Some essayists tell you not to write about pop culture. Washuta proves them wrong
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Many years ago in my former life as a creative writing student, I encountered Elissa Washuta at the annual writer’s conference, AWP. She read from her essay collection My Body is a Book of Rules, and I was so impressed by her words and her performance that I bought it immediately.
Washuta’s voice is raw and unflinching. She is not afraid to hold a lens on herself and our world. When I heard that her new book, White Magic, would encorporate elements from tarot and astrology, I said, “Sign me up.”
For some reason, I chose to listen to this book on audio. Perhaps I was just excited the audio existed. Perhaps I knew I’d take my time with this one, that it would be heavy and raw and complicated and hard.
Regardless, I chose the audio, and it is a brilliant performance that I enjoyed, aside from the fact that White Magic is a book I’d love to study, undelrine, annotate. I’ll probably wind up with a print copy one of these days.
It’s going to be hard to unpack my feelings about this book, which sent all my MFA in Creative Nonfiction senses on fire. This book is brilliant. But I suppose you might be wondering what it’s about? Allow me to drop the Goodreads synopsis:
Throughout her life, Elissa Washuta has been surrounded by cheap facsimiles of Native spiritual tools and occult trends, “starter witch kits” of sage, rose quartz, and tarot cards packaged together in paper and plastic. Following a decade of abuse, addiction, PTSD, and heavy-duty drug treatment for a misdiagnosis of bipolar disorder, she felt drawn to the real spirits and powers her dispossessed and discarded ancestors knew, while she undertook necessary work to find love and meaning.
In this collection of intertwined essays, she writes about land, heartbreak, and colonization, about life without the escape hatch of intoxication, and about how she became a powerful witch.
I’m going to be honest with you here — I think the first sentence is a bit misleading. Yes, Washuta touches upon the “starter witch kit” of it all early in the collection, and the thread of magic follows throughout. But I don’t think this is quite the point of the book or what it hopes to examine, and I’ve seen more than a few people note they were surprised by where Washuta takes us on the page, based on that synopsis.
There’s plenty of magic and the thread of becoming a powerful witch is there, but if you come to this collection expecting Washuta’s treatise on white witchery, you will be disappointed. This is not this book. This is an altogether different kind of magic.
What I Liked
What an interesting word “like” is in the context of a collection that delves at the heart of things in the way White Magic does. This book made me think and rethink. The language is captivating, the structure fascinating. Washuta takes a self-aware approach to the making of a book, asking questions of her reader throughout, inquiring about the purpose and structure of making a book. As a writer and nonfiction nerd myself, I adored this aspect of the writing.
At one point, Washuta begins to use a pair of epigraphs as a refrain, starting several essays with the same two quotes. The first time she repeated them, I stared confusedly down at my phone, wondering if the audio file was messed up. Then she asked “Did you think I made a mistake?” and I laughed. Because yes, I did.
Another aspect of this book which I appreciated is the way Washuta integrates pop cultural touchpoints into her work. There’s an essay about playing Oregon Trail II, and another in which she plays Pokemon Go.
Some people (ahem, in my MFA program specifically) don’t think a Literary Writer should write about pop culture too deeply, because it can date you or alienate a reader not familiar with the game, show, etc. I think pop culture is a part of our life, and that it’s a bit silly to pretend the games we play, music we listen to, shows we watch don’t impact and influence us. Pop culture can provide a powerful structure to draw meaning from and build meaning around, if we let it.
Washuta is a brilliant example of this, using her fascination with these games to examine her life, her heritage, and her choices. As a Native woman, Washuta questions whether she should love games like Oregon Trail, with their alarmingly stereotyped and racist depictions of her ancestors. She uses Twin Peaks references to examine a relationship that she can’t quite seem to get away from, and this worked for me even though I’ve never seen the show. Ditto magic and The Prestige.
She places these TV and video game myths alongsisde the myths and landscapes of her ancestors as she tries to piece together who she is, how she got here, and how she can get out, if she can get out, of this cycle and move forward.
We return again and again to magic, to her efforts to use astrology and auspicioius signs and myths and legends to draw meaning from her life. She performs spells, consults psychics, and is visisted by her future self on a bus. This framework ties the collection together, helps create a powerful arc.
This collection is a masterclass on essay writing, on putting together a collection of essays that fit together as a whole. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
What I Didn’t Like
Even though it’s brilliantly performed, I don’t think this is a book one should read on audio if they want the full effect. At times I felt I was missing something because I couldn’t see the structure of things on the page, flip back to consult prior sections, remind myself of what Washuta was doing on the page.
I can’t think of any other complaints, save more of a caution to readers. This book, being about real life and not pulling the punches, comes loaded with content warnings for sexual trauma, violence, alcoholism, abusive relationships, and more. It’s not a book you read for a pick me up, but when you want something raw and real and difficult.
In all, White Magic will join my personal pantheon of books I admire and re-read when I’m looking for inspiration in my own creative work. Washuta has created something masterful and powerful here, and I can’t wait to see where she goes next.
I recommend this book to anyone who finds themselves searching for meaning and signs, or who wants to read (or write) extraordinary creative nonfiction.