Elissa Washuta on Writing and Finding Identity

Credit: Carlos David

By Courtney Brown, library specialist at Ohioana Library

Elissa Washuta is a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and a nonfiction writer. Her latest book, White Magic, will be released later this month. An assistant professor of creative writing at the Ohio State University, Washuta will appear on April 24 as a featured author at the 2021 Virtual Ohioana Book Festival (April 22-25).

Courtney: Your first book was an examination of extremely personal traumas. White Magic is very much about the aftermath. Could you tell us a little about how writing helped you navigate through your private struggles?
Elissa: Very soon after I began writing My Body Is a Book of Rules, I began doing public readings of my work in progress around Seattle… I felt very strongly that I couldn’t talk about my mental health situation publicly without writing about it first so that I could make the complexity of the situation clear. I was being asked about my bipolar disorder in interviews and in Q&As after readings, and I knew I needed to narrate the experience and share it with readers before I could sum it up quickly.

It’s not possible to work out everything through the work of writing an essay, but I do figure out many things that way, and there was unresolved question, going into the writing of many of these essays, about how I was going to reconcile the identity I’d solidified through my first book and the changes that came when I had to revise myself.

Courtney: In your book, you examine the differences between “white magic” and “malicious” “black magic,” to find “a version of the occult that isn’t built on plunder.” Could you speak a little about your journey to finding your identity as a witch?
Elissa: It’s still very much a non-linear journey. I don’t know if I identify as a witch now, because the word suggests something that I am not. I don’t cast spells, I don’t do many of those things I used to do. I’m not even that interested in tarot and astrology these days. It sounds trite, but writing this book was my witchcraft: the product of it feels far more powerful than any binding I ever did, and the process required the same trust in the mystery.

For me, tarot, astrology and witchery were good tools for developing my trust in that power and mystery. I used them for practice until I didn’t need them anymore, and I felt myself working with it in the writing. The past year has dimmed that, though, and I don’t know where I stand or what I believe in now.

Courtney: You enjoy traveling and performing your essays aloud, and meeting readers. Do you think the past year of isolation and uncertainty has affected how you will tell stories in the future?
Elissa: It’s hard to say. Fairly early in the pandemic, it became necessary for me to stop thinking about the future in specific ways, because I could only think about bad personal outcomes that ended up not coming to pass. Being very much in the present has been helpful for me. I think my approach to writing will be largely unchanged by all this, because no part of my actual writing has to be put on hold in isolation—it’s all thinking, remembering, researching, arranging, interpreting. I am writing about the last year, even though people are saying they don’t want to read creative writing about the pandemic, because I write about what I think about.

Credit: KR Forbes

Courtney: You write, “I have lost my land, my language,” and in popular culture, we usually see Native stories filtered through a white lens. Do you have any advice for other Native writers who experience difficulty in getting their stories to a wider audience?
Elissa: Read work by other living Native writers, those who would be your peers and those who are your literary aunties and uncles. You’ll find that we’re so excited that publishing has become more receptive to Native writers in recent years, and we want you to do well. I can’t say to just submit your best work and audiences will find it, because frankly, that’s not true. Literary publishing has not solved its problems with racism and anti-Indigeneity. But if you do your best work, you’ll be much better positioned for success, and you’ll know that no matter what happens, you’re proud of what you made. That last point seems a little saccharine, but it took me too long to accept it. In White Magic, I made the best book I possibly could. In my eyes, it was perfect. And when it was rejected, I didn’t worry that I could’ve done better.

Courtney: How has moving to Ohio affected your writing and approach to your art? Do you find it similar or different from the places you have lived before?
Elissa: I moved here for a job at Ohio State, and that has made a tremendous difference in my writing. Having one full-time job instead of a grab bag of various things I did to make ends meet in Seattle has given me a lot of mental space for the writing, and teaching writing full-time has clarified my aesthetic interests and approaches. Less traffic and more space also make a huge difference—having an attic for writing instead of a spot at a tiny table in my miniature kitchenette in the Seattle studio I lived in before I left.

Courtney: What’s the best thing, right now, about the Columbus arts scene?
Elissa: Right now, I don’t go anywhere, because my immune system doesn’t work right and the demands of pandemic life make leisure impossible, so I must admit that I don’t know what’s happening lately—but I doubt my answer differs from what I would’ve said a year ago: it’s the people. The literary community in Columbus is incredibly warm, welcoming and genuine. There is real love here, and though the ways we’ve connected with our audiences and each other has changed, sometimes in devastating ways, I’ve also admired the ingenious changes that have come out of strong artistic communities here.

See Washuta on April 24 during the virtual 2021 Ohioana Book Festival. The free festival runs April 22-25; for a complete schedule, visit www.ohioana.org. For more information about Elissa Washuta, visit www.washuta.net.

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