Veronica Chambers on Her
In Conversation with Will Schwalbe on But That's Another Story
Will Schwalbe: Hi. I’m Will Schwalbe, and you’re listening to But That’s Another Story. I’ll never forget the first night my parents ever left me alone—totally alone—in our house. I was nine or so, and they wouldn’t be out late, and they left a phone number to call in case of emergency. I could do whatever I wanted—read, watch TV—and then put myself to bed. Total freedom. I decided to watch TV first, of course, but the only show that seemed interesting that evening was a terrifying episode of The Night Gallery, a horror anthology. I soon switched it off and decided to turn to a book to distract myself from the sinking feeling in my stomach. There was one in particular that had just made its way into our house. All the adults had been discussing it. They agreed it was much too mature for a child to read—so I knew this was my opportunity. The book was by a guy named William Peter Blatty, and if that doesn’t sound familiar, I bet the title will—The Exorcist. When my parents came home, I was under the covers. They thought I was fast asleep but I was wide awake and in a cold sweat. I never read another page of that book. I still can’t. But recently, I got to talking about a not so scary ghost story one that actually provided comfort—with today’s guest.
Veronica Chambers: I’m Veronica Chambers, and I’m a writer and editor.
WS: Veronica Chambers has written in just about every genre you can think of—from her own memoir to children’s books to film criticism, and most recently, she put together a collection of essays about Beyoncé called Queen Bey. But the more you learn about Veronica, the more you understand how she became such a gifted storyteller. It turns out that Veronica has been thinking in stories her entire life.
VC: I kind of had a very nomadic experience that doesn’t really fit together. So, my family is from Panama, and I was born in Panama. And then when I was two, we moved to Northern England. Which is why I always say I have the most jacked Spanish accent. Whenever I speak Spanish, people are like, what language are you speaking? And I’m like, working class Northern England Spanish, what else!?
WS: A love of reading was instilled in Veronica early on.
VC: My whole family were big readers. My grandmother, she came from Martinique to Panama to work on the Canal, and she taught herself English by reading illustrated Western novels. My grandmother was always a big reader. And then, you know, those few years we spent in England, my mom absolutely fell in love with like Agatha Christie and murderous theory. So that was something I grew up with too. So, I would borrow those from my mom and the funny thing is, even to this day, you ask my mother what she thinks about my writing and she’s like, I can’t believe they pay you to write. I mean, you’re no Agatha Christie.
WS: Though reading was important to Veronica, books were not the only place she learned the art of storytelling.
VC: One of the earliest stories my grandmother told me was how my uncle was murdered by his wife. She was like, “We know he was murdered because he ate this food and he fell dead at the table,” and then the dog had, I guess, reached up on the table eating the same thing, and they were both there, dead. And I was always like, Oh my God, what a terrible thing. And then, later when I was a teenager, I was going to California for something and my mom said, “You should call your aunt and you should go over to your aunt’s for dinner.” And I was like, “I didn’t know I had an aunt in California and why would I go there for dinner?” And she said, “Your aunt who murdered your uncle?” And I said, “With food?” And she’s like, “As far as we know, she hasn’t murdered anyone else.”
WS: The stories Veronica’s relatives told were not limited to family lore.
VC: All the kind of Afro Latino deities like Shangó and Yemayá and Oshún. And then of course, like ghost stories, and ancestors, and lighting candles for ancestors. Literally my whole life was populated by a world of people I’d never met, a world of deities that were to be respected and called upon. And also the sense that in the African American tradition, when they say, every sleep ain’t shuteye every goodbye ain’t gone, that people can die and still be very much present.
They were constantly trying to tell stories to give us a sense of where we had come from. Because I don’t think, especially my mom, she was like a very homesick immigrant. I think that she didn’t feel like Brooklyn was home. Brooklyn was just the place we were living because there was work there. So, the idea was to tell us what home was like.
WS: Although Veronica’s life at home was a rich education in how to tell stories, the one at school left more to be desired.
VC: I was always trying to demand a better education. Our schools were super segregated in Brooklyn. This is the late 70s and 80s. And we moved a lot just because of our circumstances. And you know, sometimes we had more money or we had less money and I was always trying to get into the gifted and talented class. And I remember in fifth grade, I was put into this class and it was bad. This girl was making me do her homework and threatening to beat me up. And I literally would sit and just do everybody’s homework. And I finally went to the teacher and I was like, “I really don’t think I belong in this class.” And it was like a constant thing just like, “Well, who do you think you are?” Like, “Where do you belong?” The minute you go to the principal and you say, I want more and they’re like, well, you’re no genius. Like, who are you? I just always was trying to get that.
WS: Soon, Veronica found herself going after that education.
VC: I went to Bard at Simon’s Rock College and it’s a college for kids who want to go to college early. And I went when I was 16, but half of my class was 15 and some of my class was 14, and we had a couple of 13 year olds. So I still felt kind of on the stupid side, because I was one of the oldest freshmen.
When I started college, it was the late 80s. It was before the age of political correctness and it was a really weird time because I think people were having very mixed feelings about affirmative action. It was weird because it was a very, I think, kind of hostile feeling. I felt like some people felt like—there were only 12 black kids in my school. And I think people were kind of like, well, how did you get here? And you’re on scholarship. And I was on super, super scholarship. I had like no money. I couldn’t even complete freshman orientation ’cause I just had to start working in the kitchen. So I started working in the kitchen. I worked in the library, I worked at the switchboard. I did babysitting. I mean I literally just to make my family contribution and pay for books and stuff. I worked probably 30 to 50 hours a week, which is kind of a lot for a full-time liberal arts college experience and minimum wage at that time was $3.50 an hour. So to make enough money to pay for anything, you had to work a lot of hours.
WS: Most of Veronica’s classmates were not working minimum wage jobs—or any jobs at all.
VC: I remember so well that during freshman week this girl came around begging for quarters for the laundry mat. And I remember thinking, Oh my God, what if I don’t have enough quarters? Don’t make enough to knock door to door for the laundry mat. And then literally the first break, her parents flew a jet and landed on the campus. And I was like, Oh my God. It wasn’t just that our lives were different. It was like there was a constant pretending to be things, a kind of sense of what was owed to people. I think one of the things about being immigrant and first generation—I think it’s a very common cultural characteristic to be super humble and to be super unassuming and to be really diligent and respectful to the point of not crossing boundaries. And I feel like my classmates, to a large degree, had a very different way of presenting themselves. So I think that I just felt really out of sync.
WS: Veronica also felt out of place in the classroom.
VC: I literally went right into the first year of college—had never written a paper. The schools that I attended in Brooklyn where some of the first schools to have metal detectors. There were constantly guns at my school and knives. It was at a point where the teachers were barely teaching a lot of the time, so to walk into this kind of like really rigorous—you had to write a paper a week for every subject, including math. It was an overwhelming amount of work for me, for someone who hadn’t gone to a prep school or a boarding school. I wasn’t trained in the ways that they were trained.
WS: Veronica Chambers had grown up in a household with a rich tradition of storytelling. As she started college, she also found her upbringing gave her another special skill.
VC: The one thing I had going for me is that by the time I got to college I could read, write, read and write and speak Spanish.
WS: Her freshman year, Veronica tested into a junior level Spanish literature course. It was there that she first came across Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits.
VC: It’s a book about a Latin American family. It’s about love, but it’s also about death and the main character’s a clairvoyant.
WS: The novel’s use of magical realism felt familiar to Veronica.
VC: I felt like, I mean obviously Isabel Allende is one of the finest writers that we’ve had from Latin America. I think that it reminded me of my family stories. I think the characters felt both familiar, but masterful. I felt like she added layers to things that I could connect to very quickly. There was something there in the excellence of narrative and structure and the elegance and the high—it’s high brow, right? It’s highbrow literature, yet it’s very Latin and it’s unafraid of all the ways in which being Latin can seem like magic realism and can seem like messy or unintellectual, because it came from a tradition in which whole countries of people understood what it was being written in. Whereas I felt like I was growing up in a place where people didn’t fully understand on any level, what my background was and where I came from and what it reflected. So I felt very isolated and I do think it was the beginning of something very important for me.
It was interesting because it was in that class that I first heard the term magic realism and I remember really getting into arguments with my classmates. I’m like, what you call “magic realism,” I might call “realism realism.” I could feel myself plummeting in their opinion. They’re like, this is a work of literature. This is a genre called magic realism. When you have ghosts that speak and people speak from the dead and all of this—this is something that has happened in Latin American literature and explaining it to me as if I’m not from Latin America. And I’m like, “I totally understand that in an academic setting you have created this conversation.” And what I’m saying is that for me in this book, it reflects a very different conversation that I have with people who are not part of academia. I stood up for myself, but the pushback was strong.
WS: Though Veronica loved the book, the classroom discussion lessened her enjoyment.
VC: I felt like part of what was happening in the classroom was that there was constantly a pushing away from any kind of emotional truth and really always asking kind of what was the truth of the architecture of the book, and how it fit into questions of structure and storytelling and artifice, but also I think cultural anthropology. In some ways, I felt like every time I went to this class, it was like going to a book club where they suck the life out of you. It just was like, God, I used to love this book and now I have to come here and talk about it with youth fools and now I hate being here. So thanks for that.
WS: Despite this, The House of the Spirits still managed to take hold of Veronica.
VC: When I was reading House of the Spirits, I thought I was going to be a pre-law major. I had no intention of being a writer or a creative writer because to me that equals starving. I grew up in a lucky time in some ways in that The House of the Spirits was being taught, Toni Morrison was being taught. So I was reading those books along with the Faulkner and everything else. And I think in some ways, they were such towering works of fiction that I couldn’t really imagine myself as a fiction writer.
I actually started writing because one of my, like, ten jobs in college was tutoring someone in Spanish and she used to write for a teen magazine called Young Miss. And she said it was like money for nothing and chicks for free. She was just like, “You should totally write for a teen magazine.” She said, “Young Miss won’t take another girl from our school, but you should try Seventeen.” And I call Seventeen and they said no, ’cause I hadn’t written for a school paper or anything. So, I actually went to the library and I got the New York City telephone book. I looked up magazines and I literally called every magazine. Starting with A, and I ended at S, and I got Sassy, which had just launched. And they were like, “Yeah, do you want to come in?” And I went in and I started writing for Sassy and that was kind of the beginning.
WS: The beginning of a career in magazines that has included work for Life magazine, Premiere, Newsweek, The New York Times magazine, and many, many more. And Veronica’s work as a magazine writer also led to writing books—including children’s books.
VC: Because I was like, younger at magazines, I always had friends who were older and they were about 10 years older than me, so they often had young kids and I would often buy children’s books. And I remember writing to my agent at the time who was Sandy Dykstra, who was great and saying, could I write kids books? And she was like, “It’s such a specific genre,” and yada, yada, yada. But at the time, she had someone working for this great guy named Steve Malk, who’s a children’s book agent now, but he had come from three generations of a family that own children’s bookstores. And so he was like a great guide for me. So I wrote a few picture books. I wrote some middle grade books.
So I was writing books about like Black Latino people and it was really hard for them to figure out where to sell it and where to put it. And, and so I feel like I wrote all the stuff that nobody really read. The nice thing is that it’s actually constantly excerpted in textbooks now. I call it my “cute shoe money”—like when I get a little textbook payment and I go buy some really cute shoes.
WS: Cute shoe money aside, the children’s books represent a larger theme in Veronica’s work—the power of writing to make people feel seen. It was an experience that was especially significant for her with her memoir, Mama’s Girl.
VC: You know, I went to the Well-Read Black Girl festival and they announced me as the author of Mama’s Girl, and I’m sitting in a room, and literally you could hear the reaction and I felt like J.K. Rowling for a second. I’m so often one of only a few people of color in whatever space that I’m in, that to be in a room full of black women who were like, “That book. That book. I remember that book,” was so amazing, but that book was really about me tuning into my family and using the voices around me.
WS: A process of listening to the voices around her that began with the reading of The House of the Spirits.
VC: You know, it’s funny cause I haven’t read House of the Spirits in years. I feel like there was a time when there was always a copy of The House of the Spirits so close to me. Like I needed to be able to like get up in the middle of the night and like reach that book. I think that it was like the beginning of a conversation for me.
In my own work, my work works when I listen closely to the voices around me.
But That’s Another Story is produced by Katie Ferguson, with editing help from Alyssa Martino. Thanks to Veronica Chambers. If you’d like to learn more about the books we’ve mentioned in this week’s episode, you can find out more in our show notes. You can also find a transcript of this episode and past ones on LitHub. If you’ve been enjoying the show, please be sure to rate and review on iTunes—it really helps others discover the program. And subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. If there’s a book that changed your life, we want to hear about it. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.