June 21, 2016
Q&A: Essayist Elissa Washuta on being the Fremont Bridge’s first writer-in-residence, another recent award and her upcoming book
The year’s not quite yet half over, but it’s already been an auspicious one for Elissa Washuta. The University of Washington graduate and author of two books, “Starvation Mode” and “My Body is a Book of Rules,” is one of two recipients of the Artist Trust 2016 Arts Innovator Awards, which come with $25,000 in unrestricted funds. Washuta, who has been described as “an extraordinarily original and gifted writer,” is also the first writer-in-residence at Seattle’s iconic Fremont Bridge. The three-month appointment, which coincides with the bridge’s 100th birthday in 2017, provides $10,000 for Washuta to “undertake an in-depth exploration of the bridge.”
A member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, Washuta is the undergraduate adviser for the UW Department of American Indian Studies and a nonfiction faculty member in the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts in New Mexico. UW Today recently caught up with Washuta to talk about the two awards and her new book.
Congratulations on being chosen by the city of Seattle as the first Fremont Bridge writer-in-residence. What does that entail?
EW: Thank you! I’ll be spending many summer afternoons in a small, beautiful office in the northwest tower of the Fremont Bridge. The office is mine alone this summer, and it looks out over the Lake Washington Ship Canal. I watch the bridge open and close while I write. I listen to cars, passersby, boats and the yells of coxswains when the rowers come by in the late afternoons. While I’m in the office, I work on research and writing for a project about the bridge — its history, its metaphorical meaning and my relationship with it.
What are you writing about?
EW: At the outset of a project, it’s always difficult for me to say exactly what I’m writing about. I know that I am embarking upon a project about the Lake Washington Ship Canal and its role in the remaking of the landscape of the place we now call Seattle. I’m writing about displaced Indigenous peoples and disruption of seen and unseen elements of the land — the unseen being what is sometimes referred to as supernatural. There’s a lot more I’m going to write about, but I’m at the point where I don’t know what I don’t know yet.
I begin with research. This week I read Coll Thrush’s “Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-Over Place” and Albert Furtwangler’s “Answering Chief Seattle.” I’ve also taken bunches of books out from the UW libraries that I’m looking forward to getting into, like “Spanning Washington: Historic Highway Bridges of the Evergreen State” by Craig Holstine.
You grew up near the Delaware River in New Jersey and your mother grew up along the Columbia River. Do bridges have a sentimental connection for you?
EW: I think so. I’m sort of in awe of bridges — and, judging from the expressions on a lot of the faces I see from my bridge office (people crossing the bridge, people snapping photos from Argosy cruises), so are a lot of other people. When I was growing up, crossing the Easton-Phillipsburg Toll Bridge from New Jersey into Pennsylvania was a little bit magical, because it meant we were going somewhere special, like my grandparents’ house or the big mall.
My mom did grow up along the Columbia. When I was a teenager and was visiting my grandma’s house in Dallesport, Washington, I decided, on a hot summer day, that I was going to walk to Oregon. It seemed like it would be my greatest feat yet: to use my legs to carry me from one state to another. I thought I remembered how to get to the bridge, but I walked the wrong way, deeper into Washington, worrying my family because I was away for so long and hadn’t let anyone know where I was going.
Before the settlers arrived in that area, the people in the villages along the river didn’t see it as a dividing line. The river was at the center of those communities.
What’s your work space at the bridge like? It must have a great view.
EW: It’s incredible — the office, the view, the setting. It’s a small office at the top of a flight of stairs, with windows on all sides, looking out onto the bridge and the ship canal. I can watch the bridge open and close because it’s happening right next to my window. I’m alone up there and generally get to spend a few hours away from human interaction, but I still feel like I’m in the center of things because so many people are crossing the bridge. And there’s no wifi. I’ve gotten a remarkable amount of work done already.
Congratulations as well on the Arts Innovator Award. It comes with $25,000 of no-strings-attached funding. How will you use that?
EW: Thanks! I’m not really sure how I’ll use it yet. Right now, I’m not using it — which is important, because it’s allowed me to relax a little. I piece things together financially with part-time work at UW, contract teaching in an MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts and assorted odds and ends. Knowing I’m going to be funded for a little while is huge. I’ve already been so much more productive since receiving the award because my head isn’t so full of the arithmetic of an artist’s financial survival that has been my preoccupation for years.
Your first book was intensely personal, detailing your experiences with rape and bipolar disorder. What is your new book about?
EW: This is another instance in which I can’t say for sure, because I’m slowly getting it off the ground. “My Body Is a Book of Rules” and “Starvation Mode” were really about form as much as they were about trauma. I think the most interesting things about those books is not the horrible things that happened to me; it’s the way those things created a space inside my head in which I came to understand myself and the world by fitting memories into containers that help me make sense of them.
When I talk about containers, I’m talking about text forms that provide the shape for my content: “Starvation Mode” adopts the form of a list of dieting rules, and in “My Body Is a Book of Rules,” I tell the story of my early 20s by allowing it to pass through forms like the college term paper, annotated bibliography and prescribing information from the pharmacy.
Now, I’m still using containers that I encounter, but some of them are not from my day-to-day life. I’m interested in taking the documents that have aided in the process of colonization of the Indigenous peoples of this place and refilling them. For example, I’m interested in using the form of the Kalapuya Treaty of 1855, signed by my great-great-great-grandfather and other leaders — it’s one of many treaties from the region and time period that feature similar language and formatting, but the stories of those treaties’ aftermaths are so different.
For more information, contact Washuta at firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-543-9082 or Erika Lindsay, communications manager at the City of Seattle Office of Arts & Culture, at email@example.com or 206-684-7171.