As Johnson Visiting Instructor of English, Ana Maria Spagna is on hiatus from a corner of the North Cascades accessible only by boat, foot or float plane: Stehekin, Washington, the remote community she calls home. Spagna, who specializes in creative nonfiction, is the former M.F.A. program director at Antioch University and the author of six books, including Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus: A Daughter's Civil Rights Journey (Bison Books, 2010), which won the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Book Prize, and Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness (Oregon State University Press, 2011). Her body of work also includes a novel for young people, The Luckiest Scar on Earth (Torrey House Press, 2017). And she penned a forthcoming essay collection, Uplake (University of Washington Press, 2018).
Her writing has been recognized by the Society of Environmental Journalists and the Nautilus Book Awards. Prior to her literary career, Spagna spent 15 years with the National Park Service. She answered a few questions in advance of her Visiting Writers Reading Series event on Oct. 19 at 7 p.m. Edited excerpts follow.
You hail from a town with about 100 year-round residents. What's it like being in a "big city" like Walla Walla?
You're right-Walla Walla is the big city to me. I've thoroughly enjoyed proximity to coffee shops and restaurants, bike paths and a swimming pool, and maybe best of all: the library. I'm pretty sure all the staff members at Penrose know me already. I'm still getting used to some of the perks, like being able to run to the grocery store any time you want, and how, if you put your garbage by the curb, someone shows up and takes it away. Don't let me fool you, I did grow up in Southern California. I know all about sidewalks and streetlights, but it has been a long, long time (more than 20 years) since I've actually lived full time away from the mountains.
What has been your impression of Whitman students so far?
Whitman students are fabulous: smart and earnest, kind and ambitious, willing to work hard and to try new things. I've heard all the complaints about so-called millennials. From what I can tell, it's hogwash.
What's the last thing you read that you would recommend?
I'm a big fan of the personal essay. I love the ways writers try to make sense of experience and tell the truest true story they can. Three collections I read recently that I thoroughly loved were The Girls in My Town by Angela Morales (University of New Mexico Press, 2016), Too Much and Not the Mood by Durga Chew-Bose (FSG Originals, 2017) and Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay (HarperCollins, 2017).
Whitman hosts an array of guest speakers and educators. Many also offer on-campus workshops or engage with students in the classroom. We ask them to give us a brief insight into their area of expertise. For more information on upcoming events at Whitman, visit the campus calendar.