KambritagWriters are by definition obsessed with words. And when it comes down to it, unless you’re really plucky, there are two or three words you’re stuck with for life: your name. Every other week I’ll ask a different writer five or so questions on the subject.

This week I talked with Kambri Crews, who once lived with her deaf parents in a tin shed in Montgomery, Texas. She now owns and operates Ballyhoo Promotions, a PR and production company in New York City specializing in stand-up comedy. She is also the author of the critically acclaimed memoir Burn Down the Ground and a renowned storyteller and public speaker. She has performed on The Moth, Literary Death Match and Risk! and appeared at UCB Theatre, Rutgers, University of Texas, Texas Book Festival, University of Oregon, SXSW (South by Southwest), DeafHope, and many other schools, colleges, book festivals, and events.

MB: So, have you ever met another? I mean really, Kambri!? What a great, singular name. Far as Google and I can tell, you’re the one!

KC: I’ve never met another Kambri and don’t know of any who are older than me. As far as I can tell, I’m the first. A few friends have named their girls Kambri taking liberty with its spelling. It’s like the old Vidal Sassoon television commercial. “They tell two friends and they tell two friends and so on and so on and so on.” So, if you search for Kambri a bunch come up in the south, where I’m from. One ex-boyfriend suggested Kambri to his buddy whose last name was Cruz. Not cool. I suppose I should be flattered that an ex-boyfriend would think highly enough of me to suggest another Kambri Crews—however spelled—should exist in the world but it rubbed me the wrong way. If they did indeed go with the suggestion, I hope the girl doesn’t blow the good Chi. 

kambriphotoTo what extent were you destined to become a writer and performer with your name?

It does beg for attention, doesn’t it? But based on my messed up childhood and daddy issues, I really should’ve gotten into porn and changed my name to Kumbri Screws. 

I don’t imagine it was always ideal to have your name growing up. Did kids give you a hard time?

No, not at all. I was a good kid, friendly and smart. So though we struggled with money and I wasn’t the best-dressed and smelled rancid at times, I was able to avoid teasing. My parents were friends with a deaf couple they had grown up with at deaf school. They had two deaf kids that were like brother and sister to me. One Thanksgiving, the boy asked me to pass him the cranberries. Because of his deaf voice, I thought he was calling me cranberry and immediately burst into tears. He got in trouble though he swears to this day that he’s innocent of all charges. 

Your folks were hearing impaired, and so I wonder if there is anything unique about the way Kambri is said through ASL or another sign language. Is there a particular gesture for your name, or does it have to be spelled out?

All names must be spelled out. There isn’t a universal sign for Matt or Matthew and you wouldn’t make one up for yourself. Instead, your unique “Name Sign” is created for you after a native ASL user gets to know you. It’s similar to Native American culture in that way. In Deaf culture, a person’s Name Sign often uses the first letter of their name in ASL incorporated with the sign that indicates a physical or personal characteristic like a big smile or a goatee or, in my case, my temperament as a baby.

So, to say “Kambri” in ASL, draw a tear on each cheek using the middle finger of the ASL letter “K”. Why tears with a ‘K’? Because when I was a baby, my parents said I never cried. I joke with them and say, “Oh, I was crying, y’all just didn’t hear me!” But seriously if you look at our family photos, I’m laughing in all of them. I guess I’ve always been a fan of comedy. 

I like how your first and last name act kind of like a subject-verb thing. (Kambri does what? She Crews!) Have you ever thought of it like that? What, I wonder, would it mean to crew something?

No, I hadn’t. I think because you’re seeing it spelled out, it occurred to you, but most people assume my name is spelled Cambry Cruise or Cruz. Once in maybe 1,000 times people will get the “K” right but always, always, always spell it with an “Y”. The Toyota Camry is responsible for all my name confusion woes. 

Any affinity to Kansas City, or you know, to heading up a sunshine band revival?

I’ve never been to Kansas City and only now that the 70s are behind us can I appreciate the Sunshine Band. Back then I considered myself a rocker chick. I’d never really taken any special notice of my initials until after I was married at the ripe old age of seventeen to a man whose last name began with “Y”. Having the initials “KY” made me long for ye olde Sunshine Band days. I never wanted to change my name but he was offended. After we divorced, I swore to myself that I would never, ever change my name again. I’m Kambri Crews and proud of it.

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MATTHEW BATT is the author of Sugarhouse, a memoir about renovating a Salt Lake City crack house and his life along with it. It comes out this June with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Tin House, Mid-American Review, The Huffington Post, and elsewhere. He's the recipient of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and he teaches English and creative writing at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. And yes, that's his real name.

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