From a Teacher Who Writes to a Writer Who Teaches
Kionna Walker LeMalle Wins Lee Smith Novel Prize
By Marie Jacinto
A passion for storytelling since childhood coupled with a devastating personal loss brought on by Hurricane Katrina helped propel UHD staffer Kionna Walker LeMalle in the writing of “Behind the Waterline.” Her debut novel will be published in 2024, thanks to the Lee Smith Novel Prize LeMalle received through Blair Publisher. The nonprofit press based in Durham, North Carolina, is dedicated to publishing 10 to 12 books per year of quality writing, representing the many voices of the South while focusing on authors and subjects historically neglected by mainstream publishers.
“And to think I almost didn’t enter this contest and nearly missed the deadline,” said LeMalle. “A friend of mine, Victoria McCrary (also a writer), insisted I submit.”
An Academic Path
LeMalle joined UHD in February 2023, and her journey to working as the Assistant Director, Executive Communications, in the Office of the President is a tale of scholarship, teaching, and writing.
A New Orleans native, LeMalle taught in NOLA public schools after earning her Bachelor of Arts in Education from Xavier University of Louisiana, followed by her Master of Education at the University of New Orleans.
“I was a ‘closet writer’ when Katrina hit in 2005,” said LeMalle. “I literally had a closet full of writing, mainly poetry and short stories, and I lost almost everything when our house flooded to the ceilings—except for my novel ‘Roll Call’ and several poems saved on floppy disks. The loss was devastating. I rushed into self-publishing my first novel to cope with that tragedy. I was afraid if I didn’t publish it, I would lose it. Looking back, I don’t think I should have published it—not at that time, anyway. I still had too much left to learn.”
Leaving New Orleans behind, she, her husband, and four children moved to Central Louisiana (CENLA) where she trained teachers for eight years as an Assistant Professor of Education at LSU Alexandria. During that time, she pursued her Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, published creative and scholarly work, and secured tenure in LSU Alexandria’s Department of Education.
Gone to Texas
When her husband received a position with Champion Forest Baptist Church, the family moved to Houston, and LeMalle continued “writing in the fringes” while working full-time as the Klein ISD Program Coordinator for High School English. In 2019, she recalls, “I decided to get my MFA at Houston Christian University and submitted seven flash fiction stories as part of my portfolio.” Reflecting on her first one-week intensive, she recalls the encounter that set her on an award-winning path. “I met with bestselling author Bret Lott, and he read my portfolio,” shares LeMalle. “He was the one who said this is a novel waiting to be written—the story is vast enough to be novel material—and encouraged me to write the book. I am thankful for that moment because I’d still be trying to write those short stories! Hurricane Katrina wasn’t in the original idea, but it made its way into the novel because I still had a lot of healing to do—more healing than I realized.”
About ‘Behind the Waterline’
“This novel came out of thinking about my great-grandmother and the family secrets she wouldn’t talk about, especially her personal struggles, her unique motherhood, and the fight for civil rights. Thoughts about the impact of intergenerational secrecy morphed into a story about a grandmother and her grandson,” said LeMalle. Her great-grandmother was Houston’s famed civil rights activist Beatrice Lehman Green. “Pondering the stories she refused to share inspired me to create Ruth Calhoun and write ‘Behind the Waterline.’”
LeMalle’s manuscript was selected by contest judge Deesha Philyaw (“The Secret Lives of Church Ladies”) from more than 500 novel submissions. Of the winning manuscript, Philyaw said, “‘Behind the Waterline’ revisits two traumatic chapters in U.S. history, decades apart, but inextricably linked to the fate of one unforgettable young narrator. Catastrophes—natural, political, and familial—collide in this deeply moving, inventive, and surprising page-turner.”
“‘Behind the Waterline’ tells the story of a teenager, Eric, and his eccentric grandmother, who decide to ride out Katrina together in his second-floor bedroom. Eric—in a dream, a hallucination, or something else—discovers a room beyond his closet wall, a place he has never seen, where, ultimately, he discovers the history of his people—those he sorely misses and those he never knew.” (Blair Publisher)
Striking a Balance
In an effort to find the right balance between teaching and writing, LeMalle stopped working full-time in 2020. Before coming to UHD, she was an adjunct creative writing professor at Houston Christian University and one of two writers working with students at Travis Elementary through Writers in the Schools. “I had been in prayer, asking God to make me the writer he created me to be when I learned about the vacancy at UHD. For a moment, I could hardly register the idea of a full-time writing position that fit my background, interests, and skill set so well. Then, I heard my own prayer come back to me, and I knew I needed to step into the opportunity,” LeMalle shared. “The UHD position in Executive Communications helped me to shift fully from the teacher who writes to the writer who teaches. My hope is that my writing for UHD and my creative writing both provide a lasting thought or image—a meaningful impression for the people who read or hear the words."
The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) is the second-largest university in Houston and has served the educational needs of the nation’s fourth-largest city since 1974. As one of four distinct public universities in the University of Houston System, UHD is a comprehensive, four-year university led by President Loren J. Blanchard. Annually, UHD educates approximately 14,000 students, boasts more than 66,000 alumni, and offers 45 bachelor’s degrees, 12 master’s degrees, and 19 online programs within four colleges: Marilyn Davies College of Business, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Public Service, and College of Sciences and Technology. UHD has one of the lowest tuition rates in Texas.
U.S. News and World Report ranked UHD among the nation’s Best Online Bachelor’s Programs for Applied Administration and Best Online Master’s Programs in Criminal Justice, as well as a Top Performer in Social Mobility. The Wall Street Journal/College Pulse ranked UHD one of the best colleges in the U.S. for its 2024 rankings, with notable distinctions: No. 1 for diversity (tied) and No. 3 for student experience. The University is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a Minority-Serving Institution, and a Military Friendly School. For more information on the University of Houston-Downtown, visit uhd.edu.