Elissa Washuta is a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and the author of two memoirs. Washuta is a writer who challenges readers both on and beyond the page. Her first memoir, My Body is a Book of Rules (2014), explores the reconciliation of individual and cultural identity, bodily control and betrayal, trauma and memory. Starvation Mode: A Memoir of Food, Consumption, and Control is her second memoir, released this year. Her essays have also appeared on Salon, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Weeklings, Filter Literary Journal, and Third Coast. She now teaches nonfiction for the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts and serves as adviser from the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Washington.
Ciara Hespe: Right from the title of your first memoir, you establish the body as text, and your second memoir centers on the body as well. My Body is a Book of Rules follows a more modular structure that exemplifies the body-text relationship, while the use of lyricism grounds high-concept work in a visceral reading experience. What attracts you most to that body-text relationship, and at what point in your writing practice did you begin incorporating this into your craft?
Elissa Washuta: I’ve been using non-linear structures as long as I’ve been writing nonfiction. While I was in college, I wrote short fiction modeled upon the stories I’d been reading. Once I graduated and, shortly after, began my MFA, I quickly switched to writing nonfiction. From the outset, I experimented with form. Nonfiction writing offered me an opportunity to establish a practice in which every action felt new to me. Writing about myself was new, and using forms that I felt came from within my experience was new. When I dispensed with plot and temporal transitions, I was able to focus on language at the sentence level.
In Starvation Mode and My Body Is a Book of Rules, I write about attempts to master my own body using controlling behaviors as a response to feelings that I had no control over the external forces that were bearing down upon my body. In writing, I can’t help but attempt to exert that same control over memory and experience by translating them into manipulated representations using language I’ve worked over to the word.
Your work is widely described as “genre defying.” My Body is a Book of Rules is formally diverse and lyrically written, and Starvation Mode is also described as a “mini memoir.” Particularly when writing trauma, memory is often unreliable and can be considered a fiction of sorts, further blurring the lines of genre. As both a writer and teacher of nonfiction, what is your take on the classification of literature by genre? How do you approach building form during your own creative process, and how did working with David Shields affect that process?
David Shields helped me to see the possibilities in the lyric essay as a form that could draw from elements of fiction and poetry. So much of fiction writing was a struggle for me then and continues to be: I don’t really have the imaginative capacity to create enough interesting plot points to build compelling fiction. But I do think of the building of structural metaphors and the application of surprising textual forms to lived experience as imaginative acts. For me, the work of turning memory into nonfiction has necessarily been a sort of fictionalization process, because I’m creating a character from myself, shaping lived experience into incomplete representations of what happened, and leaving out more than I’m rendering. Writing nonfiction this way has also allowed me to use language in a way that I used to when I wrote poetry.
Still, I find genre distinctions (nonfiction/fiction/poetry) to be useful. I wouldn’t say that my books are works of fiction or poetry at all. I set out to create essays, attempting to interrogate my own experience on the page. Working this way allowed me to demand that my work be centered upon attempts, questions, and failures in ways that I had admired in essays I’d read. Essaying is the way I work. It’s a practice that allows me to focus on the drama of the narrator’s interpretation of experience rather than the construction of what happens (plot).
Although I’m not committed to maintaining genre distinctions at all, I do believe it’s helpful to use genre as a starting place when talking about how to revise work. Fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have different conventions, and, although it’s exciting to see the ways in which writers work with and against those conventions, I find them useful as a starting point. Readers arrive at poems, essays, and short stories with different expectations of how they’ll work and how to learn the individual rules of piece, based on genre traditions and shared practices.
I set out to create essays, attempting to interrogate my own experience on the page. Working this way allowed me to demand that my work be centered upon attempts, questions, and failures in ways that I had admired in essays I’d read.
So far, your two main publications are a “book of rules” and “a series of rules to eat and live by.” My Body is a Book of Rules often mimics many prescriptive modes of writing. The satire in these examples is hard to miss, especially when contrasted with their application in the memoir’s narrative. Is this focus a critique of self-help and advice-obsessed culture?
In focusing upon rules from Cosmopolitan, YM Magazine, diet guides, The Catechism of the Catholic Church, and other sources that have influenced me, I didn’t really set out to create a cultural critique; I was constructing this narrator’s identity formation on the page, building the manifestations and roots of her anxieties, and showing what these anxieties caused her to cling to. This work begins, for me, as the creation of an individual. But that person is among people with shared anxieties. I think of this as not being so much an act of cultural criticism, but an acknowledgement of private worry that draws from some collective worry.
Many literary presses and programs are under scrutiny for the way they overlook writers of intersectional experience, marginalized voices, and marginalized bodies. As a writer who has published work concerning gendered violence, sexual violence, mental illness, issues specific to indigenous communities, and intersections of any or all of the above, do you see this issue being rectified at all through social media culture and the democratization of literary access through online journals?
I think that social media has created a new space for conversations about discriminatory publishing practices. Facebook and Twitter have allowed conversations to happen in a way that’s more visible to me, anyway, and allows writers and readers to more easily find themselves among others who share reactions, which can lead to collective engagement in actions to improve our reading and writing communities. I do think the ability to take literary magazines online has allowed for more work to be shared with a larger audience: the cost of publishing is lower, so the risk is lower. The cost of access is lower, so the potential audience is broader.
Facebook and Twitter have allowed conversations to happen in a way that’s more visible to me, anyway, and allows writers and readers to more easily find themselves among others who share reactions, which can lead to collective engagement in actions to improve our reading and writing communities.
Especially in MFA workshops, this fear of addressing intersectionality, and of straying from linear forms that most often coincide with heteronormative ideology, is glaringly apparent; many writers have left and are leaving MFA programs for this reason. How does this figure in your own workshop experience that you’ve either participated in or facilitated?
In my MFA experience, I was fortunate to work with peers and faculty members who immediately appreciated my vision for my work and never pushed me toward representations of my experience that relied on stereotypes. I felt supported in creating literary challenges to the prevailing cultural notions of what memoir could be, what self-exposing work could be, and what Native American literature could be. I know that many writers who have been through MFA programs have not had similar experiences.
In my undergraduate writing workshops, my work was sometimes subject to a different kind of scrutiny in which some peers would interrogate what they saw as cultural representations rather than focusing on craft critiques. I now teach in the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts, and I’m conscious of the way work by Native writers has often been read for many years: for culture rather than for craft. This isn’t unique to Native literature, but it’s my starting place, and being conscious of this history allows me to be conscious of the ways in which identity and experience enter discussions of literature. In workshops, I set out to create spaces in which all work is approached as literary creation, and discussions center upon craft. None of us are there as cultural ambassadors who carry the burden of educating others; we’re there to become better writers.
In workshops, I set out to create spaces in which all work is approached as literary creation, and discussions center upon craft. None of us are there as cultural ambassadors who carry the burden of educating others; we’re there to become better writers.
Regarding current and upcoming projects: Would you consider Starvation Mode as an extension of My Body is a Book of Rules, or as more of an autonomous narrative? Do you have any other projects in the works for readers to look forward to?
Starvation Mode is an extension of some of the concerns present in My Body Is a Book of Rules, but I shifted in my approach, narrowing my focus upon a single slice of experience that had been represented among many others in my first book. I set out to create a deep exploration of my eating problems, and I assigned myself a new challenge in sticking with linear chronology. My failure to do so became a central component of the book’s structure and thrust.
I’m working on an essay collection now. The essays are primarily focused upon Cowlitz/Cascade identity, and I’m still working in nontraditional forms at times.
Ciara Hespe lives and writes in Kansas, where she is an MA candidate at Wichita State University. Her literary loves are Lidia Yuknavitch, Roxane Gay, Melissa Febos, Amy Hempel, Molly Giles, Margaret Atwood, Virginia Woolf, and Gertrude Stein, to name a few. As a former massage therapist and lifelong food enthusiast, she is happiest when talking bodily poetics, social justice, and her complex relationship with hot mustard.