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Helen Elaine Lee reads from her new novel

Although Helen Elaine Lee, assistant professor in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies, is on leave from her teaching duties this fall, she will return to the Institute for an authors@mit event to read from her new novel, Water Marked, a story of two estranged African-American sisters who reunite in a search to understand their father and their family history. The reading will be Tuesday, Sept. 28 at 5:30pm in the Humanities Library.

Professor Lee's own family history determined her career path. Her mother, a literature professor, and her father, a defense attorney, both had a love of language. Professor Lee began writing after she graduated from Harvard Law School, composing stories and her first novel during her nine years as a practicing lawyer.

"Both my parents had been passionate about their work," she said. "I decided that law was a wrong turn for me -- I just didn't have that passion for it."

Professor Lee observes that in this sense, her life mirrors the philosophy of one of her Water Marked characters, who says it's "most important to find life's 'quick' -- the place where you feel most plugged in and alive."

"Because law was not my gift, I looked to see how else I could participate in the world," Professor Lee said. "I found that writing made me feel most alive. For me, writing was how to find the 'quick.'

"In everything I write, I'm interested in how people make art out of loss, in risk-taking and renewal," she said.

Professor Anita Desai, a colleague in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies, wrote that in Water Marked, Professor Lee "blurs the boundaries between prose and poetry, life and art."

Publishers Weekly called Water Marked "moving, infused with eloquent imagery and emotional weight."

Following a term off for maternity, Professor Lee is on leave on an Old Dominion Fellowship, which is awarded to nontenured professors in their third or fourth year of appointment to provide them with a paid semester's leave to pursue research. Eligibility is restricted to nontenured faculty members working on humanistic subjects in anthropology/archaeology, foreign languages and literatures, Science, Technology and Society, history, literature, music, philosophy and writing. She will return to MIT in spring 2000.

Authors@mit is sponsored by the MIT Press Bookstore and MIT Libraries and cosponsored by the Program in Women's Studies. For more information, call x3-5249, send e-mail to or see the program web site.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 22, 1999.

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