Member Profile: Melissa Chadburn

MEMBER PROFILE: Melissa Chadburn

When and why did you become a member of PEN Center USA? 
I became a member of PEN Center USA just this year. I agree with Bill Maher’s statement at this year’s PEN Center USA Literary Awards Festival; that is, we need to protect our 1st Amendment rights with the same vigor that conservative a-hhhholes protect their 2nd Amendment rights (I’m paraphrasing).

What is most meaningful to you about PEN Center USA?
As a woman who grew up in Los Angeles’s foster care system I know what it’s like to have limited access to books and education, not for any failure on my part but because of the circumstances of my life. As a Filipina-American I know what it’s like to come from a place where words and books are often swallowed up and ruined by water or fire. PEN Center USA’s commitment to the prevention of tongue suicide is most meaningful to me.

PEN Centers share a Freedom To Write mission, which means we believe that people should be able to read and write freely. What does Freedom To Write mean to you? 
Freedom to Write means having equal access to knowledge and opportunities for intellectual pursuit. It’s about our relationship to power.
Writers are using their digital media platforms to engage with readers and other writers on serious topics. Can you give an example of a writer or organization that is doing this well?
The Economic Hardship Reporting Project is a project that was founded by Barbara Ehrenreich. She felt that people in poverty should be able to write about their experience of poverty. She pays people a top tier rate ($1.00/word) to write about issues of economic hardship. EHRP co-publishes these pieces with other outlets. It can be with LARB or Salon or Mother Jones but the writer will receive both payment from the outlet and the $1.00/word support from EHRP.

What is the one book you wish you had written and why? 
The one I wrote. Because I haven’t read it yet. Although I did hear often that it bears a close resemblance to Sapphire’s PUSH or Janet Fitch’s White Oleander and, because those novels were a reflection of my life in many ways, they no doubt have influenced my writing.

What is your favorite quote?
“There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. ... No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”—Zora Neale Hurston
“Every blade of grass has an angel that bends over it and whispers, Grow! Grow!”—The Talmud

Who would be your ideal literary dinner guest (living or dead)?
James Agee.    

What are you working on now?
Just sent off the manuscript of my debut novel to my editor at FSG. It’s called A Tiny Upward Shove.

Brief bio:
Melissa Chadburn has written for Guernica, Buzzfeed, Poets & Writers, Salon, American Public Media’s Marketplace, Al Jazeera America, and dozens of other places. She is a fellow for The Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Her essay, “The Throwaways,” received notable mention in The Best American Essays and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. Her debut novel, A Tiny Upward Shove, is forthcoming with Farrar, Straus and Giroux in spring 2017.