White Magic, by Elissa Washuta
I have nothing now but my big aura, my fistful of keys, and my throat that still knows how to scream because no man has succeeded in closing it.
I’ve kind of dreaded assembling my thoughts to write about this book, because it moved me like little else, certainly in recent memory and probably in much longer. I thought about it constantly when I wasn’t reading it. It’s haunting, even when it felt strangely exhilarating. I’m afraid to attempt summarizing it because I can’t do it justice, it’ll inevitably fall short of what this writing does.
It’s such a hard-to-categorize book, so artistically unique, and the connection I felt to it was so almost bizarrely strong and emotional that I don’t even know how to do this. This is all to excuse the messiness that’s coming.
Written by Elissa Washuta, a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and writing professor, White Magic is, loosely, an essay collection, in that it doesn’t have the cohesive quality and trajectory that would be associated with a novel or a memoir about a specific incident or topic per se. And yet I felt it was much more cohesive than it’s packaged, I’m not sure I would’ve labeled it essays. These are all so interconnected and you couldn’t really skip around without losing something.
A minor point though, and it’s not criticism. I just had so much trouble categorizing this in my own mind, slotting it into any box that made sense. It’s a jumble of themes, topics circled and poked at and explored from different angles, or even the same ones, the fleshing out of specific scenes and hazy, dreamy looks at others.
The end product is a story about attempting to heal oneself by calling on the history that lives in you, genetically, alongside the power that inevitably accompanies survival. Doing this kind of healing work alongside ancestral legacies of trauma and colonization complicates the picture further, as do the elements of abuse and addiction Washuta’s experienced. It’s a messy story, but whose isn’t. She tells it so beautifully I didn’t want it to end.
On its most basic level then, this is memoir-in-essays. In her previous collection, told in similar style, My Body is a Book of Rules, which I immediately sought out after this, she muses that she earned writing degrees then wrote however she wanted to. And that’s her style here, one wholly her own – “experimental” doesn’t really cover it, but it is that. She breaks the fourth wall, bounces from memory-laden looks at incidents preceding trauma (hauntings, of a sort) and punctuates it with pop culture references — Stevie Nicks and her relationship with Lindsay Buckingham, then her link to modern witchcraft, especially the specific brand of it practiced by white women on Instagram, being an especially meaningful one.
I’m not exactly emotionally available. I spend most nights in my creaking house google image searching Stevie Nicks and her large sleeves. I save images while weeping and listening to “Silver Springs,” the song Stevie wrote and loved and could not get onto Rumours because that decision wasn’t hers to make.
Which leads to the topic of witchcraft, and how Washuta writes about becoming a “powerful witch” after various incidences of trauma – with men who don’t want to be loved, or know how to be, multiple rapes and assaults, mental health struggles, addictions, being misdiagnosed as bipolar for years, and understanding and contextualizing her identity as a Native American in a land that erases or revises this history more than it acknowledges or celebrates it.
And worth mentioning that although I’m a skeptic and totally uninterested in the woo-woo, I loved her use of magic and witchcraft in this storytelling.
Her early religious education is another topic making appearances, and I found this explanation telling for why, to her, the supernatural and the objectively real have blurry boundaries:
The priests said we could never understand how God impregnated Mary, how Jesus rose from the dead, or how Mary was pulled to heaven. But I was instructed in assumption before gravity, resurrection before biological death, and immaculate conception before reproduction. The problem with mystery is that I have always understood completely. I never fully cultivated a sense of reason in which what’s called supernatural would be anything but natural.
Maybe that’s why I could get on board with the supernatural subjects here. That made perfect sense to me (and is probably why it took me so long to grasp science).
She weaves in other pop culture touchpoints – “cultural artifacts” from her childhood and adolescence — one entire section is structured around the cult favorite show Twin Peaks. (Some understanding of what the show is is probably necessary to appreciate this section; I’ve never seen it but had read enough about it). She also ties stories from her ancestors into modern storytelling devices, like the Oregon Trail computer game.
Another section follows a summer she spent as writer-in-residence in a tower of Seattle’s Fremont Bridge, writing about the Puget Sound region’s Native history while navigating her own heartbreak, making for one of those viscerally haunted-by-longing stories woven into a beautifully told regional mini-history. Her writing is so smooth it’s a magic trick in itself; I don’t even know how she manages to make so many disparate ideas work together so seamlessly.
My triggers and traumas had been allowed to multiply unchecked, making for a hefty pile of kindling that would catch fire from the smallest sparks: a boyfriend’s irritated silence, a stranger’s shouting from down the street.
The topics can be heavy, and Washuta’s style is blunt and confrontational. It doesn’t feel oppressive though, as she also has a dark, dry sense of humor. Although her writing is so rich and gorgeous it’s easy to get lost in the loveliness of it, it doesn’t negate how raw and painful some of the experiences she addresses are. And yet there’s so much value in telling these stories, especially in the way she does it. One of my favorite sections is, I think, a forceful example of this:
I am still alive and ambulatory after having been raped more times than I can recall, threatened with a knife and a gun, smothered, choked, held down, and stalked, over the course of several years and at the hands of more than several men. I’ve wrapped my arms around men who told me I should fear them or told me I had nothing to fear. I’ve been alone, certain no good man would waste his life with the rotting apple core of me.
I read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird shortly after reading this, and Lamott repeatedly makes the point that if you write something authentically, as painful or ugly as it may be, it’s going to connect with someone else, because if you felt that someone else has felt it too. That’s what this book was to me — a pitch-perfect example of doing just that, conveying lived experiences so authentically and revealingly that they inevitably resonate.
This isn’t going to be for everyone. It’s explicit, sometimes meandering, often brutal. But Washuta is such a brilliantly skilled writer that nothing feels gratuitous, and even when incidents and narratives get hazy — she assures the reader that you don’t have to remember exactly which guy is which — it all feels in service of examining the emotions and how they’ve shaped her, and not necessarily the rigid narrative. “We shape the recollected by how the remembering changes us. The mind wants to understand what’s done but not settled.”
Maybe the story didn’t start in either place. Or maybe a causal chain will never work because multiple causes, some mostly mystery, interwound to make me need to alter reality.
From the synopsis I wasn’t totally sure, to be honest – it did sound a bit all over the place and magic and woo are not my thing. Yet here I am, completely changed by this book. The best piece of writing I’ve read in a long while. It felt as cathartic to read as it must have been to write.
White Magic: Essays
by Elissa Washuta
published April 27 by Tin House Books
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.
Entering this for the Indigenous Cultures category of the 2021 Nonfiction Reader Challenge.