Finding Meaning at the Edge of Reality: Talking with Elissa Washuta

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This book called out to me from its display at one of the independent bookstores I frequent. I was already on my way out and made a mental note to pick it up during my next haul. Weeks went by without me stepping into a bookstore by dint of a hectic schedule, until one day, I got an email asking if I wanted to interview its author. You might call it a coincidence, or you might call it a sign. It depends on what you believe. Regardless, you’ve already assigned meaning to it—even if it’s the former, which is usually a canned response to anything that challenges logic, the explainable. It’s that meaning that Native American author Elissa Washuta mines in her new book, White Magic, out now from Tin House.

In a collection of expertly and exquisitely crafted essays, the writer and educator details becoming a powerful witch in the wake of heartbreak, PTSD, and addiction, all while contextualizing her relationship to witchcraft in a world where it’s become more aesthetic than practice. Drawn to the spirits and powers that shaped the day-to-day lives of her dispossessed ancestors—the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, whose aboriginal home is the southwest of today’s Washington State—Washuta intertwines writing about a painful breakup with the stark reality facing Native women: four out of five Native women are affected by violence today. It’s within this overlap of spaces that Washuta operates—and from which she was able to carve her own.

The essays wedge themselves between these colonial impositions and the surreality of the ordinary, from YouTube clips of Stevie Nicks to Twin Peaks to the computer game Oregon Trail II, signs and synchronicities revealing themselves only if actively looked for. With insight and humor, Washuta combines reporting and memoir to find love and meaning among wounds both healed and unhealed.

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The Rumpus: I feel like I answered a call after reading this book. Maybe it was a sign—is that even the right word?—but either way, I’ve come across sentences in your book that I didn’t know I needed to read, to sit with. 

Elissa Washuta: I do believe there are instances in which the universe moves things around so we’ll encounter what we want or what’s good for us. This is not the same as believing that everything happens for a reason—that’s too simplistic. “Manifesting” was the popular term at one point, but maybe not anymore. Signs, synchronicities—I do believe in those.

Rumpus: Agreed. Why do you think we’re moving away from “manifesting”?

Washuta: The hive mind moves fast. I think it’s as simple as that. I don’t know about the evolution of the concept and its popularity, but it’s now fully embraced by corporate productivity culture, and those associations aren’t good for magic.

Rumpus: There’s a log of synchronicities towards the end of the book. You write, “This is what happened when I decided that either everything was meaningful or nothing was.” What made you decide on the former?

Washuta: That line comes early in [my essay], “The Spirit Cabinet,” which I wrote after doing the aligning of the moments that make up that essay. It was really a culmination of so much work to follow the research and memories wherever they led me, and over and over, they’d shown they wanted to lead me back and forth over the same images that became symbols when they insisted on returning: magicians, jackrabbits, drowning men. Ultimately, I needed life to mean something, and I was finding that meaning right at the edge of my understanding of reality. I just had no good reason not to believe the synchronicities were meaningful. Plenty of bad reasons, mostly having to do with what many people I respect think of the notion of the magical. I had to let that concern go, because I didn’t know how to find meaning in life in the ways that work for them.

Rumpus: Why was it important for you to log these observations in such a public capacity as opposed to, say, a journal?

Washuta: I haven’t been able to keep a journal since I was a child. I just found a single page of abandoned journaling in a notebook I’m repurposing for meeting notes—the entry says things like “Book. Weather?” and “Shaker? Shoes?” What happens day to day is just not that interesting to me, and I’m someone who makes sense of things a while after they happen—not just significant events, but also inconsequential moments in conversations.

The process of writing essays feels so much different to me than chronicling what happens day to day, though it does sometimes involve those kinds of recollections. But I need to bring in a lot of researched material and commentary on work in other media in order to say what I need to say. It’s such an undertaking that when it’s all done, I really need someone to read it—in part because of the simple joy of having someone like the thing I did, but also because, in theory, an essay, unlike a journal, is written with the intention that it will be read. The potential for readers to form individual relationships with the writing is a fundamental part of the work for me.

Rumpus: How does one become less unsettled at noticing these kinds of things? (Asking for me, someone who constantly sees the number 911. If I check the time in the morning or night it will, more times than not, be 9:11. The internet tells me it means one stage of life coming to an end, and a new one beginning. Some days I want to embrace it; some days I want to ignore it.)

Washuta: I’m not sure, to be honest. I really haven’t stopped noticing synchronicities generally, but I have managed to stop with the numbers. I think it’s one of those things like quitting drinking or leaving a relationship after ambivalence about whether to stay: you just have to let it run its course, and if the numbers lead you somewhere that isn’t where you thought you were being led, you’ll hopefully know for next time that you were experiencing apophenia and can watch for it. Or the numbers will turn out to be meaningful after all. Really, my advice about the numbers is this: look up any “angel number” (meaning any number) on the internet; you will probably find that all of them have one of the same few explanations.

Rumpus: Please feel free to invoice me for the impromptu therapy session.

Washuta: Like my therapist always does for me, I’ll give you homework: consider what 911 means to you, without the internet’s contribution. Does it allow you to pay attention to something you wouldn’t otherwise? I think that’s the best use of synchronicities: attention.

Rumpus: I was formulating a question for you in my head—do you ever feel like you are conjuring when you’re writing?—and then I read, “[But] I write nonfiction. I want it to be real. And I want, to my constant detriment, to work other people like I work an essay, conjuring up meaning where there was none.” Is writing a way for you to practice magic?

Washuta: Definitely, with White Magic, yes. Once I was years into the writing process and started to follow the lead of the research and writing, I felt that I was practicing magic in a way that I hadn’t been able to with existing occult traditions. I stopped reading tarot or paying much attention to astrology at some point, because I don’t think I’d ever achieved the effect I needed from them—I was just using them as tools of attempted control. With writing, I can feel like a conduit. Not always, but in writing White Magic, that was the case. I felt something working in ways I didn’t understand.

Rumpus: I love this description: “With writing, I can feel like a conduit.” I can’t speak for everyone, but anytime I dabble in any magic, even if it’s lighting a certain color candle to correspond with a certain intention, it’s always an attempt to control the things that I can’t, ultimately stemming from a fear of the unknown. How has becoming a conduit in your writing allowed you to sit side-by-side with the unknown in such a way that it allowed you to, as you say, feel something working?

Washuta: I think the effect has been subtle. Following open-ended questions through the essay was already part of my process, but I had been impatient with it. It was actually pretty hard to seriously commit to the willingness to not know where an essay is headed. It means not pitching pieces, not agreeing to write something on a fixed topic, not promising to deliver a finished essay by a fixed deadline. In exchange for those refusals, I get the freedom to do whatever I want, and to just figure out what it is I want to do as I go, following things I learn through research, ideas that strike me when I’m listening to a podcast or playing a video game, etc. Ultimately, the result has been that I genuinely figure out something I need to know about life.

Rumpus: Your relationship to magic has wavered throughout the years. What effect has writing this book had on you in that regard, if any? 

Washuta: It allowed me to exhaust the interest. I become deeply obsessed with strange interests, and those can come and go, but devoting myself to a writing project about one of my interests allows me to fully inhabit and then exhaust it. By the time White Magic was done, my interest in the occult was fully exhausted.

Rumpus: You examine colonial impositions on magic and how those have gone up to shape the dominant culture’s representations of it. These impositions influence movies, television shows, literature; they clings to displays next to cash registers in Urban Outfitters. What was it like creating a space for yourself that is already so enmeshed with whiteness?

Washuta: I think my most dramatic act of refusal was to quickly move away from that conversation about cultural appropriation of Indigenous spiritual practices. I don’t think there’s that much to say because Native scholars like Adrienne Keene have been doing that work for a long time. Yet I knew that I’d be expected to focus on settler theft of cultural knowledge. So, creating a space for myself felt a little like slipping away from a boring professional event to do some weird, unplanned thing with my friends. I didn’t tell anyone I was leaving or why or where I’d be going next. Ultimately, I had been limiting myself by trying to be profound and talk about the important issues. I just wanted to write about a breakup. The work of documenting a history of unhealthy, unsafe, and/or unsatisfying romantic relationships was what I needed to do—that is the colonized space that settlers keep ignoring. And Native women keep going missing and getting murdered.

Rumpus: At a rate ten times the national average, according to a report published by the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women. Can you recommend any organizations and/or resources that work within this ignored space?

Washuta: The work done by the Urban Indian Health Institute, a division of the Seattle Indian Health Board, was a fantastic resource for me in writing White Magic. “Our Bodies, Our Stories” is a particularly good place to get started.

Rumpus: You were so young when you wrote My Body Is a Book of Rules. What’s it like to look back on it now, especially after writing White Magic?

Washuta: Ugh! I won’t open the book. I am so far from being able to be compassionate toward that younger self, much as I’d like to. I have my moments of acceptance of young Elissa as she was, but those moments are rare.

I also think that as literary nonfiction moves further and further away from fiction aesthetics, the implied author has fallen away somewhat as a commonly used tool of essayists. The internet has collapsed all our personas into unified selves, or at least smooth facades. I was trying, at the time, to create a rendering of myself that I held at a distance and drew with implicit judgment. Now she’s with me forever! That version of myself, which I intended to be a persona, is many people’s introduction to me. I’m fifteen years older than the person who started writing that book, and I’ve written so much and developed my voice so deliberately that looking back on the old writing is jarring.

Rumpus: Do you hope to look back one day, maybe a few books down the line, and see growth, or a complete departure from your first book?

Washuta: No, I don’t think I’d say that. I certainly feel that I’ve changed substantially from the person I was when I wrote it, but formally, the book is foundational to everything I’ve done since, and I ultimately haven’t strayed that far from its organizing principles: the essay collection as narrative whole rather than assemblage of pieces, form as exoskeleton, intense emotional core brought out through engagement with documents. I’m a better, more confident, more knowledgeable writer than I was then—I was so young!—but I owe a lot to my younger self for making the decisions that resulted in that book.

Rumpus: You were misdiagnosed as bipolar, and were treated for it for ten years. How has being misdiagnosed, and later coming to terms with being misdiagnosed, influenced your spiritual life?

Washuta: That’s hard to say—it had such a dramatic, far-reaching impact on my life generally. I really have no idea what might have been if I hadn’t been diagnosed with bipolar disorder at twenty-two, which led to about eight years of really intense medications, starting at a time when my brain wasn’t done developing. I also wasn’t getting the care I needed for the conditions I was eventually diagnosed with. Ultimately, the process of figuring out that I needed reevaluation and getting the diagnosis revised was initially jarring but quickly felt right. Insisting on getting the right diagnosis and care was one of the most caring things I’d ever done for myself.

Rumpus: You both employ and question narrative in White Magic. How does operating from this intersection sustain your writing?

Washuta: It’s an area of intense fascination and considerable ambivalence for me. The narratives we concoct and the causal relationships we want to impose where meaning is absent or difficult to find—I love that stuff. I’m finding myself writing about narrative again, and I can now see the role of narrative in my first book. I hadn’t been thinking of My Body Is a Book of Rules as a book about narrative, really, but it absolutely is, in that it’s about how I articulated the story of my life to myself, and how it was determined for me in some areas. I used to think the story I was going to tell over and over for the length of my career was about trauma, but now I think that story I’ll never give up is simply about narrative itself. My old conception of my relationship with narrative no longer serves me: I thought I was anti-narrative, but that’s simply not true; I just had language to describe my aesthetic that made it seem that way.

Rumpus: Has writing about narrative again taken you to places previously uncharted?

Washuta: Yes and no—I’m writing about the economy, so it’s a place that’s literally very thoroughly charted, but focusing on the desire to make and find narratives—my desire, collective desires—has made it possible for me to be okay with writing about things I’m newly learning about. Having a new interest, seeing its contours, and bringing it into my familiar world of how narrative works—it’s made the writing process an extremely galaxy-brain experience. 

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Photograph of Elissa Washuta by KR Forbes.


Greg Mania is the author of the memoir Born to Be Public. More from this author →