Russian Journal, 1981
Sarah Phillips, 1984
Interesting Women: Stories, 2002
The talented black writer Andrea Lee was born into a prominent, highly educated, upper-class family and grew up in a privileged society. Although during her youth she was aware of the Civil Rights movement and of her father’s involvement in it, she was sheltered from all except the subtler forms of prejudice and racial bigotry. After receiving her B.A. and M.A. from Harvard University, Lee worked as a staff writer at The New Yorker. In 1978, however, when her husband won a fellowship to study for ten months in Moscow and Leningrad, Lee accompanied him. There Lee became acquainted with many young Russians, especially workers and university students. The fact that she had no political or ideological agenda enabled her to participate freely in the activities around her and to observe Russian life from an unbiased perspective.
Lee was meticulous about jotting down her impressions, and after her return to the United States she used her diary as the basis for her Russian Journal, a series of sketches about life in the Soviet Union. The response to the book was generally enthusiastic. Critics applauded Lee’s accuracy, her insight, and her style, though some of them were puzzled that she did not touch on racial issues, or make comparisons with her experiences as a black woman in the United States married to a white man. Russian Journal won the 1984 Jean Stein Award, presented by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and it was nominated for a National Book Award.
If this autobiographical work was as readable as fiction, the fictional work that followed was not far from being an autobiography. Lee had published a number of short stories in The New Yorker about the adventures of a young black girl called Sarah Phillips who, like Lee, was a member of an upper-class family and the daughter of a highly respected activist. In the novel Sarah Phillips the author incorporated the stories into a cohesive whole by presenting them as the recollections of the young woman introduced in the initial chapter.
Sarah Phillips is particularly valuable because so few writers have described the lives of upper-class African Americans, whose experience of prejudice is no less real though more subtle, involving snubs instead of invective and the certainty of social ostracism rather than the probability of harassment or arrest. Lee also shows class conflicts within her own race, the resentment exhibited by members of the black underclass toward African Americans who have risen into a privileged group.
Nevertheless, Sarah Phillips is not primarily a book about racial or class prejudice. Rather, the major conflict is personal. In going to Paris, Sarah had hoped to escape from all that she saw as impediments to free expression, including her family and their religion, her black heritage, and her country. However, in the first chapter of the novel Sarah experiences a kind of epiphany. She realizes that everything she has tried to reject is an essential part of her being. The flashbacks that follow are not just childhood memories but also explanations of Sarah’s decision to return home.
Ironically, some of the negative comments about Sarah Phillips seem to be based more on Lee’s subject and her setting than on her handling of the universal theme of self-discovery. When Sarah is called a passive, uncertain character, one cannot help wondering if the real problem is that she was reared to be restrained in her behavior and thoughtful about her decisions. Lee’s skill in creating characters is proven by the fact that some critics are unwilling to let Sarah disappear and call for a sequel.
Interesting Women collects thirteen of Lee’s short stories from The New Yorker. Most deal with the double alienation of African American women married to white European men and explore the many manifestations of culture clash that can occur in such settings. Despite differences in subject and in genre, all of Lee’s works are similar in their originality of perception and their deftness in expression. The novel and short stories further demonstrated the author’s skill in creating believable, thoughtful characters. Andrea Lee was hailed as a gifted writer, from whom much might be expected.