You Better Be Good or the Aswang Will Get You
Melissa Chadburn uses Philippine mythology to reexamine societal notions of female rage, vengeance, and justice in her novel "A Tiny Upward Shove"
Melissa Chadburn’s novel A Tiny Upward Shove pulls us headlong into the short and tragic life of Marina, a ward of the state who falls victim to a serial killer targeting vulnerable women on Canada’s Highway Of Tears. Marina could be just another poor woman of color selling her body whose murder earns a brief mention on the evening news, if at all, but Chadburn chooses to render her short life in heartbreaking detail to counteract our collective erasure of her humanity, and to expose our own complicity in her victimization.
The quest for justice is central to this novel. While a neglectful mother and a foster care system tasked with caring for Marina abandon her to her fate, the histories that Marina carries in her body burst forth at the moment of her death in the form of an Aswang—a Philippine mythological creature known for its shapeshifting powers and immortality.
Growing up in the Philippines, my knowledge of the Aswang was limited to what I saw in horror movies and occasionally in children’s books, its depictions as a malevolent female being often bearing similarities to the witch of European lore. For Marina, the Aswang belongs to a past she carries within her, but which she bears little knowledge of as an immigrant child far removed from the culture of her ancestors, and it serves as a vengeful force that takes over her body in the hopes of killing her murderer.
As a reader, I was fascinated in how Chadburn employed this malevolent creature in Philippine mythology to reexamine our own notions of vengeance and justice, and to gain a deeper understanding of how female rage—as embodied by the Aswang—can ultimately pave the way for healing and closure.
I talked to Chadburn, over email, about tapping into her cultural heritage as a Filipino American writer, the importance of empathy as a tool for dismantling oppression, and the subversive power of queer love in patriarchal culture.
Monica Macansantos: Can you tell me about writing the multiplicities and contradictions of the myth of the Aswang, while creating your own version of the Aswang that becomes a force of good?
Melissa Chadburn: Ha, depending on who you ask you’ll get a different answer as to what an Aswang is. She can be a shapeshifter, or a werewolf, or a vampire, a spinster. In truth, the Aswang is a monster born out of enlightenment and colonialism, a narrative tool once used to get a whole country of heathen women to behave. Women who pre-contact were able to practice their sexuality freely, a country where nudity was not eroticized. In time, the Aswang became a tool to get children to behave. My lola used to warn: you better be good or the Aswang will get you.
The Aswang is often a tool for vengeance, a means of control, but I chose to do something different here. I chose memory as the Aswang’s vehicle to work through because it seemed a tool to build empathy. Empathy is something we talk about a lot, particularly as something fiction specifically helps us develop. Empathy is also a building block toward mercy. While working on this book, I was also sitting in on and reporting on a murder trial and the troubling ideas we have about justice. For those of us who are not Aswang—us mere mortals, our greatest power is to bestow mercy. The neat thing about mercy is that even those of us who have come from seemingly nothing still retain the power for mercy.
MM: In the hands of a less skillful writer, the introduction of supernatural forces into the novel could have possibly softened the full tragedy of Marina’s death by giving her a “good” ending (by saving her from death, in a sense). Thus, it would have distracted us from this tragedy, as well as the tragedy that befalls other poor women of color along the Highway of Tears. How did you avoid this while giving Marina a better ending as she gains access to her Aswang lineage?
MC: Thank you for this and believe me, one of my big fears is that I am not Filipino enough to have written this book. I was not born in the Philippines, my mother was, and like Marina, I grew up in foster care in L.A., so I actually have had limited contact with my Filipino relatives. In fact, I had so many hesitations about building out the Aswang mythology, because who am I to do that? But my editor assured me, this is fiction—you can write it however you’d like. Although, you and I both know many people do not consider the Aswang fiction, and still consider her a very real threat today.
I think that from a craft perspective the Aswang served as a really great construct to move in and out of other characters’ consciousness but still maintain the first person point of view. I struggled immensely with the structure of this novel—I needed a ticking time bomb—something propulsive to move the action along. So the Aswang has nine days—the length of the novena to accomplish her mission. I also struggled with point of view/perspective. Having written nonfiction for so long, I feel very comfortable using the first person POV, but I wanted access to other characters’ thoughts or rather memories—and the Aswang seemed a great remedy for that. She could access peoples’ memories.
There is a great deal of physical and sexual violence in this novel—and like today’s traditional true crime/ or commercial thrillers that sensationalize death and violence against women—some can say that the novel begins with a death—or a dead body. However, you can also say it begins with a birth—or rebirth—that of the Aswang. It was important for this novel, I think, to allow the reader to intimately look at a whole life—in that sense I think the Aswang helped serve this narrative and offer the nuance that is often missing in these types of stories.
MM: As someone who inhabits the worlds created by English and Tagalog in my everyday life, I was drawn to your insertion of Tagalog colloquialisms into your prose. How did you choose which objects and feelings to name in Tagalog, and why did you feel the need to present these in Marina’s other language?
MC: There were just some words that don’t translate—that don’t hold the same emotional weight in English. Ay susmaryosep is a great example. I mean literally it translates to Jesus Mary Joseph. And the English equivalent might be oh my god, but for devout Catholics, it can be deemed a terrible cuss word (along the lines of using the Lord’s name in vain).
MM: Marina, Mutya, and Lola have all been indoctrinated by society to seek validation from men, even as the men in their lives render them invisible to themselves and others by demanding their subservience. When Marina begins to seek male attention in response to her invisibility within the foster care system, her dehumanization feels almost inevitable. Can you talk about Marina’s inability to escape her indoctrination as she struggles to free herself from the dehumanization of foster care?
MC: I imagine in a patriarchy this is true for all of us, that we are indoctrinated by society to seek validation from men. The conditions are not much different for Marina than they were for say her lola, whose response to coloniality was to marry a man in the military. In one sense though, it can be read that she escaped this indoctrination by becoming Aswang. For me, that’s a fun idea. That while the patriarchy holds the power, the Aswang holds the ultimate power and that ultimate power lies in the balance between mercy and justice.
MM: Even as Marina chases the validation of predatory men, she ultimately finds solace and strength in her blossoming relationship with Alex, another girl in foster care who comes from a background of neglect and abuse. What new insights did you glean from exploring queer love’s place in the lives of these girls, while deploying it against the injustices they suffer in the hands of the patriarchy?
MC: I especially love this love between Alex and Marina—in spite of their life’s circumstances—their love is so pure. Queer love can be so pure—like that first crush Marina had on the neighbor girl Jessie. Queer love can also be a rebellion in that there are often so many barriers to its expression. I joke that while this novel has a serial killer and an Aswang at its center, it is a very sweet queer love story.
MM: You’ve spent much of your career exposing the seemingly invisible mechanisms that exploit the most vulnerable in society. This project is also central to A Tiny Upward Shove, but you also take the time to present the people who fail Marina as complex and nuanced characters, from her neglectful mother to her jaded and absentminded social worker. Even the men who brutalize Marina are shown to be very human in their motivations. Why do you think it’s important to expose the human face behind these institutions of oppression?
MC: It seems, from what I’ve learned so far in journalism, that readers are often invested in an individual character’s circumstances and emotional life, and that it’s much more difficult to engage people around larger systemic breakdowns. My thinking was to perhaps personify mechanisms for slower forms of killing. Also, people are complicated. No one is all good or all bad or all any one thing.
MM: Instead of demonizing Willie Pickton, the real-life serial killer who murders Marina in the novel, you choose to depict him as an ordinary man whose violence towards women stems from a deep-seated hurt. Can you talk about the importance of exploring Willie’s childhood traumas and motivations while showing the full tragedy of Marina’s death?
MC: Well I wouldn’t say I chose to depict him as an ordinary man—I mean it is clear he is a murderer. It can be both true that he is a murderer and that he experienced trauma as a child. But it’s also true that Marina experienced a similar trauma. I know what I wanted to show was that both of these people underwent similar circumstances and they came out on the opposite ends of things. I’m not entirely sure why I wanted to do that.
I will say this. As someone who has gone through the foster care system—there are so many predictors of negative outcomes for former foster youth. The most harrowing are the statistics that state anyone who has undergone abuse will likely abuse another. I’d wrestled with that concept for much of my life. I think maybe in recent years we’ve found other statistics that the inverse of that is true—that it’s likely that if someone is an abuser that they too have experienced abuse. Either way, when people do terrible things, we often grapple to make sense of it, when often there is no sense of things. That the world can be beautiful and terrible things can happen. That one could have a seemingly sound fantastic childhood and they can do terrible things, or that someone can have a terrible childhood and they can be magnificent loving parents. I have a post-it note on my computer. Do our appetites make us monstrous? Ultimately, no, I don’t think they do, but this is a question I think is interesting to trouble. I have another post-it note on my computer, it’s a quote of the folklorist Marina Warner:
“To show the emptiness of fear, to identify its pernicious working and prevent them, must be part of any system of education and justice. Yet the problem remains, that the impulse to find a culprit, however innocent, lies deeply rooted in human psychology and culture.”
I’m not suggesting that Pickton is a scapegoat for evils as he himself was a culprit, yet it doesn’t make him immune to also being a recipient of violence and undoing.
MM: Your novel is brutally honest in exposing the cruelties of American society towards its most vulnerable, and yet the magic of Philippine mythology allows you to end the novel on a hopeful note. Can you tell us more about this? While telling these difficult truths, why must one leave room for hope?
MC: This is a fantastic question but I hesitate to give away the end of the novel… also I think I may have answered it above when I spoke about mercy.