White Magic by Elissa Washuta

October 30th, 2021

I like the three-act structure of White Magic a lot—how Washuta plays with dramatic structure, the idea of beginning/middle/end, the idea of the three parts of a magic trick as described in the movie The Prestige (the pledge, the turn, the prestige). As far as the individual essays, there are some I love, and some I just admire: like, I appreciate what Washuta is doing with multiple/overlapping/circling time lines in the long piece near the end called “The Spirit Cabinet,” but also, I’ve never seen Twin Peaks so the way she’s using it as a point of reference is sort of lost on me. (I’ve also never played Red Dead Redemption 2 or The Oregon Trail, but I love Washuta’s essay about playing the latter as a Native American, her Native female self playing the game as a white male settler character, seeing the landscapes of the game while thinking about her real Native ancestors—the differences between a white person’s imagining of past Native people, general or specific, and her own imagining of them.)

I like the way Washuta writes about landscape and place alongside her personal history and broader histories in essays like “The Spirit Corridor” (which talks about the underground fire in Centralia, Pennsylvania, and how her dad’s family worked in coal mines, and about remembering some good moments in a bad relationship) and in “Rocks, Caves, Lakes, Fens, Bogs, Dens, and Shades of Death” (which talks about the landscape of the part of New Jersey where Washuta grew up—the lakes, the bears, how European settlers renamed Native places in what Washuta imagines as “a kind of white magic, an incantation against the wickedness they believed was striated into the bedrock”). Elsewhere, in “White City” and “Centerless Universe”, Washuta talks about the Seattle landscape—where she lived for a time, where her Cowlitz ancestors were from, where she had an artist’s residency in the tower of a bridge. (I love that this piece includes Seattle history—including how the land was literally reshaped on a massive scale in earth-moving/”regrading” exercises to make the city more level—and also the experience of playing Pokémon Go as a distraction from a relationship that’s on the verge of ending/has just ended.)

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