Survival is an invitation to push through hard times in 'White Magic'

White Magic, by Elissa Washuta
White Magic, by Elissa Washuta
Tin House Books

Comparing multilayered narratives to onions can be an effective way of communicating that they possess various levels and many elements that work together simultaneously.

However, I've always thought the onion comparison implies some kind of organic nature, a type of structure that grows naturally. In the case of Elissa Washuta's “White Magic,” a better comparison is to a hand-rolled cigar — because there was clearly a deliberate layering after a series of violent events and a lot of pressure involved in the process.

“White Magic” is three books in one. The first is a critique of cheap, modern facsimiles of Native spiritual tools and occult practices that can be bought online in plastic, often kitschy, kits. This critique branches out to discuss some of the things that made those modern facsimiles possible: the cultural appropriation of ancient Native American practices, colonialism, and a search for something more that will help us escape, control, and improve our lives. The second book is a biography in which Washuta openly discusses the abusive men in her life, how a misdiagnosis of bipolar disorder lead to years on useless pills that didn't help, her identity and heritage as a Cowlitz, the experiences that shaped — and often broke — her, and her battle with PTSD, drugs, these abusive men, and alcohol. Finally, the third book is a sort of fragmented encyclopedia of facts, stories, history, and even etymology. Magic and a constant search for answers are the glue that holds the three narratives together, and Washuta's writing makes it all a gripping, emotionally harrowing read.

This is a collection of mostly biographical intertwined essays, which makes it nonfiction, but other than that, this book is hard to categorize. To name all the things Washuta discusses here would be impossible because of word count constraints, but she brings it all together beautifully. For example, she writes about the history of the land, recounts her past relationships, and enters into conversation with a plethora of fiction and nonfiction texts. The book has an impressive bibliography. However, the two most important conversations Washuta has are with herself and with the reader. The conversation with herself is rich in both reflection and gloom. The conversation with the reader is sometimes direct, as happens in one of the many wild footnotes that accompany a few of the also numerous epigraphs:

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"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? Do you worry you're missing my meaning? Do you like my epigraphs? Have you ever been to church? Have you ever cast a spell? How do you feel about being asked a question? A rhetorical question? A hypothetical question? An intrusive question? Have you ever played devil's advocate? If you don't like my epigraphs, let me play devil's advocate: What if you don't actually know what an epigraph is for? Or, at least, not here, where I am the center."

The jumpy nature of that passage can be seen throughout the book. It's not, however, disorganized jumping. Washuta is always in control and uses borrowed narratives, folklore, legends, myths, and occasional help not only from books but also from Google and Wikipedia to infuse every essay in “White Magic” with information that shows she's not afraid to explore what lies beyond any of the doors that open in her mind. Also, she loves to discuss things like films, music videos, video games, and other visual and aural narratives that are often used to frame her words or offer respite from the onslaught of dark memories found here.

“White Magic” is a survival story, but one that's hard to read. Washuta's writing makes reading her a superb experience, but this is the type of book that runs toward darkness. From rape and horror movies to drug abuse and death from black lung, this is a book that digs deep to expose the ugliest corners of our history as well as colonization, alcoholism, abusive relationships, and heartbreak:

"Hell is not the underworld or the land of the dead. Hell is not where you go when you die. Hell is a place you get to while living. You get there through men. I kept looking for a husband, but nearly every body was a door to hell. I'm drowning in a lake of fire, barely keeping my mouth above magma."

“White Magic” is full of magic and pain. This is a complex book that deals with trauma while exploring cultural inheritance and the way the attacks on Native women never stopped. Yes, it's tough to read, but it is also necessary and magical because Washuta manages to give us pain, history, and abuse via words in a way that her survival becomes an invitation to push through our own hard times.

Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.

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