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Colin Dickey | Longreads | August 2019 | 21 minutes (5,681 words)
The question of “craft” is central to the new anthology Shapes of Native Nonfiction: Collected Essays by Contemporary Writers, edited by Elissa Washuta and Theresa Warburton. It’s there in the title itself, with its emphasis on shapes and shaping, but beyond that, throughout the anthology there is a recurrent interest in the question of craft and crafting, both in the sense of the writers’ craft and in the relationship between writing and other kinds of crafts.
In early June I reached out to Washuta and Warburton about doing an interview with them about the book. In the conversation that follows, we talked about the form and style of the twenty-seven essays that make up the book, as well as how European and non-Native attitudes towards literature and craft can hamstring an understanding of Native storytelling and writing.
Among other things, we discussed the idea of the basket as a figure for the essay — the book is organized around four sections, each of which takes its name from a term related to basket weaving: “technique” (for craft essays), “coiling” (for essays that “appear seamless”), “plaiting” (for “fragmented essays with a single source”), and, finally, “twining” (for essays that “bring together material from different sources”).
But in Shapes of Native Nonfiction, the basket is not only a metaphor; as Warburton notes below, is also often intimately related to storytelling and genealogy. Throughout our conversation, we returned again and again to a distinction between metaphor and literal meaning. It’s a distinction that in non-Native writing informs a long-standing and durable binary, but is for many of the writers here, a binary that’s not only unproductive but actively reductive.
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This is only one of the various binaries that these essays break down or reconfigure. The twenty-two writers featured in Shapes of Native Nonfiction present a wide range of approaches, each one both sui generis and part of a long, interwoven tradition. In what follows, Washuta and Warburton discuss how the book came to be, how they arranged it, and how the various pieces in the anthology connect with one another.
Colin Dickey: Starting with the title: that word “shapes” seems to be doing a lot of important work here — this isn’t simply an anthology of creative nonfiction by Native writers, so much as it is an anthology focusing on the different kinds of shapes that such writing might take. Can you talk about how the idea for the book came about, and how you wanted to differentiate it from a more “traditional” (for lack of a better term) anthology of nonfiction?
Elissa Washuta: I found my way into nonfiction writing through form. I read a good amount of fairly conventionally structured nonfiction before I began writing it, but it never occurred to me that I might write nonfiction, because I didn’t think I had any interesting facts to communicate. In graduate school, I read formally innovative essays, and focusing on the shape of the essay and the style of the sentences appealed to me. My memory-stuff became, in a way, just batting to give shape to the essay. This was in 2007. I was looking for essay models to admire. Of course, I looked for nonfiction by Native writers, but the anthologies were few and far between, and they were lacking in the formally inventive work I was reading from Native poets and fiction writers.
Around the time I began teaching creative nonfiction, I read an article by Tim Bascom, “Picturing the Personal Essay: A Visual Guide,” in which he illustrates a few narrative structural approaches with little diagrams. My MFA students at the Institute of American Indian Arts really took to that essay, and I began thinking and speaking in material comparisons — to furniture, to buildings, to baskets. I had visited the master basket weaver Ed Carriere at his home at Suquamish, and the more I looked at baskets, the more I thought about experimental essay structures.
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The idea for this collection came to me before my first book, my first grand formal experiment, was published in 2014. I wanted someone to create an anthology of formally innovative nonfiction by Native writers, and it became clear that I couldn’t just wish for it, I had to make it. Craft, experimentation, and innovation were always central to the idea of the anthology for me. I didn’t care what the essays would be “about” in the traditional sense — they would be about their shapes. This collection began with consideration of form, just as my essays so often do.
Theresa Warburton: For me, this anthology came out of two related needs that I saw as a person who teaches Native and Indigenous literatures: first, the need for a collection of contemporary nonfiction writing by Native authors and, second, the need for a framework for Native nonfiction that emphasized the practice of craft in writing. In the first case, there’s been amazing work by folks like Robert Warrior and Lisa Brooks that demonstrate how foundational nonfiction writing is to Native literatures, how far-reaching it is, and how intimately related it has been to political, social, and economic practices as well. A lot of that work emphasizes early writing, so texts and documents and objects from the 17th to early 20th centuries. So, we wanted to create something that underscores the continuity of nonfiction writing by Native authors into the present moment. In this, I think there’s also a pretty obvious commitment to resisting the assumption that Native people (writers included!) only exist in the past.
In the second case, it seemed important to have a text that was both a road map and the road, in a way. We didn’t want these essays to be read in a way that mined them for authenticity, for the consumption of stories of pain, or for insight into “Native culture” (big quotes around that one). Previous collections have really been interested in some of these things, especially the assumption of autobiography as a metonym for all nonfiction and the subsequent use of nonfiction as an supplementary tool to gain more insight into fiction. We both needed, for a bunch of different reasons, a collection that did more than that.
The word “text” comes from the same root as “textile,” implying that all texts are, in a sense, “woven.” You also use the metaphor of weaving to talk about the essays in this anthology, but instead of textiles, you talk about it in terms of a basket. “As a both utilitarian and creative form that is connected to community and the individual,” you write in your introduction, “we see the basket not as a metaphor for this collection but rather as a structure (or form) through which to understand how the pieces included here come together in this space.” Can you talk more about how the image of the basket informed the collection?
Washuta: What first came to mind when I read this question was the tule mat, which is used on the Columbia River plateau and elsewhere. Tule reeds are corded together to make a flat mat. And then this question later came to mind when I was in the Waikato Museum last week in Aotearoa/New Zealand, looking at a long woven mat placed at the bottom of a massive waka (canoe). Now I’m thinking about cedar hats, cedar bark capes, and other woven clothing, made using similar techniques to the weaving of baskets. In our introduction to the anthology, we quoted Caroline Levine’s book Forms, in which she argues that organizing principles are portable, and usable in different contexts. Weaving techniques can be used for vessels, for clothing, for the home; the concept of weaving is portable. We have placed the essay, a story-carrying vessel, alongside these other kinds of vessels (clothing holding the body, baskets holding things a person needs), and in invoking the language of weaving, we’re trying to show the care these writers have taken to craft the vessels that hold their stories. I don’t really think of textile as flat — I mean, that’s how it begins, but when you drape it over a shoulder or cut and stitch it into, say, the form of a hat, it takes a different shape.
Warburton: I would say that I don’t really think of textiles as flat, either literally or figuratively. Textiles are immensely three-dimensional, I think, they can cover, sure, but they can also wrap, drape, fold. So, I don’t see as strong a distinction between textiles and baskets. Both are often woven.
Once we decided to organize the book this way, I think we both started to see its implications and relations everywhere. I saw some amazing baskets made by Indigenous peoples throughout the Pacific on a visit to the Auckland War Memorial Museum while I was also in Aotearoa/New Zealand. I sent Elissa a picture of them, like I always do now when I see baskets. It always makes me think, though, of how these baskets are positioned within archives and displays like that. It really serves to sever their craft from that of literature, even though lots of the craft of baskets across a variety of communities is related to storytelling and genealogy. So, in that sense, we actually specifically didn’t want to invoke weaving as a metaphor at all, but as a material practice that connects a variety of forms of storytelling. The basket isn’t a metaphor for the kind of practices we’re trying to emphasize with the collection — the basket is an example of it. The craft involved in each essay as well the craft we practiced in weaving this collection together is in relation to the practices involved in conceptualizing, producing, using, and reading baskets. So, we really wanted to interrogate the assumed division between literature and material objects in the study of Native literatures.
Much of creative nonfiction these days broadly falls into two categories — journalism and personal essay. Yet, you caution that both of these forms can be problematic when applied to Native stories, in that they, at their worst, can perpetuate “an ethnographic approach to Native literatures, which assumes a methodological framework grounded in a desire for cultural authenticity that can easily be translated to and for a non-Native reader.”
Warburton: I think a more general description of our argument is that the typical genre divisions or categorizations simply don’t work for understanding the histories or practices of Native literatures. This isn’t because they are fundamentally different in an essentializing way (that is, that Native people just inherently write differently) but rather because those forms of categorization and descriptions of genre are bound up in particular ways of thinking about power, place, history, and narrative that attempt to universalize non-Native formulations of how to relate to the land and to each other. What we’re trying to do is emphasize, instead, the fact that the authors practice craft not only to tell a story but also to evidence the shape of the multiple worlds in which that story interacts.
The alternative, and the focus of much of this anthology, is what non-Native writers like John D’Agata and Deborah Tall have called the lyric essay, which eschews traditional forms of creative nonfiction. Is it fair to say that here, the use of the lyric essay form is distinctly political?
Washuta: I think the lyric essay is always political, and not just in the way that I think all art is political, although I do think that. My inclination is to unpack the word “political” here, and I just went down a Google rabbit hole to try to find a precise and fitting definition, but, interestingly, I could only find language around governance. Is the lyric essay related to institutional power structures? Yes. The first personal essay I wrote was in a form that I now know would be called “lyric essay,” with short, braided fragments of memory and research. I wouldn’t have called it a lyric essay because I had never heard that term and, as far as I recall, had never read anything that would be called “lyric essay.”
Now, though, with my full participation, my work has been placed in that context, even though it’s not the lineage that I followed into the essay as my entry point. For literary/academic career purposes, it’s been beneficial to me to not only adopt the label as a way of identifying similar work, but also to situate my work within the power structure that is the lyric essay, a “serious” subgenre. I’m rethinking that, though, because, while I did read Manguso and D’Agata at the beginning of my academic instruction in nonfiction, and they definitely influenced me profoundly, work labeled as lyric essay was not my way into starting the work that would eventually be given the label of lyric essay. I don’t know whether most of the writers of the essays in the collection would describe themselves as lyric essayists, or these works as lyric essays.
In talking about what we’ve called the exquisite vessel, we did need to identify the lyric essay, which is absolutely a form that negotiates with power structures in some ways. A lyric essay (like all writing, but in its own way) is formed through decision-making about what to put in and leave out; about silence and text; appropriation and assimilation; a sort of kinship between ideas, established where there perhaps was none. But many of the writers most successful in publishing lyric essays for years were white academics. Whiteness gets to act apolitical, to pretend to be the center of everything, and academia does, too. In saying the name of the lyric essay and re-conceiving of the concept from within the epistemologies of peoples whose existence is politicized, we’re showing ways in which the form can reinforce or break power structures.
Warburton: Yes. Elissa said it perfectly. The only thing I want to do here is to really highlight this important point she’s making and to make sure that people hear it: investments in whiteness, settlement, anti-blackness, misogyny, are always political. Decrying a rejection of those things as “political correctedness” or the centering of Native self-determination as “identity politics” is an attempt to depoliticize these structures as a way to ensure their continued existence. For instance, I’d push against the term ‘traditional creative nonfiction’ here — traditional to whom? Whose tradition is that and what structures is that tradition meant to uphold? A lot of the practices evidenced in the collection are part of very long traditions of literary production. Our use of the basket as our organizing sense of craft is an easy example here — this isn’t a diversion from “traditional” literary practices, but is rather an attempt to honor the practices in which these essays are entering into relation.
One way, its seems, that writers in the book get at that relation between form and the political is through the idea of metaphor. Anglo literary tradition depends on a fairly stable binary between literal and figurative language, yet throughout Shapes of Native Nonfiction the reader finds instances where this binary is rejected. Most singularly in the case of water; Elissa, you write of the difficulty of getting your writing students to understand the motifs of the river and fish in James Welch’s Winter in the Blood, and then add, “How can we speak in metaphor when we need the river to be seen as literal?” Do you see these writers as pushing back against the traditional ways we understand symbols in literature? What might a literature that rejects the binary of literal/figurative look like, especially written in a language like English?
Washuta: I think it’s useful to look at the OED definition of metaphor: “A figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable.” Its utility is in using what the reader knows to acquaint them with the unfamiliar, or in developing lyricism or character through the nature of the figurative language. But, yes, in some of these essays, including “Apocalypse Logic,” the figure in question is actually very much related to the concerns of the essay.
Warburton: Again, with this question the word that’s really pounding in my head is “traditional.” And, I guess, “we.” What literary practices are traditional and to whom? If this stark distinction between literal and figurative language is a definitive part of an Anglo American literary tradition, why are we inclined to read Native literatures as being in response or reaction to that? Part of what I wanted to do with this collection was push against, or maybe push past, the assumption that what Native authors are doing is always responding somehow to the contours, canons, and, concepts of American literary traditions, especially those that seem ubiquitous or are naturalized as universal in some way. This is not to say that the work can’t be, in some way, in relation to this canon and its practices — but I always want to be careful about how we understand the terms of engagement. To me, a more powerful and compelling reading might ask: how does the stark division between literal and figurative language in the American literary tradition speak to the concomitant establishment of other binaries that have been essential to the structure of settlement? For instance, how might they be related to the constant reinscription of the gender binary and the normative nuclear family as constitutive of Americanness and of American letters — and, thus of settlement? And how might the refusal to invoke literal and figurative language as a binary (if even a productive one) show us methods of understanding the purposes of storytelling within a framework that centers Native cosmologies and traditions rather than Anglo or American ones? I guess, in more basic terms: how might we understand that distinction in the Anglo American literary tradition as arising from a need to create a structure of power contra Native traditions, which already existed in this place?
Two of the pieces that stood out to me in this regard were Tiffany Midge’s “Part One: Redeeming the English Language (Acquisition) Series” and Alicia Elliott’s “A Mind Spread Out on the Ground,” two essays that focus on learning, unlearning, and re-learning language as a means to discuss historical and personal trauma. Were these kinds of questions forefront in your mind when you put this anthology together? What went into the collection and arrangement of these particular essays?
Washuta: As far as I can recall, I wasn’t really thinking about that, and I don’t remember us having conversations about it. The way we conceive of the essay in this book, as an exquisite vessel whose shape is suited to what it’s meant to hold, is really how I conceive of the essay generally, and how an essay I love comes to mind for me when I recall it: I think about the way Tiffany’s essay enters the form of a student language learning book of some kind, and makes her own space there, which she fills with researched, remembered, and reconstructed material. When I think of Alicia’s essay, I think of the way space and breakage allow for pivots from tense moments, jumps from melancholic troughs into research, and propulsive launchings from one realization to another. For me, essays are about — concerned with — structure as much as subject. I don’t think my brain would have allowed me to organize a book thematically.
Warburton: Yeah, looking back at my notes from the proposal stage, I agree that we weren’t primarily concerned with possible themes or subjects that we wanted to be included. Though, I will say that I think we did talk a bit about not wanting to play into the desire for trauma porn that is so prevalent in mainstream engagement with Native literature. I’m always talking to Elissa about this essay by Audra Simpson called “The State is a Man” that looks at both mainstream and governmental treatment of Attawapiskat elder Theresa Spence’s hunger strike in 2012 and 2013 and Inuk student Loretta Saunders’ murder in 2014 to talk about how settler governance requires Native women’s bodies to be suffering, to be dead, to be disappeared in order to recognize them as indigenous since this is the only possible recognition that does not put claims to settler sovereignty into crisis.
We want to put settler sovereignty into crisis. This doesn’t mean that we rejected essays that dealt with trauma or violence (obviously, since there are many in the collection), but we also were careful with our framing. We don’t want any voyeuristic indulgence in suffering, we didn’t want the authors to have to perform any of that for a wide readership in order to garner praise, attention, and recognition. These essays might contain these things but they are not only about that.
So, I think that at the beginning what we were really concerned with as editors framing the book in a way that allowed these essays to be what the authors wanted them to be. To write an introduction that guided the reader in paying attention to the craft of the essays, how they were shaped, and how they moved. To be clear that entering into it with a desire to parse out authenticity or find something that could fuel a pitiable lament isn’t doing justice to the work. The question of how we could do that was at the forefront of our discussions, so what went into it from the outset was really figuring out how to do this work responsibly — both how to take responsibility ourselves for laying out an interpretive framework and how to provide readers with what they needed to engage with the essays responsibly.
All of this emphasis on the lyric essay and non-traditional forms of creative nonfiction notwithstanding, the anthology as a whole does seem — broadly speaking — to move from essays that employ a more traditional narrative mode to more experimental essays. Each section is named for a different term related to basket weaving, and we move from coiling, “for essays that appear seamless,” to plaiting and twining, for essays with more explicitly fragmented approaches. Can you talk about how the sections relate to one another, and the arc of the reader as she moves through the book as a whole?
Washuta: When we were determining what kinds of essays were going to be right for the book and what kinds weren’t, we began to realize that what we were looking for didn’t always match up with what people generally seemed to recognize as the lyric essay, but to us, the wovenness of the essays made their form-consciousness apparent to us, even when the essays didn’t announce themselves formally the way lyric and experimental essays do. Notions of what’s experimental shift, but the work of conscious shaping is enduring. We were both looking at and thinking about different styles of basket weaving, and I remember that while my earlier thinking about essays as vessels had me focused on the baskets themselves and what they were used for, after we began working together on the book and really thinking about materiality, we began looking at technique and thinking about the way the weaver’s hands work with the materials they combine. I thought about Ed Carriere in his living room, splitting a cedar root, showing us warp and weft, and pointing out the intricacies of different approaches to construction. The essays looked like baskets: they were made of materials — memories, strands of research, cultural criticism — deliberately twined, plaited, or coiled, depending on what the essay was meant to do and how it was meant to look.
I don’t really remember much about the ordering process — I believe after we decided on the section titles, I printed out all the essays, put them on my desk at work, and put them in order. It was a largely intuitive process that I can’t explain. It wasn’t haphazard or without intention; it was felt. I’m thinking now of my former colleague (and great influence) Dian Million’s 2009 article “Felt Theory: An Indigenous Feminist Approach to Affect and History,” in which she writes about First Nations women’s first-person narratives and their refusal to be limited to colonial notions of disembodied objectivity: “Indigenous women participated in creating new language for communities to address the real multilayered facets of their histories and concerns by insisting on the inclusion of our lived experience, rich with emotional knowledges, of what pain and grief and hope meant or mean now in our pasts and futures.” This, I think, describes a narrative weaving.
“Pain that continuously haunts the edges of all such narratives is not rational,” she writes in reference to remembered personal histories of sexual violence. She writes about Native women creating personal narratives using “their sixth sense about the moral affective heart of capitalism and colonialism as an analysis.” Felt analysis, she writes, creates a certain complexity in the telling. History is felt; colonialism is felt; violence, of course, is felt, and that feeling is knowledge.
I developed felt theory by listening to my “inappropriate pain” (Million) that resulted from sexual violence and medical mishandling, and the stylistic and structural characterstics of my personal literary aesthetic are really manifestations of concepts within a felt theory — my particular methods of creating a felt scholarship of pain, the essay.
I bring this up because I now understand this to be not only how I write, but how I serve as an editor, a collector and arranger. By the time we began working on this book, I had written two of my own, and I had developed a felt theory that was, in limited but significant ways, transferable to collection-building, allowing me the freedom to pay attention to what I felt as a reader and trust that it was knowledge that could be used to arrange a book without logical justification. Each of these writers operates with their own felt theory. As a reader, I experience my own feelings, some of which will likely be shared by other readers. These essays made me feel sorrow, elation, peace, hope, dread, delight, and all sorts of other things. The emotional experience of the essays gave me a way of creating a sort of arc for the book based on building and releasing tension.
Warburton: The distinction that Elissa is making between haphazardness and intuition is really important. We relied a lot on intuition — both trusting each other’s and our collective intuitions. So much so that most of what we did didn’t feel haphazard but it is also didn’t feel operose either. It really felt completely intuitive, like we could immediately tell when what we were doing felt right and when something felt askew. I think a big part of that is that we came into it with clear ethical and political commitments. Having that barometer made it easy to make decisions about what was right and what wasn’t.
We listened to each other and we listened to the essays. We chose to put craft essays first not because they were more “traditional” essay forms but because doing so felt intuitively like what we should do, not only in the service of the book but in the service of our responsibilities to the relations through which this book came about. Ernestine Hayes is an elder and the story she’s telling is about stories, so her essay needed to be first. As she and other master storytellers have pointed out, stories give you the tools to understand the story. Her essay is a beautiful example. The collection works on that scale — we give you craft essays first because those are the stories that give you the tools to read the book. There was no other choice, that was the right way for it to be. And having Alicia’s essay be the final word wasn’t really a choice either; we knew it had to be that way, especially given the final line “Things that were stolen once can be stolen back.” That was how the book ended, it just was.
I think the path through the book is more spiral than an arc, which is indicated not just through the invocation of the basket but through the image on the cover as well. In this sense, we want readers to see the connections between essays in each section and how they are shaped, but also how they call back and forward to other essays in the collection in order to create a strong whole. In some ways, I think we were also trying to reimagine the charge of “utilitarian” as a concept that defined artistry like basket weaving or other forms that are considered “folk art.” Each of the sections is, in a way, arranged in order to emphasize something utilitarian — a particular tool that serves a practical purpose in the creation of the essay. But this doesn’t mean it isn’t a form of artistry or that there are no aesthetic dimensions. In organizing the essays the way we did, I think we really wanted to dispel the idea that something’s utility demeans its artistry.
Lastly, I wonder if you can comment on how this book relates to the time and place in which it’s appearing — this land has been host to an endless series of traumas, it seems, but in our current moment those traumas are resurfacing in acute ways, including the reactionary nostalgia for a genocidal Andrew Jackson, David McCullough’s deeply problematic new history of Anglo explorers, and a general culture of weaponized misogyny and racism. Where do you hope Shapes of Native Nonfiction enters this conversation? As tactics for resistance? Historical perspective? Solace in a time of trouble? All or none of the above?
Warburton: I wonder if it’s actually a resurfacing though — I feel like that shit has always been right on top. Yeah, McCullough’s ridiculously laudatory eulogy for the character of settlers is cringeworthy, but part of the reason it feels that way is because that’s actually the entire narrative of the United States so his need to defend it feels absolutely absurd. And he’s been doing it for decades, so it’s not surprising either. Has there been a time in the past where white people actively collectively hated Andrew Jackson? I don’t think that the nostalgia is new or reemerging. It’s been here. What we’re seeing is the intended outcome of the structure of settlement, not its bastardization. I’m not sure when misogyny or racism are ever non-weaponized. Again, we had very clear political and ethical commitments from the beginning. So, it was important to us, then, to make clear that Native nonfiction has been an important, unbroken part of the history of Native literatures for centuries and that, following Robert Warrior, if we take this understanding of Native nonfiction, the history of Native literatures extends way further back than people often assume. This aligns with our commitment to make clear that this is Native land, that Native land should be returned to Native people, and that that relationship to land has existed since time immemorial
In lifting up this genealogy, though, I also don’t want to downplay the fact that, yeah, totally — something is happening. Native authors are getting recognized, awarded, and written about in ways that are really exciting and, of course, long overdue. I think it would give mainstream media and readers too much credit to say it’s because they are finally paying attention, though. Personally, I view this as the result of the work that Native authors and artists have been doing to cultivate communities so that they can do the work on their own terms, rather than those set by structures and institutions like schools, publishers, MFA programs, prestigious grants, and other funders. I hope that one thing this collection does is evidence those communities, to show the depth and breadth of the work that’s being done rather than tokenizing or minoritizing Native authors. I hope that Shapes enters the conversation by showing that Native writers are masters of their craft, that the innovations and practices they engage are pushing the field in ways that it hasn’t been pushed before and that this has implications for all of us. More than solace, I hope that the reader feels radiance — I hope it feels like sunlight on their face, eyes closed, face up, smiling in the heat.
Washuta: When My Body Is a Book of Rules came out in 2014, I was obsessively checking its Amazon rankings in the categories it had been wedged into (because so much of the conversation around the “success” of a book has to do with visible suggestions of sales/popularity), and I always saw that it was included in the “Native American & Aboriginal Biographies” along with books like Empire of the Summer Moon, The Heart of Everything That Is, and Crazy Horse and Custer. Nonfiction books by Native writers have long had to compete with white men’s popular histories, and we’ve been set up to enter a literary marketplace they dominate.
I agree with Theresa, though: something is happening, with attention and access. It is overdue: many of us have been pulling up to gates that would only open to a certain kind of presentation of Indigeneity, if at all, and while the mainstream of the literary world has been looking away, we’ve kept up our excellence. I’m thinking about the word “resistance,” which means different things to different people. I think #TheResistance, with its short memory and failures in truly understanding pre-2017 U.S. oppression, could benefit from meaningful engagement with these essays, not just because genocide (alongside slavery) was foundational to the formation of the U.S. and non-Native attention to this is past due, but because the formal methods of engagement (especially with narrative time) can be instructive. Not now more than ever but now, as ever. I hold these essays close as strands of that forever.
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Colin Dickey is the author of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places, along with two other books of nonfiction. He is currently writing a book on conspiracy theories and other delusions, The Unidentified, forthcoming in 2020.
Editor: Dana Snitzky