White MagicThe Spellbinding Writing Power of Elissa Washuta

Elissa Washuta, a light-skinned Native American woman with long, brown hair, poses in front of a pink wall

Elissa Washuta, author of White Magic (Photo credit: Amber Cortes)

“I’ve been asked a thousand times, What are you working on?” writes essayist Elissa Washuta in her most recent book, White Magic, released on April 27. “And I have said, A book about how my heart was broken and how I became a powerful witch.” And here she pauses in the narration. “Did I? Where’s my power now?” This swing between the declarative (“A book about how my heart was broken and how I became a powerful witch”) and the interrogative (“Where’s my power now?”) is emblematic of Washuta’s writing, which never flinches from doubting, questioning, or critiquing her own conclusions. Washuta, who’s a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, is the coeditor of the 2019 anthology Shapes of Native Nonfiction: Collected Essays by Contemporary Writers as well as the author of My Body Is a Book of Rules (2014) and Starvation Mode: A Memoir of Food, Consumption, and Control (2018). Now, with White Magic, Washusta offers a braided exploration of storytelling as power and storytelling as a form of magic.

She critiques white settler violence against Native communities through her examination of the ways in which the United States has rewritten its colonial history through cultural artifacts (including textbooks, government documents, and movies). She also examines the particular vulnerability Native women face on a daily basis. Tucked between the collection’s longer-form essays are flash pieces that draw parallels between the storytelling and trauma recovery. In “Ace of Cups. The Devil. Death,” Washuta begins with a foundational explanation of narrative, plot, and conflict before describing nonfiction as stories in which “writers make insights. We shape the recollected by how the remembering changes us.” Soon after, she claims, “I can make anything meaningful. Look at all these motifs I made for you, this rejection pain I transformed into epic heartbreak. See what a powerful witch I am?” We see this connection even more fully when she confides, “I could gain a life I can’t imagine if I find my way out.” The “way out,” in this context, is storytelling.

The book also demonstrates the inherent power of storytelling through its study of white settler rewritings of U.S. history. In “White City,” Washuta recounts the white settler distortion of Duwamish Chief Si’ahl’s 1854 speech, which he gave to his people before white settlers stole their ancestral land. This specific chain of disinformation begins in 1884 when Henry A. Smith, who did not attend the speech, publishes in the Seattle Sunday Star his white-supremacist rendition, in which Chief Si’ahl “builds an imaginary world where the last living Indian gave white men permission to keep cutting.” In 1969, poet William Arrowsmith reprints his own (again, white supremacist) rendition of the speech in the American Poetry Review. In 1972, Ted Perry wrote yet another for the movie Home. Each rendition is as racist as the last. As Washuta writes, “By telling stories over and over, we give them life. By enacting narratives over and over, we give them shape.”

The white settlers in White Magic—much like in the world at large—choose to spread disinformation through the state-sanctioned retelling of false national narratives that cast white people as heroes. While storytelling in the context of white supremacy perpetuates systematic violence, the book also positions storytelling as a vehicle for healing for PTSD survivors. In “Centerless Universe,” Washuta writes about a 2010 study conducted by the Urban Indian Health Institute in Seattle that found that 94 percent of female Native respondents had been raped. The Department of Justice found in a separate study that 96 percent of perpetrators of sexual violence against Native women were non-Native people.

In the collection, Washuta writes about her own experience as a rape survivor navigating empire post trauma. In “White Witchery,” she creates an association between magic and storytelling when she recounts visiting a magic store for a women’s spiritual circle where they “speak into a bucket and cough out their fears, and then a bundle of plants…is lit.” She further explains, “When I choose, anoint, and burn a candle with my prayers scratched into the wax, when I make my prayers material, I convince myself I can grab onto a power that will carry me through this life…. I choose witchcraft; I choose to cast spells.” Here she speaks in the active voice in which she is the subject in control. Even when she describes “a power that will carry me through this life”—when some other power is the subject carrying her—she is still the one grabbing onto it. In contrast to rape, through which the perpetrator takes agency away from the victim, here storytelling and magic function as a means by which the survivor expresses agency in the present. Bitch interviewed Washuta about White Magic, misdiagnosis, trauma, present-day U.S. colonialism, magic, and the power of narrative.

I’ve been encouraging my friends to read My Body Is a Book of Rules and White Magic together. While you were writing White Magic, did you see it as being in conversation with My Body Is a Book of Rules?

Even though I wrote most of [My Body Is a Book of Rules] before I was 24, it was my book, and it was the bound and printed account of me. In some ways, White Magic needed to serve as a correction: I am older, I am mentally stable, I am healing, and I am not bipolar and never was. I had that diagnosis from a psychiatrist, and I was heavily medicated for the condition for about a decade, but the diagnosis was misapplied. Having written so extensively about my mental illness in My Body Is a Book of Rules served to further solidify bipolar disorder as part of my identity, part of the way I narrated myself.

So in writing White Magic, I needed a new narrative. When I got sober in 2015, I was reborn in a way. It was both a second birth and a reprise of my first birth: I was a different person sober, but I was also the person 24-year-old Elissa [had been] headed toward becoming. I was just so young when I wrote My Body Is a Book of Rules. My brain hadn’t even finished developing. I was so close to the events I was writing about—the essay “Sexually Based Offenses” is, in part, about a sexual assault that happened during the process of writing that very essay. I couldn’t even begin to resolve the trauma narrative when the book was finished, because even the realization that I’d been so traumatized was fairly new to me. Getting sober required that I narrate my personal history for myself, and the resulting understanding made White Magic possible. 

The title White Magic is so evocative. Early in the book, we learn that the supposed distinctions between white magic and black magic are grounded in racist early colonial beliefs, including the idea that Native people lived alongside the Devil. Could you contextualize for us the relationship between whiteness and magic that you explore in your book?

It’s a tricky title to explain—every time I try, I end up falling short of really encapsulating what it means, and that’s a feature of the irreducibility I was aiming for. One significant and possibly unexpected piece of the “white magic” of the book is the consideration of movies, TV shows, and video games that I found to have eerie intersections with my life (for example, Friday the 13th was filmed very close to where I grew up). How they became significant will have to be left for the reader to find out, not because of spoiler potential—I don’t think that concept applies here—but because doing the work of examining these cultural artifacts (Twin Peaks, Oregon Trail II, etc.) was an experience in magic for me.

Ultimately, I was interested in an honest reckoning with some of the popular art that has influenced me. Narrative is magic for me and always has been. The book attempts to spend time inside the question of how I made my own meaning from the dominant culture’s representations that I wasn’t meant to see myself in.

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There are times in the book when you describe yourself as a powerful witch and other times when you struggle to keep faith that magic exists at all. What is the role of magic in your life as a Native woman and writer? How has your understanding of that role shifted over time?

It’s hard for me to say I’m a witch because that word means something to most people that doesn’t apply to me at all. I don’t cast spells anymore, though I did for a while. I rarely read tarot and am mostly staying away from astrology, both of which used to be part of daily life for me. I still think I’m a powerful witch because I think of this book as witchery, and though magic seems hard to come by lately with my world so dulled in many ways, when I’m able to write I do find that I’m able to tap into that power again, as I make my way through the synchronicities of research and the strikes of insight.

Ultimately, I don’t think there’s any conflict between being Native and being interested in magic, and there’s no particular connection either. The conflict is in the ways settler colonialism has pulled elements of Native spiritual practices into settler contexts without permission or even [an] understanding of what they’re doing—but that’s about settlers. It’s because of this long history of theft that there are facets of my relationship with the universe that are just not for the book. But I wanted to be able to evoke that feeling of connection with divinity (or whatever) for readers, even if I wasn’t going to divulge what’s off-limits.

Of your own experience of writing trauma with PTSD, you write, “I, arranger, am changed by having written these essays, and I come to you from a narrative present beyond them, but also still embedded in them.” You write about narrative as the telling witchcraft—a kind of magic. Could you talk a little bit about this?

Experiences of narrative can be incredibly powerful—we can feel lost in a book, we can suspend our disbelief. I can spend hours and hours playing video games and find it hard to separate myself from the controller when the narrative is good and the game is new to me. I don’t know what mechanisms of human consciousness give narrative the potential to work magic in that way, but I know that as a writer, I use various tools to create the effect. Magicians have sleight-of-hand techniques, gimmicks (props with secrets hidden from spectators to make the trick work), mentalist strategies, and so on, to make the audience experience the trick as “real”; I have scene, sensory detail, rumination, formal decisions, and all the other craft tools available to essayists. Writing and that kind of magic—the kind magicians do on the stage or in a spectator’s palm—can be really similar.

The words

White Magic by Elissa Washuta (Photo credit: Tin House)

“Centerless Universe” is about your tenure as the Fremont Bridge writer-in-residence, during which you research and write an essay on the disappearance of the serpent spirit A’yahos from Lake Washington in the early 20th century, when Seattle also built the Lake Washington Ship Canal. How do you grapple with seeking funding from a government that continues to oppress your communities? Who do you think of as your audience—and how does that answer affect the way you write about racial and sexual pain?

The U.S. government has broken their treaties with tribes, and they owe us quite a lot in order to hold up their end of these many agreements. Even when they have gestured toward settling up in some way, [we] had no bargaining power because of the federal government setting the terms. Federal National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowships and city grants don’t factor into what’s owed to tribes in any way, but I don’t feel bad about taking money from a government that’s only in power because of genocidal policies meant to make sure I was never born. But of course, there is a whole bundle of complicated ethical questions around this.

There are entities I don’t want to get involved with because I know I’ll legitimize them by attaching my name and will feel limited in my ability to critique them if I take their money. That’s not true of government money for me. I have no qualms about continuing to critique settlement. I think the state should pay me for that. And I think it should no longer exist on Native land. When I apply for funding, I always center my application statement on craft rather than identity or experience. The funding is for supporting a project or my career as a whole, and I love writing about what I do well as a writer and what defines my aesthetics. I get a lot out of the push to describe what I’m interested in doing next.

Having My Body Is a Book of Rules out in the world for nearly seven years now has allowed me to say “I was raped” without anguish when talking about my subject matter—it’s something I’ve thought about and written about to the point where it doesn’t hurt to think about it anymore. Ultimately, my primary audience is myself. I do write toward publication, and that’s important to me, but I have to spend the most time with the work, and there’s no super-compelling reason to write (for me) beyond making something I really love. Beyond that, my sense of audience is hard to describe, but I know I’m fortunate to have readers who love the work I think of as my best, and that gives me permission to keep listening more and more closely to my own intentions for my essays.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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by Yasmine Ameli
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Yasmine Ameli is an Iranian American writer from Worcester, Massachusetts. She holds a BA in English from Johns Hopkins University and an MFA in Creative Writing (Poetry) from Virginia Tech. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, AGNI, Narrative, Black Warrior Review, Mizna, and elsewhere. Find her at yasmineameli.com and on Instagram @yasmineameli.