My Imagination’s Blank Spot Takes a Trip to New Zealand

by Elissa Washuta

People have been asking me whether I’m excited to visit New Zealand, and the answer is yes. People want to know what I’m going to do there. My answer is brief: I’m going to lead a workshop for Ngāi Tahu writers, present a PechaKucha, and participate in an Indigenous writers panel. Yes, but—New Zealand. I know.

I’ve been out of the country fewer than five times, I think, for trips to Canada. I’ve thought I should travel more after I made an OKCupid profile and quickly began to sense, from the Machu Picchu photos and lists of passport stamps collected, that my lack of worldiness should be a secret. I grew up in New Jersey, sort of in the woods, a few miles away from a sod farming hotbed, and in those lakes and trees and people, I had a world.

I have been asked to write about my anticipation for this visit, but I’ve procrastinated, because when I think about my expectations and excitement for this visit, I visualize no landscapes, no scenes. I looked up Christchurch online, but was overwhelmed by the idea of planning for the trip, so I have only a single image of a street scene in my head from a tourism website that I didn’t explore. My life is spent imagining every possible thing that could happen to me, a process that makes up the gnarled nest of fear and hope in which I live, but this trip to New Zealand is one thing that’s going to happen to me that I can’t picture.

I see my own country through the trips I make as a working writer.  I spend time teaching in Santa Fe every year. I travel around the country for readings. This is how I spend my summer vacation: spread throughout the year, in patches and pieces, working. This is my comfort zone. I don’t think I could take a vacation without a tutorial.

With my trip just weeks away, I went back to the Christchurch tourism website. Reading about tours, museums, and parks, I realized that I draw only mental blanks when I think of places. When I think of New Zealand, I think of people.

In 2013, I told Ronnie I wanted to visit Aotearoa—and, really, it was the first place outside North America I’d given serious thought to visiting. This desire to travel, for the first time, was infused with purpose and thoughts of making relationships.

When I wrote a letter of support for Seattle’s bid to be a UNESCO City of Literature, I thought of the Māori visitors to UW, the group of Native UW students who spent a quarter in Iceland, and my colleagues connecting with Indigenous scholars around the world. I expressed my hope that the City of Literature could provide opportunities for the Native writers from Coast Salish territory to collaborate with other Indigenous peoples. To be the first Seattle writer to participate in the programming I imagined for the City of Literature is a tremendous honor.

I suspect that my imagination’s blank spot has to do with something that’s become commonplace in my brain lately as I take on projects that scare me in their thrilling enormity: My excitement is mixed with the sobering knowledge that I have a responsibility. I will make new relationships, represent my family and community, and learn from the people I’ll meet in Ōtautahi. I’ll come home with mental pictures of lands where, like here, people have created place by making and maintaining relationships with their environments over innumerable generations.

For more from writer Elissa Washuta, visit her website.

Q&A With Writer Elissa Washuta: She’s Going to New Zealand. What For?

Seattle writer Elissa Washuta will present a workshop and participate in a panel featuring indigenous writers at the WORD Christchurch Writers & Readers Festival in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Seattle writer Elissa Washuta. Photo credit: Amber Cortes

Seattle writer Elissa Washuta is going to New Zealand. Read on to find out why she’s headed to that part of the world and how she gets preoccupied with poetry.

What are you working on these days?

Washuta: I’m working on my third book. I don’t like to say too much about it, because I find that it’s really not very good for my writing process to say too much about work that hasn’t been written yet. I’ve killed a lot of essays, and even whole books, that way. But I’m working on an essay collection, or two, or three. I’m burrowing into texts the same way I did with a college term paper in My Body Is a Book of Rules and filling those textual containers with my own story.

I’m also the writer-in-residence at the Fremont Bridge this summer, and I’m just beginning a big project about the bridge, the Lake Washington Ship Canal, the land, the water, and the unseen world.

What story or book have you read lately that’s stuck with you? Why did it resonate?

Washuta: Last Sext by Melissa Broder. I often feel kind of lost when I read poetry because I get preoccupied with questions about what makes a poem a poem and how line breaks work–the stuff I’ve been told not to worry about. Last Sext was different because it was like the speaker’s language had come out of my own body: “The hole I fill with sickness this time / Every time / This is what I do with love”

You’re going to New Zealand’s WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival. What’s the plan for you there?

Washuta: Right now, I plan to participate fully in the festival. I will be reading and speaking at least a couple of times, and I plan to attend other events as much as possible. I’m going to be part of an Indigenous writers panel, and I’m making my first PechaKucha! I haven’t made any other plans because I’m not very good at travel. I’ve never been outside the US or Canada and I’m a little inept at sightseeing and planning for that, having never done much travel apart from book tour events, conferences, and work trips. I’m open to suggestions for things to do in Christchurch. I plan to be curious and happy.

A lot of your writing is influenced by your background as a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe. You’ll be taking that experience to New Zealand to teach a non-fiction writing workshop with Maori writers. Do you think there are experiences or themes that come up time and again in the writing of native people? Why?

The things that I think a lot of readers identify as common themes in work by Native American writers–identity, land–are, really, common themes in work by non-Native writers, too. There is so much variation in theme, structural approaches, style, and subject matter in work by Native writers. I think that some readers who approach the “Native American” shelves in bookstores are expecting to find books about dead people, tradition, war, spirituality, and reservations. Perhaps that’s changing. So many of us don’t appear on those shelves, and so many of us are concerned with all sorts of other things: Law & Order, Disney characters, illness, cities, language, detective stories, parenting, vampires–the list is actually endless. I can barely even begin to create it.

For more from writer Elissa Washuta, visit her website.

PRESS RELEASE: Seattle City of Literature Announces New Advisory Board, Strengthens Organization

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

June 8, 2015

Contact: Didi Kader

206-334-3295

hanady.kader@gmail.com

Seattle City of Literature Announces New Advisory Board, Strengthens Organization

 

SEATTLE — Twenty-eight organizations have signed on as the Advisory Board for Seattle City of Literature, which is planning a bid for the city to join the UNESCO Creative Cities Network. The organizations include the Seattle Public Library, Visit Seattle, Elliott Bay Book Company, Humanities Washington, Folio: The Seattle Athanaeum, Third Place Books, Book-It Repertory Theatre, Sasquatch Books, Raven Chronicles, ARCADE, Hedgebrook, and over a dozen others.

 

The group is advising the non-profit organization Seattle City of Literature, an effort initially mobilized in 2013 by writer Ryan Boudinot. The organization also has a restructured Board of Directors, including veterans of non-profits and arts organizations. Citing unequivocal support for the community and Board, Boudinot is announcing that he is stepping down from the Board of Directors, having relinquished his Executive Director position earlier this year.

 

“Ryan did a fabulous job of manifesting a vision worthy of Seattle’s amazing literary culture,” said new board president Bob Redmond. “He laid the groundwork for an exceptional program that will help our entire community.” Boudinot was aided greatly by Rebecca Brinson, onetime Managing Director who returns in a contract role supported by the City of Seattle. While continuing to work closely with the office of Mayor Ed Murray and the Seattle City Council, the new Board has raised over $10,000 in cash and pledges, completed the process with the IRS to be a fully recognized 501(c)(3), and worked with the US State Department and key national stakeholders to ensure progress of the effort.

 

“We’re happy to see such tremendous support for Seattle’s bid,” said Redmond, former Program Director of Town Hall Seattle. “This has always been a group effort and many of these organizations have been instrumental in helping develop our program.” The centerpiece of that program remains a writers’ exchange between cities in the UNESCO network. Participating organizations will work together to share opportunities and amplify impacts.

 

“Designation as a city of literature will bring tremendous educational opportunity, help generate new writing, and support the creative economy,” said Redmond. The Advisory Board is working on details of projects to help young and established writers, while the City of Seattle has already launched its “Civic Poet” program, which is also key to the City of Literature effort. Twenty-one applicants have applied for the position, which pays $10,000. The Civic Poet will be announced this August.

 

In 2004, UNESCO launched its Creative Cities Network with the aim of “fostering international cooperation between cities committed to investing in creativity as a driver for sustainable urban development, social inclusion and enhanced influence of culture in the world.” The network covers seven thematic areas: Craft and Folk Arts, Design, Film, Gastronomy, Media Arts, Music, and Literature — Seattle’s intended designation.

 

Perhaps emblematic of the process, a new book — titled Seattle City of Literature, and edited by Boudinot — is scheduled for publication this September by local publisher Sasquatch Books. It features essays and profiles by 52 local writers, booksellers, publishers, and other figures in Seattle’s literary community, including Tom Robbins, Claire Dederer, Elissa Washuta, Tree Swenson of Hugo House, Ruth Dickey of Seattle Arts & Lectures, and former Washington State Poet Laureate Kathleen Flenniken.

 

“This is a city where the only thing we love as much as language is the city itself,” said Redmond. “Our story ranges from indigenous spoken traditions to the future of books themselves. It’s a story that includes everyone, and we look forward to seeing what we can accomplish together.”

 

The Board is seeking endorsements of organizations and individuals, as well as donations, and will continue preparing its application, due July 15. Further information is available at seattlecityoflit.org

 

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Seattle City of Literature Advisory Board Members

as of June 8, 2015

 

African-American Writers’ Alliance

ARCADE

Book-It Repertory Theatre

Bureau of Fearless Ideas

Clarion West Writers Workshop

Elliott Bay Book Company

Fantagraphics Books

Floating Bridge Press

Folio: The Seattle Athenaeum

Hedgebrook

Hotel Sorrento

Hugo House

Humanities Washington

Jack Straw Cultural Center

Mountaineers Books

Poetry Northwest

Pongo Teen Writing

Raven Chronicles

Resurrection House

Sasquatch Books

Seattle Arts & Lectures

Seattle Poetics LAB (SPLAB)

Seattle Public Library/Center for the Book

Seattle7Writers

The Bushwick Book Club

Third Place Books

Town Hall Seattle

Visit Seattle

 

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