Reflections on a life in nursing from the former dean of the Connell School.
Right as Rain
BC alum Asha Lemmie is taking a fresh approach to historical fiction.
Asha Lemmie ’15 was a high school student in Washington, D.C., when she began writing an epic tale of an African-American/Japanese girl born illegitimately into a royal family in the 1940s. Lemmie’s debut novel, Fifty Words for Rain, was published last fall, and her high school prose, virtually unaltered, serves as the book’s opening chapters. The public response was swift and effusive: Good Morning America selected Fifty Words as its September book club pick and a New York Times reviewer described inhaling all 452 pages in a single day. By the end of the month, the book was on bestseller lists near and far. "It’s been extremely surreal," said Lemmie, who was 26 when the book came out. "My life has just totally transformed."
Fifty Words for Rain is a historical coming-of-age novel that follows Nori, a young girl abandoned by her mother who struggles to find her place in postwar Japan. The book deals frankly with themes of race and identity—the opening scene describes a maid attempting to lighten Nori’s almond-colored skin with chemicals—and the price of being an outsider. At turns sequestered in an attic, sold to a brothel, and resigned to a life of exile, Nori is shunned by society. "Historical fiction is usually very European focused,” Lemmie said. “I wanted to highlight a different perspective."
Growing up in Maryland, Lemmie was a self-described "weird, socially isolated child" who started reading at the age of 2 and spent most weekends at the local library. One of her closest relationships was with her godmother, who is Japanese, and Lemmie traveled to the country to visit, eventually learning the language. As she got older, she found that being a woman of color with a passion for Japanese culture wasn’t always socially acceptable. 'When you deviate too far from preset stereotypes, people will push back against that," Lemmie said. "I got made fun of a lot."
After graduating from BC in 2015 with a degree in English, Lemmie moved to New York and resumed work on Fifty Words for Rain while pursuing a career in publishing. She finished a year later and began shopping the draft to literary agencies, but struggled to be taken seriously as a young, first-time author. "It was like, 'Oh, that’s so cute that you want to write a book, come back in a few years when you have something important to say,'" she recalled. She finally secured an agent in 2019, and Fifty Words sold at auction two months later for more than $250,000. "After that, my life completely changed," Lemmie said. "People still look at my age and think that I was some sort of overnight success, but it wasn’t like that at all. I took my knocks. It was a journey."
Due to the pandemic, the majority of Lemmie’s interactions with readers have taken place online, and messages have poured in from fans celebrating the book’s nontraditional characters and praising Lemmie’s thorough research. Still, she’s also received notes complaining about "unrealistic" details or comparing the novel to a "soap opera." She takes issue with the latter. "When men write things that are dramatic," she said, "they’re usually called tragedies. My life as a writer would be easier if I had an interest in writing more conventional stories and taking fewer risks. Sadly, I don’t."
In March, sales of Fifty Words surpassed 100,000, excluding library purchases, with the paperback version due out this month. When we chatted, Lemmie was holed up at a relative’s home in Virginia, hard at work on her second book, Hemingway’s Daughter. Her new heroine, Delphine, is morally flawed in a way that Nori is not, but the book explores some of the same topics as her first: family dysfunction and politics, self-love, and identity. Unlike her last project, though, this one has a deadline and an eager fan base urging her along. In some ways, Lemmie’s success has become the source of pressure she never anticipated.
"I mean, where do you go from there?" she said with a laugh. "Sometimes I sit down to write and I’m like, 'Wow, how did I ever do this?'" ◽