Nonfiction writer, Cowlitz Indian tribe member, and UW alumna Elissa Washuta is unabashed about sharing her identity. She owns and shares her experiences with mental health, bipolar disorder, and trauma through writing, and finds it plays a large role in her healing process.
Washuta has written pieces on these topics and others in “Literary Hub,” “The Weeklings,” and “The Chronicle of Higher Education.”
“It’s just what I love doing,” Washuta said. “And it’s what I’m driven to do. I’ll write about anything — any secret, anything I’m afraid of — it feels like a safe process for me.”
Washuta received her Master of Fine Art (MFA) in creative writing in 2009 from the UW, and currently works as an undergraduate adviser for the UW Department of American Indian Studies.
As a writer, she is always looking for ways to fund her work. Recently, she was named one of two recipients of the Artist Trust’s 2016 Arts Innovator Award, which provides $25,000 in funds to create new work in the artist’s field of interest. Additionally, Washuta was appointed as a writer-in-residence in the northwest tower of the Fremont Bridge. For this project, she will write a piece based on her research and exploration of the historic bridge and its location.
“Making this my primary project for the summer allows me to think about it all the time,” Washuta said. “That’s important for my writing process, to have something embedded in my consciousness so that when I’m doing other things, walking, moving around, sleeping, that project is still in my mind and my brain is working on it even when I’m not writing.”
Washuta said she is always mindful of her identity as a member of the Cowlitz tribe, and this project allows her to explore the impact of land use on indigenous people. She lived in Madison Park for three and a half years, and has seen the Lake Washington ship canal change the landscape of the lake and dry up the Black River, which was a place of refuge for Duwamish people for centuries. The bridge’s proximity to this location allows her to explore the impact of the canal through writing, and she will present her literary findings in a presentation in the fall.
“There are changes that are unseen, changes to what is commonly thought of as the supernatural world that was part of the regular existence of people that were living here before settlers arrived,” Washuta said. “The land that we’re on always matters to me, and the people who have always been here.”
As a member of the Cowlitz Indian tribe, Washuta identifies with those who have been displaced. Her tribe had a large amount of land in southern Washington that was taken away before the tribe was able to reestablish their initial reservation.
In addition to exploring her Native American identity and indigenous history through writing, Washuta is the author of the books “My Body Is a Book of Rules,” which focuses on the trauma she dealt with after being raped on her undergraduate campus, and “Starvation Mode: A Memoir of Food, Consumption, and Control,” which explores topics such as sexual assault, eating disorders, and mental illness.
“At least in the circles that I was in as an undergrad, people were not talking about rape,” Washuta said. “I felt incredibly alone. I felt like something happened to me that had never happened to anyone before. I needed a book, but I didn’t find it. So, I wrote one.”
Each chapter of “My Body Is a Book of Rules” takes on a different form, ranging from an annotated bibliography to a Match.com profile complete with footnotes.
Maya Sonenberg, a UW professor in English focusing in creative writing, taught Washuta’s graduate prose writing workshop and read her MFA thesis.
“From my perspective, Elissa’s great strengths as a writer reside not in the topics she chooses to write about, but in the way she approaches them,” Sonenberg said. “For me, this is true for any writer whose work I’m interested in. What sets Elissa’s writing on these topics apart are her intelligence, her willingness to prod and poke at her own complicity, and above all, her great formal innovations.”
Matthew Simmons, Washuta’s editor at Instant Future, the publisher for “Starvation Mode,” echoed these sentiments and praised the emotional impact of her work.
“Elissa is a disarmingly original voice,” Simmons said. “ … I also love how experimental and improvisational her work can be. She is willing to experiment with form, willing to give herself permission to test the limits of prose, and the results are just remarkable.”
Washuta’s books also describe her journey with bipolar disorder and the impact of trauma, and she acknowledges that although the conversation is occurring more frequently, there is more work to be done.
“[Mental illness] is not a campus-specific problem, it’s a societal problem that people with these experiences are still treated like there’s something wrong with [them],” Washuta said. “If people really did understand how common it was, people with these experiences would be treated a lot differently.”
To take care of herself when writing about her personal experiences, Washuta learned to recognize when she needed to take a step back from her writing. When she wrote her second book, she sought outside help as well.
“[Writing “Starvation Mode”] was a lot different, in that I knew where the writing process could take me, I was working with a therapist weekly at that point,” Washuta said. “I was in a much better place health-wise and I knew how to take care of myself and what limits to set. Getting into therapy and doing the hard work there has been the most important thing I could do for my mental health.”
Washuta encourages everyone to acknowledge the complexity of human beings, and to have ownership of their own experience, which is what she’s done with her own story.
“For people who experienced what I did on campus and had a hard time talking to people about it, there are a lot of people who want to listen,” Washuta said. “I know how hard it is, but there are people who want to help and really care.”
For other people who identify with Washuta’s experience, she encourages writing as a safe space to explore personal experiences.
“I know the blank page can feel like a huge obstacle sometimes, especially when writing about memories that are really difficult,” Washuta said. “Know that any kind of writing is going to be a powerful act, and it’s going to be powerful, whether or not it ends up being something that’s going to be published.”
Reach writer Aleenah Ansari at email@example.com. Twitter: @aleenah_ansari