On September 21 in Kemper Auditorium, Mira T. Lee read and shared thoughts about her new novel, “Everything Here Is Beautiful.” Lee was invited by Saffron Agrawal ’21 to campus as the inaugural speaker of the newly formed Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Committee, which will invite a series of authors to campus throughout this year. The committee is named after author and feminist Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Abbot Academy Class of 1858.
The evening began with a reading of Lee’s prologue and a chapter of her novel, along with some words regarding the writing process, plot, and themes. Following her talk, Agrawal interviewed Lee one-on-one, and the audience subsequently engaged in a Q&A session.
The novel “Everything Here is Beautiful” follows the experiences of two sisters throughout their lives and focuses on themes of sisterhood, mental illness, and immigration.
“I describe it as a very messy family drama — a cross-cultural family drama — and it’s about two sisters and how their lifelong bond is put to the test as the younger one Lucia struggles with a difficult mental illness. And it’s also how her older sister Miranda has to figure out for herself how much she’s willing to sacrifice in order to help Lucia live her life,” said Lee.
Lee continued, “Mostly, I think it explores the complexities of trying to love someone, and what happens when someone you love is in a difficult place but not getting the help you need, and how tricky it can be to actually help that person in a way that’s good for them and also good for you.”
Agrawal initially saw “Everything Here Is Beautiful” in a bookstore in the bestsellers section. After reading the novel and realizing that Lee lived in Cambridge, Mass., Agrawal reached out to her about visiting Andover.
“I said that I was thinking of starting this series, and it would mean a lot for us to come to Andover, and I had to tell her that we couldn’t provide her with an honorarium [payment], which was kind of the hard part, but she was totally amendable. She just said that she would drive over; she’d be happy to talk. And so that got me really excited, and then I thought that I could find more people in the area that might be interested in speaking,” said Agrawal.
Agrawal said that immigration is a prevalent theme in “Everything Here is Beautiful,” in which the characters, who are Chinese, live in Ecuador, Switzerland, and New York. Agrawal said that the topic is especially important in America’s current state, and she loved how Lee connected her book to this issue.
According to Agrawal, mental illness is an equally important theme in the novel.
“At Andover, mental illness is such a common topic that we’re all discussing, and the way that not only Ms. Lee talks about Lucia, the character who has schizophrenia, but also the people who have to take care of her and her loved ones is really interesting because it’s especially important to not just think about the person who is struggling and their experience, but kind of how it impacts everyone else,” said Agrawal.
Before attempting her first novel, Lee wrote short stories. Her educational background, however, is in science. She mentioned that although she predicted that she would pursue a career in the STEM field with a degree in biology, she always had a love for writing.
“My dad was a physicist, and so I was pushed in that direction. So when I went to college, I had this idea that I was going to be a science person or a computer person or something, but I think I always had this thing inside of me. I went to graduate school — I was in a Ph.D. program for biology, and I ended up dropping out, and that was a big turning point thinking that I could do something other than science,” said Lee in her presentation.
An essential component of the book, according to Lee, was portraying groups of people not solely in the context of their differences, but as people simply going about their days. She aimed to create a story that included diverse characters but would not be solely focused on their race or their culture.
In her presentation, Lee said, “When I was younger growing up, I felt like Asian-Americans were supposed to follow this particular trajectory and we were supposed to stick to this script. Even in writing, I felt like for a long time, Asian-American writers wrote about certain things and told certain kinds of stories… I felt like those were the stories that were acceptable to tell. But my story is not about those things.”
Both Lee and Agrawal agree that it is necessary for a multitude of perspectives to be represented in literature — specifically those of women of color.
Agrawal said, “I just really love the idea of hearing from a woman of color who has just published her debut novel, and it’s so successful, and so just hearing her story and kind of having that inspiration, I think is really important… Also, the book is really amazing. I hope it motivates more people to read it and support her and other authors in the industry.”
Agrawal has arranged for Lois Lowry, author of John Newbery Medal winning novels “Number the Stars” and “The Giver,” to visit campus on November 2 as the next speaker in the Elizabeth Stuart Phelps series.