Heather Neff

A photo of Heather Neff


English Language and Literature

1011 Hoyt


[email protected]


  • Ph.D., University of Zurich, English Language and Literature
  • MA, University of Zurich, English Language and Literature, Comparative Literature and French Linguistics
  • BA, University of Michigan, English Literature

Interests and Expertise

I've been a professor at EMU since 1993, when I arrived from Switzerland to teach courses in African American Literature. My other areas of specialization include women's studies and poetry. As a published novelist and poet, I am also interested in all kinds of creative writing.

I teach a number of courses, including African American literature, women in literature, studies in poetry and major authors. I also created the study abroad course "American Writers in Paris," which allows students the opportunity to read the works of American authors who lived in Paris, while visiting the sites important to their work.

The proud recipient of numerous teaching awards, in 2000 I received Eastern Michigan University's Distinguished Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching, the university's highest instructional honor. In 2004 I received the Holman Learning Center's award for Outstanding Classroom Instruction and in 2005 I was honored with the Outstanding Faculty Award for dedication and service beyond the call of duty. In 2007 I was honored to receive the EMU Alumni Association's Teaching Excellence Award and the Presidents' Council 2007 Michigan Distinguished Faculty Award.

Born in 1957 in Akron, Ohio to an Episcopal clergyman and a music teacher, 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. 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.

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. After returning briefly to Switzerland, in 1993 I accepted a position at Eastern Michigan University, where I teach, advise students and participate in many campus activities. 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.

Already a published poet, I began my career as a writer of fiction with the publication of Blackgammon in 2000 (One World/Random House). 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/Random House). 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/Doubleday) 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. Accident of Birth is also available as an audiobook.

Haarlem, my fourth novel, was published in July, 2005 (Harlem Moon/Doubleday). 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.

Leila: The Weighted Silence of Memory was published in 2009 by Booksurge. This novel tells the story of Leila, a 12 year old Moroccan girl who is sold into slavery by her father. Struggling to survive years of physical, sexual and emotional abuse, Leila's life is changed when she meets two sisters who give her the courage to escape. A modern-day slave narrative, Leila addresses one of the world's most important and under-reported human rights issues.

Leila II: The Moods of the Sea, finds Leila three years later, still a fugitive from the man who held her captive. Though deeply haunted by her past and her fear of recapture, her hard work has brought fortune to the family that shelters her. After a terrible coincidence delivers her into the hands of her traffickers, Leila suffers a vicious assault that leaves her body broken. Now she must fight for herself, her future and for everyone and everything she has come to care for. A tale of human trafficking, Leila's story illuminates the plight of more than twelve million victims of modern-day slavery.

At present, I serve as the director of the Eastern Michigan University McNair Scholars Program, which assists academically talented first-generation students in gaining admission to doctoral programs. I divide my free time between numerous speaking engagements, my teaching responsibilities and the pleasure I receive from writing. I have served on numerous community organizations, including the boards of the Ann Arbor Book Festival, the Ypsilanti Youth Orchestra, the Riverside Arts Center and the H.I. Mayson Scholarship Fund. To learn more about my writing, please visit my website.


  • African American Literature
  • African American Literature: Honors
  • African American Literature Since 1945 / graduate
  • America in the Global Society: Honors
  • American Writers in Paris
  • Daughters of the Diaspora: Writing by Women of African, Caribbean, and African American Descent
  • Introduction to African American Literature: Honors
  • Literature of the Civil Rights Movement
  • Major Authors
  • Studies in Poetry
  • Women in Literature

Publications and Presentations

  • Leila II: The Moods of the Sea, a novel. Booksurge, 2014.
  • Leila:The Weighted Silence of Memory, a novel. Booksurge, 2009.
  • Haarlem, a novel. Harlem Moon / Doubleday, 2005.
  • Accident of Birth, a novel. Harlem Moon / Doubleday, 2004.
  • Blackgammon, a novel. One World / Ballantine, 2002.
  • Wisdom, a novel. One World / Ballantine, 2000.
Short Stories and Poetry
  • “Kodai Con”, UnSquared, 2006.
  • Collage FourThe Poets of St. Croix . St. Croix: Antilles Press, 1997.
  • Collage Three: The Poets of St. Croix. St. Croix: Antilles Press, 1993.
Journal Articles
  • "Subjunctives, Declensions and Other Forms of Terror: How I Learned to Love Languages and Gained a Passport to the World." The Michigan World Language Association Newsletter, March 2005.
  • "Decoding Mixed Signals: Surviving the Demise of Affirmative Action." U.S. Dept. of Education Office of Research and Improvement and the Educational Resources Information Center, 1999.
  • "Heritage, Heresy and Relevance: Recontextualizing the Canon." Michigan College English Association. October, 1996.
  • "Strange Face in the Mirror: The Ethics of Cultural Diversity in Children's Film." The Lion and the Unicorn. June, 1996.
  • "Now That I Am Forever With Child: The Development of Woman's Self in the Works of Audre Lorde." SAGE: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women, 1996.
  • "The Book and the Ballot: Rediscovering the North Carolina Constitutional Reader," The Michigan Academician, 26, March, 1995.