Zell Distinguished Writer-in-Residence Andrea Lee Connects Worlds Through Storytelling



As you stroll to the UMMA Stern Auditorium, past the Multicultural Center and restaurants around the world (from Mediterranean To Korea) while braving the cold, it’s easy to dream of escaping to distant cities and warmer climates. In the final reading and the questions and answers of the Zell Guest Writers Series, author Andrea Lee has transported dozens of eager listeners to a faraway destination and culture without leaving the college campus.

Andrea Lee, through his award-winning work in memoir and fiction, explores the beauty and conflict of cultural interaction. As a black American expat living in Italy, Lee asks and seeks to answer what it means to be an insider or a cultural outsider.

Minutes before Lee’s reading and Q&A, organizers were made aware of a recent exposure to COVID-19, forcing UMMA staff to turn down dozens of listeners, move from a hybrid event to a completely remote event, remove the question-and-answer portion and delay the event for 15 minutes. As other event attendees swarmed the auditorium, Lee was seemingly unfazed by the change.

Lee’s composure and adaptability shines through as she read her most recent novel, “Red Island House,” billed as one of O Magazine’s best books of March 2021. In the novel, Shea, a wealthy American expat, reflects on her experiences and herself as she learns about the cultural and social intricacies of life in Madagascar during a short story series.

Lee opened the reading with the chapter “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”. Through a single awkward dinner scene, Lee immersed listeners in the beautiful island, educated them on Madagascar’s class structure, exposed them to Malagasy culture, and described Shea’s complex internal struggle.

After reading a Malgazi poem, which marks the beginning of each story, Lee used shifting accents and tones to illustrate an argument between Shea and her husband Setta over a guest at a sex worker dinner. As the words “you are the hostess” echoed through the high ceilings of the fictional Red Island house, Lee spoke in a resounding whisper, transporting listeners into the big house and focusing them on the inner thoughts of the house. “Lady of the house”: Shea butter.

As Shea hosts a big dinner with Gilles, a wealthy Frenchman, and Bé, a young woman forced to sell her body to wealthy vacationers, Lee went from a multi-accented dialogue to Shea’s intensely personal reflections on elitism. , classism and racism.

Lee’s juxtaposition of fast-paced dialogue and monologues with a low tone and powerful pauses annoyed listeners, forcing us to reflect with Shea. Lee reads his work like poetry, but also includes allusions to history and pop culture, personal anecdotes, irony, and even humor.

While I long for a return to in-person readings, the emotional gravity of Lee’s stories and the intensity of his storytelling have transcended the virtual barrier. I went to bed stunned and curious about Lee’s ability to tackle complex cultural themes and anxious to wake up for his “Writing Across Worlds” virtual craft talk.

At the Crafts Conference, event coordinators promoted Zoom viewers to panelists in order to provide a classroom-like environment. Lee, who spent the week working with writers from Helen Zell Writers Program, seemed relaxed and excited to educate and discuss her background, even from her hotel room.

Throughout Lee’s youth, her friends and family nurtured her innate desire to “reconcile the worlds” as a middle-class, mixed-race woman. Her family participated in abolitionist and civil rights movements, and she and many of her friends were the first black students in separate white high schools.

Lee was inspired by CS Lewis’ “Woods Between Worlds”: a fictional portal between worlds from the “Chronicles of Narnia”. She compared her life and her writing process to ‘ping pong between worlds near and far’.

She provided a set of guidelines for writing about the “other worlds” that she developed while writing “Red Island House”. One: Know and acknowledge that there is a world you know best. Two: Learn as much as possible about the world (research, research, research). Three: Be prepared to break the rules and admit your ignorance.

As Lee opened the Q&A, 44 enthusiastic viewers filled the chat with questions about her creative process, which we quickly found to be as complex as the themes she tackles in her work.

Lee told us that she never sought to write about Madagascar, but as stories arose she had to put them on paper. While writing “Red Island House,” she spent years researching historical records of slaves, pirates and missionaries, reading ancient poetry, and observing the social life of Madagascar before compiling the stories under a character. main unifier and locate the novel on one island.

Throughout her discussion, Lee noted the intricacies of writing as an “outsider” with gravity and a hint of self-mockery. She compared herself to the novel’s protagonist, Shea, who over time discovers that she is more ignorant than she would like to believe. Lee pointed out that to exist “between worlds” means to exist between nations, cultures, classes, levels of power and colors.

“As an author, I will be wandering the woods between worlds for the rest of my life,” Lee said.

As a voracious reader with an endless desire to travel (and as a new enthusiast of Lee’s work), I can only hope this is true. I look forward to the next version of Lee.

Daily art writer Kaya Ginsky can be reached at [email protected]


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