Essie Chambers at Harvard Book Store


Swift River: A Novel

in conversation with ELIZABETH GONZALEZ JAMES


June 14, 2024
7:00 PM ET


Harvard Book Store
1256 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138


This event is free; no tickets are required.

Harvard Book Store welcomes ESSIE CHAMBERS—producer on the documentary Descendant, which was released by the Obamas’ Higher Ground production company and Netflix—for a discussion of her debut novel Swift River. She will be joined in conversation by ELIZABETH GONZALEZ JAMES—author of The Bullet Swallower, Mona at Sea, and Five Conversations about Peter Sellers.

About Swift River

It’s the summer of 1987 in Swift River, and Diamond Newberry is learning how to drive. Ever since her Pop disappeared seven years ago, she and her mother hitchhike everywhere they go. But that’s not the only reason Diamond stands out: she’s teased relentlessly about her weight, and since Pop’s been gone, she is the only Black person in all of Swift River. This summer, Ma is determined to declare Pop legally dead so that they can collect his life insurance money, get their house back from the bank, and finally move on.

But when Diamond receives a letter from a relative she’s never met, key elements of Pop’s life are uncovered, and she is introduced to two generations of African American Newberry women, whose lives span the 20th century and reveal a much larger picture of prejudice and abandonment, of love and devotion. As pieces of their shared past become clearer, Diamond gains a sense of her place in the world and in her family. But how will what she’s learned of the past change her future?

A story of first friendships, family secrets, and finding the courage to let go, Swift River is a sensational debut about how history shapes us and heralds the arrival of a major new literary talent.

Praise for Swift River

“Like its main character, Swift River is at once full bodied and fiery, heartbreaking and healing. Issues of race are handled in such a deep and meaningful way. And the language is so gorgeous, I went back to read sentences again and again. What a beautiful debut.”—Jacqueline Woodson, National Book Award winning author of Brown Girl Dreaming

“In the tradition of all great mother-daughter stories, Swift River is complicated, frank, yet infused with that satisfying feeling one gets when you realize the missing piece to the puzzle is a sense of self. Page by beautifully vibrant page, Swift River comes at you in whirring Kodachrome snapshots of memory, classic rock, and hidden New England lore. A sensational debut.” —Paul Beatty, author of Man Booker Award winning novel The Sellout

“A powerful novel about how our family history shapes us; it is only when Diamond learns about the women that came before her—their strengths and losses mirroring her own—that she can finally imagine a better future for herself. Swift River broke my heart, and then offered me hope.” —Ann Napolitano, New York Times bestselling author of Hello Beautiful

“Truly amazing. Such an incredible blend of intimate and epic, so smart and funny and honest and generous-spirited. I like plenty of books but I love a novel this much maybe just once or twice a year.” —Curtis Sittenfeld, New York Times bestselling author of Romantic Comedy

Masking Policy

Masks are encouraged but not required for this event.

Elizabeth Gonzalez James
Elizabeth Gonzalez James

Elizabeth Gonzalez James

Elizabeth Gonzalez James is the author of the novels Mona at Sea (SFWP, 2021) and The Bullet Swallower (Simon & Schuster, 2024), as well as the chapbook, Five Conversations About Peter Sellers (Texas Review Press, 2023). Her stories and essays have appeared in The Idaho Review, Southern Humanities Review, The Rumpus, StorySouth, PANK, and elsewhere, and have received numerous Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominations. She was Interviews Editor at The Rumpus, and a former contributor to Ploughshares Blog. Originally from South Texas, Elizabeth now lives with her family in Massachusetts.

Essie Chambers
Essie Chambers

Essie Chambers

Essie Chambers earned her MFA in creative writing from Columbia University and has received fellowships from the MacDowell Vermont Studio Center, and Baldwin for the Arts. A former film and television executive, she was a producer on the documentary Descendant, which was released by the Obamas’ Higher Ground production company and Netflix in 2022. Swift River is her debut novel.

Photo Credit: Yekaterina Gyadu

Harvard Book Store
1256 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138

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