Elissa Washuta is a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and a nonfiction writer. She is the author of Starvation Mode and My Body Is a Book of Rules, named a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. With Theresa Warburton, she is co-editor of the forthcoming anthology Shapes of Native Nonfiction: Collected Essays by Contemporary Writers. She has received fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Artist Trust, 4Culture, Potlatch Fund, and Hugo House. Elissa is an assistant professor of creative writing at the Ohio State University.
Meredith Doench: Your memoir, Starvation Mode, was an interesting read, and I was fascinated with the chosen structure. It covers a large span of time—early childhood into adulthood. I think it can be difficult to write about long stretches of a life so clearly and so succinctly, but your memoir does so beautifully, in large part because of its clear framework. It’s written in three parts and uses a collection of 36 rules as section breaks for Part I and four lies in Part II. Why did you choose such a structure for the book, and how long did it take you to find it? How did the use of vignettes as oppose to lengthy narrative highlight the message of the book?
Elissa Washuta: In beginning to write this book, I presented myself with a structural challenge: to, within a span of about twelve thousand words, using linear chronology, recount my entire life’s history of eating. I was driven by my anger at a review of my first book: the reviewer faulted me for, among other things, failing to apologize for my eating disorder and dysmorphia. I knew responding directly wasn’t the classy thing to do, so I responded with this book in which I tried to dig in further and even more unapologetically. I wanted to experiment with linear chronology because my first book is non-linear. Segmentation and quick glimpses allow me to span a lot of time without rushing: the focus is sharp and fast-moving, without transitions. Using transitional connective tissue would bore me, and so I hardly ever do it. I absolutely reject the idea that prose mastery requires the ability to incorporate seamless transitions.
I was struggling with that project, though, because the idea of being bound within linear time bored me. I believe I’d just heard Claire Vaye Watkins give a lecture on “craft transgressions,” ways of raising the stakes by breaking the rules set by the piece. Part II halts the progress of that recounting of eating that I undertook in Part I.
MD: “I absolutely reject the idea that prose mastery requires the ability to incorporate seamless transitions.” I love this, and I have also given it a lot of thought to this in my own writing. I like how this method engages readers in a way that invites them to participate in the prose rather than being spoon-fed the ideas. Do you see this as something that designates [creative nonfiction] as literary (as opposed to genre writing)?
EW: I’m not actually sure I know what the distinction is—not in a concrete, detailed way, anyway, not well enough to delineate a designation. I think it’s possible that the method and purpose of inquiry separate the different approaches to nonfiction, but I’m just as willing to believe that the separations are arbitrary and flimsy.
MD: As someone who has struggled with disordered eating since my early teens, I could relate to much of what is written in Starvation Mode. The part that really smacked my gut with recognition was “Rule 9. YOU MUST EAT ONLY SIX HUNDRED CALORIES PER DAY.” This section so clearly and accurately describes what I’ve always referred to as the betrayal of my body (the moment I grew breasts and my hips widened). You write about how quickly these changes occurred for you and the idea that starving the body would stop these changes. For many of us, this is the moment that changed everything regarding personal relationships with our bodies. It also intersects, in some ways, with issues of gender. Did you find this emotional topic difficult to write about so openly and honestly?
EW: This book was hard to write, craft-wise, but it wasn’t difficult emotionally. Writing My Body Is a Book of Rules was so hard I had to pummel myself with alcohol and cigarettes to get through it—I was remembering acts of sexual violence that I’d forgotten about or remembered only partially. The same is true for the book I’m working on now. But Starvation Mode felt like an opportunity to explore the interior that was responsible for the public acts people around me saw: my weirdly fast and focused eating, my denigration of my own body, my strange and hard-to-keep-up-with dietary restrictions. I felt like I had a chance to explain myself.
MD: Another aspect of the memoir I found fascinating was the discussion of meat (whether to eat it or not), and how the body, despite the mind’s knowledge of its needed protein, made it difficult to swallow/ingest the meat. I’m fascinated by the “mind” of the body, and it’s depicted so clearly in your work. In many ways, I found these references to be reminiscent of Roxane Gay’s Hunger and the way she writes about her extensive nutritional knowledge that is overpowered by the physical body’s hunger. In your own memoir, do you see the body working against the mind or the other way around? How do these polarities in your work add to the larger discussion of bodies and their hunger/starvation?
EW: I think it’s possible that my difficulties with meat are the result of inadequate stomach acid, which can be caused by stress. I mean, that’s what the Internet says. I think in this way, the body is working with the mind: I feel constantly stressed and anxious, and my body behaves accordingly, focusing less on digesting food and more on responding to the stressor. I wrote Starvation Mode about three and a half years ago, and at that time, the Paleo Diet still had quite a hold on me (not that it doesn’t at all now, but I don’t follow it, even if its rules still run through my head), and I really thought I needed meat in my diet, so on top of the ever-present life stresses of trying to make enough money to survive and trying to stay safe while living among men, I was stressed about the fact that I thought I should be eating meat but couldn’t.
I don’t really know how my work is situated within the larger discussion of bodies and hunger. I don’t read other books about disordered eating. I still have patterns of disordered eating, and I can slip back into a full-blown eating disorder very easily.
MD: The fear of slipping back into a full-blown disorder at any moment is stress-provoking in itself! As I was reading, I wondered if this memoir served as a release for you in regards to disordered eating. Do you feel like your life is different now? Have you let go of some of these issues that plagued you in the past?
EW: No, I don’t think it was a release. Maybe temporarily, but years later, I’m still struggling with it. I just drank a bottle of Ensure instead of eating a meal. My eating and appetite problems are basically the same as they’ve always been. I think the difference, now, is that I’m older and I’ve accepted it and I’m not hiding that I sometimes struggle to stop eating Doritos and sometimes struggle to eat anything at all. I drank the Ensure in my colleague’s office. I think now, I’m more willing to let people in to see it in life and not just on the page. Maybe now that it’s been dealt with in narrative, I’m able to detach it from one.
MD: I found the pairing of binge eating and mental health/medication interesting. Many of the descriptions regarding food during this point of the memoir feature such an urgency to binge, such a deep starvation and hunger within the body: “I would rip [the bag] open at the seams on my kitchen counter and devour the contents like a jackal with her face at a mess of entrails.” Could you explain your thinking about the weight gain that occurred during this period? Was it simply primal need of the body or was the weight a form of protection?
EW: I don’t think it was either, exactly—I don’t know the mechanism of action of the drug that caused the weight gain, but when I began taking an antipsychotic drug, I gained weight quickly, probably in large part because it made me so ravenous. So in a way, the body did suddenly have this need, but I think of it not as primal but as manufactured and imposed.
I know that other people have spoken to the emotionally protective effects of fat, but that has not been my experience. I constantly find myself—even now, in my house, having not been in the proximity of another human for almost 24 hours—contorting my body to make it smaller. I wrap my legs around each other twice when I sit, I keep my elbows close to my ribs, I often try to gather myself when I’m in public and somebody walks near me in an enclosed space. I am always trying to take up less space. Taking up more so suddenly, without time to adjust, was hard for me.
MD: Your speaker makes a clear point throughout the book that food, no matter how good it might be, doesn’t fill her: “What can I tell you? I am full of holes. I have found many ways to stuff them full.” This idea has been part of a much larger cultural narrative regarding hunger, the body, and women’s identity with the flesh they inhabit, particularly for obese individuals. How do you see your memoir expanding or joining the larger conversation on a “starving” American society? Do you see this as an issue for all genders and races?
EW: I can only speak to my experience as a Cowlitz woman. I’ve been thin for most of my life. I definitely don’t believe that my problems are necessarily representative of anyone else’s experience of their own body, so it’s hard for me to speak to the larger conversation—I tried to tunnel into my own brain and my experience as deeply as I could.
I think Starvation Mode is really a book about the ways that hunger and romantic or sexual desire have gotten tangled up for me, about boys and men looking at my body and thinking it should be different, and that look is the thing I was devouring. But I’ve been single for years now. Now, if a man thinks my body should be different, he doesn’t get to touch it. My god, I’ve wasted so much of my life listening to broken men tell me to start running or eat Paleo because I needed to be “fit.” Speaking to other Native women about our shapes has helped—I’m never not going to have a thick waist (even at a size zero, with my ribs showing, I had belly fat) and I’m never not going to have a bony ass. This body is an inheritance. Eating has become a lot less charged for me. I mean, I’m still full of holes, and I have more ways than ever to stuff them full, so I keep having things to write about.
MD: I love the idea of the “body is an inheritance.” It’s not something I’ve given much thought to regarding my own body. Do you see any connection with this quote and your statement that eating has become a lot less charged for you?
EW: I think so, at least in part. As I said, the eating problems have remained, but I’ve come to (usually) accept and even appreciate the appearance of my body as it is, so I’m not deliberately restricting my intake anymore at all. I’m not sure what changed, but I know that I look at my mother and my ancestors and see clearly that they are and were beautiful, and that I look like them. It’s hard to talk about the period after the end of tension, because as a person who builds narratives, I’m following and modulating the tension. In real life, I wish my ass weren’t bony some days and don’t think about it on others; I notice the lack of definition in my upper arms in a photo and promptly forget about it. I suspect that the answer is as simple as the fact that I realized a few years ago that wearing dresses makes me stop feeling the constant nagging of a waistband digging into my belly, so I hardly wear pants, and I’ve been able to let go of that ever-present, back-of-mind feeling that something with the body isn’t right.