The Essay Is About Itself
We are the editors of Shapes of Native Nonfiction: Collected Essays by Contemporary Writers, a book coming out very soon from University of Washington Press. It is a book for everyone, and we think it may be of particular interest to Triangle House readers because of these essayists’ care for form. We made this book together: we dreamed, asked, selected, shaped, ordered, proposed, introduced, revised, edited, announced, and did all the other things one does in the life of a book-to-be, and mostly, we coordinated the work via text message. We have been fortunate to be asked many questions about this book: what it is, how it was made, why it matters. But, for all our talking—and not just about this book, but about all that other stuff close friends talk about, like relationships and jobs and the cost of repairing a sewer line—we still had some questions for each other: the bigger things floating over the day-to-day work. As we write this in Google Docs, we are preparing to see each other in person for the first time in a year and a half, seven or eight thousand miles from the cities where we live. We are in Aoetearoa/New Zealand for the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association annual meeting, and once we’ve both arrived, we’ll sit down together and talk about what happens now, when this book becomes real: not just because it’s turned from loose bundle of Word documents to well-built object, but because it’s about to meet the people for whom it was made.
Elissa Washuta: I think I have heard you refer to yourself as an “accomplice” rather than an “ally.” I don’t often hear those terms applied to the academic and publishing worlds, but you have been my accomplice in this project and in our friendship—you’ve helped me with disruptions I didn’t know how to do alone, and you didn’t hesitate to take on this huge, life-consuming book project when I brought up the idea to you. I think this is an important model for other settlers, and I would love to hear you talk more about how settlers can truly be accomplices in un-settling/decolonizing work, and why this is important.
Theresa Warburton: I’m sure I’ve used this word before, though lately I’ve shied away from referring to myself as basically anything. I like the term “accomplice” because I think it does away with the sense of convenience that “ally” has. I’ve often felt that “ally” has this sense of a parallel but separate orientation, this sense that we are strategically connected because we have similar end goals. And that’s not at all how I think about my relationship to settlement or to Native sovereignty. “Accomplice” fits a little better, I think, because it carries with it a sense of allegiance against the state while also making clear that one’s actions are in support of the visions and goals of others instead of only oneself.
But it’s still not perfect and doesn’t totally reflect the way I want to think about the kinds of relationships that we’ve been talking about, like the kind between you and me and between Native and non-Native people more generally. What’s missing, for me, is really that, as a non-Native person living on Native land, I have a responsibility to this place and its people. This needs to be an every day practice and I’m still learning what that can look like.
This is partly how we met — I knew I wanted to support local Native writers with the resources that had become available to me when I was hired at Western Washington University and that was what prompted me to reach out to you. For me, though, the friendship that developed out of that has been about navigating the kinds of responsibilities we can and do have to each other within the context of the worlds that we are living in. I say it this way because I am definitively not saying that non-Native people should befriend Native people out of a sense of responsibility. In fact, I think this would be incredibly patronizing and creates relationships that don’t actually attempt to work outside the structures of relation that have been set up for us by settlement.
But I think that without that sense of responsibility and the practices that come with it, it’s difficult to build those relationships in the first place. Non-Native people need to begin always from doing the work of finding out where they are—whose traditional territory is it, what’s the history of settlement in the area, what are the current political and social issues that local Native nations and tribes are facing? These are very basic things and knowing them, I think, signals a commitment to place that makes building trusting relationships between Native and non-Native people easier. So, that responsibility isn’t always implied as part of the “accomplice” term, I think. But what I like about it is this sense of always having your back, of needing to be there and know when to intervene and when to mobilize what power I have. I haven’t always done it as well as I could have, but working on this project together really helped me learn what that might look like in practice. For instance, I think in a lot of projects like these, people don’t realize how much logistical and sort of pragmatic work goes into it: sending tons of emails, communicating with upwards of a dozen different people at the press during different parts of the process, proofreading, copy editing, checking in with contributors about a huge variety of tiny details, coordinating publicity events, getting out review copies, and so many other things. All of this is such extensive labor that remains unseen and uncounted, especially in our evaluations as academics.
I tried to be really aware at all times of the amount of work we were each taking on and what kind of work. I tried to take on the more rote tasks and to take responsibility for the more time-consuming elements so that you could have more time to work on your other extensive responsibilities as a junior faculty member and writer. We also discussed early on that your name should come first in listing of authorship even though my name is first alphabetically. These things might seem small, but what’s important is that they are deliberate. And I think one of the best things about our friendship and our working relationship has been how deliberately we’ve entered into them. We’re so similar and we had a very strong connection instantly, but we’ve built on that by being honest about how we relate and how context might shift that. Like, you are so supportive of me in so many ways and have helped me through some very difficult things and I’ve tried to be the same for you. But we’ve also worked hard to recognize that in different contexts, for instance in academia or in publishing, I have a different responsibility to you than you have to me and that we both are trying to practice responsibility to place simultaneously.
I think where I’ve come to with this is really just thinking of this work in terms of a deep humility rooted in a desire to build better relationships than those I’ve inherited. I know that there are other models for relating with place, with land and its people, but knowing what they are, how to practice them, and how to honor them takes responsibility. So, I try to think about how to honor that work in everyday practices.
Maybe that’s how I would describe the practice I think that settlers need to engage: deliberate humility.
EW: This whole time we’ve been working on the anthology together, you’ve been working on another book, The Politics of Make Believe: Answering Native Women’s Writing in Contemporary Anarchist Movements. How did the projects intersect and inform each other as you were working on both?
TW: Now, this project is called Other Worlds Here, which is partly due to the work we’ve done together. It’s about locating the reproduction of settler structures within anarchist spaces in the United States and understanding Native women’s literatures as a place where models for other worlds exist. I’m trying to think more critically about the anarchist aphorism: “another world is possible.” It’s a call to imagination and future possibility, to think instead (or maybe also) about what “other worlds” already live here, with the land and its people. Working on the collection simultaneouslyencouraged me to think more concretely about how the shape of stories shapes other things in our worlds, like our relationships to each other, to the land, and to the future.
When we really started working on the introduction to Shapes of Native Nonfiction, I was working on a chapter that dealt with the circulation in anarchist circles of the story of the 1999 protests against the WTO in Seattle, often called the Battle in Seattle. One of the things I was really interested in was how, despite the ubiquity of this story in narratives and studies about 21st century anarchist movements, there was no mention of the 1856 Battle of Seattle, which was part of the Treaty Wars in what was then Washington Territory and an important part of the history of settlement in the region. I knew that there was something more complicated and more significant to say than simply “contemporary anarchists don’t pay attention to the history of settlement,” because that doesn’t quite describe what’s happening. I’m more interested in the question of how we approach history in radical movements and how we integrate those stories into our practices. Working on Shapes helped me to think more deeply about the shape of the story of the 1999 Battle in Seattle itself, rather than thinking only about the omission of the 1856 Battle of Seattle from its story. What I ended up writing about was how the shape of the story of the 1999 Battle, essentially as a birth story of a new era of anarchist movement, had shaped the relationships that white settler anarchists had to Native nations and the land. Our collection and collaboration offered me another method through which to consider my primary questions.
On a more personal level, working on this collection with you while working on my single-authored monograph at the same time was such a source of comfort. The monograph has felt like a very difficult project, rooted in a need to feel infallible and the concomitant sense of insecurity that comes along with that. The collection always felt like a place of rejuvenation, where working together helped to push against some of those insecurities simply by knowing that we were in it together. I feel like we each picked up different elements or tasks when the other felt too weak to do so. Working on this collection always felt like a joy and was never a burden, which helped me transform my sense of my other project as well and my ability to do it.
EW: We talked a lot about Forms by Caroline Levine and referred to her work in our introduction. In that book, she broadens her definition of “form” beyond its traditional definition in literary studies and argues for “a definition of form that is much broader than its ordinary usage in literary studies. Form, for our purposes, will mean all shapes and configurations, all ordering principles, all patterns of repetition and difference,” including not only aesthetic forms but also social forms, like institutions and identity categories. I’m starting to feel like I’m heading into this is more of a comment than a question territory, but—I just want to talk more about how this book informed our work, since we read it separately, and were almost certainly affected differently because of our different disciplines. We invoked Levine’s work in our introduction to talk about the relationship between form and content. What about the anthology as a form?
TW: I will never forget working on the beginnings of this project at my kitchen table during a huge windstorm. This book was one of the things we talked about since, if I remember correctly, it wasn’t even out yet. We sat at the table and both pre-ordered it as we were making a preliminary bibliography of texts with which we wanted to be in conversation. So, my sense of Levine’s work has always been that, when we eventually got the book and read it, we both felt like it was validating something we had already seen in the essays we were collecting, but in different terms. We knew that form did work in the world and that we wanted to make clear the work that form does on the page as a material object, drawing connections between other objects that are essential to genealogical storytelling practices, like baskets.
This book has also helped me understand how to talk about the work that we’re doing in terms that are more popular within literary studies. I see myself as someone who has primarily been trained in Gender and Native and Indigenous Studies with an interest in literary studies, so some of the primary conversations in that field remain sort of confusing to me. I’ve always had trouble understanding quite how Native literary studies fits into broader conversations about formalism and New Historicism. It just doesn’t seem to be a discussion within the field, I suspect because the idea of considering a text or work outside the context of its production seems completely silly when we’re considering stories that live with the land and its people. But Levine’s book helped me to better place these conversations and I like the way her work is trying to push against the sense that formalism and historicism are mutually exclusive ways of reading. That’s what we’ve been trying to do with the collection as well— show that stories have form which is crafted with a purpose and that those forms both reflect and give shape to our world(s). I remember a bit after Levine’s book came out, I brought it up to a colleague who I knew was interested in form, and they said, “Yeah, it’s interesting but then, if we follow her, then basically everything could be form,” and my response was sort of like, “Well…”
Theresa Warburton: The whole time we’ve been working on Shapes of Native Nonfiction, you’ve also been working on White Magic. How are these projects related? How are they different?
Elissa Washuta: I didn’t see this until recently, after finishing a full first draft of the manuscript, but in working on the anthology and unsettling the definition of the lyric essay by shifting and broadening it to the exquisite vessel, I unconsciously gave myself permission for the formal broadening and stretching I wanted to do in White Magic. As the lyric essay becomes more popular and readers become more familiar and comfortable with fragmentation, braiding, and its the other common characteristics, I’ve pushed myself to keep being gently off-putting or disorienting or strange. I think this anthology gave me permission to do it in a way that doesn’t always announce itself the way the essays in My Body Is a Book of Rules do.
The first and last chapter of White Magic are fairly conventional in form—well, the first, published this year by Guernica as “White Witchery,” has lyric movements and gaps, but the gymnastics aren’t showy—but working on this anthology has given me a way of understanding this beyond the lyric/conventional binary that really wasn’t working for me (or for a lot of writers anymore, I think). The final essay-chapter of White Magic, in particular, is a fluidly constructed narrative of my time playing Red Dead Redemption 2, and, if I were to categorize this using the terms we’ve employed in the anthology, I’d say this essay is an example of coiling, the basket construction approach that results in apparent seamlessness and a tightness that can allow the basket to even hold water. To me, the process is as deliberate and form-conscious as the process of making an essay that calls attention to its form, but instead of using the gaps to create friction and let differences between pieces resonate, I’m making stylistic and structural decisions that fairly seamlessly bring together sometimes disparate pieces that span a good amount of time. To me, that’s lyric movement, but it takes some work to really tease that intention and process out of the idea of “lyric essay,” which potentially contains so much that isn’t knowable just from an encounter with the term.
So, anyway, the process of doing this renaming and reimagining of how to talk about form in working on the anthology gave me the confidence to create a unified book of sometimes-formally-disparate pieces that, even so, are unified by something beyond the identifiable form. Like the collection of baskets at the Suquamish Museum that brought me to this idea in the first place. TL;DR to your first question: I was struggling to write White Magic until we had all the essays together and began working on the introduction. I was influenced by these brilliant writers and by you and by what came out of our partnership.
And to try for brevity in answering your second question: the projects are very different to me. White Magic was very much an undertaking that I had to do alone. Writing it was a process that really did help me understand my trauma and my ongoing pain and help me to find meaning. I didn’t even really show anyone most of it until it was done—I really needed that intimacy with the writing and the product. In making this anthology, we were really looking at the essays as vessels, as finished pieces, and not speculating into how they were made or asking the writers to tell us. But White Magic is still mine, still not a finished vessel yet, still all process.
TW: When we first began working on the collection, you told me that the name you had given it in your mind was “exquisite vessel.” Can you talk about the relationship that the concept of “exquisite vessel” has to the lyric essay? I’m wondering especially about how you use this term to try to de enter the primacy of the term “lyric essay” to refer to the kind of writing both that is in the collection and that you do. What are the limits of the term “lyric essay” and how do you see the term “exquisite vessel” allowing for something else?
EW: I can’t really remember how or when the term occurred to me, but I think the relationship between essays and baskets became clear to me when I was on a panel about form and structure at a residency for the low-residency MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts, where I used to be on faculty. I had already been thinking about physical forms and the essay because of the influence Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola’s concept of the “hermit crab essay” had on my early essaying. At that panel, I believe, I was talking about how some container sizes and shapes are better suited to certain contents than others—like, you can carry an apple in an apple crate or a lunch bag, and it would fit in a bucket or a purse, but it wouldn’t fit in a pill bottle and wouldn’t make sense in a crock pot. I kept thinking and speaking about essays as containers. Eventually, because I was seeing Coast Salish and Klickitat baskets everywhere, and because I knew people who made them and used them, I started thinking about the essay as that kind of container: beautiful, useful, deliberately crafted with technique in service to the best holding of contents.
Anyone who’s ever taken a writing class from me can tell you that I explain nonfiction craft using metaphors, often bad ones, but this was more than that, and I think that only became truly clear to me once you and I began having these conversations. The basket is not really a metaphor for the essay, because while an essay isn’t really a basket, it’s not just like a basket: Native writers are actually crafting in a way that’s not just similar, but that emerges from the same sort of axiological approach to making craft decisions, the beauty of a piece inextricably linked to its utility and purpose in ways that are rooted, in ways seen and unseen, in Indigenous knowledges.
I do consider myself a lyric essayist, for sure. I teach a graduate seminar on the lyric essay, it’s by far my favorite subset of essay to read, and I’m grateful to have found the term and the practice. But I’ve been thinking about the limits of the label. Even John D’Agata has written that he isn’t using the term much anymore. That linked piece, “We Might as Well Call It the Lyric Essay,” speaks to so much of my own attachment to the term and my own identification of its limitations.
I don’t think the problem is the term or concept itself. I think the term has lost much of its meaning as it’s entered the literary mainstream, or at least approached it, and is now so often used as a marketing term rather than a way into opening up craft possibilities. I see people using “lyric essay” and “lyrical essay” interchangeably, but often, the latter seems to mean an essay with sentence-level prosody and figurative language; applying the label of “lyrical essay” doesn’t seem to be making a statement about structure. The feature of the lyric essay I’m most interested in is the magic that happens when you attempt to step back and see it as a whole—the incredible feats of accumulation a lyric essay manages to pull off when done well.
The problem with the term “lyric essay,” for me, is that I think it’s proven to be easy to misunderstand—its face-value proposition (essay with lyrical sentences?) is easier and less interesting, to me, than the possibilities Tall and D’Agata set out in the Seneca Review years ago: “The lyric essay partakes of the poem in its density and shapeliness, its distillation of ideas and musicality of language. It partakes of the essay in its weight, in its overt desire to engage with facts, melding its allegiance to the actual with its passion for imaginative form,” to start.
I don’t think the exquisite vessel is the lyric essay exactly. When I look at the way Tall and D’Agata initially defined it, they match up pretty closely, but the term’s usage has shifted as it’s gotten away from them, and certain features are emphasized: fragmentation, source blending, gaps, juxtaposition, attention to language. The essays we’re calling exquisite vessels are not just the essays that match the mismatched, but also the essays that are form-conscious in their fluidity and seamlessness, which may or may not be a lyric essay possibility, depending on who you ask. I don’t mean to be the essay cop, trying to exclude essays from the category; really, I’m thinking about how structurally-interesting essays with sentence-level plainness now get hit with “that’s not a lyric essay!”
Maybe having any term at all is not useful, but we are going to have a term, because that’s what we do. Even though the idea of the exquisite vessel is based in Coast Salish and Columbia River Plateau craft, my intention is that the notion of the exquisite vessel can be for everyone. I think centering our knowledges and resisting the colonial reduction to niche interest is work related to decolonization. Sometimes I feel like I want to scream—why are Native writers being ignored? Do you not know that all this land was ours and will someday be ours again? That everything you do in the United States begins and ends with the fact that your wealth, your home, all your comforts, all your plights, are completely wrapped up in our histories and futures, because the sham treaties that resulted in land transfer from our governments to yours are, much more than the Declaration of Independence, the foundational documents of the United States of America? (Not you, T, I know you know.) Our populations have been reduced, but none of what I’m saying here has anything to do with how many of us are living now. It has everything to do with land and sovereignty. Maybe this is at the core of what the anthology means to me: I am tired of talking about identity, about individual experience. We need to also be talking about something much bigger than that: how it happens that settlers living in the U.S. have the luxury of never knowing, or knowing and forgetting, that they, through the physicality of residence, are very strongly connected in every single moment to Native nations. It is appalling to me that we’re an afterthought when they move the way they do in our territories. I want the term exquisite vessel because I need our knowledges to be the center settlers must consider themselves in proximity to.
TW: One of the things we talked a lot about during the process, especially in figuring out our roles in that process, was about the common division between creative and scholarly work. Our relationship in co-editing this collection often gets described as a creative writer and a scholar coming together, but I’ve always been sort of uncomfortable with that because I see you very much as a scholar and understand your creative work as making scholarly interventions. Do you see yourself or your work that way? Has the collection changed your understanding of where your own work is intervening and how?
EW: I do think of myself as both. For a while, I felt like I was both, but I hadn’t published any scholarship in literary studies. But now we’ve published this book, so there it is, my evidence I’m a literary scholar. I knew this book needed to exist because I was familiar with the way Native nonfiction had been studied and contextualized, and also because I’m a writer and understand the workings of the essay primarily by thinking through construction as someone who makes them.
I’m interested in what you’re saying about my creative work making scholarly interventions—I hadn’t thought of it that way, and when I see you (tomorrow, as I write this in a cafe in New Zealand), I’ll have to ask about it, but what comes to mind is the recursive gestures so many form-conscious essays make, and many of mine definitely do, with the essay being about itself. White Magic is a book that is, in many ways, about narrative: the bending of reality into story; the way story making turns experience into a linear, compressed, incomplete thing; the way we assign meaning to what may be meaningless because we can’t help but love a narrative. My Body Is a Book of Rules is, in part, about documents and the way they contribute to the shaping of identity.
It was incredibly easy for us to collaborate recently on a form-conscious essay about our collaboration process. I feel like we have similar minds, in some ways, but different training and different projects and publishing trajectories. When we first talked about working on this together, it was because of the pieces each of us could bring to the work and the ways our skills and knowledge complement each other. But, at least for me, the work itself showed how we were thinking similarly, and how our ideas and intentions were amplified when we spoke them to each other.
I think both of us are both creative writer and scholar. Let’s make more things. We can do whatever we want.