A Conversation with Ana Maria Spagna
In 1875, Chinese miners were pushed off a high bluff over the Columbia River during what became known as the Chelan Falls Massacre. Amid mounting xenophobia in our own time, Ana Maria Spagna sets out to discover exactly what happened and why in Pushed: Miners, A Merchant, and (Maybe) a Massacre (September 2022).
Ana Maria Spagna is the author of nine books including the young adult novel The Luckiest Scar on Earth and most recently the poetry chapbook Mile Marker Six. Her work has been recognized by the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize, the Society for Environmental Journalists, the Nautilus Book Awards, and as a four-time finalist for the Washington State Book Award. A former backcountry trails worker, Ana Maria now teaches in MFA programs at Antioch University, Los Angeles and Western Colorado University. In 2021-2022 she will serve as Viebranz Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at St. Lawrence University.
READ: Tell us about a book that shifted your perspective in some way, and/or made an impression on you.
Gardens In the Dunes by Leslie Marmon Silko, set in and around my hometown of Riverside, California, melds stories of two Indigenous girls and white horticulturalists, and the cultivation of desert gardens over millennia and the international orchid trade against the backdrop of dam construction on the Colorado River. When I read the novel in my early thirties, it opened up new ways of thinking about the cultural and environmental history of my ostensible home place, and years later likely drove my interest in writing Pushed. The novel is also about the plain necessity of resistance, how resistance is survival. The two girls always return to the gardens in the dunes their people have cultivated. That seemed to me a simple elegant metaphor for how to live.
REVEAL: What was revealed to you in the process of working on your book?
I came to see a new richness in the history of the West, the untold stories of Chinese miners and so many others, and I realized, yet again, how thoroughly I had bought into one version of the West, a kind of wilderness mythology suffused with settler mentality. The revelation felt like a door swinging wide. A world I’d seen in black and white, now full of color and texture. There are horrors, yes, absolutely—and part of what the book argues is the need to face them—but there’s also a deep connection: these people lived where we live. In many Chinese traditions, I learned, the dead watch over the living. In writing Pushed, I came to believe we owe something to the dead, too: to reimagine their lives, to recognize our kinship, to share stories.
REEMERGE: What is feeding/nurturing you these days? What are you looking forward to or stepping in to?
I’m teaching in person after a long break, and the students inspire me daily. They’ve emerged from these hard months, having experienced so much loss, with a remarkable capacity for wonder and a righteous sense of urgency. They seem not so much unscathed as remade. Last spring I taught an online class called “embodying the nonhuman” to graduate students at Western Colorado University. Next semester I’ll get to teach it to these undergraduates, and I can’t wait to hear how they imagine and engage with animals, plants, rocks, water, sky. All of it.
Why Torrey House Press?
I am continually impressed with the breadth and depth of the Torrey House list. The focus on “Voices for the Land” includes those of us devoted to the West and, crucially, the stories we tell about those who came before. (I think of the way Betsy Gaines Quammen’s American Zion locates current political tensions in place-based history.) The mission statement aims directly at the roots of environmental justice, seeking to remedy the way stories of the West “too often overlook the deep-seated histories, violent uprooting, and current disenfranchisement of communities of color.” That’s exactly what I’d like my book to do. This is a community I want to be a part of.