This image is from the Zell Visiting Writers Series website.

As you walk to the UMMA Stern Auditorium, passing the multicultural center and restaurants from across the world (from the Mediterranean to Korea) while braving the cold, it’s easy to dream of escaping to faraway cities and warmer climes. In the final reading and Q&A of the Zell Visiting Writers Series, author Andrea Lee transported dozens of eager listeners to a faraway destination and culture without leaving the University campus.

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

Minutes before Lee’s reading and Q&A, organizers were informed of a recent COVID-19 exposure, forcing UMMA staff to turn away dozens of listeners, switch from a hybrid event to a completely remote one, remove the Q&A portion and delay the event by 15 minutes. While other event participants swarmed the auditorium, Lee remained seemingly unfazed by the change.

Lee’s calmness and adaptability shone through as she read her most recent novel: “Red Island House,” heralded as one of O Magazine’s best books of March 2021. In the novel, Shea, a wealthy American expatriate, reflects on her experiences and herself as she learns the cultural and social complexities of life in Madagascar over the course of a series of short stories.

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 Malagazi culture and outlined Shea’s complex internal struggle.

After reading a Malagazi poem, which marks the beginning of each story, Lee utilized changing accents and tones to illustrate an argument between Shea and her husband Setta regarding a sex worker dinner guest. As the words “you’re the lady of the house” echo through the tall ceilings of the fictional Red Island House, Lee spoke in an echoing whisper, transporting listeners into the grand home and focusing them on the inner thoughts of the “lady of the house”: Shea.

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

Lee’s juxtaposition of rapid dialogue and monologue with low tone and powerful pauses discomforted the listeners, forcing us to reflect along with Shea. Lee reads her work like it’s poetry, but also includes historical and pop culture allusions, personal anecdotes, irony and even humor. 

Though I long for a return to in-person readings, the emotional gravity of Lee’s stories and the intensity of her storytelling transcended the virtual barrier. I went to bed stunned by and curious about Lee’s ability to address complex cultural themes and eager to wake up for her “Writing Across Worlds” virtual craft lecture.

In the craft lecture, event coordinators promoted Zoom viewers to panelists to provide a classroom-like environment. Lee, who spent the week working with writers in the Helen Zell Writers’ Program, appeared relaxed and excited to educate and discuss her background even from her hotel room.

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

Lee cited inspiration from C.S. Lewis’s “woods between the worlds”: a fictional portal between the worlds of the “Chronicles of Narnia.” She compared her life and writing process to “ping-ponging between worlds near and far.” 

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

As Lee opened the Q&A, 44 excited viewers filled the chat with questions about her creative process, which we soon discovered is as complex as the themes she addresses in her work. 

Lee told us she never sought to write about Madagascar, but as stories arose, she had to put them on paper. In 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 unifying main character and setting the novel on a single island.

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

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

As a voracious reader with a never-ending desire to travel (and as a new devotee to Lee’s work), I can only hope this is true. I’ll be looking forward to Lee’s next release.

Daily Arts Writer Kaya Ginsky can be reached at kginsky@umich.edu.