Authors: Stories Behind the Books, Elissa Washuta

March 09, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

My next Author I would like to present is Elissa Washuta. Elissa is the author of two memoirs, My Body is a Book of Rules, Starvation Mode, and various articles published in Third Coast, Salon, and Buzzfeed. In her memoirs, Elissa presents herself whole heartedly to the reader and doesn't hold back on discussing difficult topics such as rape, mental health, the pressure to fit in, and her ethnic identity. In her short essays, Elissa focus's on writing pieces based on her Native identity and experiences of being a member of the Cowlitz tribe. She challenges the representation of how Indigenous people are written in pop culture and how the movies get it so wrong. 

How did you begin to write My Body...? It is a brave thing to do to outline your personal history for an audience. What challenges did you face? 

It started with a single essay that I wrote during my first quarter of grad school. It wasn't meant to go anywhere, at first--it was just an aside to the fiction I was writing in the program. The writing process was draining--I was writing about rape, bipolar mood swings, Native identity issues--but it was exciting work because I was working on crafting my experience into art that I was intensely proud of. My biggest challenge was in finding a publisher. For a while, I thought the book might never come out.

Elissa WashutaElissa Washuta

What made you want to tell your story? 

I began writing My Body Is a Book of Rules after a few years as a fiction writer. Once I attempted nonfiction, it became clear to me that my fiction was flat and kind of bored me, and that was because the subject matter and the explorations of character didn't feel true. I was trying to write about subjects and characters that I thought would be interesting to readers, and I sort of lost sight of what was actually interesting to me. I realized that my life was good subject matter because I could use the things that I had done and experienced as vehicles to build myself as a complicated character. And I really wanted to find a way to depict the ways in which I had struggled. I don't really like to talk about those things, because I can only get the words right when I work hard to chisel them out as precisely as possible. 

Can you talk about the cover of, My Body is a Book of Rules? What is the symbolism and design behind the cover?  
Red Hen Press gave me the opportunity to send along images to give them a sense of my visual aesthetic as they were working on the cover. I didn't even know how to begin, so I Googled "art" and soon enough found Elle Hanley's amazing work. I sent the press a few of her photographs, and soon, they were able to license the image for use on the cover. The piece is called "Ondine's Choice," and I believe it is based on a Greek myth. For me, it resonates on a visceral level--the many wrapping arms, the weird fish.

For those who have not read Starvation Mode: A Memoir of Food, Consumption, and Control, how does it differ from your first? 
It's short--maybe a quarter of the length of My Body Is a Book of Rules. And while the first book is an interweaving of so many of my core concerns and conflicts, Starvation Mode is really focused upon my lifelong disordered eating. It's still structurally weird, but the focus is narrow.
After you write a essay or a next chapter, how many times do you look over it? Are you set on the words you put down or do you go through multiple drafts?
It varies. I always go through at least three drafts, sometimes dozens and dozens, sometimes fewer. My writing process is incredibly slow. I am painstaking in editing as I go. For that reason, a first draft is sometimes not too far off from the final. I sometimes write and discard entire essays, only to return to the subject matter later with a completely different approach. That feels like creating multiple drafts, even when none of the words are the same.
You have written essays about Native Americans being depicted in pop culture incorrectly. Would you change this?
Certainly, I would like to see representations of Native people as complex humans with our own trajectories, differences, and value independent of settler lives and aims. Movies with Native characters usually take place at least 150 years ago, and Native characters appear in support of (or as a threat to) a white character's goals. In most Hollywood depictions, Native characters get to be brave, noble, savage, lusty, doomed, unintelligent, or bloodthirsty, but they don't get to have complexity. Most representations of Natives in books and movies are created by non-Natives. I wish that were different. I wish the book-buying and movie-watching public had more interest in Native stories--the ones we tell about ourselves.
What are you working on now? 
I'm working on a new book. All I really know right now is that it will be nonfiction, and it involves a ridiculous amount of research. I don't really know what it's about--I never do until I'm done. I know that might seem like an evasive answer, but I've decided to stop talking about what the book is about and then changing everything.
You can find more about Elissa Washuta, appearances, and future publications can be found at
Thank you Elissa for being a part of this project. 


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