The Chaos Remains: On Melissa Chadburn’s “A Tiny Upward Shove”

By Martha Anne TollMay 5, 2022

The Chaos Remains: On Melissa Chadburn’s “A Tiny Upward Shove”

A Tiny Upward Shove by Melissa Chadburn

LOS ANGELES labor organizer Melissa Chadburn pitches words with the intensity and speed of Zeus hurling lightning bolts. In her debut novel, A Tiny Upward Shove, she kills off her main character on the first page:

“Don’t believe anyone who tells you that death comes quick and painless. That’s bullshit. Dying hurts like fuck-all everything; you can feel all the pains, the hurts, the joys, the cries of all the world. There’s no numbing dope, no dick wows, no kitty kitty yum yum, just a floodlight on all the world’s needs. Death is a dump.”

Marina falls through “the crack between the world you know and the worlds you do not know,” allowing for an aswang, a spirit, to inhabit her body and tell us the rest of the story in an extended flashback. Marina is Black and Filipina, and her aswang is on her last tour with the women in her family, “[s]even generations of duty, love, and magic.” In addition to serving as raconteur, the aswang must “finish what the mortal host began […] it must be her own most pressing thing, the thing most heavy on her heart.”

Alice Sebold used a related device in The Lovely Bones; her protagonist was a rape-murder victim narrating after her death. Chadburn’s aswang mixes English and Tagalog and speaks with an acid tongue — full of insight, compassion, and unflinching observations.

As a young girl, Marina moves from her grandmother’s house near Monterey to Los Angeles. Her mother, Mutya, is pursuing a dead-end relationship but also plans to complete her education. What and how they eat illustrates their circumstance: “Shit on a shingle — white gravy with ground beef spread over toasted Wonder Bread. That time at the grocery store when the clerk declined Mutya’s check and she shut the whole store down with nothing but her knockoff handbag, her angry eyes and her mouth.”

Marina is a top student and loves going to school. But Mutya begins going downhill, searching desperately for love as signs of mental illness take hold. A succession of men, from lazy to violent, goes through their lives. At age 13, Child Protective Services shows up, and Marina is put into state custody, where her talents are wasted and ignored. Her best resources are other adolescents who may be loving but have also been eviscerated by the system. “Emancipation” means being released from state “care” at age 16 with no money, education, or adult guidance. Drugs and sex work are the most readily available career choices. It is a tragically accurate picture of how the United States treats impoverished, parentless children of color.

Braided in with Marina’s narrative is the life of her murderer, Willie Pickton, whose father savagely beats him for crashing his vintage truck on the way to take Bessie the sow to a farm show. “Willie lay bombed-out in the lot, mixed into the jumble of broken pigs and truck parts and gravel and false hope of slaughter money.” He watches his father grab his mother by the waist in the kitchen and rub up against her, her body getting stiff. “She doesn’t like it,” Willie thinks, and runs into the pigpen:

At first, it stank. He sucked it all in with his nose. All the shit and mud and pig sweat. All that pink skin and pink hairs and black hairs and spots, and there was the all-brown pig and those with the spots. She doesn’t like it. She doesn’t like it. She doesn’t like it. […] His cheeks brushing past the bodies of the pigs, their wet noses slobbering on his face.

It is up to the aswang to make things right for future forgotten girls. Since she is called up at the scene of Marina’s murder and cannot save Marina, she has to figure out how pay it forward.

Chadburn is a journalist and a PhD candidate at USC’s creative writing program. It was her Jezebel article that first made clear to me how absurd it is to expect resilience from people who do not know where their next meal is coming from, let alone where they will sleep that night. Chadburn knows capitalism’s sordid underbelly firsthand. Her New York Review of Books article “The Food of My Youth” illuminates the economic violence of her upbringing:

Growing up, I drank powdered milk and ate Spam, Vienna sausages, “new potatoes” (small, peeled potatoes in a can), and rice with butter, salt, and pepper. The vegetables were jaundiced, green beans made salty and chewy in chicken stock, or sweet, thick creamed corn. […] We ate quickly and with our hands.

In the “Coda” to A Tiny Upward Shove, Chadburn the journalist speaks out. She writes that the National Crime Information Center’s data shows that more than “5,800 Indigenous womxn, girls, and two-spirit persons throughout the United States and Canada have been reported as missing or murdered. This novel asks that we recognize those who have died, who are still missing, those who have survived, and their beloved grievers.”

Investigative smarts and journalistic advocacy are not always ingredients for great literature. Although American literature has a tradition of muckraking journalists turned fictioneers — like Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, and Theodore Dreiser — not every journalist can translate a passion for social justice into fiction. Chadburn, however, successfully bridges these worlds. She joins recent stars in this Zolaesque lineage: Ernest Gaines, whose A Lesson Before Dying shows the deadly underside of the United States’s racist injustice system, and Rene Denfeld, the former chief investigator at a public defender’s office who wrote The Enchanted from the perspective of a man on death row and The Child Finder from the perspective of a child molester.

Chadburn inhabits her novel with ease, pulling off blistering fiction while hewing to ugly realities dredged up through her journalism. In an author’s note, she writes:

Over the last several years, as part of my journalism and work on this book, I’ve increasingly focused on the stories and redacted case files of children who died while in Los Angeles County’s child welfare system. […] I have unwrinkled time in their files, unreversed the chronology. But the chaos remains — a loud bright brokenhearted hum slashing through the text — and this effort, and its limitations, have informed my narrative. […] While my novel does not tell any of their specific stories, I believe it all too accurately reflects many of them.

One name in this novel is real: Willie Pickton was an actual Canadian serial murderer.

A Tiny Upward Shove is an accomplished debut novel that will grab readers by the collar and shake them out of complacency. It is a shouted remembrance to those silenced by misogyny, racism, and violence, but it is also fantastic literature, penned by a writer with tremendous heart and skill.


Martha Anne Toll is a DC-based writer and reviewer. Her debut novel, Three Muses, won the Petrichor Prize for Finely Crafted Fiction and is forthcoming from Regal House Publishing in fall 2022. For 26 years, she served as the founding executive director of the Butler Family Fund, deeply engaged in the death penalty and other social justice issues.

LARB Contributor

Martha Anne Toll’s debut novel, Three Muses (2022), an immersive look into the ballet world and the Holocaust, is short-listed for the Gotham Book Prize and won the Petrichor Prize for Finely Crafted Fiction. Toll is a book reviewer and author interviewer at NPR Books, The Washington Post, Pointe Magazine, Lilith Magazine, The Millions, and elsewhere. She has recently joined the board of directors of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!