Ana Maria Spagna is a master at bringing the power and beauty of her beloved Pacific Northwest to the page. She is a four-time finalist for the Washington State Book Award, and in her latest book, the braided nonfiction narrative Pushed: Miners, a Merchant and (Maybe) a Massacre (Torrey House Press), she documents her investigative journey through the landscape and historical societies of the Pacific Northwest. In Pushed, Spagna relentlessly works to uncover the truth behind a rumored event dubbed the Chelan Falls Massacre of 1875, where a group of local Indigenous people are said to have pushed as many as three-hundred Chinese miners off a cliff and into the Columbia River. Written and published during a time when xenophobia is on the rise, Spagna looks beyond the common, convenient narratives of the American Northwest. Through complex and nuanced explorations of how we record history, she offers the reader no easy answers. Instead, Spagna challenges us to consider the big, important questions of how we can move forward without repeating our past.
A few of her previous publications include the memoir–history text Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus: A Daughter’s Civil Rights Journey of several lesser-known civil rights activists, which won the River Teeth literary nonfiction prize, and Reclaimers, which chronicles the stories of elder women reclaiming sacred land and water.
I had the great pleasure of speaking with Spagna on Zoom about the necessity and challenges of bringing unknown stories to the light, appreciating questions more than answers, and the dangers inherent in erasure and misrepresentation of history and oppression.
The Rumpus: Your latest book reads somewhat like a detective story—it’s true crime, cold case, and history. It’s also what many people know and love you for as well, nature writing and memoir. Am I missing anything?
Ana Maria Spagna: No, I think you’re getting it. It also has all these wonderful characters.
Rumpus: Oh, yes. Characters with a capital C! Can you share with us how the idea to write Pushed came about?
Spagna: I wanted to learn about the Indigenous people in the area where I live and came upon a small history of the area with a chapter about the supposed massacre of Chinese miners. It seemed crazy that I had never heard of it. When I asked around, nobody seemed to know much until I was at a Halloween party and ran into a couple of friends who work with the Historical Society in Chelan. They didn’t know exactly where it happened but were game to go on a jaunt to start digging around.
Rumpus: What hooked you on this particular story of Chinese miners?
Spagna: I think it was twofold. There’s something about an event that may have happened in a place you’re intimate with. It’s a place I love and where I fell in love, and this terrible massacre supposedly took place here? So there’s that. There’s also the political moment we were in and are in, with xenophobia on the rise. I felt like I had more than an interest and personal connection but also an obligation to find out this history because it could so easily repeat. It does repeat. Over and over. This kind of oppression and the complete erasure of people who had lives and loved and had children in this area. These Chinese immigrants outnumbered White immigrants in this region two to one, and we’ve erased them. No one speaks of them. So bringing their stories back into the light seemed important.
Rumpus: One of the things I love about this book is that you take us with you on this journey. Can you take us a little bit on the journey now?
Spagna: At first, I was interested in where the massacre might have happened. I thought I could just dig through some archives, and I would find out the truth, but when I dug and dug, there just wasn’t much more than scraps.
I was able to get all these people on board: archeologists, the small-town historian Arnie Marchand, the Okanagan elder. I’m hesitant to use the word delight because it’s such a dark story, but there is delight in getting to meet people and hearing their stories. I wanted to actively express that feeling to readers so they can have that sense of delight and serendipity and the camaraderie of being on a journey together.
I think part of what I love about being a generalist nonfiction writer is I’m not an academic. I’m just a curious individual. People are so generous with their knowledge and admit their ignorance in a way that—I hate to say this—sometimes, in the academy, people won’t do.
Rumpus: It’s fascinating how everyone had a different take on what happened.
Spagna: There are different versions of what happened: that it was committed by Indigenous people, that it was committed by White people dressed up, that it didn’t happen at all. To a certain extent, the version people believe has more to do with their own politics and their own positionality than with what may or may not have happened.
I felt that happening myself. As soon as I found out it might have been White people, I was like, “Of course, it’s White people that do things like this,” but I don’t know that.
People hang onto their versions of the story. That took me to a super fascinating part of the book where I write about fake massacres in some small towns. Early on in my research, an old friend of mine who’s a historian said to me, “Oh, Ana Maria, people love their massacres.” I thought that was the strangest phrase.
Later, when I got more deeply into the research, I learned about Almo, Idaho, which has a monument to three hundred White people who were supposedly killed by Shoshone people in a “most horrible Indian massacre.” It didn’t happen. It’s been disproved for almost 100 years. The Shoshone are begging them to take it down, but the local people will not. Why do they hang on to that history? Does it say something about the heroism of their ancestors on the wagon train? Does it give their town an interesting monument?
It’s complicated. We shouldn’t let stories of fake massacres remain out there, but when you debunk the massacre, you also erase the one way they appear in history. Even more disturbing is that there are so many massacres that actually did happen that we don’t acknowledge. In those, it’s usually marginalized people who were massacred.
As soon as we start debunking massacres, things can get turned around. People can say, “There was no Holocaust,” or “There was no Sandy Hook shooting.”
Rumpus: You ask lots of big questions in the book and end on one about erasure. You ask what’s worse, erasing people or misrepresenting what happened?
Spagna: I, in no sense, want to usurp or take away the validity, the power, or the importance of actual historians who spend their lives finding out the actual stories that happen, the things we can document. The problem is, there’s so much we can’t document, that hasn’t been documented. These Chinese miners wouldn’t sign up for the census because as soon as they put their name on the census, they’d be taxed, for one thing, and possibly run out of town for another. All kinds of complicated things happen, as we know, when undocumented people give their names to a government agency.
I think it’s so important to find a place in nonfiction, not just in fiction, where we imagine the lives that these people lived, where we acknowledge and document what we do know and ask questions.
Rumpus: We didn’t really learn that much from history. We’re still making the same mistakes, right?
Spagna: We keep making these same mistakes. Yet there’s another part of the story. I wrote a previous book [Sunnyland] about my dad and the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement and the absolute courage in standing up. When I dug into this history, I found a story of one man in Wenatchee, Washington, who stood up and said no when people wanted to pass a law to run the Chinese people out of town, which happened all over the West.
I love that these stories reappear everywhere you look. People stand up for others. The merchant, Chee Saw, has a friend, Wapato John, an Indigenous man. They have competing businesses on the Columbia River, but they help each other out.
There’s a very diverse cast of characters along the river at that time. We’re talking about the 1870s in a sparsely populated part of the Pacific Northwest. You have this formerly enslaved man who comes via New Orleans, who speaks French, who ends up working for the chief of the Entiat band, as kind of the gatekeeper of that river valley.
Rumpus: I’m so impressed with the depth with which you self-interrogate. Most of us see through a specific lens and aren’t even aware that’s all we see, but you are so skilled at looking beyond your personal lens. How do you do that?
Spagna: It might be all those years, reading and writing personal essays, seeing the sharp minds from James Baldwin to Joan Didion doing that on the page. It trained me that way. Also, I feel the moment in history we live in makes us second guess many of the things we thought or believed were true.
Rumpus: You have experience, between writing the Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus and Reclaimers, of becoming involved in long projects where you go really deep into research both in the library and in the field. How was this project different?
Spagna: The hardest thing was that I came in overconfident. In both Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus and Reclaimers, I met people who lived through the events. If I looked hard enough, I could find a Johnny Herndon, who rode the bus. I could find a Pauline Esteves, who remembered park rangers fire hosing her Adobe home. Nobody could say “That didn’t happen” because there were living witnesses.
I underestimated the challenge of having no living witness. The few accounts of Chinese people who lived along the river in that era were from White people’s perspectives. I was really in the realm of guessing and piecing things together from what I could know.
Rumpus: You didn’t seem to get overly frustrated with the challenge.
Spagna: No, I didn’t. Maybe it’s because I’m more interested in questions than answers. Maybe if I would get interested in answers, I might sell a few more books.
But I am very happy in the question realm. I did get frustrated sometimes. There was one particular set of documents that I was sure would have some answers in it. And I actually, for the first time, hired an assistant to go through them because the print was too small for me to read. And she spent hours and hours and said, “No, there’s nothing.”
Rumpus: Our brains are programmed to fill in missing pieces, so that stories make sense to us. Did you have to catch yourself when you were doing that and then take a step back?
Spagna: I had to both catch myself and let myself do it some too. This is an odd parallel, but I’ve been teaching classes on writing the nonhuman, writing from animal perspectives. We don’t know what animals think or feel, so we have to let ourselves imagine something.
I feel very similarly here that I had to let myself imagine something and then step back and say “That could be wrong.” Here’s the danger: at the center of this story is a newspaper article that glamorized and sensationalized this supposed massacre. If anything is damning, in terms of what I’m trying to do, it’s the legacy of this writer in 1892.
Rumpus: Can you tell us about the three-section structure?
Spagna: It really helped me to have three separate sections, one for each of the versions of what happened: White people did it, Indigenous people did it, or it didn’t happen at all. I open each section with an imagination of what happened in that version of the story. That really grounded me. Then within and despite those sections, I realized there had to be chronology, some journey going on. That became my own journey of discovery.
Rumpus: How did that structure come to you?
Spagna: It’s very, very rare for me in writing, but it was almost the first thing I came up with. I’ve been talking and thinking a lot about speculation and nonfiction. I tried to force myself to speculate in those three ways. Once I had, I could use that as a scaffold to build around. I was hoping, honestly, to include more speculation, but it began to feel gratuitous, a little just ‘writerly,’ playful, and I realized the story is more serious than that. I kept thinking about that writer in 1892, and I did not want to make the same mistakes.
Rumpus: It seems like that article—or writer from 1892—was present in your thoughts often as you wrote. So how did you work / guard against making the same mistakes? What advice, cautions, or guardrails would you give to writers embarking on similar journeys of discovery, working on nonfiction projects?
Spagna: My problem with the 1892 writer isn’t the use of speculation about what happened. Speculation is, I firmly believe, a necessary part of a writer’s job: to engage with and dramatize stories about which little has been written or recorded. The problem is this writer’s solitary perspective.
The solution when little is known is to track down as many sources as possible, and here’s the key: to give them page space. That’s why all these characters are so important in Pushed: Randy Lewis, Arnie Marchand, Sue and Dave Clouse, Dorothy Petry, Raymond Chong. They all know and think and believe different things about the massacre. My job was to honor their versions of the story and let the reader consider all of them. That’s what I recommend for any nonfiction writer, with any story. Remember: you are not the only voice. You are not even the decider of what’s true or not. You are the conduit for many perspectives. Maybe through these many perspectives readers can triangulate some semblance of truth. That, to me, is history.
Rumpus: What about reaching out to surviving family members in China?
Spagna: I think that looms. I may have followed that route more seriously, but the pandemic came down in the middle of working on this book. A lot of doors closed.
The gift was that Raymond Chong found me in the last year and a half of writing the book. He had contacts in China who asked the bare minimum of questions, such as, “Is there a record of the bones?” He strongly believes there would be a record of them and that the massacre would’ve been reported in newspapers if three hundred people were killed.
If there were, as I’ve come to suspect, several smaller massacres, they did not make the newspaper. Dr. Chong was just so generous and helpful and got me to the point where, after five years of exploration, I thought, “I think I can finish this book. I think I can close it up now.”
Rumpus: The pandemic hadn’t yet hit when you started the project?
Spagna: It was almost three years before the pandemic.
Rumpus: During the writing, what was your reaction to the anti-Asian sentiments that were rising? Did you feel like you were a witness to history repeating itself?
Spagna: It was absolutely like that, and kind of terrifying. A lot of the political tensions when I was first writing the book were about DACA and immigrants from Mexico and Central America. There’s a chapter where I go and spend time with Mexican migrants picking apples near the site and another where I talk with a woman who immigrated from Central America. Then, when COVID hit, it became xenophobia against Asian Americans. It was all so disheartening.
Rumpus: Are historians contacting you since the book came out?
Spagna: We’re in a moment when these things are being discussed. I gave a talk about the book at St. Lawrence University in New York, where I was teaching. A historian, who does a lot of work with the history of marginalized communities in the United States, was concerned that bringing attention to fake massacres might be undercutting all the good work historians are doing to prove actual oppression. She was very gracious and graceful, but she said, “Just imagine this book in the hands of Tucker Carlson or someone who will say, ‘Look, here’s the proof. None of this stuff happened.’” This was not my point but was certainly a sobering response to the book.
Other people asked, “What about going to China?” My greatest hope is that this book will spur someone to do that.
Rumpus: That’s what I was thinking. You did the trailblazing.
Spagna: Just opened the door a crack and let in the sunlight. Someone will pick it up.
Author photo by Nancy Barnhart