An Interview with Elissa Washuta - Believer Magazine
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An Interview with Elissa Washuta

Writer

“I’m interested in the way repetition is so valued in traditional tribal storytelling, in spells, incantations, and in the way I speak.”

by Sarah Neilson
Illustration by Samar Haddad
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An Interview with Elissa Washuta

Writer

“I’m interested in the way repetition is so valued in traditional tribal storytelling, in spells, incantations, and in the way I speak.”

by Sarah Neilson
Illustration by Samar Haddad

An Interview with Elissa Washuta

Sarah Neilson
34 Snaps

I first met Elissa Washuta at the Port Townsend Writers Conference in July 2019. On the tip of the Olympic Peninsula, the sunshine, cool mornings, and shockingly numerous deer made for an idyllic few days in a pre-pandemic world. Washuta is Cowlitz, and what is commonly referred to as Washington State is her ancestral territory. There we were, in Fort Worden Historical State Park, on grounds where the shadow of the violent colonial military is ever-present. According to the official state park website, one hundred years ago this place “was home to nearly 1,000 troops and officers training to defend the Puget Sound from potential enemy invaders.” The insulting irony of this extends to the fact that the Cowlitz people were not federally recognized until 2000 and had no reservation until 2015.

Washuta, thirty-six, was born and raised in New Jersey; she later moved to Seattle, where she earned an MFA in fiction at the University of Washington. She went on to teach at her alma mater, as well as at the literary center Hugo House, and was the city’s writer in residence at the Fremont Bridge, where she was tasked with undertaking an in-depth exploration of the bridge. Much of Washuta’s newest collection of essays, White Magic (Tin House), takes place in Seattle, and includes a chronicle of her time spent in the tower of the drawbridge. Her previous books—My Body Is a Book of Rules (Red Hen Press, 2014), Starvation Mode (Future Tense Books, 2015), and a coedited anthology, Shapes of Native Nonfiction: Collected Essays by Contemporary Writers (University of Washington Press, 2019)—grapple with complex identity and corporeality, but vary widely in their approach and content. In the hands of a writer as skilled as Washuta, what writing teachers often call the “hermit crab essay”—a list, an SVU script, a doctor’s note, a diary entry—becomes a well of invention and imagination. One of the many things Washuta is consistently skilled at is combining humor with insight. She also plays with the ideas of language, time, and the shape of a text—both its literal shape on the page and its shape as a narrative—to create a story that makes its own life inside a reader’s rib cage and skull.

White Magic uses repetition, footnotes, and reader-oriented questions to convey a sense of, well, magic. Washuta is herself a witch, a word that has a complex meaning, especially in the context of colonialism and white appropriation of what might be called magic or spirituality. These essays at once push back against that whitewashing and try to understand what magic, decolonial and otherwise, really is. Magic, in this case, isn’t about speculation; even the seemingly mysterious aspects of White Magic are grounded in the real, and surreal, world we inhabit. On a bus, Washuta sees a future version of herself. In an apartment by the water, an abusive partner lurks. In the surreality of a dark city, she walks and walks. She sits in a tower on a bridge where she is supposed to write about its history; she pulls the Tower card from the tarot; spirits both real and ethereal step around these pages. Somehow, we circle an understanding of love, deception, memory, loneliness, and kinship. “If white magic brings light and black magic brings pain, I can see where my incantations fall,” Washuta writes. “Love is exquisitely painful. I want it more than anything, and I will tear open the world to get it.”

Elissa spoke with me from her home in Ohio, in a dark room that seemed appropriately atmospheric, about narrative, time and memory, the internet, and love.

—Sarah Neilson

 I. ESSAY AS DOSSIER

THE BELIEVER: Shape is such a crucial aspect of a lot of your writing. It’s explicit and deliberate that Shapes of Native Nonfiction takes a woven, basket-like form. In White Magic, shape is also pretty explicitly rendered in a few ways, one of which is in repeating loops—you call them “time loops”—and you employ repetition in so many corners of the writing itself. Repetition is also a quality of incantation. Can you talk about the shape of your writing, how you approach it, and how it changes over time? What about repetition and incantation feels important to you?

ELISSA WASHUTA: Shape is something I’m conscious of in all my work. Everything I am making on the page demands its own shape and container. I think most of my work is interested in a form that announces itself and demands to be seen. But even when I’m working in ways that are not as formally loud, I’m still thinking about the shape of the vessel and the way the vessel appears.

After I finished writing My Body Is a Book of Rules, I had such a hard time finding an agent and a publisher. It was so hard to make myself legible through prose and make my intentions legible to the publishing industry. So I thought, I’ll never write a book like this again. I’m going to learn about dramatic structure, I’m going to write a novel with a plot, or I’m going to write a memoir. So I looked at all these different memoirs as examples. Wild [: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail] by Cheryl Strayed is a fantastic example of a memoir that has a beautiful intentional narrative structure with two intertwined arcs happening simultaneously. I tried that, and I tried outlining, and I failed miserably. I just kept making attempts at what I thought a book should be and at shapes I thought it should take. And that went on for years. I started that in 2012 or something, and eventually realized I was just writing these essays that did not seem to be part of the same project but were. I just didn’t know what the project was. So I think the shaping process for me does have to do with time—not just the temporal scope of the work but also the looping, which started to come in when I realized I was assessing the same things over and over again.

And when I was trying to range out into different subjects, trying to become a more mature writer or a more palatable writer or some other different kind of writer, I kept getting pulled back to the same things, as I did in life when I kept choosing the wrong men and trying to quit drinking. It started to feel like my life for a few years was just this constant looping of failing to learn. And that was something that was true about My Body Is a Book of Rules too. I thought of it as a process where every essay had this kind of separate loop of an arc that took me back to where I was at the beginning, not having learned, not having grown, not having progressed at all, but eventually making progress through that compiling of loops.

I’m interested in the way repetition is so valued in traditional tribal storytelling, in spells, incantations, and in the way I speak. Repetition at the sentence level is huge for me. And I think in our culture, I mean, if you look at Twitter, memes are powerful because we are all repeating things. So I wanted to find a way to use that at the sentence level, at the level of motif and at the level of essay structure.

BLVR: I want to latch onto what you said about trying to make the narrative you thought you should be making. You do this meta thing in White Magic where you are rendering a narrative while simultaneously criticizing and questioning narrative as an idea. I’m interested in that tension, because I always think of narrative as kind of this omnipresent thing in life, that everything’s a narrative. Is there a time when we’re not inside a narrative? What do you think the possibilities and limitations of a narrative are?

EW: I don’t want to overreach and say that everyone is living inside of narratives and making narratives, but I do think it is extremely common for us to build narratives out of the everyday. I mean, right now, as we’re talking, tomorrow’s Election Day, and there’s all these hypothetical narratives. There’s that [kind of narrative], and then there’s the narrative-making of, like, Why didn’t this person text me back? I think we just naturally want to turn events and moments into cause-and-effect sequences, and we impose consequence on potentially unrelated or unexplainable phenomena or happenings.

So I do think we respond strongly to narrative. But I think there are other kinds of structures. And I have spent the last several years wrestling with the idea of narrative and the lyric and anti-narrative. When I wrote My Body Is a Book of Rules and after it came out, I thought I was sort of an anti-narrative writer. And I thought I had no relationship with plot or that I had a strained or bad relationship with plot. I didn’t think it had any place in my work.

Narratives that look simple are incredibly complex in their construction. They just don’t announce themselves the same way, and they make it look easy. I think the work I’ve been doing looks like something else. On the other hand, I think through writing this book and through working with other writers, especially my students, particularly my grad students as they’re putting together books, I realized that the way I think about arranging things is very plot-like. And once I really pushed into it, I realized there’s absolutely the three-act dramatic structure arc possibility in the work I’m doing. And because there is rising action, there is crisis and climax and falling action, [and] there’s resolution. The pieces just aren’t in the scene, or the plot is happening more at my desk than in the pages, within the events of a single time period or multiple time periods coming together. I think I ranged really far from your question, but that’s what I think about narrative.

BLVR: I’m so interested in what you’re saying, because I guess it depends on how you define narrative; I equate narrative with story, but I don’t know if they’re necessarily the same thing. What, to you, is anti-narrative?

EW: I used to conflate narrative and plot. I thought of narrative as an active sequence of events happening within the body of the work. Although my definition of story has broadened, I think I would have said it was synonymous with plot until I read Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story [: The Art of Personal Narrative]. Now I think of story in the way she talks about it, as the thing you’ve come to say. I think that what I write, even though it’s not plotted as a beginning-middle-end story, is still a story to me. I am just unable to express the story I have through a simple recounting of events or a complex recounting of events.

I think I’ve become fascinated by these ideas because of my job interview at the Ohio State University [where Washuta now teaches], in early 2017. My job talk, part of which eventually became part of the introduction to Shapes of Native Nonfiction, was about exquisite vessels and shapes. And someone who’s now my colleague asked me in the Q&A to define lyric and narrative, and I realized I couldn’t. I have no idea what I said. I think about it a lot, because I’m curious what I would have said when I was pressed to define those terms. And I still think the definitions I’m carrying are not adequate, so I’m constantly trying to work toward adequate definitions of narrative and lyric.

BLVR: Yeah. I bump up against this a lot in queer contexts, because there’s so many words people use to describe themselves. And I think adequate definitions don’t exist, maybe for any word. But I want to go back to what you were talking about with time and temporal scope. There’s a lot of different kinds of time in the book. There are the time loops, there’s nostalgic time, future time. How do time and memory interact for you? Because I’ve also read interviews with you where you talk about having trouble with your memory and recalling things. 

EW: I have severe working memory deficit, which I learned last year or the year before, when I was tested for ADHD and found I can’t bring things up as well as I’m supposed to. In fact, I’m terribly bad at it. There’s also the fact that I was a very heavy drinker for a lot of time, and there’s these large pockets of time I cannot remember. I do a lot of searching in my in-boxes, looking at calendars, looking at old chat logs from years past to try to piece things together. And that has an effect on structure and time for me. I think that creates this form of essay as dossier and as compiled thing.

I don’t know if that’s what has brought me to want to use so much research and found things in my work, but writing is for me a process of finding things and collaging things. And that may be why I can’t tell beginning-middle-end stories: because I don’t know what happened in 2012 or 2013 really at all. I think I can remember pieces if I’m pushed to. But the way I remember, especially the stretches of time that form a lot of this book, is extremely nonlinear and is just this accretion of moments and a kind of scrambling of moments in various places.

I remember my then boyfriend’s apartment. I remember my apartment that I was in for part of that time. I remember this bar I used to go to. I don’t remember when things happened there. So place becomes this central piece of narrative for me that I think has somewhat replaced time because of the fact that I don’t just have a time line with gaps; I have all gaps and little islands of memory. And they are islands: they’re physical, they’re geographical for me. And that is really apparent in the book I ended up writing.

II. THE APPARITION

BLVR: You describe Seattle as a mirage, which, as someone who lives there, feels extremely accurate. I also found it interesting that you saw these apparitions of yourself in different periods of time, on the bus or on the street. Can you talk about Seattle as a place, a setting for your writing, a touchstone in your life? And, more broadly, about the importance of place in your writing and your sense of self? 

EW: I lived in Seattle from 2007 to 2017. I went to grad school at the University of Washington and stuck around after. I have always loved Seattle because my mom’s twin has lived there for decades, and we would go to visit her in the summer. It’s not that far from my traditional territory. So I have a lot of family out there, a lot of friends I made during that time.

I think of Seattle as the place where I grew up a second time. I grew up in New Jersey. That’s where I lived from birth to age eighteen, and then I went to college in Maryland. And in Seattle—I was twenty-two-ish when I got there, but I had some very stunted emotional development after college in large part because I was stuck and stalled by PTSD, which I didn’t know I was experiencing at the time. And that led to a lot of drinking. So I think of it as a place where I really did do a substantial amount of the growing up that became the sort of coming-of-age-story part of this book, where I learned how to finally accept reality.

When I saw the woman [the apparition of Washuta], I was living in a neighborhood called Madison Park, which is wealthy. I was not wealthy. My apartment was kind of a bargain for the location. I just liked that the neighborhood had a beach and it had little shops and people had gardens in their front yards and tiny houses and no lawns. Looking back, I went there because it seemed like it was not real life there: it was rich people’s lives, which were absolutely not real to me and still seem kind of fake. It was fascinating to me; it just seemed like a suspension of reality all around me. There were people who didn’t work at all because they had family wealth and they’d be out at the bars all the time. So that was part of the context. The other part was that I was drinking heavily at the time I saw the woman, the apparition. I was really, really physically sick with alcoholism. And I didn’t accept it, because everybody around me was drinking. But at that time I was in Madison Park and the adjacent neighborhood, Madison Valley, on the bus or near the bus line, and I saw this woman from the future who was me and I was certain of it. And it’s in the book, not as a metaphor, not as a speculative nonfiction gesture where I make something up. I mean, I really saw her.

The first time I saw her, I was really hungover and I was coming home from work on the bus and she was getting off. She was wearing this surgical mask and she had a wool cloak on, and she had these glasses in the style I’m wearing now, which I’ve worn since I was about fourteen. She was getting off the bus and she just stopped and stared at me for a second. And she had the same widow’s peak as I do. I mean, she was me. She absolutely was me. I don’t know what else to say about it. I was stone-cold sober right then. There were two big ideas I had about it. One was that it was a version of myself I had sloughed off that wasn’t going to happen. And the other was that it was me from the future, coming to bring some kind of message. Although there was no message; there was nothing.

BLVR: She was wearing a mask, so that feels prophetic.

EW: Early in the pandemic, I went to the grocery store. I was wearing this wool garment I got in Iceland, and I was wearing my mask and got out of the car. As I was closing the door I saw myself in the window. And I was like, There she is. That’s the woman I saw on the bus. And I was like, Does this mean I’m going to die now? I didn’t; I’m still here.

I think what stayed with me about seeing her was that I knew it was not a verifiable fact. And how was that going to play in nonfiction? At the time, there was more of a tussle over facts in nonfiction than there had been. It seemed like a given before that we would be factual. I knew this was something that could not be verified. It was just my reality. And that became extremely powerful to me. I haven’t really thought about this before, but the idea of having something happen that was unexplainable seemed to open up a lot of possibilities for having things in the book that didn’t have to make sense. I didn’t have to worry about resolving everything and being the juggler who throws the balls up in the air and catches them all by the end of the story, when the final paragraph ties it all together and everything makes sense.

I still wanted to do that, but I also didn’t feel like I had to be the god of this book, where I’m making all the meaning. There was a lot of meaning that was just going to make itself. I think that letting that happen, bringing in events and not knowing why they were significant or why they happened or what the rational explanation was, and then letting motifs build themselves—all of that was such an exercise in handing over control to some force other than my conscious book-building mind.

III. MAJOR ARCANA

BLVR: Can you talk about the urgency, even obsessiveness, around symbols in your writing?

EW: I became obsessed with the idea of symbols in this book [White Magic]. I think the way the lyric essay often works is to imbue research or objects or details with metaphorical resonance. So that’s something that was already in my toolbox. Simultaneously, I was thinking a lot about how some students, because of the demands of standardized testing, are taught to read in high school, to treat books as something that can be unlocked with some sort of special reader key that only the teacher has, and SparkNotes. And the book is something that’s meant to be figured out and has one meaning that can be agreed upon. Then I was thinking a lot about the way my romantic relationships had been for a few years, where I was overinterpreting every gesture or non-gesture and thinking I could figure out what it meant, figure out what wasn’t being said: What was the subtext here?

I think there was this tension I was holding between the unconscious symbolism that was working for me and the forcing of actions and objects into a symbolic role that wasn’t as interesting to me. I remember not seeking out tons of things I could jam in as symbols, but letting things come to me. When I was recalling things, my mind snagged on touch points that had connective tissue with something that was already in the book. Like, jackrabbits come up a ton because I started noticing jackrabbits in all sorts of different books and video games and memories. So I think there was often this one significant instance of something that would end up becoming a symbol, and then everything else I just sort of invited in. The Tower [tarot card] and a’yahos [serpent spirits] were things that just kept asserting themselves for years before I was even working on this book, or before I knew I was working on this book, when I still thought I was writing about gluten or whatever.

Bringing something back again and again as a symbol allows it to unpack itself on the page. Like when we first see the Tower card in the tarot, it looks terrifying. These people are jumping or being flung out of a building or something that’s on fire; it’s very dramatic. But of course within the context of the Major Arcana [of the tarot: the twenty-two trump cards of the deck], it’s a card that is about disaster that precedes something better that needed to happen. That’s the interpretation I remember. So I think the more I revisited those things, the more nuance I could pull from them.

BLVR: What role does the internet play in your storytelling? What’s your relationship to it as a person and an artist?

EW: I like the internet. I think we should keep it. We got the internet in my parents’ house when I was—I guess it was around the time I started playing Oregon Trail II or maybe a little after. Maybe I was, like, twelve. I did not have a ton of friends then. And it really did feel like this magic portal. It was incredible. I could meet these people online. There was a website called Bolt, which was a social media site, basically. You talked to strangers. I believed it was all very young people. I also had friends on ICQ [a cross-platform messenger] and would get terrible messages from pedophiles. So I think early I learned it was not a safe place at all, and I never had any illusions about the safety of the internet, which I think has been useful and has allowed me to really live in it. It is both serious and playful for me. I have a lot of social anxiety, particularly in person. In public places, in public hangout settings, I think I’ve had so much trauma layered onto me from not only sexual violence but also being stalked, being held up at gunpoint in a restaurant. All these things just make me a different person when I’m out in the world, in a lot of ways. And in that context, the internet feels safe. I know it’s not, but I feel familiar with the sorts of dangers that are there.

It does still feel like a portal. I had my students do this writing exercise this semester to help them get unstuck from feeling like they had to pull their subject matter out of their souls during such a hard time or during any time. It can be hard to go back to that well, so I did a demonstration for them of how I go down the rabbit hole of research. I started with an image of a burlesque performer who was wearing a horse head, which I stumbled upon on the OSU [Oregon State University] library website and ended up just going through all these links and all these fascinations to really start thinking about my great-great-grandmother who delivered the mail on horseback for the US government a long time ago.

I think there’s that sort of unlimited potential for discovery. I love that there’s no way to ever win the internet. There’s no way to in-box-zero the internet. It’s too big. It is impossible to finish it. The book of the internet is not one I can finish, much like Infinite Jest or something. So I don’t have to try to be a perfectionist in my pursuit of the end of it the way I do so many other things.

There’s also just the friendships I’ve made there and maintained there. I have lots of friends who I don’t see anymore because they’re in Seattle and I’m in Ohio. None of us sees anybody anymore. That’s one of the weird things about having written this book about the internet and reality: Are these relationships real? How do we know they’re real? I always felt very committed to the idea that the internet was real, that everything that happened there was real life. And I think I was right, because now it’s our only reality, which I’m honestly alarmingly comfortable with.

IV. “YOU CAN HATE YOURSELF AND LOVE PEOPLE”

BLVR: There was a line in the last essay in the book that felt like a gut punch to me: “The empire doesn’t want us to love.” How do we collectively love under this empire? How do you love in this empire? And do you see love as an act of resistance?

EW: I’m not sure whether I don’t have the words for it or if it’s just in this sort of unformed state of being. What comes to mind is the way, in the last few years especially, it seems like friends have been much more willing to say “I love you” to their friends. I don’t think it means people love more than they did before. There are a lot of colonial impositions that either destroy love or want to pretend that love is impossible or that love’s not there. The way love is seen as soft, sentimental, requiring vulnerability… I’m not sure it does require vulnerability. I think vulnerability is good for love, but I think it can be a hard thing. Love can be a hard thing.

The way I love is imperfect, but it’s weird how I have realized in the last few years, and especially now that I do have a partner whom I love and whom I trust… So many people say you can’t really love someone until you love yourself, which I think is completely wrong. You can hate yourself and love people. That’s very common. It’s very, very common. It’s more common than not in America; so many of us hate ourselves. I joke about it, but I don’t hate myself anymore. And the thing I realize, now that I spend all this time with this person I love who lives here with me, is that I think love has more to do with myself than I realized, and self-acceptance, and letting my true self be visible.

In some ways that sounds trite, I guess. But I think self-acceptance is a pretty radical thing when my very existence is a threat to the state: my existence as a Cowlitz woman is not what the United States has ever wanted. It stands in the way of the United States. All these ways I don’t fit into American norms of productivity or collegiality or whatever, as a recluse who has ADHD, can’t listen, can’t remember anything, has no relationship with time… I think all these things are fine, but I didn’t always. I think not dwelling on all of these things as shortcomings cuts through these barriers between myself and anybody else.

When I’m self-conscious about my terrible relationship with time or the fact that I need to be told every story at least twice, or the fact that I’ll never remember anybody’s name, all those things keep padding the separator between me and other people. There’s something about accepting those things about myself and recognizing that they’re OK, and that I feel like they’re not OK only because of America. Then [that acceptance] just burns through these layers between me and other people.

I think that’s part of what I think about love. I’m still emotionally developing, at age thirty-five. I’ve been sober for five years and I see myself growing more and more over time. So I’m kind of in my development still, but I think that’s where I am in regard to love. 

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