Books Are Magic

White Magic by Elissa Washuta. Portland, OR: Tin House Books. 432 pages. $27.
Elissa Washuta. Photo: K. R. Forbes

In her new collection of linked essays, Elissa Washuta explores heartbreak, the occult, and the legacy of settler colonialism in the US. Weaving Native folklore with the history of exploitation of tribes such as the Duwamish people—alongside analysis of Twin Peaks, Fleetwood Mac videos, and the Oregon Trail II computer game—Washuta considers broader notions of inheritance, magic, and value. For Bookforum, Washuta and I chatted over Zoom about narrative, literary Twitter, and learning to cede control.

ELIZABETH LOTHIAN: You play with narrative a lot in White Magic. Can you talk a bit about your approach?

ELISSA WASHUTA: I think it’s interesting to try to locate the beginning of a book: “Where does it begin?” is as difficult a question as “Where does it end?” The first essay, “White Witchery,” made sense as a beginning for me because it most directly deals with witchcraft and the occult. That gives the readers what they were expecting, and, at the same time, serves as a preparation for taking them in an unexpected direction. I say that this book is how I became a powerful witch—that is true. And yet, by the end of the book, I’m not practicing witchcraft anymore. To me, that’s the real magic I was looking for, and looking into, in writing. I needed to find a real power. That was not the way that I had been using witchcraft: I had been trying to control the people around me. The real power was harder to define, and much more powerful.

Throughout the collection, you repeat the same epigraphs and add different footnotes each time. How did you decide to use epigraphs and footnotes in this way?

I spent far too much time on Twitter! Every so often literary Twitter gets hung up on an issue, whether it’s “is plot bad?” or “are epigraphs bad?” or “are footnotes overdone?”

I have always been really attached to epigraphs. I decided to use two: an entire poem by Alice Notley and two lines from “The Strange People” by Louise Erdrich. These epigraphs repeat on almost every essay until the last part of the book, the last act. All of them are footnoted.

By using the same ones, I hoped that people would pay attention and think about why they were there. I later realized that the epigraphs were working in other ways. I think there is a failure process happening too. That is the experience that the reader has: here we are again, we’re doing this again, we’re doing this, again, we’re doing this again . . .

Saying the same things over and over is also what you do with prayers and spells. It becomes an incantation. By footnoting them, I wanted to make the reader think about why they value what they value in literature. If they think epigraphs are bad, why? And are they right? Are they right about plot? About other important subjects? How do they know they’re right? How did these values get formed?

We learn a lot about your Native ancestry, and, while you’re living in Seattle, about the history of the city and its Native population. It makes me think about settlers coming in and subduing nature, changing the ways Native people had lived on the land because they thought those ways were wrong. Do the epigraphs and footnotes parallel your ideas about settler viewpoints and how deviating from a standard is often deemed wrong?

Yeah, absolutely. Pointing to Seattle as connected to this phenomenon of what we value is perfect. In the essay “Centerless Universe,” I talked about how settlers, if they wanted to settle permanently, needed to remake the land. Even the idea that flooding is incompatible with people living in a place—that’s taken as a given in settler American culture, but it was how the Duwamish people had been living with that land for ten-thousand-plus years.

Similarly, there are things that we take as a given as readers, which are shaped by settlement and the dominant culture. I teach in an MFA program and have to make value judgments all the time about people’s work and tell them how to make it “better.” “Fragmented” used to be an unequivocally negative label for someone’s writing. My first book was rejected on that basis, and it was delivered as a criticism by readers after it was published. Now, it’s mostly seen as a feature. But it wasn’t as common then. I certainly wasn’t the only one doing it, but it wasn’t yet in the literary mainstream the way it is now. People’s values change.

You’ve talked about the cycle of coming back to your ex-boyfriend and trying to break that pattern. You’ve also written about how your female Native ancestors had to make an uneven peace with white men to survive. I wondered whether the relationship’s dynamics were influenced by the Native-settler dynamic. Was that something you were hoping to draw a connection with?

I was definitely thinking about it when I was writing. The way into that conversation was the very basic fact that I was living in Seattle and could not afford to do so anymore as a single woman. I knew how much that was complicating, and putting pressure on, my romantic relationships.

Of course, I left Seattle, and then bought a house on my own in the Midwest. But the narrative I was in at the time was that realizing my dreams and having security was only possible through partnership. It all seems so simple to get over somebody or get roommates or move or any of the other quick fixes that people offer. In part, this book was an attempt to explain things that I just could not get across to people about why it was so hard to let go of this person. It took me more than four hundred pages to explain to the world, and to myself, why I was hanging on. It wasn’t as simple as needing someone to split the rent with, although that was part of it. There were things that went into that, about the settler colonial shaping of Seattle, and its trajectory and the arrival of Big Tech. But there were also cultural messages I had gotten that I had to identify and retrieve. A book for me is a good space to unpack things that are very complicated and very difficult to have conversations about, that even therapy can’t totally address. This book was an attempt to say more fully, “It’s not that simple. There are a lot of things informing this.”

A lot of the book involves coming to terms with the fact that nothing is simple. We leave you in a space where you have begun to surrender to complexity.

For sure. I’m thinking about the issues of control that we’ve been talking about. Many of my current—and ongoing—life struggles have to do with my relationship to the idea of control.

In writing my first book, I was exploring ideas of complicity and the ways in which I was or wasn’t complicit and the horrible things that had happened to me. I became so tired of always having to think about whether I was responsible for my suffering and to identify the ways in which I was complicit. It was time for someone else to be complicit. It was time for someone else to have the agency. I am not responsible for the ways my ex-boyfriends behaved. I don’t have to negotiate whether I am complicit in the abuses that some of them inflicted on me. There were ways in which I was able to lose that anxiety somewhat when I handed over control of the process.

You also touch on navigating health issues. There’s a common adage that you can’t control other people, but you can control yourself. When you’re hit with health issues, though, you recognize that you don’t have any control over your body. The idea that we can is hammered into people—especially women. It’s just not true and it’s an incredibly damaging myth.

Since getting sober, I’m able to exert a pretty extreme amount of control over the things that I say. I’m able to have a pretty extreme degree of self-control in some areas. I eat a lot of fruit snacks, which I would prefer not to do!

But like you’re saying, my body is doing the wildest things as my chronic illness seems to be progressing. I have no idea what’s going on in my body, which is really fascinating to me. I don’t know what’s going on in my spine. I don’t know what's going on in my kidneys. There’s something strange happening and I didn’t allow it, I did not authorize it to happen. It’s another degree of learning to cede control. That’s the thing I’m interested in writing about next.

Elizabeth Lothian is a digital director at Guernica.