NEA Literature Fellowships

Jennifer Maritza McCauley

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Jennifer Maritza McCauley

Photo by Jesse Biehn

(2018 - Prose)

Excerpt from "The Girl We Forgot"

Don’t talk about my life: carved red on Abeje’s wrist-bones, cursive curls like Mrs. Zeze taught her in the special kids class. Abeje was private: she told us, I’m a private girl.

The day before she died, my friend and I saw Abeje, big-bellied, wandering ‘round the schoolhall after sixth period. Abeje was saying things like, “I got a bad stomach and hate, got my Daddy too much around,” then she got dark-eyed and went to the bathroom and Mrs. Zeze had to carry her away.

We knew Abeje. She lived with her Daddy in Lavender Flats, room #31, right below our family. We remembered her Daddy’s beast-groan, her fear of pushing out sin or her father’s chunky blood. We knew these things about Abeje, but her life scared us. We were little girls, then, afraid of everything.

We stamped by her corpse on the way out of Lavender Flats the next day, that body: oaken and shining, tucked in a tangle of sweetspire. We watched Important People shove oldfolk shoulders and rose-dotted waists. We punctured the halo of tenants, and they were pointing: at the dead blackgirl with the egg-stomach, her back bent like a downspout. The crowdfolks said Abeje tipped off the roof on her own. She flew. Some said her death was pretty to watch, if you didn’t know her.

Then, sirens spun and sang, and her Daddy rushed in, stocking-footed, in love an hour too late. We kept walking and focused instead on soft thoughts:  our lunchtime lunches in tin boxes, Mama-made. We thought about our butter cakes and naked yams, and ignored the red on Abeje’s knees and dress-pleats.

When we came home that night, our parents asked us what we knew about the girl from #31. We said, “Not much.” They asked what we saw and we said nothing to tell, and they asked us if Abeje was our friend. We lied and said yes, knowing we didn’t like talking to that private girl, because we were still little, afraid of everything.

( Stalking Horse Press and Hermeneutic Chaos Journal

Our parents hugged our corduroy bodies. They said, “We’re here to talk, please do,” as if they were worried about how we would be raised. We said, don’t worry none and we remembered Abeje’s flattened belly and white pupils. We remembered her banged up body again and we threw up later, while our parents were sleeping.

We were little girls, then, becoming private.

("The Girl We Forgot," Stalking Horse Press and Hermeneutic Chaos Journal)

Jennifer Maritza McCauley teaches at the University of Missouri, where she is working on her PhD in creative writing and literature. She has held staff positions at the Missouri Review and Origins Literary Journal, among other journals. She has received awards from Best of the Net and the Academy of American Poets, and fellowships from CantoMundo, Kimbilio, Sundress Academy of the Arts, and the Knight Foundation. Her work appears in Pleiades, Columbia Journal, Passages North, Jabberwock Review, Puerto del Sol, and elsewhere. Her poetry-prose collection SCAR ON/SCAR OFF (Stalking Horse Press) was published in 2017.

It’s been several months since I received the news from the NEA, and I’m still overwhelmed with gratitude and surprise. In early November of last year, I was driving home from teaching and I saw a new number on my phone. For that past week, I was considering taking a short break from creative writing. I was focused on teaching, graduate school, and editing, plus I was in one of those writerly self-doubt funks. I wanted to write about my cultural heritage more, and I wanted to work on long-term research projects, but I wasn’t sure if I’d have the time or money to pursue those things in the projected future. There were creative projects and outreach interests on my heart, but I wasn’t sure how to go forward.

I usually don’t answer my phone if I don’t know the caller, but I was expecting a call from a former student so I picked up. I was in the car and the wind was loud, so all I heard on the other line was “This….NEA…” I pulled over to a Wendy’s parking lot, and as the caller continued speaking, I realized I was being contacted about the fellowship, and I couldn’t believe it. I was a squealing, embarrassing mess! When I got off the phone, I was afraid to get too excited, just in case the call was a scam. (I get a lot of scam calls.) A few weeks later, when the list was released, the reality sunk in. I’m thankful to the NEA for the validation, and the nudge to keep writing. I’m excited to use this grant to travel, research, and to continue working on prose. The NEA’s advocacy for artists from all walks of life is inspiring, and I’m so grateful they exist.