Freedom Is a Complicated Dream for a Queer Black Woman, Even After Incarceration

Helen Elaine Lee's novel "Pomegranate," traces Ranita's journey to reunite with her children, stay clean, and find autonomy

Photo by Dewang Gupta on Unsplash

In the first few pages of Helen Elaine Lee’s Pomegranate, protagonist Ranita recalls a moment when her father gives her the titular fruit. She breaks the pomegranate open, “awed by the wild design of it…a whole world, strange and crazy-beautiful, underneath the skin.” In many ways, this scene serves as a metaphor for the novel itself; it is, on the surface, about Ranita being released from prison, working to reunite with her children, trying to understand her queerness, and maintaining her sobriety, but the story is ripe with so much more. 

Through alternating past tense sections written in third person and present day moments written from Ranita’s first person point of view, Lee peels back layers to reveal the intentional cruelty embedded in the carceral system and the way trauma can echo through not just one person’s life, but generations. As Ranita slowly opens up in meetings, therapy, and even in the stories she tells herself, Lee also explores the power of narrative itself: What happens when we tell our stories and they are held with care by someone else? What happens when we make a choice to revise, to write a different story as we move forward?

Lee, a professor of Comparative Media Studies and Writing at MIT and a former board member of PEN New England, where she helped to start a Prison Creative Writing Program, brings a wealth of research and experience to these pages. It was a delight to speak with Lee via phone about embodied and inter-generational trauma, what her students in the Bay State Correctional Institution taught her, how stories can be a form of hope, and the different forces that complicate—or encourage—healing. 

Jacqueline Alnes: In a 2013 New York Times essay, you write about your time volunteering in a writing class in a prison. You write, “Their possessions and freedoms are few, but their memories are abundant. For three charged hours, through their writing, they become visible. They become more than their worst things.” What did you learn from your students that you might have brought to the writing of this novel? 

Helen Elaine Lee: I wanted to write about the experience of incarceration, partially because my dad was a criminal defense lawyer for his whole working life. He embedded in me a couple fundamental beliefs. He taught me that justice is a fiction for many of us. Lots of people grow up without resources or advantages and everybody has a story that is important and deserves to be heard and seen. The people he represented were not invisible to me; they were a part of our community and family life. I had some shapeless desire to write about it but I didn’t know in what way. Since I had never been locked up, I knew I needed to earn that story. 

For 15 years, I volunteered at a couple different institutions in the Boston area. First I went in with Growing Together, that’s an emotional literacy program in prisons around the country, and then, through PEN New England, I helped to establish a more formal creative writing workshop. The one I write about in that essay is the Bay State Correctional Institution, which actually is closed now; the men got dispersed to other places. I helped to start a creative writing workshop there. It ran for 8 years. It was important to me not to appropriate and violate people who had already been so deeply violated in another way, so I just listened for a couple of years. More than anything, I am indebted to them for the kind of access that they gave about the kind of emotional and psychological realities of being incarcerated. 

I was expanded in so many ways. The generosity I witnessed, it made me realize how deep my ties to them, as Black people very differently situated from me, with all of my privilege and the sense of brotherhood, the sense of respect they gave to me, and how meaningful it was for them to be in community with people on the outside. In terms of outlook that I gained. One time I remember we did an exercise checking in and I was complaining about something trivial. We got to one man serving a life sentence and I asked how he was doing and he said “Great. Every day above ground is a good day.” That sort of perspective made me realize how fortunate I am, all the gifts I’ve been given, all that’s been done for me. I was expanded in that way as well, in terms of seeing the world and seeing my life, and seeing other people’s life and the disparate resources. 

Some of the things I’m trying to capture in Pomegranate are the devastating and psychological toll of incarceration, the trauma of retributive captivity and deprivation, feeling invisible, the lack of privacy and respect and choice, and the destruction of families. I could read about those things—and I did do a lot of research—but it was being with that group of men, over time, where I really came to feel like I could maybe understand it enough to write about it. 

JA: In the book I was thinking about prisons intentionally making spaces not beautiful. Beautiful things must be kept private, or exist mostly in the mind—in daydreams or memories or conversations happening secretly between two people. These private missives seem like a source of hope. There is power there, even in a place that has tried so hard to strip them of humanity. What do you believe the power of story to be? 

HL: My mom was a literature professor; books and stories were the religion in the house I grew up in. Stories are everything—the written down stories that make up books, but also part of my heritage is the oral tradition. For Ranita, too, what her Blackness means to her is the part of the story that has been made and re-made: the oral story of our people and where we’ve been and how we made it through, the codes that have emerged through that history about choosing who to be. Story is everything. It’s healing. 

I’m always interested, in everything I’ve ever written, in people who pull light from darkness and the role of narrative in people’s lives. It’s fundamental. We are always making stories about who we are and what we’ve done and who we want to be and will be. Especially for people who are incarcerated, when you live in this present tense, which is an experience of deprivation, as you were saying, of beauty, of human regard, of privacy, and even of the basic food that’s nourishing, and the past is partly about regret, partly what happened in those workshop sessions was the excavation of that healing thing or the good thing or the thing that made you laugh. You hope there’s some sense of the future. The story about who you are and who you might be is a big lifeline. 

Writing in that context is really powerful because it represents the opportunity to revise. You perhaps have done some things—I mean there are a lot of wrongfully convicted people locked up—but perhaps you are wishing there are things you could redo in the past and not be there. But there’s a chance, through imagination and narrative, to revise who you are and to recover those parts of yourself that are powerful and generative. Reading stories, writing stories, it’s more fundamental than I could say.

JA: When Ranita tells the therapist her story after she’s released, it feels at first like another form of taking; she’s worried about what will happen to her story when it’s controlled by someone who’s not her or not told in its entirety. And just thinking about the number of narratives imposed on Ranita—her parents’ narratives for her, the world’s narratives, and men’s narratives for what they want her to be. I love that she’s finally telling her story in first person, present tense. It made me think so much about agency and how, when we are able to tell our stories in their wholeness, how much it changes what we are able to say.

HL: Yeah, and it’s a struggle to get there. She’s afraid to tell some things she’s ashamed about, but to bring those into the light and feel love and acceptance and affirmation of her.

Plot-wise, this book is about a woman getting out of prison, trying to stay clean, trying to repair relationships with her kids, and her love for this woman, but to grapple with and accept her story I see as a journey toward healing, self-acceptance, and autonomy. Being able to speak the things that have been pushed into the past is profound. 

I could see that in the workshops, with the men and women inside, you could watch, sometimes through a prompt, something emerge that had been forgotten. It was powerful. Off the top of my head, there was one exercise to write about a food that was made for you with love. Or write about a time you learned how to do something, like frame a house or cook something from start to finish, and you would see this different, larger sense of self emerge. That thing had been forgotten along with all the trauma and pain.

JA: Ranita plants black-eyed Susan seeds and says, “I gave them what they needed and they grew.” While the idea that we need nourishment, on the surface, seems simple, it’s more complicated in the real world. We need food, but that costs money—and stigmas around bodies and weight passed down generationally can inhibit our ability to grow, as we see in the novel. We need space—spaces that feel safe, where we can be ourselves—but gentrification is a force that harms many in their efforts to find affordable homes in the novel. We need nurturing from other people. This book seems to ask: What happens when our access to these necessary tools of growth are limited? How do we learn to grow even when we’re planted in the same place twice?

HL: That’s nicely put. I can’t help think of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, because I’ve taught that book a bunch of times. That opening metaphor of marigolds didn’t grow that year. She circles back to that and says it’s the soil that was inhospitable to the marigolds. There, she’s talking about American society and its racism and misogyny and the trauma that it enacts on people. So again, I am trying to ask: What wounds and what heals? 

How are we, Black women, shamed and silenced? Or being looked at but not seen?

Loss is a fact of life. If you’re paying attention, if you’re awake, things are painful. But we can also claim the gifts we’ve been given and the beauty that’s around us, natural and creative, and find our hands filled. Sometimes that’s through memory and imagination. Sometimes it’s small or ordinary on the outside, but wondrous within. I’m trying to ask that: What does it take to grow? How are we hampered and wounded and disabled and what can be done about it? What is there to draw on and resist? 

JA: Agency is such an important thread in this book. I’m thinking of Ranita and her changing body, when suddenly, as a teen, she realizes “there always seemed to be someone watching, judging, lying in the cut. Was she her own or wasn’t she?” And later, as she “surrender[s]” her pee for testing, she wonders, “when this body might feel like it’s mine again.” Her body is at risk when she moves through spaces as a Black woman, she is a mother, her parents will her body to get smaller, her body is objectified by others, her body is imprisoned, she loves with her body, her body is deserving of tenderness. What was it like writing into all these notions of a body, especially through Ranita’s intersecting identities?

HL: I’ve lived a lot of it and think about it a lot. I wanted to explore how Black women’s bodies are contended territory, through which control, personal and societal, is exercised, and how the struggle between freedom and domination continue to play out through our bodies. How social and cultural conceptions of our bodies shape our experiences, how our bodies can’t be denied and keep a record of our lives. The strip search was probably the hardest thing to write—that was devastating—but I wanted to tell the truth. I think that moment is where, hopefully, it comes through most clearly the devastation and trauma of captivity and dehumanization and objectification. 

The record that that the body keeps—that’s where the generational trauma is. The echoes of Middle Passage and enslavement are felt and resonate down through the generations. From enslavement to incarceration, we’ve had to manage being reduced, being denied the basic things that bodies need, and yet, remaining embodied somehow and insisting on pleasure and joy, and sometimes leaving the body behind. In that strip search scene, that is echoed later in the book when Ranita has to leave her body when experiencing sexual trauma. It figures in all those ways. Ranita’s body hasn’t felt like it belonged to her anyway, in some of the ways you named, so she’s asking: Am I my own? 

We are always making stories about who we are and what we’ve done and who we want to be and will be.

You’re told that your body is a sacred temple and that it’s also something that you’re to be ashamed of. It has this power to reproduce which is why, societally, it has to be controlled. It’s really confusing to sort out, as you come of age, and then the sexual pressure that you feel. Ranita has no one to go to with any of that. I feel this is true for Black women uniquely: How are we shamed and silenced or being looked at but not seen? Scrutinized, desired, measured, eroticized, mythologized, reduced in complexity? All of those things take a constant toll. I want the book to name those things, to tell the truth, but also for this to be embodied in the elements of the story: How can we reclaim our bodies and our vision and our voices? There is this abundance within and around us. There are some things that heal. I don’t want to just say it’s a terrible world, which it is in a lot of ways. 

That’s Black people’s story. It’s a devastating story of being in this society, brought by the slave trade and everything that’s happened since, not even just in this country. I was just in Brazil for a month and I keep thinking, what a devastating history for Black and Indigenous people. In Brazil, slavery lasted until 1888. I was down there co-teaching a class on those histories and it was a devastating story. It seems more above ground than it is here. Always, there is the other part of it, which is resistance. Survival. Celebration. What we are somehow able to bring out of these experiences. In Brazil, it’s music and insisting on remembering. I treasure that art of the Black story. There is a story of enslavement, exploitation, disenfranchisement, racial terrorism, state-sanctioned violence, all of this, sometimes it feels like it doesn’t ever change, but there is also this resistance. You can’t take people’s dignity from them, actually. There are powers of fellowship, community, memory and imagination, activism, naming the free things. And love, that’s how we’ve always made a way. I hope the book says that, both in a personal sense for Ranita, and in a larger way. And for queer people too. She’s trying to come to terms with that part of her story.

JA: What do you hope people might take from this book? 

HL: Each reader is going to have their own experience with a book. Healing and self-acceptance and autonomy are possible. The freedom of spirit is possible. Wholeness, although it’s a lifelong journey, the journey toward wellness, toward telling your story, toward self-acceptance, autonomy, is possible. 

It costs something to be awake and pay attention and the forces that make that statement possible are love—the practice of love, with accountability and family and community. Beauty in the world, natural and created, belongs to you; it’s yours. It can be claimed and recovered. 

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