Elissa Washuta on Reckoning with the Insoluble Puzzles of the Universe
In Conversation with Jordan Kisner on Thresholds
This is Thresholds, a series of conversations with writers about experiences that completely turned them upside down, disoriented them in their lives, changed them, and changed how and why they wanted to write. Hosted by Jordan Kisner, author of the essay collection Thin Places, and brought to you by Lit Hub Radio.
In this episode, Jordan talks with Elissa Washuta (White Magic) about the transformative nature of narrative, avoiding versus thinking about painful things, why she takes more notes, and the power of a good video game.
Subscribe and download the episode, wherever you get your podcasts!
Twin Peaks and Twin Peaks: The Return • Dorrie the Little Witch by Patricia Coombs • The Craft • Red Dead Redemption 2
From the episode:
Elissa Washuta: At the same time that I was learning about Catholicism and the Catechism and Catholic saints and all of the things that I became curious about in that area, my extracurricular reading was whatever looked good at the library. I read so much as a kid. I really liked these books, the Dorrie series by Patricia Coombs, which I talk about a little bit in White Magic: Dorrie is a little witch, her mother is a big witch who is very busy and important, and Dorrie gets into trouble while her mom is out working as a witch. There were lots of cultural representations of witchcraft that changed as I grew up. Of course, The Craft was really big for me when I was a pre-teen. It was terrifying, and it felt believable that I could wield that kind of power.
I have always taken books very seriously—even as a kid, even when I knew something was fiction. It felt real. And so I felt like there could be something to hold on to in there that I could use for my own benefit to shape my own self in the world. I’ve always been really interested in some idea of mystery, of things that are not immediately apparent. Whether that’s how witchcraft works or what heaven and hell are like, what purgatory is; what will my tally end up being after I die? How will I? I can’t know right now whether I’ve been good enough. That was always a big question for me as a Catholic kid.
The witchcraft was just another facet of that, some kind of mystery that I can approach but not fully exhaust my interests in. I have lots of interests, some enduring, most of them fleeting. I become really obsessive and tend to exhaust those interests in a way, or get bored with them. That kind of mystery is really appealing to me for that reason, because there’s just more there that I am not capable of ever fully approaching. I like that object of curiosity.
Jordan Kisner: Right. Like the core mystery at the center of existence is not something you can necessarily fully wrap your arms around and then get bored of. It’s an insoluble puzzle.
Elissa Washuta: Yeah. I was just thinking about math problems or science quizzes or something. I was really studious as a kid, and I have memories of feeling that I needed to be so excellent in all subject areas, I needed to really properly memorize the phases of cell division—that sticks in my head because I could not do it. There would be areas in academics where I would meet my match, and it was really frustrating for me, and it was really, really hard and it stuck with me. But the mystery of, like, divinity of the universe, there’s less pressure because nobody can ever figure it out. You can just learn some of the contours of how people understand it. They’re there for some reason. That feels more inviting than intimidating for me.
Elissa Washuta is a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and a nonfiction writer. She is the author of White Magic, My Body Is a Book of Rules, and Starvation Mode. With Theresa Warburton, she is co-editor of the anthology Shapes of Native Nonfiction: Collected Essays by Contemporary Writers. She has received fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Creative Capital, Artist Trust, 4Culture, and Potlatch Fund. Elissa is an assistant professor of creative writing at the Ohio State University.