On Form and Magic

WHITE MAGIC by Elissa Washuta

I read White Magic by Elissa Washuta (Tin House, 2021) awhile ago but haven’t written about it yet because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say. But I just listened to David Naimon’s interview with Washuta on the Between the Covers podcast, and I loved that interview so much (a transcript is available here). It’s largely about form in personal nonfiction writing and how form connects to and creates meaning. It’s a delightfully nerdy conversation, and it made me go back and rethink my response to the book.

White Magic is subtitled “Essays,” and this is an essay collection, sort of. You could call it a linked essay collection, but it’s not quite that either. More than simply essays linked by similar subjects, the book literally links them with an overarching three-act structure, each with its own introduction. Those introductions together form their own line of enquiry, which has to do, in part, with narrative structure. The individual essays as a whole tell a story of trying to move through struggle toward a place of greater safety and peace: Washuta is trying to figure out, among other things, why she is drawn to harmful relationships and why she can’t quit one particular ex. She struggles with overcoming addiction. She is a Native woman, a member of the Cowlitz Indian tribe, and she writes about the legacies of colonialism and how they have shaped her life. There’s so much variety in the essays — they range from Seattle to New Jersey, from video games to Twin Peaks to a writing residency in a bridge tower. Each essay is a stand-alone piece, and many of them conduct their own experiments with form. But, together, they tell a larger story. The section introductions are about the stages of traditional narrative, what we expect from beginnings, middles, and ends, and the ways the story Washuta is telling does and doesn’t fit those expectations.

The introductions are also about the relationship between writer and reader. In the interview, Washuta says that she added these introductions to the book last, in an effort to better reach the reader. She describes realizing that the book’s structure wasn’t clear to her early readers and that she wanted to state what she was doing because there’s no point in withholding things for no reason. Why not just tell the reader what you’re thinking? (I like this idea — I like being told things.) In these sections, she often speaks directly to the reader using “you,” explaining what’s going on, guessing how the reader is responding to it.

She continues this engagement with the reader in her use of epigraphs. Each essay begins with epigraphs, and, for much of the book, they are exactly the same: repeated quotations from Alice Notley and Louise Erdrich. Washuta writes footnotes to these repeated epigraphs that pose questions to the reader. About the repetition, she asks:

Are you wondering what I’m trying to do here? Do you think I made an error? Did you flip back to the previous epigraphs?

In the interview, she talks about the textual apparatus I’m describing as a means of getting closer to the reader. The section introductions, the epigraphs, the footnotes are all ways of pointing toward the artifice of writing in order to be as direct and honest as she can. In the interview, she says,

I think that whenever we’re writing, we’re creating something that is going to meet the reader and the reader’s going to bring their stuff and they’re going to meet the stuff that we brought and we’re both working together to make meaning. I think in writing and revising, we’re always doing what we can to control our part of it and to really locate the place where we’re going to meet the reader.

The word “control” is interesting: it’s an acknowledgement that she wants to control what she can about the meeting of writer and reader (and what writer doesn’t want this), and also that she, in the end, cannot control this meeting at all. The many questions she asks the reader in the footnotes give this away; she can ask questions all she wants, but can do nothing about how, and whether, they are answered. Is this an expression of authorial anxiety or confidence? Is it “You may not understand what I’m doing here and that worries me,” or, “you may not get it and I’m okay with that; in fact, I’m so okay with it that I can be playful about it”? I’m not sure.

At one point, David Naimon reads these lines from the footnotes:

Do you think this is a good book? How do you know? Is it because you compared it to other books? I do want to make you uncomfortable if you’re accustomed to being the ideal audience, your wants prioritized.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these questions. When I listened to them in the interview, I realized, okay, White Magic does make me feel a little uncomfortable. There’s so much I admire both about individual essays and also about the structure of the whole. There are also parts of the book I struggled with. Then I thought, that’s actually okay. I am often the “ideal audience” Washuta is talking about, and if I’m not the ideal audience for her book and respond with some discomfort, maybe that means Washuta’s writing has had the effect on me she wanted it to.

I’m not sure exactly in what ways Washuta wants to make people “accustomed to being the ideal audience” uncomfortable, and I’m not entirely sure why I’m uncomfortable either. Likely the reasons are complicated. I think at least part of it has to do with something I haven’t mentioned yet: the magic of the title. This book is steeped in magic, divination, the Tarot, and astrology. These things make appearances within essays, and they are also part of the surrounding material, as descriptions of Tarot cards begin each section. In the interview, Washuta talks about these things as ways of making meaning, developing intuition, and cultivating hope. She talks about Native practices as well, although briefly, and she makes the point that these practices have only a small role in the book because she feels they aren’t meant for everyone — they are private knowledge, meant for fellow Native people and not others.

For me, I have a kind of mental block when it comes to the supernatural, the magical, and even the spiritual. I read the words about the Tarot but they didn’t register. I believe people when they describe their mystical, spiritual experiences, but I don’t have them myself. It’s not that I believe those things are all fake — I’m agnostic about it — it’s just not a part of my experience. So I’m wondering, what do I do when I’m reading about someone’s insights that they gained in part through a method I don’t understand?

I don’t want to be dismissive of this whole element of humanity, the supernatural and the spiritual; I’m just trying to acknowledge that I can be baffled by it. I felt this way when I was a teenager and young adult trying to be a good Jesus-loving, fundamentalist Christian, and it just … didn’t take. Maybe my source of discomfort is that I’m worried I’m dismissing Native spirituality, among other forms, when I feel this way, and I don’t want to do that. What I’m thinking about is how Native cultures are not mine, they are not for me, and, similarly, maybe all the magical, spiritual stuff is just a part of the book that doesn’t speak to me, and that’s fine.

Washuta’s questions, “Do you think this is a good book? How do you know? Is it because you compared it to other books?” are a challenge. She’s asking us to think about our relationship to this book and to the persona she’s created. She’s asking us to consider how this book relates to other ones we have read, which means thinking about what books we have read and what books we haven’t, what we are familiar and comfortable with and what we aren’t. It’s a challenge I want to keep thinking about.

I’m very happy that listening to the interview helped me think about the book’s form in more depth because that’s obviously my best way into it. Washuta is a fabulously inventive writer, one who is working on a bunch of different levels and has written a complex, multi-layered essay collection. Or, maybe, I should just call it a book.

Publishing This Week

New books out this week that I (mostly) haven’t yet read and am adding to my TBR. This is another HUGE week for great new books. (Quotations from the publisher):

  • Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga (Graywolf, originally published in 1988): a novel set in Zimbabwe about Tambudzai Sigauke, who is struggling to free herself from her rural village through education.

  • Among the Hedges by Sara Mesa, translated by Megan McDowell (Open Letter): this one I have read and I liked it a lot; it tells the story of a teenager skipping school and spending her days hidden in the hedges in a park and of the friend she meets there.

  • Nervous System by Lina Meruane, translated by Megan McDowell (Graywolf): I read and admired Meruane’s earlier novel Seeing Red very much. This one tells the story of Ella, who “is an astrophysicist struggling with her doctoral thesis in the ‘country of the present’ but she is from the ‘country of the past,’ a place burdened in her memory by both personal and political tragedies.”

  • Tante Eva by Paula Bomer (Soho Press): I read and admired Bomer’s earlier book Nine Months. This one “is a portrait of East Berlin in the years after the Wall came down, and of an overlooked woman pursuing happiness and sexual pleasure.”

  • Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller (Tin House): a novel about 51-year-old twins who live with their mother in the English countryside and what happens when their mother unexpectedly dies.

  • Tastes Like War by Grace M. Cho (Feminist Press): this is a work of nonfiction: “Part food memoir, part sociological investigation, Tastes Like War is a hybrid text about a daughter's search through intimate and global history for the roots of her mother's schizophrenia.”

  • Fate by Jorge Consiglio, translated by Carolina Orloff and Fionn Petch (Charco Press): Charco Press books are reliably good. This is a novel by an Argentinian author: “A musician, a taxidermist, and a scientist all attempt to exert control over their intersecting fates.”

New on the TBR

New books acquired (quotations from the publisher):

Added to my wishlist (books that have caught my eye but I don’t yet own):

  • Bright Archive by Sarah Minor (Rescue Press, 2020): an essay collection that is a finalist for the Firecracker Awards — meant specifically for independent presses! Of the ten finalists in nonfiction, I’ve read SIX of them and liked them all. Obviously, that means I have to read the remaining four. This is one I hadn’t heard of before. I’ve read only one from the fiction list and one from the poetry list, and would love to read more. This is clearly a prize list meant specifically for me.

Currently Reading

The Cormac Report

One of Cormac’s purchases from our last bookstore trip was the Ivy and Bean Get to Work!, the twelfth book in the series written by Annie Barrows and illustrated by Sophie Blackall. I don’t remember how we first came across these books, but we have been reading the series for years now. When we first started them, Cormac wasn’t reading much on his own, so I read them aloud, and I remember his attention flagging. Bean goes clothes shopping with her mother and sister, and Cormac wasn’t into the character dynamics. But then Ivy came along! She captured his interest (Ivy is awesome), and since then he’s been hooked and we’ve read all the books multiple times.

With this new one, however, Cormac has read the whole thing on his own. He was a little reluctant at first — he still feels uncertain about picking up chapter books, although when he does he reads them just fine — but he took it to bed with him and read a third, and the next night he finished it. I read a few chapters to him out loud when he was bored one day, but they were ones he had already read. We haven’t yet finished it together, and I don’t know how it ends. This makes me a little sad! We still read books together and hopefully will for a long time yet, but we do it less than we used to. Ah, growing up.

Have a good week everyone!