Melissa Chadburn’s debut novel, A Tiny Upward Shove, is narrated by a foul-mouthed, all-knowing mythical creature—an aswang. The shape-shifting Filipino spirit, in this telling, is tied to a family for six generations and activated when “someone dies with unfinished business.” We meet her when 18-year-old Marina Salles, the novel’s protagonist, is killed on a pig farm outside of Vancouver in the 1980s, and through the aswang, we are given insight into her murderer’s consciousness as well. No spoilers here—all of this happens in the first chapter of this fierce, wide-ranging novel that refuses to look away from victims of economic and systemic injustice.
Chadburn, who is Filipino and Black, spent time in the Los Angeles foster care system herself as a young adult and came to writing after a career in labor union organizing. As a journalist and scholar, she’s spent much of the past decade reviewing the case files of child deaths in Los Angeles County with open Department of Children and Family Services investigations—including as a commentator in The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, the Netflix documentary series about an eight-year-old boy killed by his mother and her boyfriend.
I recently spoke to Chadburn, who lives in the mountains outside of Los Angeles, about her interest in writing at the intersections of violence and justice, and how harnessing myth can be a pathway through the darkness.
How did you find writing as your tool to make change in the world?
I feel like Iʼve always been a writer. When I was a kid, I would go with mom to work and write my own versions of Ramona Quimby novels or these complicated narratives about how Alyssa Milano was my best friend. But I had a very solid plan: to become a neurosurgeon, which I would pay for by going through the military. So Iʼd be a fighter pilot-slash-neurosurgeon, and that was how I was going to get my family out of poverty.
I come from an immigrant family, so I felt like writing professionally was selfish. I’m sober now, and as part of recovery, you do this “fearless and rigorous inventory.” One of the questions was, Do you share your gifts with others? And my sponsor pointed out that my writing was a gift that could be shared with other people, and I’d never thought of it that way. So I decided to get my MFA in fiction, and honoring my craft was a really big move in my recovery and sobriety.
In A Tiny Upward Shove, your narrator is a supernatural creature, an aswang, which allows the POV to be omnipresent, inhabiting Marina, who we see grow up, and even her murderer, a Canadian pig famer based on real-life serial killer Willy Pickton. But we also get insight into Marina’s mother, grandmother, and generations of her family. How did this all come together for you?
I definitely felt like one thing I wanted to do was introduce the aswang to the world. I’ve always felt a strong kinship to this myth. Depending on what province someoneʼs from, you can get a different answer of what the aswang is. Some people might say she’s a shapeshifter. Some people might say that she’s half werewolf, like a were-woman. And some people might say that she’s just a spinster. Really she’s a product of colonialism and enlightenment. I think, when Spanish colonizers entered a matriarchy, people were like, “These women have too much power, and we’ll call her Aswang.”
At the same time that I was writing this book, I had been reporting on [the Gabriel Fernandez case], this really harrowing case of child murder, where there were multiple breakdowns within L.A. County’s foster care system. And at the end of that story, there’s a very clear arc when it comes to that type of narrative; there’s the villain, which are these parents, and in this case, one of them gets a death penalty and the other one gets sentenced to life, and everybody celebrates and it’s handled. I was really left to trouble my ideas of justice sitting in on that trial for a couple years. And at the end, I found journalism to be a dissatisfying outlet. It felt limited.
I feel like this novel allowed me to explore the multiple breakdowns within the foster care system and the multiple breakdowns within economic justice. Also, in journalism, you can’t really capture the unbearableness of a story, whereas I think fiction allows you to do that. It felt really likely that Marina would find herself engaging in sex work and being confronted with economic violence and sexual violence—as is the case for many people exiting the foster care system—and that she might find her way onto the Lougheed Highway, which is the highway that goes from the Pacific Northwest up to Canada, where a lot of Indigenous women and women of color were murdered. And so, I felt like Willy Pickton was a good vehicle to do that. And this is kind of crass, but as a Filipino—and our obsession with pork—and the idea that Willy was a pig farmer, it just all seemed to connect.
I couldn’t tell if this book is a horror novel or a crime novel. Which genre do you think it is, and does it matter?
I donʼt want to put any labels on anything, because I love not having any labels on anything—hybridity all the time. But I do think I wanted to know what an intersectional Trans-Pacific feminist thriller looks like. Especially because of the reporting work I have done, which has been in the true-crime narrative; I wanted to expand on that.
There’s been a lot of discussion about whether it is time for writers of color, especially, to move past the trauma plot, but your novel forces readers to confront multiple scenes of violence. Why do you think it is important to explore these issues in literature?
I think that the truth is the most interesting story, but the truth is so complicated. In the work I was doing looking at the case files of the children who died with open DCFS cases, I found a way to take those really challenging documents and translate them into fairy tales, thinking of using enchantment as a portal to the other side. The aswang was a great tool in the same way. Her capacity to engage other peopleʼs memories and thoughts was an empathy-building tool. And, I mean, the book is violent. Particularly, Iʼve heard from readers that they are challenged by the scenes of sexual violence. [But] sexual violence happens. I think it is a facet of a lot of young womenʼs lives who go through the child welfare system. I donʼt think I could tell this story without incorporating the sexual violence that occurs.
In terms of the Afropessimism versus Afrofuturism debate, and whether we should be done with the trauma plot and only highlight liberation and joy … I think both are still truly important in literature. But I do think a lot about how I can properly perform wake work within my own writing. And I hope that it comes across. My deepest, deepest hope is that itʼs clear that this is a love letter of sorts; that along with the violence, you get to feel Marina’s deep love for her mother, grandmother, and first love. That this novel was born of love, and it really is hoping to offer some sort of respect to people who have lost their lives due to these multiple fissures along the way.