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Ohio State professor Elissa Washuta pens personal essays in 'White Magic'

Ohio State professor Elissa Washuta pens personal essays in 'White Magic'

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"White Magic" by Elissa Washuta.

"White Magic" by Elissa Washuta (Tin House Books, 432 pages) (Tin House Books/TNS)

Anytime Elissa Washuta thought she was holding back or not using her true voice while writing and editing her new book “White Magic,” she channeled the energy of the creator of the cult classic TV show “Twin Peaks.”

“If I ever felt like doing something safe, I’d think, ‘If David Lynch was allowed to make ‘Twin Peaks’ Season 3 as he did for Showtime, surely I can have a little bit of a time shift here,’” said Washuta, 36, a creative writing professor at Ohio State University.

And she had a hunch that her audience might just enjoy something a bit different, too.

“Readers are ready for books doing weird stuff,” Washuta said. “I think readers are a lot more adventurous than big publishers give them credit for.”

That mindset allowed her to pen the personal essays that make up “White Magic," with an honest lens into what makes her who she is.

It’s why she spends a whole essay writing about the rabbit hole she fell down trying to find an old video she remembered watching in D.A.R.E. (a drug-abuse prevention program) as a middle-schooler while examining what led to her own struggles with addiction and finally getting sober six years ago.

She also puts the same epigraphs on her first few pieces and then asks the reader directly, “Do you think I made an error? Did you flip back to the previous epigraph? Do you worry you’re missing the meaning?”

Her beliefs in magic and witchcraft — “I’m not a witch exactly: I’m a person with prayers, a person who believes in spirits and plays with fire,” she writes — serve as a central theme throughout the book.

As a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, she weaves in stories of her ancestors — their colonization and genocide as well as their healing powers and spirituality — with her love of video games ("Oregon Trail II" and "Red Dead Redemption") to find peace within her own life while maybe helping others enrich theirs, too.

Washuta, who lives in the Old Oaks neighborhood, spoke to The Dispatch ahead of her book’s release:

Q: You’re originally from New Jersey and spent a decade living in Seattle. What was it like to move to a place like Columbus?

Washuta: Immediately, upon coming here, I felt a sense of ease, like a sort of burden was lifted off of me that I didn’t realize was getting heavier and heavier.

Immediately, people were so kind and welcoming, and I didn’t have to prove anything. There was no initiation into the literary community. The kindness is one of the major things I fell in love with.”

Q: In the essay “The Spirit Corridor,” you talk about how stories and reading had a tremendous impact on your childhood. Is that why you became a writer?

Washuta: It’s a big part of it. I can see a strong connection with my love of reading as a child leading me to produce something like “White Magic.” How truly magical books were for me as a kid. I truly believed that what happened in “A Wrinkle in Time” could happen in real life. We just had to catch up to Madeleine L’Engle. … I wanted to captivate readers like those authors captivated me.

Q: You once said that as a college student you thought a Native American woman’s life was not worth writing about. What changed your thinking?

Washuta: Once I had formal instruction in my graduate program in personal essays, I learned how to make stuff in my life interesting even if it was not interesting. But I also had people around me telling me, "This is interesting and you should tell it."

Personal essays are not about the plot points of your life. It’s how you represent those events — in form, voice and most of all how you make meaning of them now. What I’ve grown into is research and cultural criticism to help me make sense of what I was thinking and feeling in my life.

Now that I’m older, there are not so many dramatic plot points, and I’m still able to write about my life. My work is less based on new traumas but more looking back on periods of my life with a large time scale — years — around them. I’m very interested in how I see the events of my life in such a different light.

Q: “White Magic” has an extensive bibliography. Do you do a lot of research for your pieces, and why do you need to for such personal work?

Washuta: Yes, I do. I began college as an anthropology major and then a history major. I grew to really like the research process, but I left that behind when I became an English major. Some of the sources were things I already had but others I didn’t. I just followed my curiosity and my random scattered interests. I always have an impulse to find answers. With any weird internet rabbit hole I’m going down, if I spend a lot of time there I’ll probably write an essay about it.

Q: You share a lot of your personal journey in the book, including sexual assaults, addiction, failed relationships and fears. Are you ever hesitant to reveal too much about yourself?

Washuta: A weird quirk of my personality is I’m really not hesitant to share personal things that other people might be more hesitant in saying. I’ve never primarily written with an audience in mind.

I felt compelled to share it and I want people to hear it, and even if they don’t hear it, writing it helps me make sense of a world that makes no sense. If I couldn’t make narrative sense of what is happening to me, of what I’ve done, I think I would regret so many things. I find compassion when making a narrator out of myself. It’s a space where I do whatever I want. I didn’t always feel that way. I was putting boundaries up with the readers, the audience, and I was tired of doing that and wasn’t writing. Once I stopped trying, more came out. It was a real risk for me, but I’m really happy I did it.


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