MacDowell offered a place for Essie Chambers develop Swift River but also much more.

With three quarters of a draft written in MacDowell’s Banks Studio, Essie Chambers’ (16) debut novel, Swift River, follows a young girl—the only Black person in a small New England town—as she explores the gaps in her family tree.

MacDowell offered a place to both research and write the story, but also much more, Chambers told us after her residency. “Apart from the most tangible (an almost-finished draft!), the most significant aspects of my stay were related to the changes in my writing process,” she said. “There is something about the combination of time, space, and beautiful surroundings that allowed me to go deeper, think differently about structure, and to make more intuitive choices. There is no way my book could have taken such foundation-shifting turns without the relationships I developed with my fellow artists-in-residence—some of the most soulful, brilliant people I’ve ever encountered."

During her residency, Chambers, too, would lend insight to the projects of her fellow artists-in-residence. She met filmmaker Margaret Brown (16) and would become a creative producer on her award-winning documentary Descendant (Participant, 2022), which is about descendants of the survivors from the Clotilda, the last ship to carry enslaved African people to the United States. The film works to fill the voids in a community’s history, much like the young protagonist of Swift River reconstructs her own genealogy.

“At its heart, Swift River is about the shedding of secrets—personal, familial, and communal—and concealed truths that [the novel’s protagonist] Diamond learns have resulted in a transgenerational sense of placelessness, stagnation, and loss,” writer Kali Holloway detailed in an article for The Nation. In the history Diamond uncovers, she finds an ancestry that grew beyond the fractures of displacement and anti-Blackness, Holloway wrote.

Swift River is the book we all need to revive our souls. It’s told with such grace, humor, and above all, heart,” wrote author and MacDowell Fellow Nicole Dennis-Benn (15) in a blurb for the book. “I could follow Diamond and her captivating journey forever. It’s heartbreaking. It’s beautiful. This epic novel deserves all the attention in the world.”

Read about other new works supported by MacDowell Fellowships.

Search for the #MadeAtMacDowell tag on social media to see a history of MacDowell-supported works.

The cover of Essie Chambers debut novel, Swift River, is pictured next to a portrait of the author sitting on a porch.

Essie Chambers outside MacDowell's Banks Studio in November 2016. (Joanna Eldredge Morrissey photo)