Essayist Elissa Washuta knows about magic — but it might not be the kind of magic you think. She engages with tarot and other practices considered “witchy” in mainstream Eurocentric culture. But her real magic is much more complex.
It comes partly from her deft skill with written language, which she uses to break down the Oregon Trail, the water beneath the Fremont Bridge, even the internet. And not least, the title of her newest book, “White Magic,” is its own sleight: This book is not a takedown of appropriated spiritual practices, though it touches on this reality. Instead, Washuta, a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe whose land is called Southwest Washington by the settler U.S. government, defies prescribed narratives at every turn. With her prose, she dismantles the idea of narrative altogether.
The essays here exist like a web of honest examination of self and context. Its use of repetition in both image and language, its humor and its relentless questioning create a kind of vibration of the text — a vibration that asks the body to listen, and rewards it for doing so.
“Magic, to me, is still a really unsettled concept,” Washuta said in a recent interview, “and that’s partly why I like it. In the book, of course, there are different kinds of magic. There’s ‘magick’ as in witchcraft — the kind sometimes spelled with a ‘k’ at the end. There’s magic like stage magic or illusions, and the magic of falling in love. And then, importantly, there’s the way magic is used in a somewhat figurative way to evoke feelings. A person’s conception of magic is very personal.”
“I expect that many people may come to ‘White Magic’ assuming that it is about cultural appropriation and witchcraft and history surrounding that,” she continues. “I got bored of that. I want it to be experienced like a magic trick. When we watch stage magic, the premise that’s presented to us at the beginning is not where the effect ends. That’s how it works. It works through deception, but it also works through the real magic of earnest desire and connection between the person who’s putting on the show and the person who’s watching, and the magician’s genuine desire to make the spectator feel good.
“I genuinely want readers to feel good as they’re reading this. I want them to feel like they experience something that was unexpected and that they weren’t necessarily hoping to find there but enjoy all the same.”
Washuta grew up in New Jersey but regularly visited family in her ancestral homeland on the West Coast. She moved to Seattle in 2007, where she earned her Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of Washington. While in Seattle, Washuta worked in UW’s American Indian studies department and at Hugo House as a teacher and mentor. She was the first writer in residence at the Fremont Bridge in 2016, working from the iconic blue bridge’s century-old tower all summer, an experience she writes about in “White Magic.”
Washuta now teaches at Ohio State University, but Seattle makes up much of “White Magic,” in part because of her relationship to this place, but also because it was a potent period of life for her. Abusive relationships, alcoholism and the economic realities of attempting to make a living as a writer and creative in this city all created blocks for Washuta. But, she says, she also loves this place, in large part because this is where she became herself.
“I think this book was shaped so much by the experience of being in Seattle, and even though I wrote a lot of it out here in Ohio, I think it still was very much a Seattle book,” Washuta says. “Seattle was where I learned to be the person that I am.”
In large part, she says, that had to do with a newly forged connection to place.
“Being in Seattle, I knew a lot of people for whom that was their homeland, their traditional territory specifically. And our [traditional Cowlitz territory] is close enough that we have some shared traditions and especially shared relationships with beings like plants, animals and water.
“So in Seattle, I really learned how to be in a relationship with land and how to express that through my work, and pay attention to the place I was in. Not just to sprinkle in features to create setting, but to really have that be a central consideration of my emotional stakes and my personal relationships on the page.”
At one point in “White Magic,” Washuta describes Seattle as a mirage. Living in Madison Park and walking the manicured streets at night; spotting a future incarnation of herself on the bus and in the grocery store parking lot; sharing a local Starbucks with Howard Schultz — it all lends to the pervasive sheen that Seattle casts from all of its blue glass and lush vegetation. But for Washuta, the mirage reflects more than the wealth gap and the neoliberalism of the city.
“I have family in Seattle,” Washuta says. “I had spent so many formative years of my adolescence building this imaginary place in my mind. Some of it was based in fact; I had been there. But there were these expectations I was bringing to it for who I would become there, and how I’d feel there, that were absolutely illusions.
“Even as I lived there for 10 years, that sense of who I could be there never totally went away. I always felt like the life I wanted was just barely out of reach. Soon, I would have one of those houses that I would see when I was on my walks around Madison Park or north Capitol Hill or Greenwood. Soon, I would be there. I just needed to make everything in my life different.”
“The heartbreaking thing,” she continues about the houses and the appearance of abundance, “is that all of that stuff is real. What’s fake is the narrative, the narrative that I am at the beginning of this arc. There’s this plot ahead of me where I’m going to sell my next book for seven figures and then I’ll be able to get a small cottage in Madison Park. I wasn’t at the beginning of some success narrative.”
Washuta’s previous books — the memoirs “My Body is a Book of Rules” and “Starvation Mode,” and the anthology she coedited with Theresa Warburton, “Shapes of Native Nonfiction” — have all found enthusiastic readers. But, Washuta says, with “Book of Rules” in a multiyear limbo (during which time she was also working on essays that appear in “White Magic”), working half time, and generally living in the friction between creative work and capitalist demands, the “success narrative” was a great illusion.
“White Magic” is, however, already making waves, and Washuta has started a virtual tour in support of the book. She’ll discuss her latest work with local authors Theresa Warburton and Kristen Millares Young in a May 4 Town Hall event. Washuta is ecstatic about the digital homecoming.
“I can’t wait,” she said. “Kristen asks the best questions. She’s so insightful and generous. We’ve been friends for a long time and she’s so curious and really willing to look very deeply into things.” Of Warburton, Washuta said, “We were writing these books at the same time, and while working on our anthology together, so these books are really related in many ways. I’m just so happy that I’ll get to talk to both of them.”