In her new novel, “Red Island House,” Andrea Lee joins together short stories of one family’s life in Madagascar over 20 years to reveal what can happen when cultures clash. Lee is the author of five books, including the memoir “Russian Journal” (a National Book Award finalist) and the novel “Lost Hearts in Italy.” She is a former staff writer for The New Yorker, where her short stories appear regularly. Lee has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Harvard University, and has lived in Italy since 1992.
BOOKS: What are you reading currently?
LEE: I’m writing a memoir about my childhood in this Black suburb in Philadelphia so I’m reading lots of memoirs. I like fiction better but I’ve been having so much fun with memoirs. I just finished Sherry Turkle’s “The Empathy Diaries.” I found myself absolutely enthralled by this book though I typically would never be interested in the world of science. Before that I read “The Copenhagen Trilogy” by Tove Ditlevsen. She was from a poor background and became one of Denmark’s most famous authors. I also reread a lifelong favorite, Natalia Ginzburg’s “Family Lexicon,” and went back to Pauli Murray’s “Proud Shoes.” She was a Black activist in the ’30s who wrote about her family in the South. I first read the book when I was little and didn’t understand half of it but have kept returning to it.
BOOKS: What have you been reading for fiction?
LEE: During the pandemic I’ve been reading old favorites. I love Tolstoy and reread “War and Peace.” I reread all of Jane Austen. Then I read my all-time favorite novel, Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” In terms of the comfort reading there is nothing like that. My children always tease me about that and say they will play scenes from the movie at my funeral. I also read Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s “The Leopard,” a deep and beautiful Sicilian novel. My husband is half Sicilian, so we get a lot of Sicilian culture in our household. However, I tend to read more short stories than novels.
BOOKS: What have you been reading for short stories?
LEE: One of my favorite collections is “A Sportsman’s Sketches” by Ivan Turgenev. These stories are about a man walking around with his dog in the Russian countryside. He’s happening on these miraculous vignettes of life. It’s a portrait of what country life was like before the Russian Revolution. I like short stories that stand alone but join up.
BOOKS: What did you read for your novel that you would recommend?
LEE: I read slave traders’ journals and missionaries’ diaries and a lot of Malagasy fiction translated into French. Madagascar is a very literary country. There is one book from there that has been published in English, “Beyond the Rice Fields” by Naivo. It’s a beautiful book. “A General History of the Pyrates,” published in 1724 by Captain Charles Johnson, was a lot of fun to read. You can find it online. It’s a book about famous pirates from around the world. So many of them spent a lot of time in Madagascar.
BOOKS: How much of your reading is in English?
LEE: About all of it. I speak French and Italian, but it’s bad to read too much in those languages. Before I moved to Italy, I had an editor who said I was going to become one of those writers who forgets how to write in English in Italy. I protect my writing by reading in English.
BOOKS: What is your ideal setting for reading?
LEE: When I was a little girl I used to lie on this creaky, old couch on our sun porch, sipping something delicious, like an ice cream soda, and read all afternoon. It was paradise. In Italy, a great place to read is in the cafes. You have all these people around you so you don’t feel alone but they don’t bother you. That’s another kind of paradise. The cafes are closed again, which is pitiful. I’m desperately looking forward to being able to read in a cafe again. I’m also looking forward to reading on a plane, on a plane flying home.