Editorials — September 30, 2014 9:15 — 0 Comments

The Monarch Drinks With Elissa Washuta


From the first time I saw her read, I had an enormous writer’s crush on Elissa Washuta. The manuscript from which she read, dealing in dark dialects of rape, psychopathology, and Écriture feminine, would soon become My Body Is A Book Of Rules (Red Hen Press), a memoir as whip-smart and courageous as it is lyrically and syntactically gorgeous. Washuta herself possesses this one-of-a-kind combination of blistering intelligence, unrepentant moxie, unassailable integrity, and ambrosial beauty. I always feel a little bit nervous around her. In fact, when I met her at Oddfellows, the manhattan I ordered was literally shaking in my hand, though Washuta was generous enough to pretend like that wasn’t happening. We ate risotto fries and compared lithium doses, and soon I was relaxed enough to get to the heart of the matter, my new favorite book, Washuta’s incredible authorial debut. 

Piper Daniels: The first thing that occurred to me while reading My Body Is A Book of Rules: Elissa Washuta is the smart sexy badassElizabeth Wurtzel (author of Prozac Nation) believes herself to be. So I wanted to ask you about the subgenre known as “memoirs of madness,” and whether you were influenced by those texts, either because you loved or loathed them?

Elissa Washuta: I wrote my critical thesis (entitled “How I Plan To Make Oprah Cry”) on a bunch of different memoirs that dealt with topics I was dealing with—rape, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, and depression. I looked at Sebold’s Lucky, Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation, Styron’s Darkness Visible, and Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind, among other texts. I looked at those books as well as how they were reviewed in major newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post and I found many of them to be anti-influences. I absolutely did not connect to any of it. The metaphors were all so empty, describing depression as a “deep well” or a “dark void.” And what I was really missing was agency on the part of the narrator. I wanted to create a book of my own that would somehow braid together all these intertwined experiences, and I had to make myself complicit in all that was happening. It wasn’t my fault that I was raped of course, but as a narrator, I had Elissa examine whether she was at fault. Eventually she finds she’s not at fault, but I let her sit with it for a while. I of course do not believe that victims of sexual violence are ever at fault but that’s why characters and humans are not the same.

PD: The next thing that made me fall in love with your book was that it felt so formally innovative without ever becoming experimental or abstract. How did you decide upon the interesting formal aspects of the book?

EW: I didn’t decide at any point upon any form. I went into grad school as a fiction writer and it didn’t work out for me. My fiction sucked. The first quarter of grad school I wrote an essay about all the guys I’d fucked up until that point and that was working out for me. It was my favorite thing I’d ever written and I felt like I was throwing hot fire. Second quarter in David Shields’ class, the assignment was to write a book, and I pitched mine as being about my failed attempts to master my own body. I started writing what I wanted and not worrying who I was going to upset—my former partners, my family, anybody. I didn’t worry about whether the thing was gonna sell. I was just writing all these things I knew would go together. It was a very painful process but it was good.

PD: It seems to me there’s a tendency, particularly in memoir, for women to write themselves into this sexual binary, investing either in victimhood, or else this trumped up bad girl status. At no point in My Body Is A Book Of Rules did you fall into that trap. Were you cognizant of presenting yourself as a complex sexual being, or did it just turn out that way?

EW: I didn’t go into it with the thought that there would be this portrait of a wider ranging sex life. I’m not sure in life if that’s really what it was—I think in life it was really problematic—but I do think I wanted to show that men were not just problems. There’s Stick, my friend who doesn’t always say the most helpful things but is completely dear and there exactly when I need him. There’s my brother, who is such a close person to me, my father, who is such a good dad. Even the men I list in the sex essay, not all of them are monsters.

PD: So the book began in your second quarter of grad school. What did the process of creating the book look like?

EW: I had ideas about the different chapters and a different composition notebook for each. It was seven years and a lot of revision—many drafts, many times I thought it was done, the thesis, then something beyond the thesis. I was alone a lot in grad school and I sat in my apartment in Lake City and smoked a lot of cigarettes and wrote a lot—that’s really all I did for awhile—and then I did a lot of revising. I don’t do what a lot of writers do which is writing big and long and writing really huge first drafts and paring them down. I spend a lot of time on my sentences. I spend a lot of time on thesaurus.com to make sure I get the sentence exactly as I want it in the first draft. In revision what I’m usually doing is adding. Usually I haven’t said quite enough and I need to add more rumination in the second draft up till the tenth or more. Eventually I showed it to some people. Later I got an agent who was with me for a little while and later I had a wonderful editor at Red Hen Press, Nicelle Davis, and she was really amazing in her help with structure especially. I’m really a big structure geek and my agent helped me a lot but Nicelle really helped me knock everything into place.

PD: There’s this notion in nonfiction that you are not to write about anything unless you have a certain amount of chronological and emotional distance. To what degree do you subscribe to that notion?

EW: What’s actually super interesting about the book is I had the idea for the “Law and Order SVU” essay and it was gonna be about the time I was raped in college, so I was gathering all of the quotes from “SVU” and getting into a really dark place with my memories, and then I’m fucking sexually assaulted as I’m writing the essay. So I started writing it with zero distance. It was a raw first draft. It’s so much different to be able to write down one day after something happened. We don’t remember our lives in videotape, and it’s really not about the videotape. It’s not about truth, it’s not about fact, it’s about the visceral feeling of being so raw that you feel like your skin’s being taken off. That’s what I really wanted in that section. Of course it sucks that I was sexually assaulted. It was misery, a horrible time in my life, but I guess I can look at it as a gift because it gave me the most raw thing I could think of.

PD: Which would be terrifying for a lot of writers.

EW: I don’t know what it is about me but I’m willing to say anything. It’s not like I want to shock people, but I’m always seeking out the more hidden source of shame for myself because that’s really where the better thing is. My sources of shame, when I really examine them, it’s just shit that happened. I don’t need to be ashamed of being raped. What people should be ashamed of is oppressing others and I don’t think I’ve ever oppressed anybody.

PD: Do you perceive writing about these topics (rape, bipolar disorder, etc.) as still being dangerous or taboo in some way?

EW: I think it must be, because I still feel uncomfortable talking about it. We are reading so much more than ever before about issues of rape, mental illness, and psychopathology in various publications (particularly online) but I still hesitate sometimes in conversation to say that my book is about rape. I don’t hesitate as much to say my book is about bipolar disorder but I still hesitate a little bit. Talking about these things makes other people uncomfortable.

PD: It takes the mood down.

EW: But it’s taken my mood down for the past ten years. So yes, I think that’s a good sign that it is still taboo.

PD: There are subsets of people in this world who are invested necessarily in the way they present and the way they will be perceived. I wonder how you relate to the idea of identity politics?

EW: I’m Indian and I look white so identity politics are definitely very troubling for me. But I think over time just being part of the American Indian studies department (at University of Washington) and becoming older and more confident, knowing more, learning more, I’ve been less troubled. Now that I know where I’m from, now that I’m out here and I can participate in tribal life, pick huckleberries where my family has for ten thousand years, that means a lot. Certainly it’s a big part of my writing. I try to move away from it but I can’t.

PD: What do you think is the biggest misconception about you?

EW: People think I’m nice and I guess I am nice but I’m also very angry. I’m very angry that one in three native women in this country have been raped or experienced attempted rape, which is so much higher than the general population. I’m angry that there’s an epidemic of murdered and missing indigenous women in Canada. I’m angry about this street harassment issue we’ve been talking about. I firmly believe native women are exoticized and discarded and left by the government to die and nobody really gives a shit because of the way that images are created in the popular culture. In cartoons it’s okay for us to be at the end of a gun or tied up or whatever—it’s fun. And I’m angry at the way that in general people still don’t fucking get that images they think are innocent and incredible acts of violence are inextricably linked.

PD: If your book had a soundtrack, what would it be?

EW: At one point I made a playlist for every chapter. There would be a lot of Depeche Mode, The Smiths, Jay-Z, a LOT of the Mountain Goats (they were really influential to me in making this book). A lot of Motorhead. A lot of 50 Cent. And whatever was in the new bin at the WMUC College Radio station when I was djing there.

PD: Do you have a philosophy by which you live?

EW: Do better. That’s my best writing advice. That’s what I tell myself every day. That’s what I tell my students. Do better.

PD: Not that it’s simple, but simple as that?

EW: Simple as that.


Stay tuned for part two of my interview with author Elissa Washuta where we explore the subject of street harassment.


Piper Daniels is a poet, a graduate of the University of Washington MFA program and a wonderful dancer.

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney