Veronica Chambers (2012)
I am one of those few lucky people to have received two NEA grants. But even though the grants came more than a decade apart, the feeling I have is very much the same: pure gratitude that a jury of writers I respect and admire have selected my work as worthy of support.
When I received my first grant, I had written a memoir, Mama's Girl, that had been very well received. I wanted to write a novel, but I couldn't find the quiet time to do it. More saliently, I couldn't shake the voice in my head that said, "The world doesn't need your novel" Girl, stay in your lane." My lane being non-fiction and magazine writing. One of the things that the first NEA grant allowed me to do was to go back to Panama for the first time since I was a little girl. And that trip shaped my life in so many ways. It connected me to a place and time that is uniquely mine. I wrote several kids books about being from Panama and then eventually my novel, Miss Black America.
The second NEA grant has come as my daughter turns five and I try to compose my life, a one-woman show where I play writer, creative consultant, mother, friend, daughter, and wife. The grant has given me the time and space to readjust the balance and in the middle of this year, a book I co-wrote, Yes, Chef hit the New York Times best-seller list, a thrill and an honor I never expected.
Having applied for both NEA grants multiple times, I feel the need to remind aspiring writers not to give up. To quote my favorite line from the movie, Under the Tuscan Sun: "Unthinkably good things can happen, even late in the game. It's such a surprise."
Excerpt from Miss Black America
It was 1979 and escape was heavy in the air. Assata Shakur made a daring bust out of a maximum-security prison. And although my father and I did not yet know it, my mother had also been tunneling her way to freedom. Assata broke out of the Clinton correctional facility, guns blazing and motors running, Jesse James style. No Cleopatra Jones, mine wasn't a gun-toting mama, though she was the baddest one chick hit squad to ever break my heart. My mother's getaway was as subtle and silent as a magic trick. She simply walked out the door one winter evening and never came home. My father was a magician, but my mother was the real Houdini.
It was the opposite of grief, the way my father and I responded to the shock of it all. Time moved quickly that year and the day she disappeared began to fade from me. A few months after she was gone, I struggled to remember the details of the last day I saw her. What was I wearing? What did I have for lunch that day? What was the last thing she said? Was it "Good-bye sweetheart, be good." Or was it, "Gotta run, baby. Be good." I remembered the "be good" although by the time she was gone for a year, I hadn't been good at all.
In my mind, my mother's face fills every empty frame. Have you seen her? Melanie Aisha Brown. She is five feet, ten inches tall. I do not know what she weighs. She wears a size six dress and a size seven shoe. She has dark skin, and straight hair, which she wears in a flip. She is beautiful, look-twice-on-the-street gorgeous. She is thirty-four years old, but can pass for much younger. She likes burgundy lipstick and bright nailpolish and anything made from potatoes: potato chips, mashed potatoes, french fries. She smokes when my father isn't around and keeps a pack of cigarettes and a lighter, covered by tampons, in a brown and white plastic cosmetics case in her purse. She is a woman with secrets.
When I was six, my grandmother died. I woke that morning to Mama's screams, punctuating the air. All I heard was holler, holler, holler, holler, holler, holler -- precise and almost musical, like a church bell, pealing off the hour. I ran into the room and she was in a long, pink, cotton nightgown that was washed so many times, it lost its pattern. Sponge rollers, half undone, hung around her head like a Halloween hat. She nearly wrenched my arm off when she spotted me by the door, pulled me to her so fiercely, as if she feared we were both headed for our doom. Of all the things I have forgotten in the years since my mother has left, this stays with me: her loss, shiny and heavy with heartbreak.
"I have no mother," she mewled in my ear, "I have no mother." I can hear her say it even now and her voice, as it was then, is low, eerie, haunting, as if the loss was far from singular, but multiple and perpetual. A curse that will haunt woman upon woman in our family line until kingdom come. Which, of course, it will. Eventually. The day my own mother disappeared, I did not scream as I should have. The day was simply too much like any other. I came home from school and Mama wasn't there. My father sat at the kitchen table, eating an omelet and reading the Amsterdam News. I remember a joke my father used to tell "What's black and white and read all over?" And the answer, not a newspaper, not any old newspaper, but this special one: the Amsterdam News.
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Veronica Chambers is a prolific author, she is best known for her critically acclaimed memoir, Mama's Girl, which has been course adopted by hundreds of high schools and colleges throughout the country. The New Yorker called Mama's Girl, "a troubling testament to grit and mother love...one of the finest and most evenhanded in the genre in recent years." Born in Panama and raised in Brooklyn, her work often reflects her Afro-Latina heritage.
In 2012, she cowrote Marcus Samuelsson's best-selling memoir, Yes, Chef. She has also written more than a dozen books for children and teens, most recently the well received Celia Cruz, Queen of Salsa and the body confidence Y/A novel, Plus.
A graduate of Simon's Rock College at Bard, she has been the recipient of several awards including the Hodder fellowship for emerging novelists at Princeton University and two National Endowment for the Arts fiction awards. She speaks, reads and writes Spanish, but she is truly fluent in Spanglish. She lives with her husband and daughter in Hoboken, New Jersey.