Born in Akron, Ohio,
Heather Mayson Neff's family moved to Detroit when she was in her teens. After graduating from Cass Technical High School, where she studied music, Neff earned a Bachelor’s Degree in English with High Distinction from the University of Michigan. Neff went on to study French language and culture at the Sorbonne, University of Paris. She earned her Lizentiat and Doctoral degree in English Language and Literature, Comparative Literature and French Linguistics at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. Her dissertation, Redemption Songs: Protest in the Poetry of Afro-Americans, was published as part of the series Swiss Studies in English (Franke Verlag, 1990).
While living in Switzerland, Neff served as a corporate trainer at Shell Oil, Swiss Air, and worked as a translator and language coach for Condor Film Productions. Neff subsequently spent two years in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, where she taught at the University of the Virgin Islands and St. Joseph High School. Neff joined the faculty in the Department of English at Eastern Michigan University in 1993. She has served as the Director of Eastern Michigan University's McNair Scholars Program since 2010.
Neff has been honored with many teaching awards, including Eastern Michigan University's Distinguished Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching, the institution's highest instructional honor. The recipient of the EMU Alumni Association’s Teaching Excellence Award, Neff has also twice earned the Holman Success Center’s Outstanding Faculty in the Classroom Award. The recipient of the university's 2006 Artistic Recognition Award, in 2007 Neff was named a Michigan Distinguished Professor by the Presidents' Council of the State Universities of Michigan.
Neff has also been recognized for her service to Eastern Michigan University and the larger community, receiving a Woman of Excellence Award (EMU Women’s Center), W.E.B. Du Bois Award (NAACP), Faculty of the Year Award (Delta Kappa Gamma), Educator of the Year Award (African American Educators of the Future), Honored Faculty Award (Intercollegiate Athletics), three Cornerstone Awards (EMU Multicultural Affairs), Advocate Award (Outstanding Nonprofit Leadership Alliance), Hero of the Year Award (Hero Nation Ypsilanti), Best Friend of Girl Scouting Award, and an EMU Gold Medallion Award. Neff is also very proud of her special recognition award from the African American Book Discussion Group in her hometown, Ypsilanti.
The author of eight novels, Neff's Blackgammon (2000) recounts the lives of two women: Chloe, a celebrated artist in Paris, and her younger friend, Michael, who lives out a tempestuous marriage in England. Wisdom (2001), set in St. Croix, is a novel of lost heritage, love, and one woman's fight for her life. Wisdom received a Fiction Honor Book Award from the American Library Association. Accident of Birth (2005) examines the troubled cultural relationship between Africans and African Americans through the love of a young American woman for her Liberian classmate. Haarlem (2006) has won high acclaim for its examination of addiction and recovery through the tale of a New Yorker who travels to Amsterdam in search of his long-lost mother, only to discover completely unknown and unexpected truths about himself.
Set in modern-day Morocco, Leila: The Weighted Silence of Memory (2009) is a harrowing story of modern-day human trafficking. Leila II: The Moods of the Sea (2015) follows the slow rebirth of a survivor of unwilling domestic servitude. Neff's Blissfield, an intense, multi-generational love story about intimate partner violence and its effect on children, was published in early 2019. Saffron Bloom, set for publication in 2021, tells the tale of two men vying for the love of a woman who grows into the most powerful and passionate version of herself.
The author has also published a number of poems, short stories, and founded Whittaker Road Works, a writing group housed in the Ypsilanti District Library. She has edited three anthologies of writing by the group, Departures (2016), Taking Flight (2018) and Soaring (2020). For over a decade Neff has edited the Eastern Michigan University McNair Scholars Research Journal, encompassing over 160 faculty-mentored articles written by students representing all academic disciplines.
Neff remains very active in her community, and has served on the board of numerous organizations, including the Ann Arbor Book Festival, Ypsilanti Youth Orchestra, Riverside Arts Center, House on the Side of the Road, and the H. Irving Mayson Scholarship Foundation, named for her late father.
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