from it . . . in the dark times, you know.”

“I do.”

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“Found my way back, though, here in captivity.”

Yes, Maxine said, you had to find some kind of light to steer by. But in terms of novels and stories, she admitted to being unschooled. She’d always been drawn to what was factual, and the arguments and theories around those things. As she listened, Ranita felt defensive, and tempted by her accustomed all-or-nothing settings. She wanted to know this woman, and there was some kind of kinship between them, she could feel it, and she decided to resist her impulses to either retreat or go into crazed battle mode. Just talk with her, she told herself, find out who she is, let her know you.

Sounding more tentative than she intended, she asked, “In those history books . . . don’t the facts depend a lot on who’s doing the telling? Seems like they’re no more objective than fiction. Seems like what gets left out . . . kept out . . . says as much as what isn’t. And aren’t we usually excluded?”

Maxine’s eyes sparkled. “You’re right; there’s always a slant to the telling. That’s part of the draw, isn’t it? Looking for, looking at the bias, the angle . . . figuring out the counter-story. But at least nonfiction’s working with things that can be verified . . . records, documents, transcripts, photos, data . . . and fiction feels . . . unmoored.”

“Nonfiction feels safer?”

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“Well, I’ve never thought of myself as someone who plays it safe, but I guess that’s what I said. Truth, when you can come by it, does feel . . . surer, I guess.”

Eager for the exchange and the chance to express herself, Ranita stepped from the shoreline. “So novels and stories aren’t true? Here’s where I’m unschooled, but can’t all that data be made to say what you want it to, and even lie? And aren’t there different kinds of true?”

“Hmmm. What I ought to say here is that you can challenge that with more and other facts, and data. But I’ma shut up and listen while you tell me about the powers of fiction.”

Ranita paused to collect her thoughts. There was one kind of nonfiction she’d always liked. She pictured sitting with her father as they took turns opening an encyclopedia volume at random and sharing their discoveries. Both players won, though they called it a game, and those details had seemed magical.

Coming back to the present, she said, “Novelists might be making up and rearranging what happens and who it happens to. And where it happens . . . yeah, that too . . . but it’s still got to be true to how people are, to how things work in that story world. And to what’s already happened . . . to history . . . what all went down before the story starts and while it’s unfolding. Seems to me fiction’s based on all those truths . . . like . . . like Beloved’s based on what it was like to escape slavery and get caught, and what one actual woman did about it. Or . . . you’d like this example . . . in Sula, Morrison says the Black folks live ‘up in the bottom,’ after they’ve been tricked into getting the hard-to-farm land in the hills, when it’s the bottomland they were promised. She’s showing a truth about people, with that one phrase.”

Maxine’s utter focus was thrilling, and unnerving. She seemed to be listening with her whole body, and Ranita wondered if anyone, besides maybe her father, when he hadn’t been managing her mother, had ever listened to her like that. What would she pick up on that Ranita didn’t even mean to reveal?

She kept going. “Novels tell the truth. The inside kind, about what’s going on here,” she said, touching her belly, “and here,” pointing to her head. “People like to think fiction’s less serious than other kinds of writing, and I’m here to tell you it can make the real more bearable. But that doesn’t make it escapist. Or flimsy. And I don’t think novels and stories just give you a picture, like a photo with words. They comment. They speculate. And the making up and rearranging of the facts are about showing what is and has been true. And what could be.”

Maxine picked up a strand, “A photo can comment, too, though, can’t it?”

“Yes!” Ranita said, her voice rising. “You’re right.” She thought of what she’d learned from Jasper about the role of light and mood, composition and context. His photos had tried to suggest what might be happening beyond the frame. “There’s lots of ways to tell a story, I guess. Novels, they’ve always been what speaks to me clearest. And they prove you’re not alone.” Fighting embarrassment at the tears in her eyes, at how things were spilling out, she said, “I think . . . ,” and then found herself tongue-tied.

“Tell me, Ranita. I’m dying to hear what you think.”

Ranita laughed, and eased up. “It might not be about the people rising up and demanding change, like what you read about, but I think the way novels and stories ask you to imagine things being different is revolutionary.”

“Indeed, my sista. I just don’t know that much about them. Which means I’m lucky to be in your company.”


Copyright © 2023 by Helen Elaine Lee, from Pomegranate by Helen Elaine Lee, published by Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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