Between the Covers Podcast - Transcript
Between the Covers Elissa Washuta InterviewBack to the Podcast
David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by award-winning author Claire Fuller’s Unsettled Ground, which Lauren Groff calls, “So sharply, so utterly brilliant that I found myself holding my breath while reading, dazzled by Fuller’s mastery and precision.” In the novel which follows twins Jeanie and Julius after the death of their mother, Fuller masterfully builds a tale of sacrifice and hope, of homelessness and hardship, of love and survival in which two marginalized and remarkable people uncover long-held family secrets, and in their own way, repair, recover, and begin again. Unsettled Ground is out on May 18th from Tin House and available for pre-order now. Today’s conversation with Elissa Washuta is one I’ve been wanting to have for many years now. A conversation about writing our own true stories and how to find the right form to do so. How much can we shape our stories to fit a form or to satisfy a reader and still have them remain true to what we experienced? What can you discover about your own voice by inhabiting the forms of another? How does one create forms when none that exists are able to capture one’s lived experience? And what makes all of these questions particularly fascinating for me is how they echo back against questions of self and selfhood, of persona and protagonist, about self discovery as a writer, and about the mystery of rendering a self in words. For the bonus audio archive, Elissa Washuta reads from the draft of an essay in progress entitled Apocalypse Pathology. This joins bonus audio from Layli Long Soldier, Ted Chiang, Nikky Finney, Tommy Pico, N. K. Jemisin, Jeannie Vanasco, Garth Greenwell, and many others. To learn how to subscribe to the bonus audio, to find out about the many other potential benefits of becoming a listener/supporter of Between The Covers, head over to patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now for today’s episode with Elissa Washuta.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest is writer Elissa Washuta. A member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, Washuta is a graduate of The University of Maryland, earned a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Washington, has taught at Seattle’s center for writers, the Richard Hugo House, as well as The Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. Since 2017, Washuta has been a professor of writing at Ohio State University. She’s the author of Starvation Mode: A Memoir of Food, Consumption, and Control, and the Washington State Book Award finalist, My Body Is a Book of Rules, which Sallie Tisdale described as, “A funny, scary, unpredictable book;” “A fearless ride of sex, drugs, mood disorders, self-improvement, dieting, internet dating, ethnic identity.” Washuta has received fellowships from National Endowment for the Arts, Creative Capital, and the Potlatch Fund among many other places. With Theresa Warburton, she’s the co-editor of the anthology Shapes of Native Nonfiction of which Tommy Pico says, “Shapes of Native Nonfiction is exciting, fresh, and profound. It provides the space for native nonfiction to be indigenous, without the pressure to ‘perform’ indigeneity. The writing gets to be weird, joyful, wounded, flip, deep, unflinching, terrified, and secure. Expression over cultural expectation. I turn to it and return to it, delighted each time.” Elissa Washuta is here today on Between The Covers to talk about her latest, much-anticipated book, White Magic, just out from Tin House. Foreword, in its starred review says, “Though not for the faint of heart, Washuta’s frank confrontations with, and acknowledgments of, unhealed wounds are validating. A kinship forms in the shared brokenness, inviting a comparison of where the cracks may line up. ‘I haven’t memorized the entries in the catalog of demons. I don’t even know the name of the one inside me,’ Washuta says of her understanding of the occult, and of herself. Such open admissions of confusion and searching cultivate an intimacy throughout the text, evoking the sense of peeling open a letter from an estranged friend; Washuta’s voice haunts by admitting to being haunted.” Kirkus, in its starred review, calls White Magic, “A fascinating magic trick that breaks from traditional memoir in intriguing ways, including footnotes that speak directly to readers and an essay that begins by focusing on Twin Peaks and then slowly begins to emulate it, moving back and forth through time and showing the changing nature of narrative across shifting time frames.” Richard Van Camp adds, “These pages are windows into a black lodge where Twin Peaks and Fleetwood Mac are on repeat—sometimes forward, sometimes backwards, sometimes in blackout blur. I stand in awe of everything here. What an incredible and wounding read.” Finally, Stephen Graham Jones says, “White magic, red magic, Stevie Nicks magic — this is Elissa Washuta magic, which is a spell carved from a life, written in blood, and sealed in an honesty I can hardly fathom.” Welcome to Between The Covers, Elissa Washuta.
Elissa Washuta: Thank you so much for having me.
DN: I’ve been excited to have you on the program for a while now, and part of that excitement for me is the ways you foreground form across all of your books and how the way you do so raises questions, not only for writers—writer questions that I think are interesting like how do I find the right form for the story I want to tell—but also make visible the ways the stories we tell ourselves and the stories that are told about us affect the shape of our lives. We see this focus on form I think in many different ways in My Body Is a Book of Rules from your inhabiting and re-editing of a letter from the campus psychiatrist to the way you took unstructured notebook writings on a sexual assault and shape them into a Law & Order: Special Victims Unit interrogation of you by a good cop and a bad cop. We see this in Starvation Mode which is structured as a series of rules about eating. Again, we see it in the Native Nonfiction anthology which could have been just an anthology of native non-fiction but you not only titled Shapes of Native Nonfiction but, with your intro, framed it as very much about the importance of the vessel that is chosen to hold a story. On top of that, you teach a class forms of literature at OSU, and White Magic continues this tradition of your ongoing fascination with forms and their effects—good and bad effects of forms. Before we talk about White Magic, maybe we could just start with what is this fascination for Elissa Washuta and form?
EW: That’s such a good question. I don’t know what the exact fascination is. I don’t know where it came from. But it just always felt exciting to me as long as I’ve been writing nonfiction, form and the form-forwardness of some of the essays that I was reading early on when I was in my MFA program. It finally just made something click about writing for me that hadn’t felt completely natural before when I was writing short stories and when I was writing poetry before that. I think that initially, it felt like such a good way to enter a potential project by knowing, “Okay, I’ve got this idea for this topic which is how bad I am at online dating because I am a liar.” There’s my idea for that and then the form is the Match.com profile and all of the standard categories and questions and it’s just a doable project to plug in the information and the details into those slots that are already there in the form. I think that was a really good way to create my own set of constraints at the beginning of nonfiction writing when everything was just so new and huge and I had no idea where to begin. Creating rules for myself was the thing that I did because that’s always been a thing that helps me feel comfortable within chaos. I just really like any narrative structure that makes me think about the structure itself. I find it fascinating because I love thinking about narrative, I love thinking about construction, and how these stories are formed into art whether it’s video games, movies, TV series, or individual episodes within TV series or books, of course. I’m just fascinated by how those narratives are made and the ways they want to reach out to the audience and show behind the curtain a little bit that this is a crafted thing. I just love that. I just find it so appealing. I’m really interested in always making sure that I understand the fundamentals of something that I’m doing or something that I’m learning about to the point where I’m really getting into the fundamentals under what I consider the fundamentals so that I really am not taking for granted that I understand anything. You mentioned the class on forms that I’m teaching. When I taught it a few years ago, we talked about the lyric essay and experimentation, and we did that this semester too, but I wanted to start way more basic than that by talking about time like what is time and narrative, what is narrative, what is form. Because I think the more basic we get, the more complex all of these things show themselves to be. That’s my fascination that it just seems endlessly interesting and writers are doing so many interesting things with form all the time. I think especially with hermit crab essays, received form essays like the Match.com profile essay I was talking about, the writers I teach sometimes are concerned like, “Will this seem gimmicky? Is this overdone already?” People who are working in form that makes itself visible I think are really constantly renewing their craft in a way that is just so compelling to me.
DN: I remember one of the first classes I took studying writing was a class called Writing Inside the Box which was a constraint class. This idea of the hermit crab, it did feel like when you would get an assignment like, “What the hell are you asking me to do?” But there was the weird paradox that I feel like that was one of the main ways I was able to find my voice was by entering “someone else’s” house.
EW: The way that Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola talk about the hermit crab form is that it allows for an additional form of protection around the soft underbelly of memory, experience, or trauma that the writer wants to get onto the page. I think that is in part why it’s so compelling to the writers I teach a lot of the time. It’s also just new and different compared to many of the things that they’ve seen before. But I do think that trauma can be so huge, it’s just so vast that it really does become really helpful to have something to form those boundaries to, like I said, control the chaos.
DN: Yeah. In My Body Is a Book of Rules, you hinted an origin story for you of interest. You have—I guess you might call this one of the many hermit crabs in that book—your preliminary bibliography. It’s a section of the book where we learn about you through these little blurbs that you write about different books you encountered. In that section, we get Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony and your excitement about taking a native American anthropology class and how you really wanted to will yourself to love Ceremony because it was a canonical native novel and your guilt at not feeling a connection to it when you read it. Then writing your final paper a personal essay about being a suburban Indian instead of about Ceremony and where you said, “I just don’t get these books. They have nothing to do with me,” and then the next listing is about the book House of Leaves and you talk about how you were jealous of that author who just seemed to be able to do whatever the hell he wanted to do. He did different fonts, different colors, footnotes with fake sources, sideways texts. At the time for you everything was in Times New Roman, double-spaced, conventional narrative flow. As you mentioned just now and also in that section of the book, you realized a lot about that you could do anything you wanted to in graduate school. I wondered if there were specific teachers that drew that out of you, or if not teachers, maybe a certain book or two that just lodged in your brain when you were there that feels like a lodestar for everything that’s come since.
EW: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s definitely true as a big part of how I came to write the way I write. Since writing My Body Is a Book of Rules, I’ve been thinking about all of the other books that did this for me before I even really considered myself a writer. There was this book I loved as a child called The Jolly Postman which has envelopes inside and you can take the letters out. I had a few books like that, books that really called attention to their artifice were so fascinating to me and exciting. When I got to University of Washington, I was there as a fiction writer. But in the first quarter I took a class with David Shields, that was just completely transformative for me. He introduced us to the collage essay and various examples by Eula Biss, Jonathan Safran Foer, and other writers who are doing these really fascinating things on the page with breakage, with symbols, and other elements that were I think reminiscent of House of Leaves in many ways. But the difference was that this wasn’t a literature class, this was a craft class and I was being told that I could do this which was remarkable for me and really, really influential. It was so exciting and I stopped writing fiction then, or I did stop, I tried again years later but I just found that tapped into the exact thing that I needed. The other grad school professor who was really influential for me was [Maya Sonnenberg 0:19:36] who really pushed me at the sentence level to be very conscious of style and to tighten up my style a little bit. I remember she read a draft of my thesis and circled every instance of forms of the verb “to be” on one page and it was just covered with circled words and that’s when I realized, “Oh, I have so many verbs available to me.” There’s just all these possibilities. I didn’t know about it all until grad school.
DN: Yeah. One of the things that stands out to me in the reading experience of reading you that I’m really intrigued by is this seeming lack of distance between what you’re writing about and when you’re writing about it. I’m thinking of Vivian Gornick’s book about writing a memoir, The Situation and the Story. She says that one reason it can take a long time to write a memoir is because it can take a long time to figure out the voice, to create or construct a stable persona and vantage point from which to tell the story. A persona that is both you and not you at the same time and, to varying degrees, differs from the “you” that you’re writing about. In a similar vein, I feel like it’s a truism for a lot of writing teachers to recommend having a distance from the time period being written about. But in your case, I don’t know if it’s true but at least feels like you’re writing about things that have happened close to the time of writing within several years. Particularly in your first book, you’re writing about your 20s in your 20s and your identity or your persona does not feel like a fixed thing. It feels unstable in an interesting way as a reader. In both books, it feels like your persona is being worked out before our eyes rather than the Gornick version of figuring out the vantage point and then writing from it. What is interesting about that is it feels like your self-conception, in several key ways, is changed between your portrayal of yourself in My Body Is a Book of Rules and White Magic. For one, in your earlier book you were given a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, a diagnosis you weren’t only medicated for improperly for years but a diagnosis that, in its own way, is a story about yourself given to you and from which you organized one way to relate to your identity. But you have since learned that you have PTSD from multiple sexual assaults and that you weren’t receiving the proper care. Likewise in the earlier book, you’ve talked about how, when you were writing it, you believed in a fractionated ethnic identity and you felt a need to represent yourself at the time proportionally to what you were, how much you were Cowlitz, how much you were Polish, for instance. But your sense of identity in this regard seems to have changed considerably since then. Perhaps you could talk about persona in this regard but also I’d be interested to hear you talk about these two shifts in self-narrative, for one with the psychiatric diagnosis, what has the sudden change to a new story done to your sense of self or to your writing, and with your ancestral identity, what led you to move away from, I don’t know if you’d call it a fractionated identity theory based on blood to a different self-conception, and how has that affected your way of writing into self?
EW: It is definitely true that I write about things as they happen. I think I’m holding in some tension these different craft ideas that are important to me. On the one hand, there’s Lopate’s idea of the double perspective, looking back on one’s younger self with greater scrutiny and sympathy—and I think that’s useful—and there’s also, I’m weighted more heavily toward this, D’Agata’s idea of essay as experiment and the importance of not necessarily knowing where it’s headed. If I’m working on something that I’ve already worked out, then there’s no experiment. I already know what’s going to happen. I know what the insight is and I don’t have anything really at stake in figuring it out. I like for there to be something that is still unsettled about what I’m looking into. That could be recent, it could be further in the past. There has to be something at stake in my real life in the present though. It is certainly different now than when I was writing My Body Is a Book of Rules. It was extreme in how close I was to the things I was writing about and I think it comes through in the voice. I was writing about a rape that had taken place I think maybe two years before I started writing and I was working on that Law & Order essay, watching the episodes of Law & Order, and making plans for this essay about being raped in college. As I was working on it, I was assaulted again, so that became part of the essay too. Then I had another experience that I felt belonged in there but ended up not ever putting in because the work of trying to let this essay figure out all the things I needed to figure out, that wasn’t going to work. It had to be cut off somewhere as art rather than my therapy sessions, although I believe they are related. In writing My Body Is a Book of Rules, things were very much unresolved, I was very much still suffering, erratic, and young, that more than anything. I was about 22 to 25 when I was working on that book. Now I’m 36 and the bulk of the writing of White Magic was done after age 33 or 32, still young but a little bit older and sobriety changed me dramatically and helped me to come to some insight that I didn’t have earlier. Therapy helped me to come to some insight that I didn’t have earlier. I just became so much more confident in myself and confident that I knew how to write books, that there were things that really just became so much clearer to me as I was in these in between years when I wasn’t writing very much or wasn’t writing anything that I ended up keeping. Just becoming an adult, I learned so much more about what it means to be Cowlitz and the fact that a fractionated identity does not make sense to me, I am fully a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, that is a nation that I fully belong to, it doesn’t have anything to do with my blood quantum, that’s just not relevant in my tribe. The fact that I have French ancestry or Welsh ancestry or something, it doesn’t mean anything in my everyday life. Being Cowlitz means something. That is what I came to learn after just spending so much more time with other native people after I’d lived in Seattle for a few years, worked in American Indian Studies, some days only interacted with native people which had not been my experience when I was writing My Body Is a Book of Rules. I think My Body Is a Book of Rules is so much about the experience of being given definitions of myself that came from documents that I didn’t write, whether they’re my medical records or the episodes of Law & Order that I feel very much resonate with my experiences in some ways but are ultimately not about me. I felt that I was given these texts and just had to be defined or define myself in relation to them. Then I grew out of that and I realized, “Just because the kids I grew up around had no understanding of what it means to be a member of a native nation doesn’t mean that their definition is true.” Their definition is irrelevant. My tribe’s definition of my belonging is relevant. It was just a matter of just learning things, learning and growing and all of that. But I think in addition to some of the things I read about myself being revised, like not being bipolar, being a really big thing, and revisited and figured out, there was also something in craft that really changed. I think my interest in form is not super different from the way it was back then, although it’s developed, but the way I think about persona has changed a lot just from the experience of having a book about myself out in the world. I thought of this as this narrator is artificial, she was based on me but she was not me, she was an intensified facsimile of myself and the voice was amplified. I just saw this as an approximation of self frozen in a moment in time. That’s not how other people see it a lot of the time and so I have been carrying around this 22-year-old fake Elissa and having her be the first version of me that many people meet and I don’t like. It doesn’t feel comfortable and that voice is very hard for me to read now. What I’ve been doing over the last few years I think is somewhat consciously, somewhat unconsciously trying to collapse persona and person and trying to actually make this person on the page in White Magic, me, my voice same as my tweets. [laughter] I’m the same person on Twitter, I’m the same person here, I’m the same person in my book. That’s what I want because this book is going to be with me for the rest of my life.
DN: Yeah. I love that. You bring up this gap or rupture that I want to talk to you about in relation to story and form. This gap between two facts about you, on the one hand, your great-great-grandfather was a chief of the Cascade Indians who signed the treaty that ceded the Columbia River valley to the American government and nevertheless was hanged a year later by the same occupying force. On the other hand, you grew up in New Jersey, and beyond your immediate family, you didn’t have a native community at the time and the natives you encountered were mostly in the movies. I wondered about this rupture when I thought about the way you not only play with form but also how you bring form into the story as content because in all of your work, you speak directly to—and sometimes directly to us—about your uneasiness about narrative forms and their truthfulness. You ask in different ways whether if you change the way your life happened to fit a form, are you still telling the truth about yourself? I guess you’ve brought up one version of that question with “if you heighten yourself into exaggerated facsimile, is it still you?” We see this uneasiness with form in Starvation Mode where the section on rules is followed by a section of lies. The first act of White Magic opens with a section called Little Lies. Similarly in White Magic, you say, “Living inside narratives means becoming an insight machine, and I am tired of realizing—that word is a lie. Conjuring up epiphanies doesn’t make anything real. Mostly, realizing is how I lie.” I was hoping you could talk about the question of received forms whether they be hermit crab forms, diagnoses, or the views of what a native person is in your white New Jersey community, but talk about received forms in relation to the ways they can risk making an experience as a writer inauthentic or untrue. Or another way, just confronting this very notion of narrative which inevitably takes a form.
EW: That’s what I’m thinking about. This is something I struggle with in teaching because I don’t want to take for granted that any essay should be a certain way. But I can’t get away from the fact that I think personal essays work toward insight. They have lines of inquiry usually, or I don’t know just about always if they’re working well and there’s some insight that the essay eventually comes to, that’s what’s typical. I think that any experience I have of working through memory inside, translating memory into narrative means that I have to make these series of choices about what, from this basically endless sea of stuff in my mind, is going to go onto the page? Because I only have so many words, I only have so many details that I can tell the reader to handle, and I need to figure out what is going to be relevant to speak to this core line of inquiry that I’m traveling along. As I make those choices, it’s like a series of doors just keeps shutting and shutting where this is the detail that’s important, this is the chosen detail, the other details are less important to this story now. That just keeps happening. Once I get to the final insight, I think that’s when so many doors close because then I’ve decided for myself that this is what the meaning is. Just thinking about the question of when I began writing nonfiction or where I started or what the inspiration was, the question I’ve been answering lately, it’s very difficult because there’s so many different beginning points. Identifying anything means putting anything into words and specifying anything means closing off so many other things. In some ways, narrative always feels like a lie to me because my memory is so terrible—I have memory problems—and I build the narrative really truly to the best of my recollection but then later I’ll remember some complicating thing. The other day I realized that in this book, that’s so much about how I got sober, I completely forgot that before starting to do a recovery program, months earlier, I had been to some meetings that I just totally forgot about. It feels, in some ways, I just have to commit to the process of lying if I’m going to create narrative and I just have to see it as a neutral thing. The more rigid the form, the greater the potential for that lying because we’re not only trying to fit the line of inquiry but we’re trying to fit all these other contours and corners that are built into the form.
DN: Yeah. It made me wonder, you talk a lot about it in Shapes of Native Nonfiction, you talk about the basket as one way to look at form. One of the ways you point out using that as a nice image, form, or process of making a form is that it’s a non-literary one, that instead of closing doors, it feels like it’s opening doors. I wondered if that was also going on because a lot of your forms that you choose to engage with are non-literary forms. We could think about the tarot for instance, if you’re using the tarot as a form, I wonder if that might open more doors being an image or a series of images rather than closing doors, or maybe it doesn’t close doors in the same way just because it’s not just referencing back to words. My encounter with the Tower or the Fool and yours, my encounter one day versus another day, of course, that’s true with words too but less so I think, and just are the possibilities of what making a basket and looking at writing as similar to making a basket might open up. I don’t know, maybe this is a stretch.
EW: I don’t think it’s a stretch. I’m trying to form what’s in my mind into sentences. If we’re talking about received forms, going back to the Match.com example, there are fields that we are supposed to put words in. That narrows down our choices and our possibilities very much because there are instructions for where to put the words, there are expectations of what information will be there, and of course, the point of the hermit crab in part is to eventually break out of the form and eventually destroy the form, I think usually. But with image or with the material of a basket, when there are no words, I think that there are a lot more possibilities for relating to something not in the way that is prescribed but in whatever way we relate to space or to matter, material, image. That, I think, opens up so many more possibilities just for people’s different kinds of relationships with form, beyond literary form, but just form more broadly, any organizing principle.
DN: Could we hear the little mini two-page section at the beginning of Act I?
[Elissa Washuta reads from her latest book, White Magic]
DN: We’ve been listening to Elissa Washuta read from her latest book, White Magic from Tin House. You mentioned a couple things in this short passage that feel like ways that you ultimately found forms or created forms that more authentically reflect your embodied experience. You mentioned one way you could look at the book as a dossier—and you’ve talked elsewhere about how you’ve talked here—about how, because of the memory gaps you have from alcohol abuse in your 20s, that the dossier form is a way to collect the memories that you do have. You also mentioned time loops here and in your Believer interview—speaking about your first book and how you kept going out with the wrong man and kept trying and failing to quit drinking—you say the following, “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.” But then you go on in that same conversation to also connect repetition to traditional and tribal storytelling and also with incantations and spell making and then back again to writing and the importance of repetition on the level of the sentence. I was hoping maybe you could just talk a little bit more about dossier and time loop forms in relationship to White Magic since you do bring them up right here in Act I and they feel like Washuta invented forms that are better suited than say like the Match, not that you’re not going to ever do a Match.com form again, but in a way it feels like these are forms, at least they seem like forms that you’ve selected not to fit yourself into their shape but because they fit better with yours.
EW: When it comes to some received forms, the boundaries of that form could possibly suggest an endpoint that I knew I could not impose on this writing, this line of inquiry, whatever it was. Once I realized that I was trying to figure out why I can’t get over my ex and then what is behind all of this, why does this feel significant, that became the line of inquiry and I realized this book isn’t going to end at an end point that makes sense for the reader first, this book is going to end when I actually figure that out and stop getting into these relationships over and over. I actually had to break these patterns. These loops happened not just in narrative the way that they did with my first book but these were loops I was starting to see in life, I started to see that a boyfriend was acting just like an ex had, I was acting just like I had in the last relationship, I was doing the same things over and over again. That was something that I started picking up on, having already thought about repetition and loops and the failure process that is necessary in a book length personal narrative. I can’t figure it out at the end of the first essay because then that’s just an essay, there’s no reason to keep going on in the book. I knew I was failing, but then this additional set of time loops presented itself in 2018, that summer, I write about in White Magic, I was out in Seattle and I was with Carl, the ex-boyfriend this book is so concerned with, and we realized that we were doing the same thing we had done that day the year before or around the same time. It got really precise whatever was happening with these time loops. Going back to a restaurant I had only been to that one other time, things like that. I thought, “Okay, let me actually just figure this out,” and I did have to invent a new form or got to invent a new form at that time because I really had no idea how this was going to work. First I was thinking about all the instances of those kinds of time loops where I was doing the same thing I had one year before, two years before. I wrote them on index cards, just little notes about what had happened and the date. I did that until there was nothing more in my memory, my calendar, or my emails and texts and wherever I was looking. I felt like I had a set of all of the things that had happened. I really didn’t know whether anything was going to come of it. It wasn’t even an experiment, I had no hypothesis, I had nothing that I thought that I might find there other than these weird coincidences and so I needed to create a form that would allow me to place the coincidences together, flattening time, or creating something like a way for time to be layered. That essay I’m talking about, The Spirit Cabinet begins with January 1st, ends with December 31st, mostly goes through 2016, 2017, 2018, and just places the events and little fragments against one another. That was the way that I felt that I could collapse time through form. In the end, it worked.
DN: There’s also the question of “Are they coincidences or are they synchronicities?” which is left open. But this idea of are you constructing the connections or are these connections speaking to you from outside of you?
EW: Yeah. I think I’m still ambivalent about that. I guess what it is, is that I believe they’re synchronicities. I think these things are just too weird, the coincidences are too weird to be coincidences. It’s too weird to be confirmation bias or whatever. It’s just too precise. I wanted the form to I guess be convincing in a way that there was something to all this. I wasn’t just making it up and that this was not just a magic trick. A magician who doesn’t really believe in magic but wants to make the audience feel something, that’s not what was happening. I authentically was very surprised by just how everything lined up because I thought it was going to flop, but it didn’t, it was very eerie. I think these things are synchronicities. I think it’s still unexplainable because I know I didn’t do it.
DN: One of the ways formally you use repetition and time loops, perhaps the most immediately apparent way you use it in White Magic is the repeating epigraphs at the beginning of sections. Each time we arrive at one of these pages—which is pretty often, we get the exact same epigraphs from Louise Erdrich and Alice Notley—in a way it feels like the time loops because no matter what we’ve just learned back at the beginning or in the middle of the book, we arrive at the “same place”, yet nevertheless something has changed. One of the things that’s changed is there’s an evolving set of footnotes where you’re addressing us that are different but the epigraphs are the same. You’re addressing us about us. But I’m curious, before we talk about the footnotes, if you could talk about the repeating epigraphs, what you feel like they’re doing, and then if you want, I would imagine given how often they reappear, that these epigraphs must be of particular importance to you, the Notley and the Erdrich.
EW: Yeah. I think the effects, the ways I eventually saw them working were different from where I started with them which was basically that I love epigraphs, I use so many in My Body Is a Book of Rules. I just love them. I think that they’re delightful. A book is like a cabinet of curiosities and I get to pick my favorite things and put them in there. They’re for me more than they are for the reader probably and every once in a while, these various craft conversations pop up on literary Twitter and one day people were just slamming the use of epigraphs and I realized I am attached to epigraphs and I don’t care what the reader thinks. It felt really freeing to realize that it’s okay to have something in my book that’s just for me. I’m the one who has to work on it for as long as I do, let me have something that’s delightful. I want my little epigraphs, [laughter] I have to spend more time with it than the reader does so just let me have these things that are just for me. I was working in such isolation on this book, isolation in that I wasn’t really showing it to anybody as I was working on it which is intentional. But it gets a little wild in there while doing this thing for so long that’s so massive and that nobody has seen. I just thought, “What if I just put in the same epigraphs for every essay?” Because I think somebody had said, “I just skip over the epigraphs,” and I realize honestly I do that too a lot of the time when I’m reading, so what if I just keep having them come back and we can test the reader and see if they’re paying attention? It really just started as a really petty and silly thing that was nonsense but once they were there, I realized that they were doing exactly what you said, to mark that move back to where we were before. The fact that they come back again and again is incantatory and spell-like I think and is a little bit like ritual. There’s another thing I thought of as you were asking the question in doing all the watching of Twin Peaks that I did and quoting it as much as I did and referring to different episodes, I found that when I was looking for the several moments that come up multiple times throughout the series, moments in the Black Lodge in particular, my memory of how they had appeared previously was off a lot of the time. I can’t remember the specifics but certain things were or were not said that I remembered being said or did not remember being said. It’s interesting to think about revisiting something and being a little bit destabilized as far as the question of what has changed, what is different now. I have an entire poem by Alice Notley and two lines from Louise Erdrich’s The Strange People and I think the way those are working for me is somewhat intuitive. I don’t fully have words to put to it or reasoning to share, I don’t think, because in some ways, it does feel like it’s so much just for me and there’s no need to explain how it works or justify them.
DN: Do you want to read them?
EW: Yeah. The Alice Notley poem is “All my life Since I was 10 I’ve been waiting to be in this hell here with you All I’ve ever wanted And still do.” The Erdrich lines are, “If a man was never to lie to me. Never lie me. I swear I would never leave him.” I think I just get these gut feelings when I read this poem and these lines or both the full Erdrich poem as well. They’re both poems that I always feel like I could read so many times in my life and never feel like I’ve worn them out for myself. I think there’s something about the Notley poem that feels like it captures the experience of wanting something that is hellish, I mean, that’s what the poem is about and I think that’s what the book is about too in many ways.
DN: I have a question from someone else that I want to ask you around this section. Yesterday I was a guest speaker in Jeannie Vanasco’s class with her undergraduate writing students. One of the things I mentioned in that class talking to her, I was thinking of like Carmen Maria Machado talking about the archive of women being written in sand and how it’s always disappearing and how part of what she was doing was like, I don’t know if it’s resurrection but trying to establish lineage and archival connections with things that have been erased and brought into the future. I don’t want to lump all of you together as if you’re similar writers or entirely doing the same thing—because you’re not—but I was talking about how I felt like you and her and Melissa Febos, Terese Marie Mailhot, Chelsea Hodson, Sophia Shalmiyev, and Morgan Parker, all felt like you were in your own ways breaking and remaking form in the service of a future archive against erasure, particularly against erasure of women but also other aspects of erasure. But in the lead-up to going to her class, I invited Jeannie to ask you a question. I should mention, this was obvious to me and I didn’t include it, that Jeannie Vanasco’s book is certainly a huge part of this project as well, breaking form, making a new form, and confronting questions of misogyny, and sexual assault and erasure of archive.
DN: This is her question: “White Magic is incredible. My question is inspired by some of your footnotes to your epigraphs. In one footnote you write, ‘When you don’t understand the meaning of something you read, whose fault is it? Yours or the writer’s? It has to be someone’s fault. Everything does. Anyway, I just ask because this is my book. Do you think I understand everything in this book? If I don’t, can you?’ In another you write, ‘Do you think this is a good book? How do you know? Is it because you compared it to other books? I do want to make you uncomfortable if you’re accustomed to being the ideal audience, your wants prioritized. This is how I treat so many of the people I get close to. I try to give them exactly what they want in some ways, withhold in others. Can you love a person even if you don’t understand them? Or: How much do you have to understand someone in order to love them? Does one have anything to do with the other at all?’” Then Jeannie continues by saying, “The metaness of this goes into these deep philosophical places. And as a result of acknowledging the artifice, this tension emerges between intimacy and distance between writer and reader. I’m wondering what are your thoughts about pointing toward artifice as a means of creating intimacy or distance or of doing both simultaneously? Because I keep thinking of that line, ‘This is how I treat so many of the people I get close to. I try to give them exactly what they want in some ways, withhold in others.’”
EW: That line was one of the big realizations of the book and I actually haven’t thought about it till now. But it was a significant thing for me to realize because I had not realized until I looked back how much I was withholding from people. I think this is a great question and I’m not totally sure I have the answer so I’m just going to try to talk toward it. But I think that whenever we’re writing, we’re creating something that is going to meet the reader and the reader’s going to bring their stuff and they’re going to meet the stuff that we brought and we’re both working together to make meaning. I think in writing and revising, we’re always doing what we can to control our part of it and to really locate the place where we’re going to meet the reader. We think about the readers’ expectations, we think about what the likely meaning is they’re going to take from something, and we try to create something where they can meet us even if it’s a lot of work for them, something that’s possible. I think that the use of artifice in some ways is, for me, a way of getting closer to the reader. Just thinking about the process of revising this book manuscript, some of those footnotes came later, the introduction to each act was the last thing that I put in, and I think that part that I read and the one preceding Act II and Act III, those were all attempts to really define for the reader my intentions for an experience with the artifice of this thing that is my memory book. It’s not just a bunch of my memories, it’s a bunch of sentences that I wrote to try to explain something basically. Before those introductions were there, the entire project of the book I think wasn’t clear in a way that I thought it was. I thought it was clear as being not a collection of very disconnected essays but as even like one book-length essay that collaged from various essays within that, that’s really how I think about it. Whatever architecture I had in mind for the book at that point was very much not clear to my readers at that point. I think in recent years, it’s become obvious to me that I can just say things to the reader, I can just tell the reader things. Actually, that is very much connected to that whole realization of withholding from people. Just like in romantic relationships, there was always the thing that you can’t come out and say, you can’t come out and tell someone how infatuated you are with him, you can’t tell him that you need him so I would withhold those things. That, I don’t do anymore. I also don’t make the reader work for things that are not going to have any payoff. If I’m asking the reader to do work, I want it to be worth it. I want them to feel satisfied with the work that they’ve done and I want them to feel like they’re participating in meaning making for a reason, not to figure out something I’m withholding because I’m being coy or because I just think for no reason that I shouldn’t say it. I’ve tried to move toward being really direct with the reader when I need to be because I know that the gap between my intentions for their reading and their reading, it’s always going to be a variable size but I can do things to make sure it’s not overly massive for no reason.
DN: You mentioned architecture and I want to take this question of architecture outside of writing to the world and talk about questions of place and space versus questions of time. I’m going to read another thing from The Believer—which I’ll definitely include the link to that conversation to listeners because it’s a great one—and in the conversation, you’re talking about having severe working memory deficit and you say, “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.” I was hoping we could take this as a way to talk about the section of White Magic where you’re a writer in residence inside the Fremont Bridge in Seattle and from that vantage point, you’re contemplating how the land and the water of Seattle, despite looking, at least at first glance, quite natural and dramatically beautiful, just how much the land and water has been straightened, flattened, and dredged by white settlers. Something that you do at the same time as you talk about the serpent spirits of the same place that have since departed. I wonder if you could just speak into that aspect of the book about the history of the reshaping of the physicality of Seattle as it relates to white settlement and indigenous erasure.
EW: Yeah. I was a writer in residence at the Fremont Bridge in summer of 2016 and I wasn’t even going to apply for this thing because I thought, “What do I have to say about a bridge?” and I realized the bridge was so connected to things I was already writing about. I was already writing about the Ship Canal. I had somehow forgotten that I had just done massive amounts of research on the Ship Canal in Lake Washington and the a’yahos, the serpent spirit. I spent the summer in that little tower office and was trying to do research on this history of the creation of the Ship Canal. That was my starting place. I was looking at these books about Seattle and I had a couple of books from Seattle Department of Transportation that they lent me, old books about engineering in Seattle and I realized the Ship Canal’s creation was really connected to all these other projects that I never even really thought about like the regrading, of course, I had seen the iconic photos of the Denny Regrades with these spite houses on little pieces of land that the residents refused to have regraded. I had seen those photos, but I didn’t really think of all of these things as being connected, the filling of the tideflats and the straightening of the Duwamish River, the way the Black River dried up, all of it were different parts over time of this ongoing project to fill in, flatten, and familiarize Seattle, to make it legible to settlers as land because they’ve felt that in order to live there, they needed the land to be stabilized in certain ways according to their desires and their convenience so river flooding wasn’t going to work for them and the channels that were originally where the Ship Canal was created sometimes were present, sometimes were not, that’s not convenient at all for shipping so they created this unified project. In researching and writing about this, I was really struggling with time which was very apparent in the fact check of my book that I was just really struggling to keep all the dates and phases in order in my mind because these series of projects took place over so many years and in so many different phases and in particular, the way that they are written about in the engineering books and in other things that I read, feel so divorced from what I understand land to be. There’s nothing that feels like there’s any sense of place attached. It’s completely impersonal. Of course, they don’t have anything to say about spirits that live there, that’s not something that’s part of their worldview at all. There’s just all these figures about tonnage when it comes to the regrades and how many tons of the land were moved and to where and when in a way that I found profoundly boring. I felt like it was important and yet it was so boring, there was nothing that was narrative, that was majestic, or that was felt, it was all just years and numbers which I realized meant nothing to me.
DN: Also, I’m imagining listeners who haven’t read White Magic yet might feel this has been abrupt like why are we all of a sudden talking about dredging of rivers when just like five minutes ago, we were talking about form and writing into trauma. But it felt like even though you don’t explicitly go there, because of the way it sits in the book, it does feel like this is another way in which form and story is imposed, an imagined form being imposed upon Seattle. But you also do this really interesting thing in the way that you connect your own individual trauma to this, I don’t think it’s explicit but you connect it to both collective trauma and to this reshaping of geography. Because I’m thinking about your wrong diagnosis and then your right diagnosis being the result of sexual assault and then about your moving away from a fractionated identity and how the notion of blood quantum itself is a colonial construct. I was thinking about how these two shifts in personal identity become connected to the historical trauma of indigenous people in the region and to the dredging and leveling of the land by white settlement. Because you cite in the book a CDC Seattle survey of native women where 94% had been raped or coerced into sex and 96% of these rapes were by non-natives, in the same time when you’re talking about periods of time in Seattle where indigenous people aren’t allowed to live there and their villages are burned and intermarriages are voided. Then similarly, you quote the Urban Health Initiative which found that nearly every native woman surveyed had been raped and half of them had attempted suicide. In one of the talks you gave, you mentioned a book by Sarah Deer called The Beginning and End of Rape where she says, “Colonization and colonizing institutions use tactics that are no different from those of sexual perpetrators, including deceit, manipulation, humiliation, and physical force.” Then in White Magic, from Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s book, as we have always done indigenous freedom through radical resistance, you quote, “‘Colonizers want land, but indigenous bodies forming nations are in the way because they have a strong attachment to land and because they replicate Indigeneity,’ and the colonizers, ‘see Indigenous women’s and girls’ bodies as the bodies that reproduce nations.’ ‘The attack on our bodies, minds, and spirits, and the intimate trauma this encodes is how dispossession is maintained.’” I’m not entirely sure this is exactly a question, but as much as you said earlier or that I quoted of you saying earlier that you don’t trust realizations and realizations are the way you lie, the way I experienced this part of the book as a reader where this connection between your experience and the way the land has been treated and then this larger use of rape and sexual assault as part of the dispossession feels epiphanic not in a false way, like I imagine into you thinking, wow, this must have been a transformative realization to connect your story after having had so many wrong stories told about you or about the Cowlitz. But I don’t know if that’s true. I guess the question for me is about that connection in terms of your own, because I don’t think that connection would have happened in My Body Is a Book of Rules.
EW: I don’t remember the realization in that essay in the same way I remember some of the other realizations that happened in the writing process.
DN: What’s possible, I’m creating meaning that’s not actually in words but in the experience of reading your words.
EW: Yeah. I think there is something happening there that has to do with this. In writing that essay, I think it was really the hardest to write. I may say something different on a different day but I think Centerless Universe was really the hardest book in this essay to write, in part because I was trying to force myself into a form that was not working for the essay in writing about the forcing of form on Seattle by just trying to do this history project that came from my perspective. That history is not my perspective, it has nothing to do with it. It took me a long time to realize that and this essay was very long at one point. I think I cut it down. But there was something that was not really clicking for me for so long and then late in the revision process, I think I realized just how much I was suffering at that time and how I hadn’t really gotten that on the page. I felt like Seattle was, in some ways, not my place or this was not a story about me ultimately or it was not a story about my stakes, it was a story about my imposition. But that’s not accurate. I’m not Duwamish but I have relations with them in some ways, being also Coast Salish and having the experience of being labeled Native American in the city of Seattle, we have some commonalities. I think once I found that data about native women’s experiences of sexual violence in Seattle, it was really hard but it also felt very connected to something that was part of the larger project of the book in trying to convey something I still don’t think that I have the words for. I didn’t have the words for this in My Body Is a Book of Rules and it looks like I’m going to keep writing about it in my next book and I’m just going to keep going until I find the words. But there is something in the experience of being colonized that is intensely violent in a particular way that I think I’m probably just not even fully aware of yet. It has to do with my health. It has to do with my spirit. It’s everywhere in my experience of this world that I’m in. I know that a criticism I got of My Body Is a Book of Rules was that some people felt that the connections I made around being a native woman who was raped were connections that didn’t make sense to them. That’s valid but maybe it’s just not a thing that can be made sense of in the way readers want because it’s senseless, it’s absolutely senseless, there’s no sense there. I can’t make a conclusion about it because in some ways, it’s like a fish describing water. I don’t know what there is to say about it because the United States is the only place I’ve lived and settlement is the only condition I’ve lived under. Almost my whole adult life, I’ve lived with this experience of having been raped. It’s really hard to essay into some of that and arrive where the essay is supposed to arrive because I just don’t think it’s there.
DN: Yeah. I want to stay with this essaying into something like this where you don’t have the words and the fact that you’re going to keep going because it reminds me also of, I can’t remember which podcast I was listening to you, but I think it was last year and you were talking about how, when you were still living under the bipolar diagnosis, that you weren’t sure you ever had feelings. In other words, whenever you had feelings, you wondered if instead of feelings, they were the beginnings of ramping up into a bipolar episode and that it took you a long time to embrace your own feelings on their own terms as both authentic and normal, not an illness. You’ve also said it took you a long time to accept the trauma of being raped as authentic and real on its own terms. For instance, when you got sober, it was recommended that you write a drunkalogue, and White Magic is supposed to be chronologic and linear and driven by causation and you wanted to write it or you had an urge to write your drinking narrative without the sexual assaults. You’ve talked just now about the process of unpacking just how much you’ve been colonized. But what about in regards to writing and writing into your experience when part of your experience is a distrust of feeling and a desire potentially to self-censor? Is it just about continuing to write as the solution? Maybe there aren’t words to how you do that, but I wonder about how you do that. How do you write into the experience? Maybe it is just more writing to exercise that sense of feeling like what your most intimate experiences are that are actually true experiences rather than disease or disorder.
EW: Just yesterday, I was telling my grad students about my position that the essay can answer a lot of questions but it can’t answer all questions and we need other tools for answering some of those questions. Eventually those tools, like therapy, supportive friendship, or whatever tools we have for having ourselves reflected back to us, those tools I think can be used in tandem with the writing process and you go and you live and learn a little bit more about yourself and then you come back to the page and then you go back to therapy and then you write and you do a little bit of both, I think that is part of understanding how to respect feelings. One other big part of this for me was when I was at University of Washington, I worked with the Athabascan scholar, Dian Million, whose work on felt theory was really influential to me as it has been to a lot of other people. Just working with her and seeing her all the time and talking to her as I was becoming a person really, as I was growing up—I grew up a little late in my 20s—I really came to understand intellect and feeling being equally important and being so related to one another and that my feelings were smart. My feeling organ is my soul, I guess, was smart and had knowledge. When I was being treated for bipolar disorder, I was never fully stable because I was not bipolar—now we know—but always in going from one medication to another and just trying to find the right fit that was going to keep me stable, I constantly had to be paying attention to my moods and my feelings. If I was upset about something, I just had to assume that might be the beginning of an episode. If I was too happy, maybe I was manic, if I was too sad, maybe I was depressed. I wasn’t even thinking about the fact that I was an alcoholic and was using something that was depressing my central nervous system constantly. Everything about the experience of feeling was really oversimplified for me. I think it was around this period that I’m writing about in White Magic like 2016-ish, I got sober in 2015 and then really I changed profoundly in the first year sober but there were other changes that came in 2016 and that’s when I really learned that I had to embrace feeling because I could no longer self-medicate it away, it was just going to stay there. I was also newly understanding the fact that feelings are not medically bad. That was part of it. Another part of it is pretty random but I can’t remember whether I wrote about this or not, I think I did, I saw a psychic in the Seattle area. His office actually was really close to the Microsoft campus and in an office park, super weird, [laughter] I went to go see this psychic and he told me I needed to strengthen my intuition. A thing that he suggested, I’d loved this—he was a fraud—but I’d loved this thing that he gave me which is that he said, “When you go for your walks, just listen to your intuition when it tells you where to go and just see what happens.” Really interesting things actually happened then like running into a crystal salesman with all of these crystals out on tables on the sidewalk. I really carried that far beyond my walks into the rest of my life, just really paying attention to what intuition was. I think so much of the work I did to be able to bring that into the essay happened way outside the writing process.
DN: I do want to spend most of the rest of our time talking about magic and divination which people are probably like, “Why haven’t we even been talking about magic?” But I have one more memoir specific question that I think might be of interest to writers of memoir, because I want to ask you about the opposite of how you deal with self-censorship and talk about disclosure. When I think of Stephen Graham Jones’ description of your book, “A spell carved from a life, written in blood, and sealed in an honesty I can hardly fathom,” it’s the honesty and your willingness to disclose the most personal things about you or what seem like the most personal things about you that stands out the most to me as a reader. We know about your psychiatric history and your struggles with alcohol but we also know the names and dosages of the antipsychotics, anticonvulsants, antidepressants, and lithium you’re on in your first book, you’re drinking of NyQuil, your sexual encounters, consensual and not. But in your first book, these encounters seem to be more anonymous or at least kept anonymous, whereas in White Magic where one of the throughlines of the book is a breakup as you move from Seattle to Ohio. We get scenes with a good number of men who, to put it lightly, are bad actors in detail. In one podcast, you talked about the anxiety you had around White Magic coming out because of how the men depicted in it might respond. But you followed this comment with this great comment, I thought, that you were also most proud of and excited by the language that you had crafted around the things that these people did and should be ashamed of, so you were not going to cut these things out based on your fear of what these people portrayed in the book might think of how they were portrayed. But I was hoping we could talk a little bit about this, the intimacy of what you disclose in your life coupled with knowing because of this, that people are going to recognize themselves in the book, whether you tried to disguise them for either personal or legal reasons, was there a legal process with Tin House? Because I’m thinking about when they had Sophia Shalmiyev on, she talked a lot about the nightmare for her when they insisted on calling her book a memoir and she had to engage with people that had abused her around her portrayal. Or Jeannie Vanasco’s book whose rapist participated in the creation of the book and became part of the book but also, that involved all sorts of questions and hurdles and legal considerations as well. I don’t know if you’re willing to talk about that aspect of it as a writer, but I bet people would be curious about it, people who are writing about whatever trauma they’re experiencing where those people are moving around in the world right now and may read what they write in the future.
EW: Yeah. This is so hard for me. I hate this part of the book coming out. It causes me so much anxiety. I didn’t include these men as an act of retribution. There are a few people who I think were really not good to me who are not in the book because they’re not part of the story. Even though it was during that time period, it’s fine. They just weren’t part of this narrative. I tried to de-identify everyone but Carl as much as I could. I would have de-identified Carl except his name was significant because his name was the same as a magician that I found while researching so I had to keep him as he was. I also told him that I was doing this. I don’t know if he remembers and I did not check in with him at the end of the process, but I did tell him that I was writing this and he said it was fine. Unfortunately, I guess I’ll preface all this with saying there’s no right way to do this. All the ways are wrong it seems like. I can only fail in some way at writing about other people. If I don’t write about them at all, that’s some pretty hard navel gazing and I am accused of that anyway so I try to write about other people but other people have not always been very nice to me and that has hurt me, and hurt and conflicts drive narrative. Every person, every ex-boyfriends or guy, whoever, in this book knew that he was in a relationship with a writer who writes personal essays about the men she slept with. I just feel like if somebody cheats on that kind of writer, they’re really making a decision. I feel like throughout these breakups and struggles with these guys, friends would tell me that, I can’t remember the quote, but when someone tells you who they are, believe them. That goes for them too, they should believe me when I say I write about the men who I’ve slept with. I think that’s the disclaimer that maybe, it’s out there implicitly. I don’t give them an explicit warning because I’m always hoping for the best, but I think that was known about me by all of these men. They chose to do what they did. What they did becomes part of my story. It’s something I experienced. Like I said, I really tried to make it so they weren’t identifiable easily anyway. I tried my hardest for that and I tried at some points taking them out, some of them I took out and that didn’t work either because ultimately, this story is about romantic relationships and those I have with other people. It was hard, it’s still hard. I have a lot of anxiety around it. Part of that is I don’t like it when people are mad at me, but there’s other considerations too. I don’t want to destroy anyone’s life or cause anyone disruption. I did write about them using language that was very precise and said the things that I didn’t say to them at the time oftentimes, and I think that was necessary for me and it was necessary for the development of me as narrator-character in this book is coming into that language to pinpoint exactly what they did to hurt me which I think many of them thought I wasn’t noticing. Tin House, I think, they did have a legal read of the book. Ultimately, everything I wrote about is factual. Everybody’s de-identified but Carl, and the things I said about what Carl did are true, they happened and so that’s I think where we all are with it and I just hope for the best. [laughter]
DN: I hope for the best too. Let’s meditate a little on magic together. The book meditates on magic in the magic trick and even brings in Hanif Abdurraqib’s A Fortune for Your Disaster, which also does this and becomes a small part of your book. Your book is chock-full of astrology, tarot, witchcraft, self-help books. I wondered if you looked at these as different forms from which one searches for meaning through whether they’re a different version of the hermit crab or if it’s just fundamentally different because these are practices you believe in than arbitrary things. Do you see these as cosmologic hermit crabs? Or if not, if there’s something of a different type, maybe you could talk about your attraction to divination and magic making. I know it’s an attraction speaking of changing personas, I know in your Substack, you’ve talked about how since you finished the book, you haven’t really been as engaged with many of these practices so maybe there’s something about the bringing the book to an aesthetic resolution has changed you too. But I’d be interested to hear about how you see these, if they are themselves, forms or lenses or something else.
EW: I think absolutely they are. Ultimately tarot and astrology were both tools for me to work on intuition, work on belief in something that was not myself and cultivate hope. I think there were ways for me to focus that belief I was coming into that there is something supernatural about the universe or there’s something beyond what I understand to be natural. The tools were good for that. I think that they are like hermit crabs and that they are formal tools for me to use as a way of shaping my chaos and my sea of stuff that I’m bringing into the experience, whether it’s the essay or trying to figure out how my day is going or what’s going to happen this year. I haven’t been using them as much. I think that there’s a few reasons. The primary reason is what you said. I finished the book and I think it’s not just that I brought that to aesthetic completion but also that the writing process became a much more effective way of channeling the universe than tarot was or astrology was. Astrology, I spent a lot of time learning the conventions of that practice and it’s way, way beyond me, it’s so massive even though I really got into it. Tarot doesn’t totally feel like mine either, neither of them really feel like mine. But my writing process is mine and that became a very powerful conduit of something supernatural in the ways that the synchronicities came together. The ways the motifs showed up, like symbols kept recurring, it felt very powerful. I guess once that was done, it just had to be done and I didn’t go back to tarot or astrology. Maybe part of it is the hopelessness of the last year. I’m also not as afraid as I used to be of the unknown. I’m much more comfortable with it. I’m in a stable relationship, a long-term relationship and I’m not afraid within it.
DN: When I imagined White Magic before I read it, when I imagined what White Magic was about, I imagined that it was mainly about appropriation and racism within white new age magical practices. It does touch on this particularly at the beginning with a very fierce and amazing essay where you unpack how white magic is considered good and benevolent and black magic at best is considered a lower frequency magic and it, worse than evil magic and of course what is considered black magic, is magic coming more often from the Caribbean or Africa. Even when people think this type of magic is good, it’s often appropriated completely out of context and recycled as if it were a commodity. You talk about how the burning of sage by non-native new age practitioners is driving it to become endangered and you cite an article on that that’s gone viral about where our healing crystals really come from. But while you do unpack all of this and the ways these things alienate you, at the time at least, you seem to be earnestly using them also at the same time as meaning-making devices. In the margins almost in passing, you mentioned that your native friends have also been teaching you practices as well, ones that connect you to place. It made me wonder if the relatively small place these practices take up in the book is because they’re still small, if a growing part of your life, or rather because it’s just you exercising discretion around disclosure about what to put into the book around tribal rituals that really shouldn’t be for the consumption of others.
EW: Yeah. That’s what it is, it’s just completely off limits. It is a big part of this story of healing and certainly the story of sobriety and coming to believe in something. But in writing that essay White Witchery, I was really thinking carefully about how I was going to speak to that and ultimately, it just felt like there was no way to responsibly speak to it in this context. I just put in the refusal basically because I knew what much of the audience would be bringing to it and how visible it could potentially be. There’s so much of that I just didn’t include. But through that process and through drafting and revising White Witchery, I just realized that it was so much less interesting to me to talk about magic and appropriation than to talk about myself, [laughter] and I was like, “Let’s get back to me,” but that’s part of it, that’s honest. But I think the other thing is that in this book, my strategies are not rhetorical. I’m not here to coach white witches, to shame them, to teach them, to fix them, it’s just not my project, I’m just not that interested in it. I tried to simultaneously be honest about the ways in which I was engaging with magic and how complex it was. But ultimately, I do some of the same things that some white witches do, who are things I really very much do not approve of. That’s just the complexity and ambivalence I live within.
DN: Yeah. I want to ask you about magic and the supernatural in relationship to the real for you. Because there’s just one point during a mental health intake, you’re asked, “Do you ever see or hear or feel things that aren’t there?” and you do have a sense of fingers running through your hair right before falling asleep, the product of your PTSD. It made me think of one of my conversations with Morgan Parker—and I can’t remember exactly what she said so this is paraphrased through memory—but she pointed to problems of looking at depression for a black woman in America as some individual’s brain imbalance rather than a very normal response to the lived experience of many, if not, most black women in America. It made me wonder about the fingers in your hair, if that really should be seen as it might have been—as a hallucination—when in many ways, it could be framed as a reasonable response of hyper vigilance after repeated assaults. This isn’t part of your book but it made me just think about things that I’d read, like how, with schizophrenia for instance, in America, American schizophrenics hear voices that tend to be negative and in Africa, African schizophrenics tend to view the voices they hear as benevolent. Or how there are these programs in the US now for early intervention of teenagers who’ve had one psychotic episode because there are things you can do to prevent someone who’s had a psychotic episode from progressing to schizophrenia, and it’s based on evidence around some traditional models in other countries where families get deeply involved in the care and in other countries where people sing together and partake in ritual together as part of the intervention. In a way, it makes me think of, again, to the basket is form and these non word or non rational or non intellectual ways of meaning making, but it also made me wonder about this question of what is real and whether magic, in some regards, could be real.
EW: I think that’s the question the book eventually moved into because it was a question I was asking after all of my breakups like, “Was that real?” The person I was asking was my therapist and we would talk about it again and again and she would say, “Feelings not lasting doesn’t mean they weren’t real. There were real feelings involved, they just weren’t what you wanted.” I realized how often I was asking the question about so many different things. I think what Morgan was saying is very much in line with what Leanne Betasamosake Simpson is arguing in—as we have always done—which I quoted in White Witchery, it’s a normal response to living under colonialism. It’s a healthy response. When I read that, it really blew my mind. Ultimately, I don’t know what the sensation of fingers in my hair was about. I guess I know a little bit more now. At the time, it was happening constantly and it stopped and it happened again when one of the exes in the book reached out to me via email, I started feeling it again. I think it’s not a ghost, it is a trauma response. I am hyper vigilant. I have very strong physical reactions to being startled and have really just constantly been on alert senses in many ways. It’s probably just that my hair is moving on my pillow and it feels really intense. It’s interesting to think about the fact that feels in some ways like it’s less real than if it were a ghost, which probably has something to do with the fact that even after all this work I’ve done to try to convince myself and others that narratives of trauma are real and are valid and legitimate, part of me still doesn’t believe it about myself. I don’t know what could ever happen to make me feel that my experiences, my perception of what happened to me is the text, is the most valid one, but I’m still working on that.
DN: To stay with this question of the real and the uncanny, you’ve taught classes on native representation within films, and in this book, we see movies from The Revenant to Wind River, and we also see the video game Oregon Trail II. This is going to date me terribly, but it was super fascinating for me to read about Oregon Trail II because the original Oregon Trail game, which was text only, which came out at the time that personal home computers first came out, was a huge deal for me growing up. Computers were exotic and that game was exotic and so we actually played it as part of school in elementary school. We would sign up and as part of class, you would leave class and you’d go play Oregon Trail which seemed like the most high-tech thing you could possibly imagine even though it was all words. But the newer version, while it shares some traits with the original, namely that you’re a white homesteader and the two outcomes are either death or settlement as you say, [laughter] the newer version is of course not text-based but more fully immersive. The uncanny thing about it is this is a game that portrays places where your own family lived. I was hoping you could talk a little bit about playing Oregon Trail II in the avatar of a white homesteader but traveling to go find “real places” in Oregon Trail II where your own-known family would have spent time.
EW: I first played it probably around, I don’t even know if I can make a guess, I guess 8 or 10, probably 10. At that time, I’d only lived in New Jersey, the house that I had grown up in. I just had a very narrow experience of the world. I think the way that I related to place and history was just so different then. I knew at the end of the game, if you go the primary route, you get to the Dalles. I knew like, “Oh, yeah, the Dalles. That’s near where grandma and grandpa live.” But I didn’t know really anything about the specifics of our family history in terms of colonization. I knew different things about my family but I didn’t know the depth of that context because I was a child. I played Reader Rabbit, and I don’t know what the other games were, but we played those games at school too. I don’t remember a whole lot about the experience of playing it as a child other than I know that I was compelled to play it constantly in the way I still am compelled to play video games. That was one of my earlier experiences with that, although not my earliest. I think at that point, everything that I did in New Jersey centered settlement and settlers so it didn’t seem at all strange to me that would be the experience. I had never seen someone like myself represented in any form of entertainment, I’d never seen just a regular native woman a lot or native girl alive today who’s not Pocahontas or whatever. It didn’t even occur to me that anything was off, that there was any possibility other than living inside settlement and being driven by settler desires. I really loved that game. I just loved the hunting and the paths and everything. But it’s one of those things that stayed with me. I used several of these things that stayed with me from childhood in the book. That game, the video from the DARE program I was in as a kid—I’m sure there’s some other things that I’m not thinking about right now—but when I’m holding those things and continue to not know exactly what they mean to me, those things seemed really rich potential places to take the essay. I revisited Oregon Trail II and after having done so much research on the history of the Cascade people and my family, in particular, I understood the game in a completely new way. For one, knew that Fort Vancouver, you can reach it toward the end of the game was where Chief Tumalth’s daughters were living as children after he was hanged, there’s no signs of that in the game, it’s just a place you stop in, you get supplies, you trade with people.
DN: Yeah. As we come to the close of the book, there’s a hundred-page section that’s like a braid of a whole bunch of different elements and we go back and forth through different sources. One of those sources is Twin Peaks. Maybe it’s a weird or maybe it’s a perfect way to come to the end of our conversation with Twin Peaks. I know I shared one of my synchronicities with the show with you that I went to high school with the actor who played Laura Palmer, but I also, when I moved to Oregon, was randomly at a bed and breakfast having brunch with the Log Lady.
DN: [laughs] Yeah, who was married to a rabbi in Ashland, Oregon and was eating there. She was so nice and we talked about David Lynch the whole breakfast. Apparently, in the new Twin Peaks, she was dying and they filmed her scenes from her deathbed. They went to Ashland and filmed those scenes, those strange disembodied scenes, because of the constraints of what she could do. But Twin Peaks is a really big presence in this book and it was funny because when I interviewed Brandon Hobson a couple weeks ago, after the interview ended, we were still talking and we just ended up talking about how important David Lynch was to him and also Twin Peaks. It just made me wonder, because obviously, the native portrayals in the iconography in Twin Peaks is caricature but everything’s caricature or everything’s distorted and heightened like suburban white life and Blue Velvet is that way, and the characters all are these types. In knowing how much you’ve thought about representation, I just wondered if you could talk about your attraction to Twin Peaks in this light, whether you liked it despite the fact of the ways in which the other reasons—the dream logic, this playing with layering of time loops because he’s certainly in the same club with you around time loops, or whether he somehow found a way to sidestep problematic portrayals, at least in your case, that’s something about the way it’s off kilter in its exaggeration and almost like sometimes a flatness around the way the characters are. I wondered about not just native characters or particularly native characters, but what are your thoughts on Twin Peaks?
EW: What are my thoughts about Twin Peaks? [laughter] There’s a lot of problematic representations in Twin Peaks. Asian representations are terrible, absolutely terrible. It’s more interesting to me to actually look at what’s not there than what is there. Talking about Hawk’s character, to me, there’s not much to do beyond rehashing the same conversations we’ve been having over and over about stereotyping and caricatures. What’s really interesting to me is land. The fact that the Lodge is Snoqualmie land, the very first scene takes place at Suquamish at Kiana Lodge. Suquamish is a place that’s really important to me. I have written about Suquamish basket weaving in the introduction to Shapes of Native Nonfiction and I did so much work to try to map where things are happening in the world of Twin Peaks, not just where things are filmed but where they’re supposed to be happening. Because at least at one point, we get a map. I can’t remember whose territory it is, but it’s in the Northeast part of Washington State, that’s where Twin Peaks is supposed to be located. Of course, that’s not where the bulk of it is filmed but there’s also references to Wind River, I think primarily in the film. That’s my territory. There’s a photo of one of my ancestors with her canoe at Wind River. I find it really interesting that there are all these places that are not just their native land in the sense that this is all native land, but the Kiana Lodge, that’s still Suquamish land, that’s still their land, and yet there’s no engagement with any Coast Salish peoples or Coast Salish cosmology in any way. I think Hawk is Nez Perce, if I remember correctly, and there are ideas that are given to him that are really not, as far as I know, from Nez Perce cosmology at all, they’re from esoteric traditions that have nothing to do with indigeneity here.
DN: In a way, it’s a good example of some of the problematic white magic.
EW: Yeah, and the only representation of visible Coast Salishness is, of course, the art on the walls of the Lodge. That is something that speaks very much to my experience of being native in some places. I think of Santa Fe and experiences I’ve had there of white people who seem to love the concept of native art as they were forming it in their own minds but didn’t seem to love native people. Just the appearance of Coast Salish thought and aesthetics only on the walls of that building does feel very telling to me.
DN: That’s well said. Could we go out with another reading?
EW: Yeah, absolutely.
DN: Okay. I was thinking the first couple pages of Act III?
[Elissa Washuta reads from her latest book, White Magic]
DN: Thank you so much for being on Between The Covers today, Elissa.
EW: Thank you so much for this conversation.
DN: We’ve been talking today to Elissa Washuta, the author of White Magic from Tin House. You’ve been listening to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener sponsored, full strength makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. You can find more of Elissa’s work at Washuta.net. Elissa Washuta adds a reading from an essay in progress entitled Apocalypse Pathology to the bonus audio archive. This joins bonus work from Forrest Gander, Ross Gay, Jorie Graham, N. K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, CAConrad, Terese Marie Mailhot, Carmen Maria Machado, Richard Powers, and many others. To find out how to subscribe to the bonus audio or about the many other potential benefits of becoming a listener/supporter of the show, everything from becoming a Tin House early reader receiving 12 books over the course of a year months before they’re available to the general public, to rare collectibles available from writers such as Rikki Ducornet, Nikky Finney, or Ursula K. Le Guin among many other things, head over to patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team, Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Jacob Vala in the Art Department, Yashwina Canter in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.