Meet Heather Neff
Born in 1957 in Akron, Ohio to an Episcopal clergyman and a music teacher, my childhood was largely defined by my family integrating an all-white suburb of Akron when I was seven years old. As the only black child in my elementary school I was often called upon to “explain” the Civil Rights demonstrations of the era to my teachers and classmates. I quickly gained a strong sense of the racial divisions in American culture, heightened by my parents’ deep commitment to the African American community and their engagement in the Civil Rights struggle.
In 1970 my family moved to Detroit, Michigan. I was graduated from Cass Technical High School in 1975 with a degree in Music. I went on to major in English Literature at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Active both in the emerging discipline of Women’s Studies and in running a film cooperative, I spent many hours watching foreign films and dreaming of visiting the lands I saw on the screen. I was graduated from the University of Michigan with high distinction (high honors) in 1978 and soon moved to Paris, where I studied French at the Sorbonne.
Life in Paris was both fascinating and challenging. While enjoying the countless museums and cultural treasures of the City of Light, I also came into contact with students from the world over. Sharing the immigrant experience with so many other young people provided me with an even wider perspective on race and culture, while gaining a new understanding of my own heritage as an African American.
I made my home in Switzerland from 1983 to 1990. During that period I first studied at the University of Basel, a 600-year old center of learning located on the borders of France and Germany’s Black Forest region. I then studied at the University of Zurich, where in 1987 I took a "License" in English Literature and Linguistics, Comparative Literature and French Linguistics. My master’s thesis was on James Baldwin, whose life and work have been a major inspiration to my writing. In 1990 I was awarded the Doctorate for my dissertation, Redemption Songs: The Voice of Protest in the Poetry of Afro-Americans, a study of verse written by slaves.
While living in Switzerland I worked as a corporate trainer for Swissair, Shell Oil of Switzerland, and Condor Film Studios. I translated a number of film scripts and served as the language coach for the feature film “Quicker Than the Eye,” starring Ben Gazzara. I also had the opportunity to travel to Egypt, Morocco, Greece, and to visit much of western Europe.
Moving to the Caribbean in 1990, I taught English Literature at the University of the Virgin Islands in St. Croix. I came to love the West Indies, and continue to visit Mexico and the Caribbean islands as often as possible.
In 1993 I accepted a position at Eastern Michigan University, where I specialize in the Literatures of the African Diaspora. My academic publications include Redemption Songs (Franke Verlag, 1990), and articles on Women’s studies, film and the recovery of historical texts by African Americans. The recipient of numerous teaching awards, in 2000 I was given Eastern Michigan University’s Distinguished Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching, the university’s highest instructional honor.
Already a published poet, I began my career as a writer of fiction with the publication of Blackgammon in 2000 (One World/Ballentine). A deeply romantic tale of two Black women making their lives in Europe, Blackgammon reflects many of the racial and cultural issues that I experienced while living as a young expatriate in Paris.
Wisdom, a lush romantic thriller set in the Virgin Islands, was published in 2002 (One World/Ballentine). Wisdom tells the tale of an American woman who, while battling ovarian cancer, is drawn to St. Croix to seek out some sense of her family heritage. Once she arrives on the island she is drawn into a web of deadly intrigue initiated by one of her distant ancestors. Wisdom was named an Honor Book by the American Library Association’s Black Caucus.
Accident of Birth (2004, Harlem Moon/Broadway) is a sweeping novel that examines intercultural conflict through the love of an African American woman and a young Liberian student. Exploring many of the political issues that are in the news today, Accident of Birth is a dramatic, sometimes heartbreaking study of a love that endures time, separation and deep moral divisions.
Haarlem, my fourth novel, was published in July, 2005 (Harlem Moon/Broadway). Set in the Netherlands, Haarlem follows the quest of an African American man to hunt down his lost mother while struggling against his addiction to alcohol. The Dutch city of Haarlem has much to teach this man about the importance of family, the strength to overcome the burdens of the past, and his own ability to give and receive love.
At present I divide my time between numerous speaking engagements, my teaching responsibilities, and the pleasure I receive from writing. I live in Michigan with my husband of twenty years, my thirteen year old daughter and our calico cat, Amber.