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Book Review: To Hold Back Nothing

Monique Ferrell

White Magic
Elissa Washuta
Tin House Books, 2022


It is the word that followed me while reading White Magic by Elissa Washuta. It whispered at me between sentences, chasing me from chapter to chapter. In this memoir in essays, the author is looking for something—a multitude of somethings. Her people. Her genesis. A better understanding of words and stories. The physicality of her body through space and time. Her sobriety. Her very sanity.

As an Indigenous woman, Washuta walks the reader through American history and its impact on her people and culture: “I plot to travel to another world because this one seems too decimated by the white men who wanted money and skin, too dangerous to navigate because of the sentinels still roaming, raping, and gouging out the earth to maintain power.” A survivor of sexual assault, she draws connections between the generational violence experienced by her people and her constant fear of being brutalized: “Every day the universe reminds me that, yes, I am safe now, but I am in America. I could be gouged out again.” One can feel almost overwhelmed by her pain and process, but the author isn’t interested in our desire to catch our breath. She is on a long-awaited journey that requires witnesses.

With each page, she pushes toward a divinely inspired magic—one that upends the addictions that trigger the worst of our counterintuitive behaviors. Powerfully, the book also cries out for that which has been forcibly taken, while, at the same time, showcasing the desire of the author to be set on the road toward recovery, in all its varied meanings. White Magic, therefore, serves as Washuta’s blueprint for how to get there. How to get back. How to set about reclaiming the bits and pieces of one’s identity after they have been scattered. It is a historical, cultural, and woman-centered calling back of stolen things. At times, the book feels very much like a spell, and its stories seem to dictate how not to break apart once the spell has been cast.

Reading on, we learn that America’s history and the violation of her body deeply compound her battle with alcoholism and her struggle with anxiety and depression: “I cannot control this world. I shut my eyes, try to cry or not cry, and ask benevolent spirits for intercession. I make my body solid so spirits will know I believe it’s worth protecting, even if I’m not sure it’s true.” Here, the reader is floored, but we continue on with her. At this point, in the telling, we want what she wants. We too long for recovery—the taking back of what is owed.

White Magic is an example of what it means to work through the weight of everything that greets us when we enter the world at birth. It is also about how we archive and compartmentalize information to ensure our survival. In the end, Washuta teaches her readers that the self is not a separate thing; rather, it exists in myriad ways. It fights for connection, meaning, the power of identity, and it longs to reclaim our ever-unfolding story.