September is National Recovery Month, when harm reductionists, health departments, organizers, and everyone in between host programming dedicated to sharing stories, life-saving information, and other substance use and recovery knowledge. 

In anticipation of this year’s National Recovery Month, I took time to read Helen Elaine Lee’s latest novel, “Pomegranate.” The novel is a refreshing story of reunion, introspection, and love, with heartwarming nods to Baltimore, the Chesapeake region at large, and African traditional religions. 

The novel centers on the life and recovery journey of Ranita Atwater. As a protagonist, Ranita is a dynamic and vulnerable character that Lee uses to showcase the imperfect, worthwhile life of a Black woman trying her best after captivity. The novel begins in media res as the main character returns home from incarceration at a fictional prison named Oak Hills and grapples with the stakes of “freedom” post-release. Ranita’s journey throughout the novel is full of grief, sorrow, and love as Lee writes a fictional tale tethered to the actual violence of a police state.

There is much debate in contemporary publishing about content warnings, trigger warnings, and the work a writer must do to care for their audience’s emotional well-being. Lee is a writer with experience teaching in and out of prisons. She brings the visual imagery of captivity and the emotional resonance of those deemed captive to her work in the novel. 

A colorful book cover featuring an illustration of a pomegranate.
Cover of Pomegranate: A Novel By Helen Elaine Lee. Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

Simply put, survivors of interpersonal and state-sanctioned violence should tread carefully when reading “Pomegranate.” This work, though fiction, is abundant with the same gut-wrenching consequences that are frequently brought against people in real life. Ranita is surviving many acts of violence at once, and her recovery from opioid addiction is one of many burdens she must bear.

Lee’s writing guides her readers through the past and the present while the plot moves around the imposed question of Ranita’s sobriety. While she struggles with self-reflection, understanding how the world has moved on, and worrying about her children, Amara and Theo, institutions and individuals focus their attention on her near-constant surveillance. Lee invites readers into the conflict of a woman trying to regain trust while under the watchful eye of the state.

Readers with an interest in harm reduction will appreciate moments in the novel where Lee, via Ranita, challenges common beliefs about addiction and those who use substances. The author avoids the mundane and stereotypical descriptions of addiction. Instead, she uses her unique narrative structure to show her audience the negligent conditions and emotional neglect that inform Ranita’s life choices (including her drug use). Ultimately, Lee’s novel features characters and conflicts that highlight how reductive approaches to court-mandated sobriety can be for community members returning home from incarceration.

The cast of characters in “Pomegranate” invite readers into a world of depth and conflict. The Atwater family is not a stoic caricature or flattened trope. Each member is written with detail and attention reminiscent of families from twentieth-century works like “Sula” and “Song of Solomon” by Toni Morrison, or “The Women of Brewster Place” by Gloria Naylor. 

Each character is making meaning out of their life and trying to understand their relationship with Ranita. Lee’s addition of this fuller cast of characters through the family model allows readers who may have experienced a family member’s re-entry into society to read about a relatable experience with less shame and ostracism. 

One of the most enjoyable parts of “Pomegranate” is Lee’s commitment to intertextuality, which means that as an author, she is committed to showing the relationship between this novel and other works of literature and music. Frequent lines of prose and dialogue directly name other works or allude to characters in other art pieces. 

These nods to other novelists and musicians add depth and breadth to Ranita’s fictional world. Moreover, the intertextuality deepens the parallel between the fictional world Lee builds and our own. She is reminding us that the world she is writing mirrors our own. The violence – emotional, sexual, physical, and psychological – that Ranita endures is present in our world. Real people, children and adults, endure this violence each moment of every day. 

In addition to the book’s intertextuality, I enjoyed reading this novel because of the intimate relationship Ranita builds with other characters. Her life is not peachy nor picture perfect, and yet she finds time to connect deeply with loved ones who refuse to abandon her or let her abandon her own capacity for compassion, kindness, and grace. Ranita is not left alone to wallow in despair or anguish. There were deeply sorrowful scenes in the novel, but there were also moments that made me kick my feet giddily. Ranita’s relationship with her biological family and chosen loved ones are both beautifully written and familiar. 

One of the most lovely relationships to read in “Pomegranate” was the romantic relationship between Ranita and Maxine, another woman incarcerated at Oak Hills. (Spoiler: these two are going to put every other fictional book romance you read this year to shame!) 

There’s desire, affection, intention, and consideration all in one as they challenge the notion that love is impossible for those condemned by the state. Max is written as a Baltimore-born and bred lover with a steadfast dedication to community. She is heartwarming and lovely. Over the course of the novel, readers are invited into an intimate inner world of Ranita and Maxine’s own making. They explore each other, and along the way, we learn about conjure, Chesapeake herbalism, and African tradition religions that are not frequently featured in contemporary fiction. 

In the end, Lee follows in the Black literary tradition of Zora Neale Hurston, Naylor, and others when crafting Max as a dedicated lover who supports our beloved protagonist through the trials and tribulations of her journey. She finds a great home next to Tea Cake from Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and George from Naylor’s Mama Day. 

If you are new to National Recovery Month, “Pomegranate” is a great fiction read to complement other materials. I would recommend reading Lee’s latest novel in combination with reading more about harm reduction in your local community. Here are some suggestions for extending your reading with some practical application: take time to learn about Narcan trainings in your area, check out the availability of fentanyl test strips, or talk to your friends about substance use and misuse beyond stigma. 

You may even find some harm reduction goodies, like Narcan, at the top of your neighborhood Beat Box courtesy of Baltimore Harm Reduction and other community groups. Narcan is a nasal spray that works to reverse the impact of an opiate overdose on an individual and restore their breathing.