The Rumpus Book Club chats with Elissa Washuta and Theresa Warburton about their co-edited anthology, Shapes of Native Nonfiction (University of Washington Press, July 2019), working together as collaborators and friends, the importance of considering formal innovation in Native writing, and more.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Trisha Low, Ayşe Papatya Bucak, Jeannie Vanasco, Leigh Camacho Rourks, Paul Lisicky, Samantha Irby, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club chat was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Welcome to The Rumpus Book Club chat with Elissa Washuta and Theresa Warburton about their co-edited anthology, Shapes of Native Nonfiction!
Elissa Washuta: Hi, all!
Theresa Warburton: Hi, everyone!
Eva Woods: The structure of the book was clearly really important to you, and the pieces felt remarkably cohesive given how different the authors were in subject and style. Can you talk a little about the structure and what it brought into focus for you?
Elissa Washuta: Yes! As a writer, I think of structure as being organic, something I develop as I figure out my subject matter, and I think the way we created structure as editors was similarly organic…
Theresa Warburton: Structure was really at the forefront of our desires for this collection. So much engagement with Native authors focuses only on content, missing a lot of the discussion of craft. So, I think we felt that, in making sure we brought the focus to structure, we could reorient that focus.
Elissa Washuta: We began with the basket, and also began with the idea of form-consciousness, and we talked about writers we’re excited about who are doing this work. Theresa and I have very similar reading tastes and a lot of overlap in familiarity.
Eva Woods: The basket motif was really cool and interesting. It made me think of art that has purpose, where the purpose was first but then it quickly turns into more than function. Somehow that feels very feminine to me in a way I don’t quite know how to describe…
Elissa Washuta: I think bringing attention to structure and making the decision to organize essays structurally created an intuitive shape—my recollection is that we just sort of moved the essays into the places where we felt they should go, and saw a book structure emerge.
Eva Woods: That’s so cool!
Marisa: Can you talk a little about how you worked as co-editors, and what the collaboration process was like? In terms of selecting essays, structure, and now handling publicity.
Eva Woods: I’m also really interested in the co-editor relationship. Was that ever challenging?
Theresa Warburton: Marisa, we’ve done all of this process really deliberately and I think that’s been really important. Elissa and I talk a lot about what our friendship and collaborative process looks like, so we talked at the beginning about why we felt this should be a collective project and then we tried to divide up the work flow based on what our expertise is and how we wanted to balance doing the work as a pair of Native and non-Native collaborators.
Elissa Washuta: Yes‚ and I think that the fact that we are both super invested in the friendship and the project has allowed us to really balance the work.
Marisa: That sounds so healthy! Collaborating can be rewarding, but it definitely can also be challenging, especially when friendship is involved.
Theresa Warburton: It wasn’t really challenging to work together for me, and I don’t think for Elissa, though I won’t speak for her!
Elissa Washuta: We do a lot of our communication via text message, so we are able to make the decisions together, and did do in-person planning at the beginning to get the concept squared away.
Eva Woods: It really does sound so healthy!
Elissa Washuta: Oh, I never thought I would collaborate with anyone! But collaborating with Theresa has been a dream.
Eva Woods: Well, y’all are wonderful.
Elissa Washuta: Aw, thanks Eva!
Theresa Warburton: During the process, I actually didn’t want to vocalize how easy the process with Elissa felt because I worried about jeopardizing it by putting it out into the world, like it would be challenging the world to make it difficult.
Eva Woods: Like a jinx!
Theresa Warburton: Yes, exactly! But every step of the way, we were really in sync and, not only that, I think that our different positions also helped us to navigate parts of the process that might have been difficult for us individually.
Elissa Washuta: I feel like the current American language around relationships of all kinds tells us it can’t be good and easy forever, but I think our collaboration and friendship have shown me that something better is possible.
Theresa Warburton: We’ve talked a lot about not knowing how to refer to our collaboration because it involves a whole host of ways of relating.
Elissa Washuta: Totally—and that’s how we entered into the collaboration. We have mutual respect for each other and recognition of each other’s strengths, and our differences outside the vast overlap.
Eva Woods: That is intensely relatable. And I’m so happy that y’all got to work together!
Eva Woods: I was pleasantly surprised at how funny the collection was (the etymology piece by Tiffany Midge especially) and it made me realize how poor my Native literature exposure and education has been. What are some things you tried to highlight in this collection that maybe white people miss?
Elissa Washuta: I think the big thing is that in so many previous collections of nonfiction by Native writers, there’s this focus on the “life story” that misses the formal innovation.
Theresa Warburton: Well, form! Of course. And craft. And that Native literature is not a voyeuristic look into a tragic story. It’s a weird paradox of the way people look at Native writing, I think, that it’s a tragedy just that it exists but the very fact of its existence belies the tragedy that readers are supposed to mourn.
Eva Woods: Wow, that’s an amazing point!
Elissa Washuta: You’re right about the humor, Eva—I think that gets overlooked. Thinking about the image of the stoic Indian, the seriousness people associate with ceremony and tradition. People often laugh in ceremony; we tease each other.
Eva Woods: I hadn’t thought of that humor as a rejection of the tragic narrative that we (the US generally) sort of accept as the only one.
Marisa: How did you go about soliciting for the collection? Did you put out a call, or reach out to certain writers? Or both?
Elissa Washuta: We reached out to writers after identifying essays we loved. I had published a few of them as Saturday editor for The Rumpus. So we knew we wanted to reprint a bunch of existing essays; we also knew there were writers doing interesting work and we wanted to read what they had. We went right up to the max word count for the book just doing that, so we never needed to put out a call.
Theresa Warburton: This collection is really a testament to relationships and kin, especially of the work that Elissa does as a writer building community in a variety of spaces. And that takes a lot of work. It’s emotional and intellectual and physical labor that she’s put in for over a decade and you can see the love and care there in how these pieces come together.
Elissa Washuta: I think the other thing to note is that we got to be very intentional about solicitations because we both have been doing work in this area for a while and knew who was publishing.
Eva Woods: Is there something for each of you that made an essay a must for this book? Like, is there something in a piece that made your heart sing and signaled to you that it needed to be in the book?
Elissa Washuta: Oooh. Good question. I think that singing of the heart really was key. And I think we both felt it about all the essays we identified/accepted.
Theresa Warburton: So many of these pieces are pushing the possibilities of what nonfiction writing can be and that’s something we were both really invested in at the beginning.
Elissa Washuta: I remember when we got Billy-Ray Belcourt’s essay and just texted each other “OMG OMG OMG”—I think I was in an Applebee’s or something in Minnesota, driving cross-country to move east.
Theresa Warburton: Yes, I remember that! Because we were like, this so expands the idea of what nonfiction can and should be.
Elissa Washuta: Agreed. I think that feeling of gesturing through form to the future is something I can see in every essay—exploring possibilities.
Theresa Warburton: And I think that’s what we really wanted—essays that showed just how innovative Native authors are being with the form of nonfiction, pushing the field itself into all these different directions.
Eva Woods: There was definitely a kind of hope or faith in the future that I felt reading the anthology.
Theresa Warburton: The way Billy-Ray’s piece takes up space on the page is amazing. I loved that about it.
Elissa Washuta: Yes to both those comments!!
Eva Woods: Stephen Graham Jones’s essay, the letter to an Indian writer, was in particular very hopeful to me.
Elissa Washuta: I first heard that as a talk at the Institute of American Indian Arts. I’m sure I cried.
Theresa Warburton: That’s one of the reasons we wanted to focus on living Native writers, too! Because so often there’s this elimination of the future from any discussion of Native literature. And Native writers who live elsewhere are in there still, in the genealogies that some of the writers draw and in our discussion of them in the introduction, so it’s not about cutting off those genealogies.
Eva Woods: Theresa yes! Outside of literature too, treating Native people like a relic is so damaging.
Elissa Washuta: I love how much life there is in those literary lineages—all the continuance and shift.
Eva Woods: Elissa, Theresa mentioned your community-building earlier; could you talk a little about why that work is important to you and how that community shaped the book? Also in that vein, was there a conscious effort to represent a wide slice of experience or did that happen naturally?
Marisa: Yes, Elissa, you’ve been doing this work for a long while. You came to The Rumpus through a recommendation from Melissa Febos, and when you left, you helped me bring Terese Mailhot on board. The feeling of community-building is so genuine there. And while I’m really proud to see many Rumpus essays here, it’s really to your and Terese’s credit. You both helped make Rumpus a space that Native writers felt comfortable submitting to and sharing work with.
Theresa Warburton: While Elissa is answering the question about community, I can just say quickly that yes, it was important to us to have a wide variety of essays and folks from a variety of tribal and national locations. We wanted essays about all kinds of things to show the breadth of work that’s happening in the field and the conversations around it.
As I’m sitting here thinking about it, though, I think it also sort of happened naturally in the sense that there is just so much Native nonfiction writing out there that it was truly difficult to narrow these down. In that sense, it was natural in that the plethora of writing made it easy to have a wide variety in the collection.
Elissa Washuta: So, I was raised in New Jersey, very far from my tribe’s land, and when I moved to Washington, in part to be closer to my tribe, I not only developed stronger connections to that community but also the Native community at the University of Washington. And later (in 2014), I began teaching at the Institute of American Indian Arts.
I have always gained so much from building strong, durable, meaningful connections to literary and Native communities. I’m thinking about Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, in which she writes, “Why are we here if not for each other?” I’m Cowlitz because of my Cowlitz kin. Being Native is about being in relation, at least to me. And a lot of what I’ve learned and continue to learn about Indigeneity comes not only from my family but from the world-building I experience in the work of Native writers. Not just the literary work, but the work they do in conversations with me, teaching me how to live and how to write and relate.
Eva Woods: It’s awful how rare it is to see this community treated as a whole, living thing rather than the propagandistic view we see so much. I really appreciate the work y’all did here.
Theresa Warburton: Elissa and I talk a very, very lot about relations and how to be in good relationships, with each other, with our colleagues, with ourselves, with other people. And, most importantly, with place! With land and its people. That’s at the heart of the ethical commitments of this collection, too.
Elissa Washuta: Being part of The Rumpus was so important to me because I wanted to say yes to people who had not heard as many yeses as I thought they should have. And I wanted to be trustworthy in bringing their work to readers. I wanted them to have that experience of reaching audiences with work they were proud of. I still do.
Marisa: Theresa, would you be willing to share a little how you came to this work as a non-Native woman? And has that brought challenges with it?
Theresa Warburton: I came to this work as a non-Native person because of the patient and generous work of people, especially Native people and especially Native women, who really challenged me about what it meant to do the work I wanted to do while living on Native land. I see it as a responsibility that I have to the land and its people to think about how to build different ways of relating than those that have been given to me by settlement.
The challenges that its brought are mostly for myself, needing to really be aware of why I do the things do and how I make decisions. Needing to figure out when to speak up and when I need to be quiet and what is my responsibility and what isn’t. It’s a constant learning process but having the ethical commitment of remembering my responsibilities is what I use as a constant barometer.
Eva Woods: I love how you talk about your ethical commitment to this work!
Marisa: Thank you; that’s so real-feeling to me. I think a lot about when to speak up, when to be quiet, and which and whose voices I’m helping to amplify. And it is an ongoing learning process for me, too, for sure.
Theresa Warburton: I think it’s really about being willing to take on the actual work. The stuff that Native authors, academics, organizers, artists are forced to constantly do in the background without any appreciation or validation or thanks.
Elissa Washuta: Yeah exactly. And thinking in terms of this project—it was a large one. If I weren’t doing this, I would have been working on my own nonfiction. Theresa was not only willing but enthusiastic about taking it up with me and sharing the work, with Coast Salish and Columbia River Plateau aesthetics centered in the way we conceived of the collection. It was a real commitment.
Theresa Warburton: I think a lot of people (me included!) don’t realize how much work goes into a collection like this. Really rote kind of work—thousands of emails, dealing with minutiae about spelling and style, questions about contracts, organizing permissions. I mean, months and months of work. It’s so much for one person. And I just think about how many Native writers are expected to do all of that kinds of stuff by themselves, taking up all their time, preventing them from doing other kinds of work that is more of the caliber of work that they are worthy of. Not to mention the basic tasks of living and working.
Eva Woods: That echoes what Elissa said! She’ll be able to get back to her own writing faster, and that’s huge, too.
Elissa Washuta: And Theresa was also working on a book at the same time. I think doing this kind of work does require some de-centering of one’s own voice and single-author goals, and that’s a big thing to agree to. Theresa had been living this commitment to Native literatures and so I knew when we set out to do this that we were both truly invested.
Eva Woods: The land is such a huge part of this, how did you identify what the aesthetics that reflected that were?
Theresa Warburton: Oooo, good question!
Elissa Washuta: Oh wow yes!
Theresa Warburton: The basket was one of the primary ways that we centered the structure of the book around our commitment to place. The basket is not a structuring metaphor in the book—it’s very literal and literary. And it’s very essential to Coast Salish relationships to land and the other beings that live with the land as well.
Elissa Washuta: There are so many essays in the book in which the land is foundational—the relationships between land and human beings are as complex and well-developed as the relationships between characters. It’s obvious when land is foundational and setting isn’t sketched in as an afterthought. And I think, as Theresa just said above, this is true of our framing of the collection. What I know about baskets is very tied to a place and a people of that place. The basket came first.
Theresa Warburton: It’s part of the reason we had Ernestine Hayes’s essay first, as well, if I recall. To set the stage that way, to insist that place is not the setting of the story but is the root of the stories themselves.
Elissa Washuta: Yes, totally.
Marisa: What are you two each working on in your personal writing lives? (If you don’t mind sharing.) And, since we only have a few minutes left, I’ll also add: what are you reading? What new and forthcoming books are you excited for?
Theresa Warburton: I just finished my monograph, Other Worlds Here: Answering Native Women’s Writing in Contemporary Anarchist Movements, which is under contract with Northwestern University Press. It deals with how the structure of settlement is reproduced in anarchist movements using anarchist logics and how Native women’s writings demonstrate the myriad worlds and ways of relating that live with the land and can help us address the structure of settlement in radical social movements.
Elissa Washuta: I’m near the end of my work on a book-length personal narrative/interlinked essay collection called White Magic, which is about land, heartbreak, colonization, video games and TV, and becoming a powerful witch.
Theresa Warburton: I read like, a third of the first draft of Elissa’s book last night because I couldn’t put it down. It’s amazing! So excited.
Elissa Washuta: Oh, you did? OMG, exciting!
I’ve been mostly reading unpublished book manuscript drafts. I did recently read NDN Coping Mechanisms by Billy-Ray Belcourt, which is coming out September 3 and is brilliant.
Theresa Warburton: Yes!
I’ve been traveling around the Pacific because we were just at the Native American and Indigenous Studies Conference in Hamilton, New Zealand so I’ve been reading stuff from around the Pacific. I just finished Indigenous Literatures from Micronesia, which is a collection, and Keri Hulme’s The Bone People.
I cannot recommend this practice enough, of reading work from indigenous writers from the area you’re traveling—I’ve learned so much and it’s changed the way I interact with places as a visitor.
Marisa: This is great reading list material, and Elissa, I can’t wait for your collection (please let me know as soon as you have a pub date!).
Elissa Washuta: I will, Marisa, thanks! I’m being intentional about revising and submitting so I don’t have a publisher yet but I’m sure I’ll let you know when I do.
Theresa Warburton: Oh, and Junauda Petrus’s forthcoming The Stars and the Blackness Between Them! Out September 17. Pre-order! It was so amazing!
Elissa Washuta: We should both read Ali Cobby Eckermann’s memoir, Too Afraid to Cry, which I just found in my TBR pile. I met Ali when I was in New Zealand in 2016 and she is amazing.
Theresa Warburton: Yes! Let’s do it. Elissa and I share reading recommendations a lot.
Eva Woods: Sorry y’all, I just had a minor parenting emergency! Everything is okay, though, and thanks so much for your time tonight!
Elissa Washuta: Thanks so much for your amazing questions, Eva!
Theresa Warburton: Yes, Eva — thanks for the care and thoughtfulness! And good wishes on the parenting emergency!
Eva Woods: Have a wonderful night!
Marisa: Thank you both so much for talking with us tonight; it was really wonderful to see this amazing relationship you two have, and how that facilitated the creation of this important anthology.
Elissa Washuta: Thank you for having us! It was so nice to talk to you.
Theresa Warburton: Yes, thank you for this Marisa! And for the support for the collection, also. It’s so appreciated!
Elissa Washuta: Yes, truly!
Marisa: I sincerely hope that this book is widely read, and am really just honored to have been able to shine some light on it. Have a good night!
Photograph of Elissa Washuta and Theresa Warburton by Josh Cerretti.