Drawing from her own experience, she advocates for foster care children through her writing and more
Melissa Chadburn is self-confident but not self-satisfied. Bold but not boastful.
She is many things, not least of all self-aware.
“I’m highly competitive. I’m Type A. I’m Capricorn,” Chadburn says, tongue in cheek.
She’s explaining how she has managed to earn her PhD in creative writing and literature from the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences in record time.
The doctorate normally requires at least five years — and often upwards of six — to complete.
She’s done it in four.
And she’ll be the first to graduate from the creative nonfiction track of USC Dornsife’s Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature program.
It’s merely the latest of many feats the 47-year-old has accomplished throughout her academic career at USC Dornsife. Her debut novel, A Tiny Upward Shove (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), published in April 2022, was longlisted for the PEN-Hemingway Award, and her nonfiction work has appeared in Best American Food Writing, The New York Review of Books and The Paris Review online.
Finding the “right container” to tell her story
Her impressive resume belies a childhood colored by adversity: She was raised by a single mother in Los Angeles before moving into the county’s foster care system when she was in middle school.
Foster children frequently change homes, so the staff at her first temporary group home encouraged her to pursue a GED diploma rather than obtain one by attending high school. But Melissa instead worked on her homework under her blanket with a flashlight. And because she had little time to prepare a lunch, she often saved half of her dinner to eat at school the next day.
She was enrolled in an advanced college preparatory program for “at-risk” youth at Hamilton High School in the Castle Heights neighborhood on L.A.’s Westside, where she was able to take college classes while still a high school student. Still, the staff were right in saying the journey wasn’t easy, and she had to change schools — and homes— several times before she finally graduated.
She then attended Cal State University Northridge and by this time was emancipated from the child welfare system. Struggling to maintain her finances and education, she wound up dropping out after her first year. This led her to New College of California, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in English, and then finally to Antioch University, where she was able to obtain an MFA in creative writing.
Despite a life-long commitment to her education, she hasn’t always felt like she belonged in these prestigious educational institutions.
“As a ‘Blackapino’ who was raised in poverty and went through the foster care system, I have a very nontraditional background,” she explains. “I just did not feel like I’m even supposed to be here.”
But Chadburn made a home for herself at USC Dornsife. As she worked toward her PhD, she studied with Florence R. Scott Professor of English Dana Johnson, who also was her mentor while she pursued her MFA, as well as Associate Professors of English Danzy Senna and Elda Maria Román, along with many others across USC Dornsife. These members of her dissertation committee became her “family crew,” she said.
Her sense of belonging at USC stands in sharp contrast to another feature of her upbringing: When Chadburn was a young child, her mother attended UCLA. “She used to train me to stick my tongue out at Trojans,” Chadburn says, laughing. “Anytime somebody had a USC sweatshirt on, I would have to stick my tongue out.”
When asked how her PhD fits in with her already successful career as a writer — she’s a self-described “recovering journalist” who has written for numerous news outlets — she is quick to share how proud she is of her dissertation. She says that it would never have been possible had she not been exposed to the types of ideas circulating in the program.
Chadburn has written across many genres, with much of her work inspired by her childhood foster care experiences.
“I have been trying to tell this same story about the child welfare system over and over again,” she says. “I told it in journalism. I’ve told it in creative nonfiction and in essays. And I’ve translated them to fairytale.”
Her dissertation is the latest form she has mastered to tell her story and the stories of many others with histories similar to hers. It is, as she says, the “right container for these truths.”
A pencil as sharp as a knife
Though Chadburn’s work has been based on her own experiences, her work has a far broader scope than just autobiography.
She has appeared in the Netflix docuseries The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, which explores the fatal mix of abuse and systemic neglect that ultimately led to the death of 8-year-old Fernandez in 2013.
She has also been a tireless activist and advocate for others in the foster care system, writing extensively about the ways that it has impacted the lives of 30,000 children across L.A. County. Her dissertation, The Redacted, is a “critical experiment concerned with child fatalities within L.A. County’s foster care system.”
Chadburn reviewed all the case files of child deaths in the county with open Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) investigations, then compiled their stories, case by case and year by year, into a navigable digital archive of their short lives. It is a heartbreaking and sobering account of the staggering loss of life that occurs in our midst each year.
She then adapted their highly redacted case records into fairytales. When asked, “Why fairy tales?” Chadburn replies, “I’m driven by an impulse to insert not any children but these children, who have had all means of violence visited upon their too-short lives, and to allow them once again — or once ever — to live among children and to have been treasured and preserved within the family.”
When Chadburn was a child and still living with her mother, they did not own a pencil sharpener. Her mom taught her to sharpen her pencils with a steak knife, and Chadburn says she has been doing that ever since. Her words (“the biggest tools in my toolbox”) are sharpened to a fine point and used to cut through layers of bureaucracy and redaction to get to the human child obscured by their formality.
In addition to being an advocate for L.A.’s at-risk children, Chadburn has also been a dedicated defender of workers throughout her career. She worked as a union organizer and labor activist prior to enrolling at USC Dornsife and used her experience to help organize the university’s substantial graduate student worker population. In this way, she has left a lasting mark on this institution.
When asked what’s next for her, Chadburn laughs. “Hopefully, I will be getting myself a J-O-B.”
She wants to teach creative writing and help other aspiring writers hone their craft, find their “family crew,” and ultimately select the containers that will best showcase their own stories.