A Lumpy, Misshapen Book: Talking with Elissa Washuta

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Certain books are so multidimensional, so arresting, that I have more questions than my experience as a reader and book critic can answer. I want to talk about them, and to promote them, but I can’t do my regular book-reviewing thing with them.

Elissa Washuta’s essay collection, My Body Is a Book of Rules, is a book like that. It explores Washuta’s bipolar disorder, her place in the world as a Native American woman and writer, and the very form and structure of the essay with a voice that rings out unmistakably: at once young and weary, gem-like and fire-like in its intelligence.

I missed my first opportunity to interview Elissa about her work, but I’ve gotten a second chance: Future Tense Press, which published her chapbook Starvation Mode electronically in 2015, has recently reissued it in print. I jumped at this occasion to contact Elissa and ask her questions about her work.

We spoke recently about family, eating disorders, glossy magazines, addiction, crying, and how those elements combine with each other to make exciting, horrifying new molecules.

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The Rumpus: Tell me about the writerly construction of Starvation Mode. The second half is more poetic and lyric than the first half, and you used a variety of narrative techniques to build this piece: rules, sections, lies, metaphors. Why such a hodgepodge?

Elissa Washuta: I was really interested in pushing back against readers’ expectations for narrative structure. I read all the Amazon and Goodreads reviews of My Body Is a Book of Rules, and every time people criticized the book for not being what they thought nonfiction should be, I thought, Why? and became excited about the ideas of leaning further into fragmentation, pivots, and especially unevenness. I realized I didn’t agree with readers who felt that a piece needed to be rounded out, smoothed out, or made symmetrical. I’ll see your hodgepodge and raise you lumpy. I wanted to make a lumpy, misshapen book. Like a very old comforter with batting bulging in the corners.

Why? is a good question, and it’s hard to answer, since it’s at the heart of my aesthetic in general—why show the seams, why come at the question from so many formal angles, why not strive for cohesion? The only answer I can think of is that aesthetic unity, while appealing, never seemed right for me. I’m writing from the house I grew up in, where my bedroom used to be decorated with all sorts of strange paper cutouts, knickknacks, catalog picture collages, and ornaments. The floor was a mock-cobblestone linoleum, three walls were yellow, one floral-wallpapered. I think of Starvation Mode, a book that is so concerned with what took place in this house, as being like that room.

Rumpus: The first half is written almost in a constrained way, and it sounds like a lot of women’s stories about food, youth, love, and crappy men. The Washuta voice doesn’t really begin to vibrate until later. Was this deliberate?

Washuta: I don’t think so. I know that I had given myself a set of constraints: to write about my life’s history of eating within the word limit given to me, and to do it chronologically, just to prove that I could if I wanted to. It became boring to me, so I disrupted it. I did hope that readers who thought they wanted linear chronology would see how much more exciting it is to refuse it.

The drafting process is the only time in life I’m truly liberated from watching and scrutinizing what I’m doing, so it’s usually hard for me to speak to what my motivations were, looking back. I need to just let a thing take hold of me, like I’m following an intuition down a street, not paying attention to my steps as I feel the pull around a corner.

Looking at the writing now, though, and thinking about the mindset I know I had going into it, I think I can see what that sense of constraint was about. Or, at least, I can guess at it. I’d read a review of My Body Is a Book of Rules that really upset me—it was negative and off-base—and specifically, the reviewer was frustrated by my lack of apology for my eating disorder. I used my anger at that to fuel the writing of Starvation Mode. How dare this person ask me to apologize for that which tortures me? In this book, I wanted to write about the eating disorder until I had nothing else to say, and an apology was never going to come. The route in was different: while in My Body Is a Book of Rules, the voice was sort of straining and screaming, in Starvation Mode, much of the voice is that of the quiet endurance of this lifelong, everyday condition.

Rumpus: What’s the truth of why you fell into disordered eating?

Washuta: Oh, I have no idea. I think if I knew I would be able to eat in a non-disordered way.

Well, actually, I think I know, at least why it’s still happening. Probably I don’t love myself right. I think that’s what the opening of the book is getting at: I write about how I fill my fridge with nutrient-rich foods I don’t feel I deserve to eat, let them rot, and then binge on garbage.

Now that I’m saying that, though, I realize I’m falling into my tendency to blame myself for things that are not my fault. Trying again: I’ve always been appallingly susceptible to men’s ideas about what a body should be. I still am. I simultaneously appreciate my body for its bodily complexity and power and feel bad about my belly and my narrow hips. I don’t want to feel bad about my shape, which is very clearly familial and ancestral. I guess I just want to be desired, which, to my detriment, I continue to confuse with being loved.

Rumpus: Is food still metaphorical for you?

Washuta: Metonymic, maybe. This is on my mind lately. I’m trying to take care of myself, trying to show myself real love, and I realize that my efforts have been mostly focused upon feeding myself food that makes me feel better instead of worse.

Food does have this metaphoric resonance that’s tied into money. Bread. My coal miner ancestors used that as slang for money generations ago, I believe, before that usage was common. I have a tendency to spend money on other people, or on my career, that I should be spending on vegetables. I’m thinking now about how much I cringe when people talk about things that “feed” them, like feed their souls, maybe because the act of feeding (synonymous with eating) seems so free and unencumbered and I resent that a little bit—resent the freedom to consume something with the unapologetic goal of self-nourishment.

Rumpus: I feel that way around my husband sometimes. He’s a gourmand, and I have food issues. This means that he gets a lot more pleasure out of food than I do, and his relationship to food is simpler.

Washuta: I do think I get a lot of pleasure out of food—my dad and I got soft serve from different places in rural New Jersey for like four or five days straight this week—but it’s hard to indulge in actually nourishing myself.

Rumpus: Can you talk more about the rule, “Only cry if you are hurt or scared”? Was that externally or internally imposed? How does it resonate today? 

Washuta: All I remember about the rule is that it became necessary because of how much I cried for attention. That’s what I recall, anyway, but I was so little that I can’t be sure. I imagine my parents’ goal was to encourage me to express my needs and wants without crying.

I still love to cry. Maybe for attention. Maybe not still, but again, after a pause. When I was drinking and getting high, I don’t think I cried as much, or at least not with the same kind of gut-emptying abandon, because my feelings were so nicely blunted by the intoxicants. I did have to work on it in therapy. My therapist helped me to see that I was cramming my pain further and further into myself when I didn’t cry. Two months after I got sober, I was in a car accident, and I sobbed immediately. My therapist told me it was good that I’d cried so quickly, and I think that helped break me open: I began trying it out, letting myself cry as soon as I felt the hurt or the fear. Now I love crying. I cry at every movie because I’m still racked with that low-level hurt and fear that builds and builds and constantly needs to be let out.

Now, as an adult, I find that expressing my needs and wants often makes me cry. It’s so shocking to me to work against my default, which is to accommodate and to suppress my own needs.

Rumpus: Interesting. I almost never cry. Partially because of medication and partly because I am just out of the habit, I think. It makes me feel less feminine to cry so rarely, but it’s also in line with my family culture, which prized self-control.

Washuta: There is something habitual about it for me—I had to get practiced at that reactive release.

Rumpus: The chapbook discusses women’s magazines and hints at their complicity in women’s disordered eating. Tell me more about this.

Washuta: For me, women’s magazines seemed authoritative guides to what men wanted me to be, and so I studied them. A magazine like that is just another product that sells us a potential antidote to the toxic fear that we’re not enough. Some niche corners of occult Internet do the same thing for me now, but without fragrance samples (which I think make the glossy magazine an even more powerful vessel). But I don’t know how much blame I really want to place at the feet of women’s magazines. They’re selling the promise of relief from pain that originated from the extreme misogyny of the European societies that imposed their norms here, characterizing the bodies of Native and Black women as dirty, misshapen, and violable. Now with genocide projects well underway, we are all expected to conform to the ideals of the colonizer.

Rumpus: So they’re no more or less complicit than a larger, poisonous system?

Washuta: I guess they are significant pieces in maintaining that system, but I think there’s a disproportionate focus on them.

Rumpus: From Starvation Mode: “Love happened when one person consumed another and each became irreversibly assimilated.” The word “consumed” jumped out at me here. Food and love were sometimes, but not always, connected in this piece.

Washuta: I’ve changed so much over the last several years that when I look back at writing I did before 2016 or so, I often want to distance myself from that person—but when I saw Chelsea Hodson tweet this line the other day, I thought, Ahhh, how could this thing be so true then and so true now, as though I just wrote it? It seems like something I was supposed to have grown out of. We’re supposed to be independent entities in our romantic relationships and we’re supposed to give others the freedom to do the same. And I do believe that, completely. But at the same time, I do want to be consumed and to consume. Because what is love for if not nourishment of some kind? There are some components of romantic love that are like the nutrients the body needs to get from food because it can’t manufacture them on its own. Committing to romantic interdependence is no more wrong than taking B vitamins.

Rumpus: I perceive that there’s less in this chapbook about your Nativeness than in My Body Is a Book of Rules. But because I’m white, there’s a lot I don’t understand about being in the world with non-European heritage. Is it all wrapped up together?

Washuta: I think of this book as being entirely about being in the world as Native, because that’s how I am in the world. But this perception of Starvation Mode has been brought up to me before. I think that’s because the centering of whiteness makes all experiences seem like white experiences unless they could not possibly be. My nation was colonized by the United States, so because of that position, we do experience a lot that’s handed to us by the culture dominating us.

All that said, I think there are other factors that could make this book seem to be less concerned with Nativeness than My Body Is a Book of Rules: I’m not explicitly signaling to non-Native readers that this is Native experience. But to me, being Cowlitz is about having relations, and my relations are one of the primary concerns of this book, more so than in My Body Is a Book of Rules in some ways.

Back to that review I mentioned earlier: the reviewer, a white woman, also called me out for not discussing my white privilege in my first book. I do think I fell short in my examination of my white-coded privilege—I’m not white, and I do not have the privilege afforded by whiteness in contexts in which I’m known not to be, so it’s not really white privilege—but it’s not a white person’s place to call me out on the shortcomings of my work in handling my white-coded privilege. I don’t know if this was conscious, but in Starvation Mode, I wrote about Nativeness in a way that was less easily consumable for white people.

Rumpus: In the margin at Rule 29, I wrote “anorexia for the young, alcoholism for the adult.” I’m not directing that binary at you, but based on what I’ve observed in women in their twenties and thirties, I might’ve stumbled on something there. Thoughts?

Washuta: I’m not sure, and I’ve really hesitated to speak for anyone but myself in talking about this book and the experiences in it. One thing I’ve noticed about myself, though, is that the desire to drink left me three years ago and hasn’t come back, but now I’m a thirty-three-year-old woman still having a daily experience of pushing thoughts of Paleo rules out of my head (and I haven’t eaten Paleo since I was in my mid-twenties). I can’t count calories or weigh myself because I absolutely will fall right back into disordered eating. I’m much closer to my eating disorder than I am to a drink.

Rumpus: Discussions that treat eating disorders as an addiction always speak to me better than those that treat it as a disease.

Washuta: I do think of addiction as a medical condition, though—for me, alcohol use disorder in full sustained remission is the diagnosis. There’s a lot of complexity there, but it’s useful for me to think about addiction as something both physical and societal, rather than a moral failing or a pure spiritual lack.

Rumpus: “I can no longer bear to continue telling this story. This bunch of stuff is not interesting to me.” Tell me more about these lines. Often I feel this way very clearly about articles about dieting, but as I read along, I realized I was bored with my eating disorder story, but not with yours. Maybe you’re bored with yours, but wouldn’t be bored with mine?

Washuta: I think I really am bored with reading about dieting, eating disorders, food, all of it. Maybe that’s why I stopped cooking: I was so obsessed with food for so long, especially when I was Paleo, that I cannot bear to think about macronutrients and ghrelin and inulin and the whole thing anymore. I haven’t read about eating disorders since I was working on Starvation Mode. It may be self-protection so that I won’t fall back in.

Rumpus: You write, “the quest for physical perfection once consumed so much of my time, energy, money, and headspace that I was nothing but a maintenance machine.” How thoroughly true for so many women. And what could all that energy have been used on instead? It boggles the mind.

Washuta: When I wrote Starvation Mode, I was doing everything I could to push my body and brain to do far more than they should have been tasked with. I was working constantly, and writing this book, and driving through heavy Seattle traffic while living in the suburbs. And I was listening to Paleo podcasts and cooking all my meals. And I was on Tinder. And I went to the gym. I have changed my life completely—new job, new locale—and this summer, I’ve had loads of free time. It took a while, but I became comfortable using my freed-up energy on absolutely nothing. Now I’m wondering what my mind would have been like in 2015 if I’d spent some of that energy lying in a darkened bedroom at 3 p.m., not sleeping, not thinking but not actively not thinking, just idle, with or without any plans.


Katharine Coldiron's work has appeared in Hobart, the Normal School, the Southern California Review, and elsewhere. She lives in California and blogs at the Fictator. More from this author →