Seven Questions With Writer Elissa Washuta
The author and Ohio State writing professor talks about her new memoir in essays, “White Magic,” and the relationship between writing and yearning.
One of the first things you might notice about Elissa Washuta’s new essay collection, “White Magic,” is the epigraphs. You know: those quotes at the beginning of a book or a chapter that you might sometimes skim or even fail to notice until the second reading. Washuta’s book is full of them. Not only that, but throughout a portion of the book, she uses the same one repeatedly—a short verse by Alice Notley, followed by a Louise Erdrich poem.
Each time, the poems are followed by a different footnote, directly addressing the reader. “So many epigraphs! Are you wondering if I’m going to do that with every essay? How does that make you feel?” she comments in one. And in another: “When you don’t understand the meaning of something you read, whose fault is it? Yours or the writer’s?”
I asked Washuta about her intention with these footnoted epigraphs, which simultaneously add a layer of literary gravitas and an element of playfulness to the essays. She says they started as a joke, because she noticed people complaining about epigraphs on Twitter. People said they were “clunky;” “unnecessary.”
“And it’s true that in reading other people's work, I don't often respond strongly positively to epigraphs,” Washuta says. “But in my own work, I love them. And, ultimately, I'm spending the most time with this thing. Can’t I have an epigraph?”
More seriously, Washuta says, her hope is that readers who skip over the epigraphs will eventually find in them a reason to circle back and engage more directly with the book.
Washuta, an assistant professor of English at Ohio State, is a member of the Cowlitz Tribe. She grew up in New Jersey but lived as an adult in the state of Washington, where she where she spent years participating in Coast Salish Native culture and tribal citizenship.. She has published two earlier memoirs, both of which deal with eating disorders and body dysmorphia, “Starvation Mode: A Memoir of Food, Consumption and Control,” and “My Body is a Book of Rules,” and is co-editor of the anthology “Shapes of Native Nonfiction: Collected Essays by Contemporary Writers.” She was the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and other awards.
In this new memoir-in-essays, published by Tin House, a painful breakup is the jumping-off point for explorations of the writer’s desperate struggle with alcoholism (she is now sober), her painful experiences with abuse and sexual assault, and the white conquest of Native people and the intergenerational impact of trauma, tough topics that bubble up within discussions of witchcraft, Fleetwood Mac, “Twin Peaks” and the Oregon Trail II video game. It’s a searingly honest and uniquely crafted work that rewards re-reading—and not only to better understand the epigraphs.
I spoke with Washuta earlier this month; the interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Did you start with a vision for this book? Or did you start with essays that congealed into a book over time?
I always like to think in books. But the book that I was going to write didn't take shape for a long time. A lot of the things that are at the core of this book just hadn’t happened yet when I started trying to write it. I wasn't yet sober—that was the big thing—and so I had a lot of failed attempts. But after getting sober in 2015, I made a few attempts at drafts, and then in 2017, after coming here to Columbus, I really just took off.
In the essays, you keep circling back to a particular relationship and breakup. Was that hard to write about?
The primary breakup in this book was actually very easy to write about. It was my obsession at the time that I really wanted to get back together with this person, and writing became a good use of that terrible energy. Rather than just kind of obsessing into the void, I was able to make something out of it.
Anything that's actively nagging at my thoughts becomes easy to write about because it wants to be resolved.
And does the writing resolve it? In your earlier book, “My Body is a Book of Rules,” you wrote about a hole that needs to be filled. That theme comes back pretty frequently here, around the issue of alcohol. Does writing finally fill that hole?
I think it can. It often does. I think having the hole is really useful--having some need. I guess that is possibly why I write. Writing helps me to understand what my desire is and what I'm yearning for.
I'm always going to have that hole that needs to be filled. I haven't had a drink in six years now, but there's still food and video games and, you know, stock trading, and any number of things I do to please myself. But I do think that writing satisfies me and rewards me in a different way. When I am writing, I feel much better and I don't feel that gaping hole as much.
You mentioned addictive behaviors, and I wanted to ask about one. I have spent way too much time Googling Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham videos while reading this book, because you delve into online imagery in a very rich way. Does going down those rabbit holes ever get in the way of your work?
Research and going down rabbit holes can certainly be procrastination for me, but it's also a way to keep connected to the work that I'm doing when I don't have time for long writing sessions. The more time passes, I can’t just kind of dip in quickly or do an hour in the morning. But I do need to stay connected to my projects, and I think the structure of my work depends upon associative leaps between thoughts and curiosities. So being able to go down rabbit holes and watch myself doing it is a really important part of my process. I just need to know when to stop and actually start writing something.
In this book, you explore the history of white colonization and the situation of Native people in both New Jersey and in Washington. I wondered if you're addressing that issue now in Ohio, where here in the capital we have a street called Mound Street and where we're talking about a Native mound in Newark that has a golf course built on top of it.
Spending ten years in Seattle, I got really familiar with the relationships between tribes in the area and the history of colonization there. I felt confident enough that I understood the basics so that I could do the deep research that's in “White Magic.” Here, the dynamics are so different because of just the different processes of settler colonialism that played out here. In Seattle, I could and did go to the Duwamish Longhouse and talk to tribal members from so many of these different tribes or go a little bit further out to the peninsula and go to reservations there. I made a lot of connections in Indian country, talking to people in their homelands.
In Ohio, the people that were here before colonization were forced to relocate. And so that creates a completely different situation. I'm certainly open to writing about it eventually, but first I’m trying to do my learning.
Can we talk a little bit about the title? If I'm reading it correctly, your journey in this book is partly about trying to move away from black magic in your life to white magic in the sense of magic that brings joy rather than pain. But of course the reference to whiteness makes the term loaded. What does it represent to you?
I think the concepts of white magic and black magic are so familiar in the popular imagination that I expected readers to come in with those basic associations. But there are two kinds of magic that this book is interested in: the magic of witchcraft and the supernatural, and also stage magic. Performance magic.
The two seems to be in relationship, to me, in the way they deal with wonder and the human imagination, but they are two very different things. One is trying to get at the real, and one is intentional deception. So it's a title that I hoped would hold all of these things or serve as the container for all of these complicated and conflicting ideas.
What are you working on now?
I am working on another essay collection, one that deals with living between apocalypses. The one that my ancestors experienced and the one that sooner or later is ahead, maybe.
That sounds like another very lightweight topic.
I keep thinking maybe I'll write a light, fun book—but I don't think it's going to happen.