White Magic: A Conversation with Elissa Washuta

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 anthology Shapes of Native Nonfiction: Collected Essays by Contemporary Writers. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at the Ohio State University. Follow her @elissawashuta.


Alexandra Valahu: White Magic came out at the end of April, and you did a huge amount of press right after that. We’re speaking in early September, and it’s been a few weeks since you did that peak of interviews. I was thinking about how you protect the work that you’re engaged with and don’t show it to anyone. Now that the book has gone from private to public sphere, how are you relating to it?

Elissa Washuta: It was, and still is, difficult to know that My Body Is a Book of Rules is in the world. I have never become comfortable with that. In part, that’s because I did kind of avoid thinking about parts of the book that I might not have actually been ready to put out into the world. That’s part of why I’m so deliberate with that intentional patience and sometimes forced patience with the process. I really did wait until I felt White Magic was absolutely as good as I could make it, and I had examined every sentence to see whether I would be happy for that to be part of my life for the rest of my life. That has impacted how it feels to have it in the world. I don’t feel myself cringe when someone tells me they’re reading it. I’m actually grateful and happy.

It took me a long time after finishing the book to feel that I was done with it. I’m working on something else now, and think I’ve been released from whatever that magical force was that had a hold on me that allowed me to write the book.

AV: I read that you start with an obsession, and the essay is your way to work toward an insight or work through a line of inquiry. Once the book was done, did that mean the obsession with those topics was over? Or do you still find yourself tugging at them every now and then? 

EW: I think I’m done with the old topics. I’m no longer even reading tarot anymore. I’m no longer doing astrology or witchcraft. That actually stopped before I was finished working on the book. The way the synchronicities began to drive the writing of White Magic and drive the narrative motor, in some ways, has stayed with me. I think it’s because that was a natural place for my essay construction process to settle. I’m still finding lots of synchronicities in research, but it has to do with video games and the stock market.

AV: In reference to Twin Peaks you said that you were watching so much of it that you thought, how do I turn this into something? You looked at it for synchronicities, you looked at it in parallel with your life, and turned it into an essay through which you solve problems—

EW: I was watching Twin Peaks: The Return when I started my first full-time academic job at Ohio State. I felt like I was spending so much time watching this series and having so many writing-related insights that I decided to stop feeling bad about doing this thing that I was beating myself up over, telling myself I was lazy and should be more productive. I mean, that’s not the life I want. I’m happy with the writing that’s come out of allowing myself to play games. 

It takes me to great places in my lines of inquiry when I just allow those mental processes to work in a different way. I think it’s the way running is for many people, where they step away from their desk, take a walk, go for a run, and the writing is happening in their mind. I can’t run—my legs are too busted from fencing—so I just play my video games and I think I have a similar effect where my head is able to empty itself out. I’m not stressing about my inbox or my chores that are undone or some interaction that I would normally be worried over. I have a space where the things I want to be thinking about just start creeping in. I start thinking about the essay not in a very active way but in a way that allows me to recognize when connections are presenting themselves.

AV: It also seems like it might challenge a linearity of time. As a teacher your schedule is delineated by external timeframes; you follow a seasonal schedule. I don’t know that it’d be a slowing down or a suspension of time but video games seem like they push against that imposed timeframe. 

EW: I think that’s definitely true. That’s so interesting. I have a terrible relationship with clock time. I just struggle with it in so many ways. I do struggle with the immovable cycles of academia, of publishing. I struggle with the 24-hour clock so there are some nights when I don’t sleep because my body really wants to break out and be on some different kind of timeline I guess. There is something to the way that time passes differently when I’m playing games. 

AV: In an essay about clocks, and Black Quantum Futurism, Rasheedah Phillips writes: “clocks […] objectify time and render flat all experiential notions of time.” And thinking about video games, one of the common refrains is “Oh, I didn’t see the time pass.” I never understood if it was like a sticky time—you go into this space where it’s suspended. To take that toward White Magic, I wanted to ask you about “The Spirit Cabinet” and your choice to write it in the present tense. You spoke elsewhere about being hyper aware of the fact that writing in the present tense meant that you wouldn’t be making meaning, and that because it wouldn’t be reflective you’d have to work hard to keep the writing and the essay dynamic. 

EW: I was resistant to the idea of writing in present tense because I think it’s easy to default to it in a way that doesn’t always make sense for the piece, for the sake of urgency. There are so many other ways to create urgency on the page without having to deal with the limitations of present tense, and I certainly don’t think that it always cuts a person off from meaning-making. 

In “The Spirit Cabinet,” I was just keeping my focus tightly on the incidents that were happening. I wasn’t going to range forward beyond the moment in question so I could add insight. That meant I wasn’t going to be able to comment on the fact that I was behaving in a way that was frustrating or “I didn’t know as much then as I know now.” For some readers that has been unsatisfying but that was a very deliberate choice. I felt that at that point in the book the reader and I had been together for hundreds of pages. I had given the reader what I felt they needed in order to make the meaning themselves if they were paying attention, and all of that was going to come out in the spaces between segments. Once I allowed the book to teach the reader how to read it, to what end is that happening if they’re not going to do something with that learning?

That long essay is the culmination of that in that I’m just putting that timeline together, putting the incidents from different years next to each other, and telling the reader, “Okay, now you go ahead and do this because I’ve had a lot of fun doing it up to this point.” I want you to be able to have the experience of seeing these synchronicities happening and to feel that click of two things in the universe joining together that didn’t seem to be related.

AV: The epigraph that you have right before “The Spirit Cabinet” reads “Are you watching closely?” which commands us. You’re saying “Look, you really need to pay attention. Watch what I’m going to do.” 

EW: I have so much to say about it. One of my favorite books is Winter in the Blood by James Welch and that book is so short you can read it in one sitting. That’s how I did it the first time I read it, and I did not have a full experience until I went through it again and took my time and paid attention to the symbols. There are things in White Magic that I’m pleased with that I think are rewards of close reading, patient reading, and rereading. I was thinking as I was writing about some of the interactive books that I loved as a child like The Eleventh Hour. I can’t tell someone how to read the book but I hope that the book can tell them how it wants to be read. 

AV: You could speed-read White Magic to write a review and zip through the epigraphs and quotations because maybe it’s faster than to read all the external sources but those inform your writing and you’d be missing all of the clues.

EW: I didn’t intend for it to work out this way, but I do notice that it has. It’s fair to say it’s present in just about all of my work. What I’m offering at the beginning is just a way in and I can’t possibly stay there for the whole essay. That’s the point of the essay for me: to get me somewhere else, to get me to insight, to something I didn’t know.

I did honestly think at the start of the process that White Magic was going to be a book about witchcraft and tarot and all of that stuff. I just got bored of it pretty quickly as far as subject matter went. I was doing my research, and reading about seances and the Salem witch trials and I thought “This is interesting, but I’m not feeling grabbed by it. I can’t write a whole book about this.” And I would not say it’s a book about cultural appropriation in witchcraft. I do think that it is ultimately about magic for sure, all the way through, but it’s not about what it appears to be at the outset.

AV: It feels more like magic in the sense of what you’ve described in the Paris Review as that click of visual recognition with books like The Eleventh Hour or choose your own adventure books in which you feel this sense of wonder understanding a clue that you hadn’t seen initially.

You’ve touched on this elsewhere but in high school English it’s drilled into us that there’s one meaning and if the curtain is red on page 33, the book is about power and blood. People can feel afraid of reading because they think if they can’t make meaning they’ve failed or misunderstood.

EW: I love talking about this. I was just talking with my students about this very thing on Tuesday. They brought up the significance of the color red. It’s ubiquitous. 

I learned to read outside of school. I remember early on having those experiences of being told that there’s some master meaning of a text to unlock. I dutifully learned how to do that and sometimes, all of a sudden, I would be expected to put that aside. I remember reading The Metamorphosis in high school and I was so proud of myself for being able to perform the reading in which I decided it was some kind of psychodrama with delusions. I got to class and we were supposed to talk about this guy literally turning into a bug.

AV: [Laughs] 

EW: Like that was not at all consistent with how I had been taught to read. And I had failed. I was in crisis over this as a 13-year-old or whatever. Once I got to college, I was so frustrated at the expectation that I would be psychoanalyzing the characters because I realized I was no good at it. You know? They’re not real, they’re pretend. What’s real is that words are on a page. Can’t we talk about how they sound, can’t we talk about the sentences and paragraphs and the scene setting, the dialogue? I realized once I started taking creative writing classes, eventually, that that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to talk about craft.

AV: I wonder if it’s associated with a form of control too: the idea that we, the reader, have to master the texts.

EW: One great experience I had with having My Body Is a Book of Rules out in the world was that people wrote these insightful, thoughtful, serious reviews of the book and noticed things in it that I didn’t notice but that were absolutely there. I loved that. That I wasn’t in control of the text, that nobody can control it. It’s such an exciting prospect for someone who has such serious control issues, as I do, and fears around being unable to control anything. I know that I don’t know all of the meaning that can be made in White Magic. There are things I notice when I’m talking about it or thinking about it that I didn’t realize were there. It’s not like I don’t know the book, I know the book better than anyone.

There are some books and essays that I assign in my Native lit class that can make students uncomfortable sometimes either just because they’re hard books emotionally or because it’s really hard to decipher meaning using those standard U.S. educational tools. The books don’t care about those tools. I always feel like I have to explain to my students that I’m not being unserious when I’m talking about feelings and how a text makes them feel. It’s quite serious. And under-studied, under-recognized. I don’t think we can get away from the fact that everybody is going to have different emotional reactions to different parts of books. That was something I wanted to take up in White Magic in the footnotes when I was teasing the reader a little bit about their experience of reading the book and whether they thought the book was good or not.

AV: I want to connect this to repetitions because at first I was thinking about your use of repetitions and time loops as a way to call attention to the reader but later thought it seems like you’re looking at a problem through every different angle like it were a Rubik’s cube. You’re holding this scene in your mind or this person or feeling that you’re trying to work through and once you’ve been able to look at it from this side and that, maybe you move closer to insight or an understanding of the problem.

EW: I think it’s all of those things. What I was thinking about when being intentional about repeating sentences and phrases was it was such an easy way to make those links, to glue those pages together in that one spot without having to tell the reader. I think readers want to do some work or at least some readers want that experience of having a certain kind of share in the meaning-making. I tried not to be overt about it all the time because I thought if the reader’s not conscious of it being repeated that’s totally fine. A lot of the things that I’ve built into the book are optional.

It’s something that I certainly didn’t come up with. I was thinking about how in [the video game] The Last of Us Part II, there’s a line that’s said at least twice, maybe three times, “It’s a lead, I’ve got to see it through.” It creates an echo. It ties these different character motivations and actions together, and it makes the player think about them simultaneously in relationship with one another. That was one of those things that I know readers have been prepared to see so I could use that as one of the ways of making the book less linear, allowing for some jump-backs. It’s like hypertext in a way, mental hypertext.

AV: On the literary podcast Between the Covers you said you don’t make the reader work for anything or work to find meaning in anything that you don’t think would be worth it. How do you decide between what you think is worth making meaning yourself and what you want to make the reader work for?

EW: I don’t remember the context of what I was talking about there, but what comes to mind is that I don’t want to make the reader work to identify who’s speaking, for example. I don’t want to open an essay in a way that is totally disorienting. That feels really coy to me. I don’t think it’s satisfying to figure out situational details.

It’s possible to have a full experience of the book without noticing all the connections I noticed when I was putting them on the page. I wanted it to reward rereading because I like rereading and I like replaying and I like to listen to the same song over and over for days. I wanted to write a book that would have that to offer if people wanted to come back. I didn’t want them to come back and not find anything new.

AV: In so many ways it felt like what you were doing with your book was building a house. You wrote that you keep your memories like figurines shut in a cabinet and you also wrote about needing to build a memory palace, “a set of mental rooms filled with images.” The reader can come back and walk through this house, and pull open a door that they hadn’t thought to look in.

It feels like you’ve built this cabinet of curiosities that one can return to and look for clues to have a somewhat altered experience from the first time. I initially saw the black pages between sections and acts as a curtain falling in a magic show, and enjoyed reading the book as though you were putting on a performance. The epigraphs were you coming on stage and saying, “Are you paying attention? Are you watching closely? What do you think of the book, do you think this is good?” You said in Bitch that “Magicians have sleight-of-hand techniques, gimmicks, […], mentalist strategies, and so on, to make the audience experience the trick as ‘real,’” and you have “scene, sensory detail, rumination, formal decisions, and all the other craft tools available to essayists.” I wanted to ask you about this idea of deception and putting on a three-act performance or magic show.

EW: I love your reading of those black pages. That was the work of Tin House designer Jakob Vala. I knew that he worked with a lot of intention around the design elements, but my manuscript didn’t have those pages. I didn’t even think of that as an option.

I got interested in the idea of the magician as this book was coming into focus. I was noticing the magician as an archetype coming up again and again: in Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” video, in Twin Peaks, of course, in tarot, all sorts of places like that magician mural on the wall in Sea-Tac airport that I write about. Oh, and of course, I found that there was that magician with the same name as Carl, the ex-boyfriend I was writing about, so it seemed like something I needed to see through. I went to this—magic conference, festival, convention? I don’t know—Magifest, and became 

friends with some magicians. That event is for magicians, not spectators. It’s a craft conference where magicians talk about how they build their effects and what their intentions are around how

they perform misdirection—the psychological effects that are happening. I didn’t go because I cared to know how they did their tricks. I know a little bit now but it doesn’t feel satisfying to take apart a trick and see how it works. It does feel satisfying to think about the ways magic and writing are so related in the ways that the effects are crafted, and everything that goes into creating an experience for the spectator or reader. I liked thinking about the book eventually as a magic show and thinking about misdirection especially.

I knew that things had been happening that I wasn’t paying attention to because I was captivated by certain elements of the performance and I wanted to do that too with White Magic. I wanted to give the reader something simple, a breakup, something mundane, and also offer the reader some of the same things I’ve been writing about in the past with my ancestry and the history of the Cascade people. Of course the book is about those things but I wanted something else to be happening that was away from the readers’ view but that they would still experience, and realize at the end that something had happened to them.


Alexandra Valahu

Alexandra Valahu is a writer and radio producer. She’s currently a Mise en Place resident at Deli Social in Lausanne, Switzerland. She’s also an Assistant Editor at Guernica Magazine. You can follow her @alexandravalahu.

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