An Interview with Elissa Washuta Interviewed by Alex Davis-Lawrence · October 2015 · Edmonds, WA
A finalist for the Washington State Book Award, Elissa Washuta is known for her deft, powerful, and deeply personal creative nonfiction. In her debut book My Body is a Book of Rules, Washuta uses a variety of forms and genres to grapple with issues of mental health, sexual assault, and personal identity; her followup, Starvation Mode, released as an eBook by Future Tense Books’ new digital-only imprint Instant Future, focuses on her life’s history of disordered eating. A recipient of grants and awards from Arist Trust, 4Culture, and Hugo House, her work has appeared in Salon, Third Coast, and The Chronicle of Higher Education, and she’s worked as a contributing editor for both The Rumpus and The James Franco Review. A member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, she serves as an adviser for the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Washington and on the creative nonfiction faculty for the Institute of American Indian Arts MFA program. Washuta currently lives in Edmonds, WA.
I’ll I thought we could start by talking a bit about your first book, My Body Is a Book of Rules. What struck me most about the book was how effectively you manage to incorporate all these different ‘non-literary’ forms—the academic essay, the screenplay, advice columns, psychiatrists’ notes, and so forth—into your writing, capturing the essence of these different styles while still maintaining your distinct and consistent voice. How did you arrive at this style?
I started writing this way when I was starting graduate school. I came in as a fiction writer, but my first quarter I was taking a non-fiction class and I really took to it, and really lost interest in fiction. So from the outset I was writing these essays that were ‘weird,’ you know—I started writing a chapter of the book during my first quarter.
David Shields was my professor, and he was bringing a lot of essays into the class that were in forms that I had never imagined before, and I was energized to get working on essays that were like that. My head just cracked open. I had all of this stuff in it, all these ideas, but also questions—what if I do this, what if I do that, will I be violating copyright, will I run into these kind of logistical problems—and David just said “do it, just do it, worry about that later, or never.” I realize now that this is how I look at the world in general; I make comparisons between my experience and pop culture items, or forms I see in the world. And I think they always have, but now I can bring it to my writing. I go to the drugstore and I get that prescribing information and instead of throwing it out like I always did, one day I just looked at it and thought, right, this is a literary form—and I can use this in my personal nonfiction. For a while I was trying to force myself to write fiction that was recognizable as being like what I had studied during undergraduate years, and I appreciate that sort of traditional fiction approach, but it’s just not something I’m good at.
Do you see that sense of experimentation, that willingness to do something different, as being particularly strong in the Northwest?
I never thought of it as being specific to this region, although it seems that people have been really receptive to what I do here. When I was trying to find an agent, then a publisher for the book, it was a bit hard, partly because they didn’t know how they were going to sell it—but here, it always seemed obvious to me that readers were interested in my work and curious about it.
From the first lines of My Body Is a Book of Rules, you’re locating yourself in both a physical place—the Northwest—and, by tracing your lineage back to Tumalth of the Cascade Indians, in a type of physical history. But as the book goes on, it becomes clear that your relationship with place and history is generally one of deep ambivalence. I think part of me was expecting the narrative arc to build up to you arriving in Seattle, settling in, and feeling in some sense at home—but that’s not how it ends. You said in Book of Rules that ‘you don’t know why you still don’t fit in’ in Seattle. Now that you’ve lived here a little longer and found some success—your first book was selected as a finalist for the Washington State Book Award, you’ve published your second book with Portland’s Future Tense—are you starting to feel more in place in the Northwest?
I definitely am. I moved to Seattle when I was 22, and the book sort of ends at age 24—and I think by then I was starting to feel more at home in Seattle. I really took to Seattle quickly, I loved it from the beginning, but moving to Seattle was an act of escape. Similarly, I moved to Maryland from New Jersey to improve my life, my situation, by relocation. And when I moved from Maryland to Seattle, I realized that I was just trying to run away from my problems, but they weren’t problems that were specific to Maryland. They were mental health problems and the trauma that I’ve written about in the book. Logically I knew that they wouldn’t be resolved by moving, but I think that was a big part of choosing Seattle instead of choosing to stay in the D.C. area. I sort of thought that if I were to relocate myself I could hit the reset button on everything, and of course that wasn’t the case. I’ve grown so fond of Seattle that I don’t want to leave the area, and a large part of it is because of the writing community, but another part of it was resolving some of those problems—not completely, but resolving them more, to the point where I feel like my life is not the mess that it was when I had to constantly press the reset button.
What are some of the specific people and institutions in the community here that have stood out as important to you?
I came to Seattle in 2007 to start an MFA program at the UW, and that program was super important to me. I learned so much there, I met such amazing people, both in my cohort and the professors, and I was so close with a lot of those people. They were just so influential to me as a writer. It was at the UW that I learned about the non-fiction that I had waiting inside me, that I just needed to find a way to put form to.
Then, while I was in grad school I started an internship at Hugo House, and that was a really formative place for me as well. I interned there, I volunteered there for long stretches of time, I ran the open mic for a while, I ran a series called ‘In Print’ that they used to have, I worked as their youth program coordinator, I had a fellowship there… I think that was where I really learned about literary community in a big way. I met so many people who modeled literary community for me, and I became really immersed.
And then, I have a pretty strong relationship with Elliot Bay Book Company. I’ve been to tons of readings there. My first outing in Seattle, the first time I really ventured outside my apartment to somewhere I didn’t know, was to go down to Elliot Bay when it was still in Pioneer Square. And it was scary, I didn’t even know how to take the bus—but I just really wanted to do it. It’s been important to me ever since, they’ve been so supportive of my work, and just so great in introducing me to new books.
There are so many more—Artist Trust, Lit Crawl Seattle, all the independent bookstores who have sold me books, literary magazines and other publications.
I loved all the pop culture material in Book of Rules. (As is typical for a Seattle guy, I particularly liked the segments on Kurt Cobain.) You write compellingly about the changes Seattle has undergone since that period—“Seattle’s flannel soft focus has sharpened, the film has lifted”—and I was curious if you could talk more about how you see Seattle today, after these changes. How does it compare with the expectations you had about the city as a child, growing up during that time?
I was slightly familiar with Seattle when I was a kid, because my Mom’s twin lives here and we would come to visit every other year. So I knew that I really loved the evergreens, and I loved the water. I had all these natural things that I loved about the city, and those things lingered in my mind for a long time, and when I got here, there was no sense of letdown, there was no sense that what I remembered was more vivid or more pleasing than what I experienced. I came back and I felt like the natural world pieces of Seattle were in place as I remembered them. And, I think I had expectations that there would always be something happening that I could tap into. Growing up in a pretty rural area of New Jersey, I just really wanted to be somewhere where something was happening all the time. I wanted to be in the city, and Seattle definitely didn’t disappoint in that way. When I got here there was always something going on, and I was always doing something, whether I was going out with friends or going to shows or going to readings. Any time I wanted to do something I could, and that was just exactly what I had been hoping for.
Now, I’ve moved out of the city, and I don’t get in as much. I think I’ve had my fill of that—certainly of “nightlife”—and I’ve had my several years of tapping into that busyness of Seattle and that excitement.
Continuing on Book of Rules, I wanted to ask specifically about the Cascade Autobiography section, which functions as the narrative center of the book—it’s the one section that’s spread out throughout the other chapters. But, read as one piece, it could also be seen as one of the more traditional sections in terms of style. How did you come to this form for the Autobiography?
That was a challenge, but there was an interesting opportunity there. As I went through the process of shifting chapters around and trying to find the overall structure for the book, that chapter presented the biggest challenge, because it seemed like it needed to be at the beginning, and at the middle, and at the end—it had to be everywhere. I was working with Nicelle Davis, who is a poet and my editor for the book at Red Hen Press, and she had the amazing idea to split it up. She did the splitting, and showed me where she thought it should go, and it worked beautifully. It was exactly what needed to happen, because I do think it’s the backbone of the book in a lot of ways, and making it into pieces that are inter-chapters actually let it function that way.
In general, there’s such an obsessive quality to the book… partially this ties to the types of writing you’re playing with, but clearly you also have an intense personal relationship to questions of categorization, organization, definition. And that carries into Starvation Mode, too, which is literally presented (at least in Part 1) as a list of rules. Generally, I tend to think of ‘rules’ as oppressive, and limiting; yet, you’re using this mode as a tool to understand your body, to make connections between seemingly disparate things, and to express yourself in a deeply personal way. How do you see this complexity playing out, these different forces coming together?
I think I have a personality or temperament that’s obsessive and responds well to clearly defined limits, and yet, there’s also this strongly intuitive part of me. I gravitate towards unexplained things, and unexplainable things. I think in some ways when these sides come together, there’s an interesting tension—between the wild part, that’s a little bit boundless and intense, and these self-imposed rules that I have in so many parts of my life. I respond well to those rules at some times, and at other times I find them absolutely impossible to adhere to.
That comes out in my writing: there needs to be some kind of tension in any kind of work that I do, and some kind of conflict, but the conflict isn’t the same as it would be in a linear, chronological book, with an ‘arc.’ There are plot points, but it’s not really the same set-up, there’s not suspense in the same way, like “what’s gonna happen next.” I just tell it all the beginning of the book. I think the tension there is the internal tension, between what I am and what I think I should be.
That’s certainly how I saw one of the central tensions of Book of Rules—trying to balance this desire for sureness and certainty and clarity with a real concern about the restrictions those things carry with them. In a way, this reminded me of the whole idea of blood quantum, which, while problematic for a huge number of reasons, also seems to persist as a major part of tribal identity and categorization. What’s your impression of that sort of categorization, that form of definition?
I think there has been a movement away from blood quantum among some tribes, and I’m really excited to see that. My tribe doesn’t use blood quantum in determining membership, and there are some other tribes that don’t, and I think of that as progressive enrollment policy—to make that movement away.
Since there are more than 500 tribes that are federally recognized, and more that are state-recognized or unrecognized, there’s so many different ways of being a community member. For people who are un-familiar with the complexities of Native identity and tribal membership, it can be easier to just look at a number, look at blood quantum, and use that to decide how “authentic” someone is. I think it can too often be a way of explaining someone away—of putting someone into a very small box, or set of boxes, so that native people can be “understood” and dismissed. If non-native people are able to look at native people and decide that some of us are not legitimate because we’re not of an acceptable blood quantum, then they’re able to uphold this ongoing genocide by deciding that a lot of us aren’t really Indian, don’t really exist. It cuts down on the number, in people’s minds, of how many “real Indians” there are out there. Blood quantum has been written into U.S. law. It’s functioned as a tool of government assimilation efforts, and it’s no accident that it’s shaped Americans’ understanding of what it means to be Native.
Absolutely. Now, I wanted to talk more directly about your second book, Starvation Mode. How did that book come about?
Instant Future generally publishes books that are between 10,000 and 12,000 words, so I was writing something to try to fit into that length and format. I knew that I couldn’t do things that were as weird on the page as I did in My Body Is a Book of Rules because I knew from the process of having that turn into an eBook that some of the formal elements are hard to replicate in eBook form—I could still experiment, but it would be a different kind of experimentation.
I had a couple of failed attempts at writing something, but eventually I decided that I wanted to write about my life’s history of eating. My first book takes up so many different issues and so many different problems, and I thought it might be interesting to narrow it down into a single problem. I let some of the other problems come in, but really I wanted it to be focused on disordered eating, because I had not explored that as much as I thought I could.
I think I was also fueled somewhat by something somebody said in a review… somebody was frustrated by my unapologetic depiction of my self-loathing and fear of being fat when I had an eating disorder. And I really wanted to push back against that, because I won’t apologize for that, for things that sprung from mental illness and were beyond my control. I was trying to be as honest as I could about things that were really eating at me, and the terror that I was experiencing. I wasn’t going to sugar coat anything in the book. What I could do was explore those thoughts more deeply and show people just how hard it was to have an eating disorder—to have many forms of disordered eating over the course of my life—and to be even more unapologetic about how horrible that self-loathing feels and to be really explicit about exactly what it was.
How have you felt about the experience of releasing Starvation Mode as an eBook, specifically?
I think it’s been really neat. It was so gratifying to have it come out so quickly. The first book took seven years to write and publish, total, and the writing and publication of Starvation Mode happened in under a year. After I was done with the final draft, it came out just a few months later. It’s neat that readers were able to get it instantly on the day it came out. Anyone who wanted it, anyone who still wants it, can order it and receive it instantly. It was nice to be able to write something that was substantial and meaningful, but without going through the very long process of writing a book that was 60,000 words.
My editor at Instant Future, Matthew Simmons, is really great to work with, and the other authors who have released books on Instant Future (Litsa Dremousis and Zach Ellis) are excellent writers, really great people, and it’s fun to be a part of that community.
I would imagine so—they’re certainly doing fabulous work. Have you started work on your next project yet?
Yeah, I’m working on my third book. It’s going to be an essay collection, and it involves a lot of research; I have a few of the essays written, and a lot of them are ideas at this point. It’s really going to focus on Indigenous identity, specifically my Cowlitz and Cascade identity, and I’m bringing in some stuff about pop culture and how pop culture warped my sense of who I am as a native person when I was growing up. There’s going to be a lot in there about hauntings. There will be a few essays that are in unusual forms, and others that are not. I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable with writing essays that don’t take the form of some weird document, but I still like to do that and am going to keep doing that.
It sounds like this book will also draw a lot from the Northwest. At this point, do you see yourself as, or do you call yourself, a ‘Northwest writer?’
I do. When I was in New Jersey and Maryland, I was only just starting to form as a writer. I was still just learning, not really creating things that were going to be published, for the most part, and still honing my craft. I feel like it was in the Northwest that I really learned how to write about myself—I learned where I fit into the literary world that I saw around me. Also, I’m from a Northwest tribe, and I think of myself as being from the Northwest for that reason, but I’m also from New Jersey. I’m from two places.
When I go down the street in the morning I can smell the Sound, and the trees here are huge, Richmond Beach is a few minutes away, Edmonds Beach is a few minutes away, and the views of the mountains here… when I first moved here, I was just mesmerized by the mountains, and it’s never stopped. In Edmonds, I can see the mountains clearly and often, and every time I see those mountains—it just does something to me.
Do you see yourself staying around the area for the foreseeable future?
I do. I’ve thought about the possibility of relocating, but I find it really hard to imagine not living here. I really appreciate being in Coast Salish territory and not being far from my tribe—that makes it really feel like home, at a very deep visceral level. And I have a lot of family out here, though my parents, brother, grandma, and other family members are still back east. But I think part of it is the literary community. I know that if I moved to another major metropolitan area I would be able to find a large community there, but it wouldn’t be the same community.
There’s other things about this area that are harder to explain, that I can’t really put in list format. I feel really right in the environment of the Seattle area. The trees, the smell, the arrival of the seasons… they feel like what I was always meant to be living around, and going back east I see how I wasn’t really in harmony with the environment I grew up with. The leaves falling off the trees in the winter and having bare limbs, the snow, the timing of the seasons just didn’t feel right to me, and it feels right here.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Two.