This reading group guide for Pomegranate includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Helen Elaine Lee
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. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book. Introduction
Ranita Atwater is “getting short.”
She is almost done with her four-year sentence for opiate possession at Oak Hills Correctional Center. With three years of sobriety, she is determined to stay clean and regain custody of her two children. My name is Ranita, and I’m an addict
, she has said again and again at recovery meetings. But who else is she? Who might she choose to become? As she claims the story housed within her pomegranate-like heart, she is determined to confront the weight of the past and discover what might lie beyond mere survival.
Ranita is regaining her freedom, but she’s leaving behind her lover Maxine, who has inspired her to imagine herself and the world differently. Now she must steer clear of the temptations that have pulled her down, while atoning for her missteps and facing old wounds. With a fierce, smart, and sometimes funny voice, Ranita reveals how rocky and winding the path to wellness is for a Black woman, even as she draws on family, memory, faith, and love in order to choose life.
Perfect for fans of Jesmyn Ward and Yaa Gyasi, Pomegranate
is a complex portrayal of queer Black womanhood and marginalization in America: a story of loss, healing, redemption, and strength. In lyrical and precise prose, Helen Elaine Lee paints a humane and unflinching portrait of the devastating effects of incarceration and addiction, and of one woman’s determination to tell her story. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The first line narrated by Ranita is: “I live my life forward and backward.” How does this line announce a central theme of the novel and relate to its structure?
2. Upon Ranita’s release from prison, she resolves to remain sober and repair her relationships with her children. What obstacles did you predict Ranita would face? How did they differ from what she experiences in the novel? How does her freedom entail both empowerment and obstacles?
3. After she gets out of Oak Hills, how does Ranita navigate her encounters with Auntie Jessie, Auntie Val, Judy, Vera, Leon, and David Quarles? What roles do these interactions and evolving relationships play in Ranita’s journey?
4. Ranita is mandated to meet with a psychotherapist and a caseworker as part of her push for family reunification. What do her encounters and relationships with those figures reveal?
5. In Chapter 10, Ranita tells Drew Turner, “I have been loved right. Once.” What made her relationship with Maxine feel right to her, and what distinguishes it from her previous relationships with Jasper and David Quarles?
6. Maxine offers Ranita a series of kites with questions during their unfolding relationship at Oak Hills. What do these questions reveal about Ranita and Maxine’s relationship?
7. What insights did Ranita’s story give you about incarceration and the experiences of people within the criminal justice system?
8. How does Ranita navigate her shame regarding her addiction, her incarceration, her childhood, and her mothering?
9. How is Ranita’s mothering affected by her relationship with Geneva? What distinctions and similarities do you see in these relationships? What kind of mother does Ranita strive to be?
10. How do Ranita’s engagements with psychotherapy, speculation, and dance develop over the course of the novel?
11. How do Ranita’s feelings about her queerness change over the course of the novel?
12. What are some of the things Ranita realizes about love as the novel develops and concludes?
13. What inner strengths does Ranita have that will help her to navigate difficulty? What is important about her memory of going out into the rain that is captured in Chapter 32?
14. How would you characterize the journey Ranita makes in this novel?
15. What do pomegranates represent in the novel? Does the meaning of the pomegranate that was gifted to Ranita by her father change for her over the course of the novel? Enhance Your Book Club
1. Create your own messages and challenges, like the kites Maxine and Ranita make for each other while at Oak Hills. Offer your own questions that you believe will help reveal inner truths, trade them with partners, and respond.
2. Music and dance are refuges for Ranita throughout the novel. Create your own playlists of songs that help you release and offer comfort and share them with the group. If you’re comfortable, try dancing to a few songs and talk about how the music makes you feel.
3. Books are also a refuge for Ranita. What books have brought you joy and helped you through hard times?
4. Being in tune with the ordinary beauty around her and continuing the “free things list” she made with Maxine help sustain Ranita. How do you engage in this kind of practice and how does it make you feel? What would you put on your own free things list?
offers an intimate look into life within prison, including the horrors, the sisterhood, the disruption of families. Discuss the different portrayals you have read and seen about life in prison, and how they compare to the depictions in Pomegranate
. A Conversation with Helen Elaine Lee When did you first find the inspiration for this novel?
I’ve always been compelled by the questions of how people pull light from darkness and how we renew and reinvent ourselves. And in everything I write, I’m exploring remembering, the role of narrative in our lives, and how we keep alive despite deprivation.
My interest in the lives of people who are incarcerated was instilled in me by my father, who was a criminal defense attorney. He taught me that everyone has a complex and important story, that many people grow up without love or opportunity or choices, and that justice is a fiction for some of us. And the people he represented were not invisible to me as I was growing up. Their lives were connected to mine. Because of the urgency of the injustice of mass incarceration, I wanted to write about it. And although a lot has been written about it from an academic distance, fiction has the potential to move readers past fear and indifference to feel the lived and emotional truths of addiction, imprisonment, and recovery.
It’s the role of the fiction writer to imagine lives other than her own. But I count those who have been imprisoned as my people, and I feel a responsibility to use the access and privilege I have had to speak. Still, I have not been incarcerated, and although I didn’t know for a couple of years what shape it would take, I knew I needed to try to “earn” the story I might be able to tell. I began to volunteer, twenty years ago, by leading creative writing workshops for people who were locked up in a county house of correction, and then in a medium-security prison and a prerelease facility through a program I helped to establish with PEN New England.
In those workshops, I was transformed by what people had endured, by the survival of dignity, by the practice of divining what has mattered in our lives. I was moved by the self-interrogation and generosity I witnessed. Writing is an act of recovery and power, and for those writers behind the walls, telling their stories was an assertion of visibility, of meaning, of humanity. And I’m indebted to those participants, and to others whose lives were touched by incarceration, for the stories they shared with me. What else did you draw on to write Pomegranate?
I volunteered, interviewed people who had been incarcerated and their family members and people who had been in community with them. I read and watched films and talked to people and worked with people to try to educate myself about various aspects of the novel. And I drew on the personal. Loved ones pained by addiction and abuse. My own story of mothering, and daughtering, and family. My understanding of the ongoing roles and intersections of race, gender, class, and sexuality in our lives. My experience of queerness and queer communities. What I know about the tensions between fierceness and sensitivity, belonging and marginality, the struggle and recompense of speaking out. I drew on my experience with the mandate to carry on. The healing forces of narrative and nature. The ways in which the present is burdened by the past. Really, it felt like I drew on everything I have been and done, everything in my pomegranate heart, to write this book. Both within the jail and outside of it, Ranita is supported by those in community with her. What is the importance of community in this novel?
Community . . . fellowship . . . solidarity . . . are necessary for overcoming addiction, depression, trauma, the dehumanization and deprivation of incarceration, adversity, and oppression of all kinds. And in the most basic sense, humans need both connection and autonomy. Resistance through collective action, imagination, and expression has been critical to Black survival. By these means we have persevered through enslavement, diaspora, struggles for civil and human rights, racial terrorism, and state violence . . . through the panoply of historic and contemporary injustices. Collective action and solidarity have been critical to struggles for racial, economic, gender, and sexual justice, and intersectional belonging that honors our multiple experiences and identities is also necessary for surviving and thriving.
Ranita is deeply tied to Black people and Black women, through experience and history. She is tied to family, through which the story of who we are is passed, made and remade. None of those things, though, is without complexity. Disabling codes of masculinity and femininity, for example, shape the characters, as do destructive beauty standards. Geneva’s silence about her family history, which constitutes a wounding rupture, is shaped by racism and patriarchy. I wanted to show the power of community, but to get beyond mythologizing cultural inheritance and romanticizing belonging. After all, as Toni Morrison shows us so beautifully in her novels, community is both inclusive and exclusive. It has the power to wound and heal.
Ranita has had a kind of community of women of color at Oak Hills. And she has had a recovery community, though she has some inner conflict about fitting there. She is struggling with where she is welcome and where she belongs in various ways, and especially in terms of faith and organized religion, and in terms of queerness. She is struggling with the degree to which belonging and being loved mean being known. And with the balance between group affiliation and autonomy. By the end of the book, she begins to resolve some of these questions, but they are lifelong efforts for all of us. Flashbacks in the novel reveal important moments of Ranita’s life and offer readers context into how she arrived at her current situation. Why did you choose to structure the book this way?
I came upon the structure, with the help of an editor, as I grappled with how to reveal the aspects of the past that inform Ranita’s struggles with addiction. I tried different strategies and ultimately found that the way the alternation between first-person present tense and third-person past tense allowed us to hear Ranita’s story as she is living it, in her own voice, and also to gain insights into her story that are beyond her understanding, or her memory, or about which she is just coming to awareness. The third-person omniscient narrator gives us pivotal moments in Ranita’s story from her point of view, but also sees more broadly and deeply. Together, they tell a fuller story than either one could alone. The mother-daughter dynamics of this story were fraught and complex. How did you come up with these dynamics?
I think writers are often interested in imagining the things we have not experienced. I had a very warm and loving mother, and we had a close relationship until she died at ninety-four. She was a literature professor . . . a Black woman pioneer . . . and she gave me stories and books to see by. She was there for me always. She helped me raise my son. And she believed in me, as a person and a writer, even when I doubted myself.
So, I sought to imagine what it would be like to have the opposite kind of mother. For Ranita, I was imagining what kinds of wounds are disabling and lead to disempowerment and addiction. Her feeling that her mother has invalidated her emotionally is devastating. And Geneva’s transmission of shame about the body and its appetites has a profound effect. But I also wanted to portray Geneva as complex, in her own right and in terms of how Ranita perceives her. She is a product of her individual and family experience, societal values, and cultural inheritance. Indeed, we often pass down the things that have hurt us.
I wanted to explore how Geneva had been shaped by a racist and misogynist and classist society, looking at the force of respectability politics and the complexities of self-rejection in terms of race and gender and class. There are hints at her own thwarted dreams, her buried trauma, and her misguided efforts to toughen up Ranita, which instead demean and disable her. Black women continue to receive the message, from family and institutions and social context, that we are both too little and too much. And I am familiar with that double bind. Ranita’s experience with therapy allows her to resurface repressed childhood memories. What did you want to show readers about therapy?
Although there has been understandable resistance to psychotherapy among Black people, it is possible to interrogate our stories and make a journey of self-examination, awareness, and healing, with the guidance of a psychotherapist who is trustworthy and compassionate and insightful. I wanted to show that uninterrogated suffering festers and is passed down. And that through being able to speak and feel the things that have been bounded by silence and shame, we are sometimes liberated and able to access and celebrate powerful and generative parts of our lives and ourselves that have felt inaccessible. Maxine often speaks on the justice system and how society works against Black women, exemplified by Ranita’s experience in and outside of jail. How does Blackness permeate Ranita’s experience of finding freedom?
In my experience, the intersecting and interacting forces of race, gender, sexuality, and class do permeate our lives. These forces shape our every experience. I am never unaware of my experience as a Black queer woman who has had educational and economic privilege, but is, in the broader sense, still marginalized and doubted, no matter what threshold I’m crossing. I also feel that as I cross, my people, my ancestors are with me. But I didn’t consciously say to myself, Now I’m going to show how this works
. I just wrote out of what I experience and understand about the world. You seem interested in the role of the body in your characters’ lives. What did you have in mind with this thematic thread?
I wanted to explore how Black women’s bodies are contended territory through which control, personal and societal, is exercised. And I wanted to examine how the struggle between freedom and domination continues to play out through our bodies. How social and cultural conceptions of our bodies shape our experiences. How our bodies cannot be denied. How they keep records of our lives. And how, from enslavement to incarceration, we have had to manage being reduced to bodies, being denied the basic things that bodies need, remaining embodied and insisting on corporeal pleasure and joy, and sometimes psychically leaving behind our bodies, in order to survive.
I wanted to ask how we are shamed and silenced by being looked at, but not seen. How we are shaped by being scrutinized, desired, measured, feared, stereotyped, eroticized, mythologized, reduced. And how we can reclaim our bodies and our vision and our voices. How did you decide that the pomegranate would be such an important item in the novel? Why the pomegranate and not another fruit?
Well, it’s funny, but my first novel also begins with a gift of fruit. In that case an orange, which embodies the duality of sweet and sour, is given at a time of running from family violence and being offered refuge. And somehow, I didn’t realize while writing Pomegranate
that I was articulating the theme of loss and receiving in this way again.
By chance I was offered the pomegranate as a symbol of the precious and rare act of choice during imprisonment, by a friend who was incarcerated. I started off being compelled by that idea, and by the plain exterior of the fruit belying the striking jewels within. As I wrote and rewrote, it gathered meaning and came to resonate in multiple ways over the course of the story. It is the gift given with love and generosity during a time of loss. The possibility of wonder beneath the surface. The unexpected discovery from an unexpected source. It is a mythic symbol of fertility, prosperity, and more in many cultural traditions. In its spongy membrane Ranita sees the seemingly ordinary acts of carrying on that bind our lives and communities together. It is the heart that houses what is precious. The acceptance of our full and complex stories.