Author, professor, community activist and mother, Heather Neff lives and writes in the charming, semi-rural community of Ypsilanti, Michigan. An avid painter, cyclist and sportswalker, Neff loves to read all kinds of literature, travel throughout the world and engage in conversation with everyone she meets. She finds inspiration for her writing from music (particularly Pat Metheny, Debussy and Brahms), art and her wonderful students.
Born in 1957 in Akron, Ohio to an Episcopal clergyman and a classical pianist, Neff’s childhood was largely defined by her family integrating an all-white suburb of Akron in 1964, when she was seven years old. As the only black child in her elementary school she was often placed in the challenging situation of “explaining” the Civil Rights demonstrations of the era to her teachers and classmates. She quickly gained a strong sense of the racial divisions in American culture, heightened by her parents’ deep commitment to the African American community and their engagement in the Civil Rights struggle.
In 1970 Neff’s family moved to Detroit, Michigan. She graduated from Cass Technical High School in 1975, where she concentrated in Music. Neff 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, she spent many hours watching foreign films and dreaming of visiting the lands she saw on the screen. She graduated from Michigan with high distinction (magna cum laude) in 1978 and soon moved to Paris, where she studied French at the Sorbonne.
Life in Paris was both fascinating and educational. While enjoying the countless museums and cultural treasures of the City of Light, Neff also came into contact with students from the world over. Sharing the immigrant experience with so many other young people provided her with an even wider perspective on race and culture, while gaining a new understanding of her own heritage as an African American.
Neff made her home in Switzerland from 1983 to 1990. During that period she first studied at the University of Basel, a beautiful 600-year old center of learning located on the borders of France and Germany’s Black Forest. She then studied at the University of Zurich, where in 1987 she took a “License” in English Literature and Linguistics, Comparative Literature and French Linguistics. Neff’s master’s thesis was on James Baldwin, whose life and work have been a major inspiration to her writing. In 1990 she was awarded the Doctorate for her dissertation, “Redemption Songs: The Voice of Protest in the Poetry of Afro-Americans,” a study of verse written by American slaves.
While living in Switzerland Neff worked as a corporate trainer for Swissair, Shell Oil of Switzerland, and Condor Film Studios. She translated a number of film scripts and served as the language coach for the feature film “Quicker Than the Eye,” starring Ben Gazzara. Neff also had the opportunity to travel to Egypt, Morocco, Greece, and to visit much of western Europe.
Moving to the Caribbean in 1990, Neff taught English Literature at the University of the Virgin Islands and St. Joseph’s High School in St. Croix. She came to love the West Indies, and continues to visit Mexico and the Caribbean islands as often as possible.
In 1993 Neff accepted a position at Eastern Michigan University, where she specializes in African American Literature. Her academic publications include “Redemption Songs” (Franke Verlag, Swiss Studies in English Series, 1990), and articles on Women’s Studies, film and the recovery of historical texts by African Americans.
The recipient of numerous teaching awards, in 2001 Neff received Eastern Michigan University’s Distinguished Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching, the university’s highest instructional honor. In 2007 she was awarded the EMU Alumni Association Teaching Excellence Award. The same year she was named a Michigan Distinguished Professor by the Presidents Council.
Neff teaches a study abroad course in France called “American Writers in Paris.” The class examines works by Americans who spent at least a year living and writing in Paris during the twentieth century. The authors include Ernest Hemingway, Josephine Baker, Langston Hughes, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, Richard Wright and James Baldwin. While in Paris the class visits the great museums and cultural sites of the city, tastes the wonderful world cuisines and relaxes in the beautiful gardens. Neff enjoys returning to the city where her travels began, and sharing her experiences in Paris with others.
In 2007 Neff was honored with the Michigan Distinguished Professor Award by the Presidents Council of the Michigan Public Universities. This “lifetime achievement award” motivates her to continue to write and to teach with even more enthusiasm than ever. Neff even appeared on behalf of Eastern Michigan University on a billboard!
At present Neff is serving as the Director of the McNair Scholars Program at Eastern Michigan University. The McNair Program, named for the late astronaut Ronald McNair, assists students from low-income and under-represented minority groups gain admission to doctoral programs. When taking time out from her teaching and mentoring responsibilities, Neff divides her time between numerous speaking engagements and her writing projects.
Already a published poet, Neff began her career as a writer of fiction with the publication of “Blackgammon” in 2000 (One World/Ballantine). A deeply romantic tale of two Black women making their lives in Europe, “Blackgammon” reflects many of the racial and cultural issues Neff experienced while living as a young expatriate in Paris. Both Chloe, a gifted artist, and Michael, her passionately intellectual younger friend, find themselves bound to men whom they are afraid to love, while being drawn to men who are unable to love them. Over twenty-five years of kinship, Chloe and Michael struggle to honor their vow to be “strong black women, to be successful, and to never let a man turn them away from their dreams…”
“Wisdom,” a lush romantic thriller set in the Virgin Islands, was published in 2002 (One World/Ballantine). “Wisdom” tells the tale of an American woman who, while battling ovarian cancer, journeys to St. Croix to seek out some sense of her family heritage. Soon she becomes entangled in a web of deadly intrigue as she discovers her ties to the island’s most valuable estate…while finding herself torn between two powerful men. “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. “Accident of Birth” is taught in university classrooms throughout the country.
“Haarlem,” Neff’s 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. A powerful novel about the challenges of recovery, “Haarlem” is written in twelve chapters, each representing one step in “twelve-step” recovery programs.
“Leila: The Weighted Silence of Memory” considers the issue of modern-day human trafficking through the story of a twelve-year old child sold into servitude by her father. Raised in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, Leila experiences years of physical, emotional and sexual abuse before meeting two women who encourage her to take her freedom. A tale of hope, self-love and great human courage, “Leila: The Weighted Silence of Memory” is a moving work of both sadness and honesty.
To read more about these books, including reviews and interviews with the author, simply click on the book covers on the top right corner of this page.
Named one of “Ten Things at Eastern Michigan University Worth Bragging About.” In the Winter 2010 edition of Eastern Magazine, Heather Neff is described as “the face of EMU…Dr. Neff is more than just another pretty face. She’s a popular professor and an established author, and has enough awards–including the Michigan Distinguished Professor Award–to fill one of the lecture halls she teaches in.”
2012 Eastern Michigan University Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Honored Professor.
2012 Most Valuable Professor, EMU Women and Men’s Basketball.
2011 W.E.B. Du Bois Award, Eastern Michigan University N.A.A.C.P.
2011 Appreciation Award, Eastern Michigan University Student Government.
2011 Teaching Excellence Award, Eastern Michigan University Division of Academic Affairs.
2011 Most Valuable Professor, Eastern Michigan University Women’s Basketball.
2010 Faculty Excellence Award, Eastern Michigan University Division of Student Services.
2010 Award for Classroom Instruction, Holman Success Center, Eastern Michigan University.
2008 Eastern Michigan University Iota Phi Theta, Strong Black Woman Award.
2008 NAACP Image Award for Teaching Excellence, Eastern Michigan University (EMU)
2007 Michigan Distinguished Professor Award, Presidents’ Council
2007 Teaching Excellence Award, Eastern Michigan University Alumni Association.
2005 Outstanding Faculty in the Classroom Award for Service Beyond the Call of Duty, Holman Learning Center, Eastern Michigan University.
2004 Outstanding Faculty in the Classroom Award, Holman Learning Center.
2003 Fulbright Research/Teaching Award. “The Chattel Becomes A Man: The Irish Influence on African American Abolitionism” (declined)
2003 Faculty Appreciation Award, Division of Student Affairs, EMU
2003 Honored Faculty Award, Dept. of Intercollegiate Athletics, EMU
2003 Faculty Service Award, EMU
2003 Gold Medallion Award, EMU 2003 Delta Kappa Gamma International Society
2003 Black Caucus of the American Library Association Fiction Honor Book Award
2001 Distinguished Faculty Award For Excellence in Teaching II, EMU
2001 Best Friend of Girl Scouting Award, Huron Valley Girl Scout Council
2001 Spring – Summer Research Award, EMU
2000 Faculty Appreciation Award, Division of Student Affairs, EMU
1999 Sabbatical Leave, EMU
1999 National Science Foundation Grant : “Transactional Writing: Empowering Women and Girls to Win at Mathematics”
1999 Faculty of the Year : EMU’s African American Future Teachers Association
1997 Induction into the Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society
1997 Faculty of the Year Award: EMU Panhellenic Students Organization
1997 Special Services Coordinator, National Conference of Teachers of English Convention
1996 EMU World College Travel Grant
1995 National Endowment for the Humanities Focus Grant, “Connections and Collisions: English Literature from Beowulf to Shakespeare and African-American Literature from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present”
1994 National Endowment for the Humanities Seminar: “Literature of the Civil Rights Era”
University of California Los Angeles; Eric Sundquist, Director
1993 Provost’s Research Award for New Faculty, Eastern Michigan University
Project title: “Gaining Power Through Knowledge: Rediscovering G. Ellis Harris’ North Carolina Constitutional Reader”
1991 National Endowment for the Humanities Seminar: “The Craft of French Verse: Hugo, Verlaine and Mallarmé.” Wayne State University, Detroit. Director: Richard Vernier