I had the pleasure of being introduced to Elissa Washuta at the Port Townsend Writers Conference in July 2019.
On the Olympic Peninsula, the days were sunny and the mornings were crisp and the deer were plentiful in that pre-pandemic world.
Washuta is Cowlitz and her ancestral home is what is now known as Washington State. We were at the Fort Worden Historical State Park, a place that has been shaped by the presence of colonial military forces.
The official state park website states that 100 years ago there were nearly 1000 personnel stationed there to defend the Puget Sound from potential invaders.
The unfortunate irony of this is that the Cowlitz people were not federally recognized until 2000 and did not have a reservation until 2015.
Catherine Washuta, aged 36, grew up in New Jersey and later moved to Seattle, where she obtained her MFA in fiction from the University of Washington.
She taught at her college as well as the Hugo House literary center, and was the writer in residence at the Fremont Bridge for a prolonged period of time.
The essays in her book White Magic (Tin House) are largely set in Seattle and relate her experience in the bridge’s tower.
Her other works, My Body Is a Book of Rules (Red Hen Press, 2014), Starvation Mode (Future Tense Books, 2015) and the co edited anthology, Shapes of Native Nonfiction: Collected Essays by Contemporary Writers (University of Washington Press, 2019) address complex identity and bodily matters, but their contents and styles differ.
Washuta is an adept writer, able to transform what teaching writers often call the “hermit crab essay” — a list, an SVU script, a doctor’s note, a diary entry–into a fountain of invention and imagination.
What she is constantly skilled at is seamlessly combining amusement and insight.
She also manipulates the ideas of language, time, and the structure of a text–its physical shape on the page and its form as a narrative–to create a tale that makes its own life within a reader’s rib and skull.
White Magic utilizes repetition, footnotes, and reader-oriented questions to convey a sense of enchantment.
Washuta is a witch, a term which holds a great meaning, particularly in relation to colonialism and the white appropriation of what could be called ‘magic’ or ‘spirituality’.
These essays attempt to be a pushback against that whitewashing, as well as an effort to comprehend what magic is, decolonised and otherwise.
Magic, in this case, is not about supposition; the seemingly mystical aspects of White Magic are firmly grounded in the real, and surreal, world we live in. In a moving vehicle, Washuta envisages her future self.
In an abode by the sea, an oppressive partner lingers. In the surrealness of a night city, she strides and strides. She rests in a tower on a bridge, expected to write its history; she draws the Tower card from the tarot; real and unearthly spirits wander in and out of these pages.
Finally, we reach an understanding of love, deception, memory, loneliness, and a feeling of being part of something. “If white magic brings light and black magic brings pain, I can see where my incantations lie,” Washuta expresses. ”
Love is poignantly painful. I desire it more than anything else, and I will tear open the world to get it.”_
I had a conversation with Elissa from her abode in Ohio. Her abode was somewhat dark, which gave off a very atmospheric vibe.
We spoke about storytelling, time, remembrance, the web, and fondness.
— Sarah Neilson
By Sarah Neilson, it is asserted that
The essay can be thought of as a dossier that presents a particular point of view or argument.
THE BELIEVER: Form is such an essential element in a lot of your work. It’s clear and intentional that Shapes of Native Nonfiction takes the form of a woven basket.
In White Magic, shape is made apparent in a few ways, one of which is with repeating cycles–called “time loops”–and you use repetition in many areas of the writing. Repetition is also a characteristic of incantation.
Could you discuss the shape of your writing, how you manage it, and how it develops over time? What about repeating and chanting is meaningful to you?
ELISSA WASHUTA: All of my work is conscious of form. Each creation on the page needs its own container, which can be visually striking or more restrained.
Nevertheless, I am always considering the shape of the vessel as well as how it looks.
When I had finished writing My Body Is a Book of Rules, I faced great difficulty in finding a suitable publisher and agent. It was hard to make my writing understandable and my objectives known to the publishing world.
So I decided that I would never write something like this again and learn about the structure of drama, and write a novel or a memoir.
Looking at other memoirs for inspiration, I came across Wild [: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail] by Cheryl Strayed, which had a beautiful and conscious narrative structure with two intertwined arcs.
I tried to follow this pattern with my writing, but all my attempts failed. This went on for years, as I kept making attempts to shape my work the way I thought it should be, without realizing that all my separate essays were part of the same project.
Then I realized that the shaping process for me had to do with time, not just the temporal scope of the work, but also the looping which started to come in when I began to assess the same things again and again.
When I attempted to broaden my writing topics and become a more refined author or a more likable writer or something else, I kept getting drawn back to the same things, similar to what happened in life when I chose the wrong men and attempted to stop drinking.
It felt like my life for a few years was a constant circling of failing to learn. This was also true for My Body Is a Book of Rules.
I thought of it as a process where each essay had its own looping arc that brought me back to the start, not having progressed or grown, but eventually making some headway through the accumulation of loops.
I’m captivated by the significance of repetition in customary tribal storytelling, in spells and words of power, and in the way I converse.
Repetition of words within sentences has a strong effect on me. In our present-day society, Twitter is a prime example of the power of repetition because everyone is repeating the same information.
Therefore, I wanted to find a way to use this concept in the structure of sentences, motifs, and essays.
BLVR: Regarding the notion of forming the story you feel you should be telling, in White Magic you appear to be producing a narrative while simultaneously dissecting and doubting the concept of narrative itself.
This tension intrigues me, because I tend to consider narrative as a ubiquitous thing in life, that everything is a narrative.
I’m curious to know if there is ever a moment when we’re not within a narrative? In your opinion, what are the capabilities and restrictions of a narrative?
EW: It would be an exaggeration to suggest that everyone builds narratives out of their lives, but it is certainly a common occurrence.
For instance, right now, with tomorrow’s Election Day, there are lots of potential narratives. But it also applies to smaller events, like asking oneself why a particular person hasn’t responded to a text message.
We often try to draw connections between events and come up with explanations for what otherwise may be mysterious or unexplainable phenomena.
I feel that we have a deep connection with narrative. At the same time, I believe that various other structures are possible.
Over the past few years, I have been exploring the concepts of narrative, lyric, and anti-narrative. When I wrote My Body Is a Book of Rules I thought I was an anti-narrative writer, and had no connection to plot, or a bad one.
I thought that it had no role to play in my work.
Simple-looking narratives can be very intricate when it comes to their arrangement. They can appear effortless, yet writing my book and collaborating with my student writers revealed to me that the way I organize material has a lot of plot elements to it.
There is a three-act structure, with rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution, even if the pieces don’t fit into one scene or one period of time. That’s my take on how narrative works.
BLVR: I’m very intrigued by what you mentioned, as I consider narrative and story to be the same; however, I’m not so sure. Can you tell me what you mean by anti-narrative?
EW: My idea of narrative used to be limited to the plot of a work. It wasn’t until I read Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story [: The Art of Personal Narrative] that my notion of story expanded.
Now, I understand it as the message I’m trying to communicate, regardless of whether I can express it through a linear or complex series of events.
Although I’m unable to do so, I still consider what I write to be a story.
In 2017, I had my job interview at Ohio State University and my job talk included some of the ideas that would become part of the introduction of Shapes of Native Nonfiction. The talk was about exquisite vessels and shapes.
During the Q&A, a colleague asked me to define lyric and narrative. I was at a loss and have no recollection of what I said. Ever since, I have been pondering what I would have said and reconsidering my definition of narrative and lyric, since I believe it is not adequate.
Thus, I am continuously attempting to attain a proper definition for these terms.
BLVR: Absolutely. This is something I experience a lot in queer situations, because the language people use to describe themselves is so varied.
I don’t think perfect definitions exist for any word, so let’s focus on the temporal aspects we discussed earlier. Your book contains various kinds of time: time loops, memories of the past and visions of the future.
How do you see the relationship between time and memory? I read some of your interviews where you mentioned having difficulty with memory recall.
EW: Last year or the year prior, I found out that I have a major issue with my working memory when I was tested for ADHD.
In fact, I’m really bad at that. Additionally, my excessive drinking caused me to have large chunks of time I do not remember.
Hence, I often search for evidence in my inbox, calendars, and old chat logs to help me piece together what happened.
This has affected my structure and time management. As a result, I think this causes my writing to be more of a dossier-like compilation.
I’m not certain why I’m so inclined to use research and discover elements in my writing, but that’s how I go about the process.
It’s like a search for things and then putting them together. I’m not good at creating stories with a beginning, middle and end because I don’t have a clear recollection of events from 2012 or 2013.
Sure, I can remember some details if I’m prompted, but I generally remember times like this through a combination of moments, which are disarranged and located in various spots.
My former partner’s abode is one I recall. I likewise can recall the residence I occupied for a portion of that duration.
There was this particular bar I would frequent which I can’t pinpoint when I was there. As a result, I find myself utilizing place to be the main part of my narrative due to the lack of a timeline, with all the voids and islands of reminisces.
These islands are tangible and geographic to me, which is evident in the book I composed in the end.
The second section of the story is focused on the apparition of a ghostly figure.
BLVR: You view Seattle as an illusion, which I, living in the city, can certainly relate to. It was intriguing to note the visions you experienced of yourself in different times, on the bus or elsewhere.
Could you elaborate on the role Seattle plays in your writing, being a spot in your life, and speak more generally about the necessity of place in your poetry and identification of oneself?
EW: From 2007 to 2017, I resided in Seattle. I pursued my studies at the University of Washington and stuck around afterwards.
I always had an affinity for Seattle since my mother’s twin had been living there for a long time and we would visit her during the summer. Additionally, the city is not too far off from my ancestral hometown.
Consequently, I had a lot of relatives in the area and made a number of friends during my stay.
I view Seattle as the spot where I developed a second time.
My childhood was spent in New Jersey and I finished school in Maryland. At the age of twenty-two, I arrived in Seattle with some emotional development issues due to PTSD, which I wasn’t aware of at the time.
This resulted in an excessive drinking habit. Even though it was difficult, Seattle is where I learned to confront reality and in the process, it became a place where I had a coming-of-age experience.
When I was living in Madison Park, it was a wealthy area, yet I was not. I had a budget-friendly apartment that I liked because it had a beach and little shops.
The people had gardens in their front yards and small houses, instead of lawns. Looking back, I think I was drawn to the place because it seemed like it was a place of fantasy- like it wasn’t reality.
There were people who didn’t work because of their family wealth, and they were out at bars all the time.
This was the context of when I saw the woman, the apparition of Washuta. At that time, I was really struggling with alcoholism and I was in Madison Park and the adjacent Madison Valley near the bus line.
I saw a woman who I was certain was me from the future and it is described in the book as a reality, not a metaphor or speculation.
I was in a very hungover state when I first saw her, coming from work on the bus. She wore a surgical mask, wool cloak and the same glasses I have been wearing since I was fourteen.
She got off the bus and stopped to look at me for a moment and the widow’s peak was the same. It felt like she was me.
When I was sober, I had two ideas after seeing her: one was that it was a version of myself I had let go of and the other was that I was seeing myself from the future, bringing a message.
Although there was none, there was nothing to it.
BLVR: She had on a face covering, which now feels like a warning of what was to come.
EW: During the beginnings of the pandemic, I went to the supermarket. I had on a wool item that I acquired in Iceland, and I had my face covering on as I got out of my vehicle.
As I was closing the door, I caught a glimpse of myself in the window. I thought to myself, “There she is. That’s the woman I saw on the bus. Is this an indication that I’m going to pass away soon?”
However, I didn’t; I’m still here.
I remember how it felt to be in her presence and my understanding that it couldn’t be proven. Nonfiction had become more particular about what was accepted as true.
It was something I couldn’t confirm, yet it became an important part of my life. It was then that I realized the potential of having an unexplainable event in a book without worrying about solving everything.
I no longer had to be the one to ensure that all the elements of the story came together in the conclusion.
Even though I desired to be the one responsible for all the meaning contained in the book, I also realized that much of the meaning would arise naturally.
Allowing events to occur without knowing the reasoning behind them and permitting motifs to be built up independently of my conscious thought was a relinquishing of control to something beyond my book-building capacity.
BLVR: Could you elaborate on the significance and intensity you placed on symbols in your writing?
EW: The concept of symbols in White Magic, as well as the idea of the lyric essay and its ability to infuse research and items with a metaphorical resonance, had me entranced.
I was also reflecting on how, due to standardized testing, some students are taught to read books with the intention of finding a single meaning that can be agreed upon, with only the teacher being in possession of the “reader key”.
At the same time, I was considering my own romantic relationships for a few years, where I was constantly over-analyzing every movement, gesture, and silence in an attempt to decode the underlying message.
The tension between the unconscious symbolism that was working for me, and trying to make objects and actions have a symbolic role that wasn’t as interesting, was something I was conscious of.
I didn’t go out of my way to search for things to be symbols, rather, when I was reminiscing, my mind was drawn to points that had some sort of connection to something I had already included in the book.
For example, jackrabbits kept popping up in different texts, video games, and memories. That one significant instance that would later become a symbol then led me to include other things.
The Tower and yahoos were two examples that kept reappearing over the years before this book had even been started, or before I even knew I was working on it, when I was still researching gluten.
The recurring use of a symbol allows it to be further understood as time passes. At first glance, the Tower card in tarot looks strikingly intimidating. It features people leaping from a blazing structure.
However, when considering its Major Arcana function, it symbolizes the necessary disaster that must precede something greater.
Every time this card is revisited, more details are revealed and more meaning is extracted.
BLVR: How has the internet impacted your creative process? What is your personal connection to the internet as an artist?
EW: I am a big fan of the internet and believe it should be preserved. I remember when my parents got it when I was around twelve and I did not have many friends.
It felt like a magical gateway and I connected with people on Bolt, a social media site. I had also been on ICQ and learned it was not safe when I received messages from pedophiles.
As a result, I didn’t think of the internet as being a secure place, however I still live in it as it is both serious and entertaining and I have social anxiety in the real world.
In comparison, the internet is a more comfortable area for me given I have experienced trauma such as being stalked and held up at gunpoint in a restaurant.
This semester I had my students do a writing exercise to help them free up their creative juices during a difficult period.
To demonstrate the process, I took them on a journey of research which began with an image of a burlesque performer wearing a horse head which I found on the OSU [Oregon State University] library website.
As I explored the links that followed, I was reminded of my great-great-grandmother who once delivered mail on horseback for the US government.
Despite the passage of time, it feels like a portal to the past.
I am inspired by the boundless opportunities for discovery that the internet provides. It’s simply too vast for anyone to ever conquer it. It’s an ever-evolving book with no ending, similar to Infinite Jest.
This means that I don’t need to be a perfectionist in my quest to explore the internet, unlike my attempts to complete other things.
The relationships I’ve formed and kept in Seattle are what I miss the most. I’ve got many friends who I can no longer see due to me being in Ohio.
We all don’t get to spend time together anymore. After completing a book about the internet and reality, I’m often wondering if these connections are even real.
I’m somebody who has always believed that what happened online was just as significant as in-person interactions. Now, it’s our only reality, which I find strangely reassuring.
BLVR: The last essay in the book contained a line that was quite powerful: “The empire doesn’t want us to love.” So, how do we display our love for each other despite the oppressive rule of the empire?
Do you think that expressing love is an act of defiance against it?
EW: It’s difficult to describe, but in recent times, it appears that people are more open to expressing “I love you” to their close friends.
I don’t believe that this means people’s capacity for love has increased, but rather societies and the world at large have begun to recognize and accept love more.
Although vulnerability is beneficial for love, it isn’t necessarily required and love can also be a tough concept.
In the last few years, and especially since I have a loving and trusting partner, I have realized that my way of loving is flawed.
The common belief that you cannot love others until you love yourself is wrong; many people hate themselves and still manage to love. I used to be one of those people, and although I jest about it, I no longer feel hatred towards myself.
I now understand that love has a lot more to do with self-acceptance and allowing your true self to be seen.
It may seem trivial, however, I believe that learning to accept oneself is a courageous act when one’s presence is seen as a danger to the nation.
As a Cowlitz woman, I am not what the US desires.
My nonconformance to American ideals of productivity, sociability, or even being able to listen, recall information, and organize my time- all of which I have ADHD for- has been seen as a deficiency.
But I now recognize that these are legitimate qualities, and not focusing on them as flaws aids to break down the walls between me and others.
I often feel embarrassed by my struggles with time management, my need for stories to be repeated, and my poor memory for names; this creates a barrier between me and others.
Once I can accept these things about myself and recognize that they are okay, despite the cultural pressure in America to be otherwise, these layers of separation begin to dissolve.
At age thirty-five, I am still progressing in my emotional growth.
Over the last five years of sobriety, I’ve seen myself develop in ways I never thought possible.
This is where I stand in relation to love right now, and I expect that as I continue to grow, my thoughts on love will also evolve.
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