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Costume-shop Pocahotties, my Halloween mistake, and writing about shame

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Yes, that's me, on Halloween 2008. As a Native woman, I'm not proud of my night in costume. As Halloween approached, I began to see links to pieces encouraging readers to think carefully before choosing a Tribal Trouble or Reservation Royalty costume. I thought, as I do from time to time, especially around Halloween, of a mistake I made five years ago, one I hoped nobody remembered: I dressed up as a "Naughty Native" to make some sort of subversive point, but the point was lost.

The more uncomfortable a memory makes me feel, and the more I want to forget it, the more certain I become that it may be rich subject matter for an essay. I wrote about it, and the essay appeared at Salon.

I'm with W.H. Auden: "Great art is clear thinking about mixed feelings." I strive toward this in every small piece I create, working toward a lucid rendering of the complicated nature of carrying on as a bumbling, complicated person, wrought as we all are with so many contradictions and droll, frustrating flaws that it seems impossible to set me on any kind of "hero's journey" on the page.

This is where craft comes in. I am not my narrators. There is a beautiful remove in personal essay and memoir that allows me to create a character of my Elissa. I remain absolutely true to factual details as closely as I remember them, a personal choice that I consider to be a thrilling restriction. But I construct a persona for each piece, and I arrange the details of my lived experiences from their dull chronology to a livelier order, expanding some moments and compressing large stretches of time. I want the tension to emerge from what happens on the page, not what happened in my life, because nobody's life is interesting enough to make up for a boring retelling of it.

I realize that pinpointing your most potent sources of shame, writing it out until you feel like you've skinned your heart, and then attempting to share your work with readers doesn't ring with the same appeal as, I don't know, writing a feature piece for a travel magazine. But, I have to say, once I'm done with an essay, and my brain is wrung out of every bit of shame that I have handed over to the readers for safekeeping, I feel damn good.

Read my essay at Salon.

1960s Halloween costume

For more about "Native American" Halloween costumes, visit one of my favorite blogs, Native Appropriations. Adrienne has written a few excellent posts about this: of particular interest are "Open Letter to PocaHotties and Indian Warriors this Halloween" and the annotated follow-up post.

Several universities, including the University of Colorado at Boulder, Ohio University, and the University of Minnesota have seen actions by the administration or students to warn the campus against dressing in offensive costumes. I'm proud to say that this month at the University of Washington, where I teach and advise students, a large number of student groups on campus came together to organize "Cultures, Not Costumes," an event educating the campus community about costumes that may unintentionally offend.

In my essay, I wrote about the section of a costume shop where I bought my "Naughty Native" garb. Five years ago, the shop had a large display of brand-new costumes and accessories. This October, the display of new stuff was gone, with only a rack of sad secondhand "Native" and "cowboy" costumes next to a glass case containing a few accessories. In another five years, perhaps, the costumes will be sold as "hippie" getups.

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  • Marsha Thursday, 31 October 2013

    Elissa, I so appreciate your ability to put into words contradictory experiences and feelings that many of us have but cannot verbalize so well. Because they are internally inconsistent I find it impossible to explain my feelings like that sometimes so that they make sense. You show that not always making sense is a fact of life. As a result I end up better accepting my divergent parts rather than trying to hide them. You are showing me that they just ARE and don't have to be judged and pushed away.

  • Elissa Thursday, 31 October 2013

    Thank you for this lovely, thoughtful comment. I do find that the space I love to inhabit in my writing is that uncomfortable space where things don't quite come together neatly, because this is true of lived experience--to try to neaten experiences in literary form, too much, can be to deaden them

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