White Magic by Elissa Washuta (Tin House 2021)
Reviewed by Stacy Pratt
“When you don’t understand the meaning of something you read, whose fault is it? Yours or the writer’s? It has to be someone’s fault. Everything does. Anyway, I just ask because this is my book. Do you think I understand everything in this book? If I don’t, can you?” (Epigraph Footnote #4)
How dare Elissa Washuta write this book?
It is not a rhetorical question.
I really want to know. It took me months to read White Magic because the audacity of it scared me, as a Native writer and book reviewer. I am responsible for my words in support of it, which calls for me to be as brave as Washuta. And am I? Well, here I am.
White Magic takes the same form as Washuta’s first memoir, My Body is a Book of Rules, a series of linked lyrical essays chronicling rape, abuse, psychiatric diagnosis and treatment, and the complexities of being a Cowlitz person raised away from her tribal community. Her second book continues the story of her survival of so many traumas, both internal and external.
What makes White Magic so brave is Washuta’s unapologetic description of how her spiritual survival grew from a wide variety of sources–including “witch” culture gleaned from internet searches and neo-pagan stores, self-help books, pop culture, and other places that many in our tribal communities label “white” (hence the double-meaning of the book’s title). While Washuta addresses issues of cultural appropriation within the neo-pagan community, she also unapologetically explains how certain practices from that path became part of her own.
All my life, I have been warned not to fool around with “witchy” things because we are Mvskoke. It is not our way, and it can be dangerous. Worst of all, it’s “white.” Within a Native community, one of the the worst things that can happen is to be shunned by your own people, especially for “acting white.” Yet here is Elissa Washuta just telling the whole world that she uses tarot cards and manifests things (like, in one of my favorite parts of the book, a deep fryer).
And she knows the danger. She addresses the narrow view of “authenticity” expected of Native writers throughout the book, from the carefully curated epigraphs and sometimes hilariously direct footnotes that begin each essay to her obscure and not-so-obscure pop culture references.
“Writing a book is living out the final battle, a long face-off with what my mind has resisted resolving because it feels safe in the pain,” she writes. As I read this culmination of many battles, I highlighted sentences like spells: “Violence has no homeland: you pick it up like a pox and carry it.” “The choice is not to be a witch or not be a witch, not to believe in magic or to believe in reality, but to be an open door or a closed one.”
Finally, I drove 22 hours across the United States during a pandemic to hole up in a cabin by a lake and write this review. It took all of that for these words to get to you, Washuta. That’s how brave this book is, and how brave it can, perhaps, teach us to be.