Monday, August 14, 2023

Pomegranate by Helen Elaine Lee

We are told not to judge a book by its, cover, but I invite you to judge this book by its delicious cover, the content as rich and colorful as its cover. Pomegranate, by Helen Elaine Lee, is deeply insightful, sad and transformative.

The book begins and ends with the same refrain:
I live my life forward and backward.
Seems like my body remembers what I can’t afford to forget

Here I am alive and awake. Still going forward and backward. And brave enough to tell about it.
Ranita Atwater is finishing up a four year term at Oak Hills Correctional Center, about to be set free and determined to win back the parental rights that have been stripped from her.
I stand up, like I’m told. And as I approach the gates, the CO who’s opening them up gives me a last bit of scorn: “ Hasta luego; see you back here soon.” I throw some shade his way and walk through. And here it is, what I’ve been wanting and fearing. Freedom.
The novel goes forward and backward: forward to her struggle to remain clean and sober, to convince the courts that she is fit to visit her two children and eventually perhaps even to win back the right to raise them. And backwards to the four years of imprisonment and the events that led up to it.

Without looking for it, and surprised at finding it, Ranita (Nita) finds her first real love in prison. Maxine, politically astute and living through the lens of politics 24/7, is the first person to love Nita for who she is and not simply for what she can give.

The few visits she gets from her kids and her daddy are both treasured and feared.
Jesus. Struggling to get my balance in this present-past jumble. I’m just praying not everything my kids remember is bad. Reaching for the safety of low expectations, I own that nothing good will come of this. They’ll look right through me. I’ll say something stupid, something wrong. I’ll find nothing at all to say.
Amara, 13, and Theo, are nearly as anxious on these visits and in the early home visits once she is free, as Ranita is.
They listened for their names. Visualized their people coming through the trap. Bargained with their higher powers, Today, God willing, they would get a visit.

If they heard their names, they answered with relief and often tears. If they didn’t, there was another absence to add to all the others, as they receded further and further from the free world.
Ranita is lucky in some ways, she had a father who loved her and stood by her until he died during her last years of imprisonment. She had two aunties who had taken in her children, and were now charged with determining if Ranita was fit even to see her children, let alone live with them. And her mandated psychotherapist with immense power in the process of determining her fitness to parent turns out to be a good man and one who understands her on many levels, including her addictions.

Ranita learns to see the world politicly via her friend cum lover, Maxine who urges Ranita not to frequent the prison canteen, spending her pitiful earnings on sweets.
Everyone had to find a way to do their time, and the lens of politics was part of Maxine’s. She had no choice but seeing, and speaking what she saw.

“Seriously, Ranita” Maxine said “think about all the products we make inside ... electronic cables and T-shirts, mattresses and flags. American flags, if you can believe the grotesque irony of that. Locked up all the Black folks and then make us produce flags for the country that’s been demeaning and exploiting us since they captured and enslaved us ... after they’ve kept us from voting and owning anything, trapped us in city food deserts next to toxic waste, with shitty schools and shitty jobs and shitty food and shitty places to live ... no access, no exit ... policing every breath we take ... feeding us menthol cigarettes and drugs and blocking us from health care ... and pitted us against each other and against the folks who should be allies, hoping we’ll kill each other off ....”
Author Lee attended Harvard Law School and has been associated with dozens of prison groups and prison creative writing programs. She writes with such heart and such clarity of vision.
My dad, he’s spirit now. Gone and not gone. And that pomegranate he gifted me with, it’s got a whole other meaning.
I try and see myself as filled with ruby seeds. Everything I’ve lived, the things I’ve been and done…what’s done to me…and for me. The all of it, it’s in me.

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