Review: “White Magic” by Elissa Washuta

Release Date: April 27, 2021
Publisher: Tin House Books
Genre: Non-fiction, Essays


Throughout her life, Elissa Washuta has been surrounded by cheap facsimiles of Native spiritual tools and occult trends, “starter witch kits” of sage, rose quartz, and tarot cards packaged together in paper and plastic. Following a decade of abuse, addiction, PTSD, and heavy-duty drug treatment for a misdiagnosis of bipolar disorder, she felt drawn to the real spirits and powers her dispossessed and discarded ancestors knew, while she undertook necessary work to find love and meaning.

In this collection of intertwined essays, she writes about land, heartbreak, and colonization, about life without the escape hatch of intoxication, and about how she became a powerful witch. She interlaces stories from her forebears with cultural artifacts from her own life—Twin Peaks, the Oregon Trail II video game, a Claymation Satan, a YouTube video of Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham—to explore questions of cultural inheritance and the particular danger, as a Native woman, of relaxing into romantic love under colonial rule.

Bracingly honest and powerfully affecting, White Magic establishes Elissa Washuta as one of our best living essayists.

My Thoughts

Elissa Washuta’s essay-ish memoir White Magic covers a variety of topics and experiences in the author’s life. Washuta, a member of the Cowlitz Indian Nation, weaves in stories about her Indigeneity, witchcraft, decolonization, sexual assault, body image, horror movies, history, alcohol and drug use, religion and spirituality, among many others. It’s brutally intimate, yet she does not expose her soul for the reader to judge. She tells us what she wants us to know and she does it on her terms; the reader must come to her, not the other way around.

The essays are interspersed with scraps of dialogue from scripts and books, footnotes, and tarot readings, giving it a disjointed and discomfiting feel – and I mean that as a compliment. The book doesn’t flow or spend time crafting seamless transitions. The narrative structure is as jarring as the content. White Magic is more liminal than linear. Washuta has decolonized the craft of the essay collection.

I can’t pick a favorite piece from this collection, not just because they’re all so devastatingly good but also because the piece intertwine with each other. Although each could stand on its own, they come together to build something even greater. Picking one story would feel like breaking the whole. Here’s an excerpt from the introduction.

White Magic is searing and visceral, a memoir that defies convention and tradition. I don’t read much nonfiction, and even less autobiography or memoir, but I am extremely grateful to have read this.

Thank you to the publisher for sending me a review copy.

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