In 2017, I published an essay on The Millions called “How a Witch Cured My Writerly Envy” about receiving guidance from a professional witch named Amanda Yates Garcia (aka the Oracle of Los Angeles) in order to rid myself of professional jealousy. Last month, Garcia’s book, Initiated: Memoir of a Witch, was published by Grand Central. Initiated has received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews. I spoke with Garcia about her book, her dedication to social justice, and ways interested readers can begin to develop their own magical practice.
The Millions: I’m thrilled to read Initiated. As you know, I’m fascinated by your work as a professional witch and want to learn more about the path you took to get there. Can you talk a bit about the book, especially for potential readers who aren’t familiar with you, your writing, and your work?
Amanda Yates Garcia: The book describes my process of becoming a professional witch, i.e. someone who works as a witch in service of her community and gets paid for her work. Though I’m a hereditary witch and was brought up practicing witchcraft, I didn’t realize that witchcraft could be my profession. My mother dedicated countless hours to serving people in our community, but like many people performing feminized forms of labor, she was rarely paid for her work. In my late teens and early 20s, I turned away from witchcraft and became a devotee of the arts, thinking that they would help me create the life of freedom and beauty I was searching for. But eventually I found myself trapped in jobs I hated, hardly making any money, and I couldn’t see a way out. It was then that I returned to witchcraft as a means of empowering myself to create the life I wanted.
Each of us is initiated into our life’s purpose through the struggles that we face. As we use our ingenuity to make it out of the underworld, we will return to the upper world knowing our gifts. Our lives initiate us. Each initiation teaches us what our healing powers are, what our magical powers are, what gifts we have to offer the world. We attain these gifts through the challenges we face. When we come through those struggles, we have a kind of light within us that can help guide the way for others as well. I don’t believe we should be grateful for the adversity we face. But we can be grateful to ourselves for the strength we find to make it out of the underworld alive.
Initiated is for anyone who feels like there is more to life than submitting to the imperatives of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, more to life than struggling for money at a job that makes them miserable, yearning for the weekend, hungry for meaning and purpose. It’s for anyone who wants to live in an enchanted, numinous world, where the earth is sacred…where our lives are sacred, where justice is possible. So the book is really about how I found my way to do that in spite of the odds. I also occupy a position of privilege in this culture; it’s important to acknowledge the advantages I had: white, cis, able-bodied, middle class, educational privilege. But because of that privilege, I feel even more responsibility to create a world where a life of freedom and beauty is possible for all beings. As we rise to embrace our own power, and join forces with other witches, we will transform our world. Witches are resistors, and as Alice Walker says, “Resistance is the secret of joy.”
TM: That just makes me think a lot about things that you have taught me during our work together and I just really appreciate you sharing them in that way.
AYG: Tell me what you mean.
TM: It’s great to hear that if we have trauma or struggles, we can come through them. And it doesn’t just mean that we don’t have to be broken by those things—it also can mean that we can then know what our superpowers are and use those powers to help others. That really speaks to me.
AYG: Yeah, and I feel like you’ve really done that. You’ve had a lot of struggle and adversity and you’ve been able to come through that. And part of the way you have done that is through a distinct commitment to kindness and a sense of humor about all of it. One might say that your kindness and your sense of humor are your superpowers that you are using to help heal the world by sharing them through your writing.
TM: I love that that might be the case. Thank you.
AYG: “Might be the case.” Another one of your superpowers is clearly your humility.
TM: [Laughs.] Magic and witchcraft are often about connecting with the earth, the seasons, the cycles of the moon, and even astrology. But much of your magical work and public presence are focused on social justice issues. Can you talk about how and why you find witchcraft and social justice to be so compatible?
AYG: This question is very important. We live in an individualistic society so a lot of my clients come to me with feelings of alienation, of disenchantment, of loneliness and longing for a life of purpose and meaning. They are afraid they are going to lose everything. Or that they’ll never find a way to be happy. They are afraid their lives will spin out of their control. So a lot of time when people come to witches they are coming with a deep sense of anxiety.
But the problem is that our individualistic culture tells us that it’s our own personal behaviors or choices that will allow us to solve those problems. When in fact, most of our problems also have a social or political component. If we are feeling like we are going to be trapped in a meaningless job forever, that is not just because we have made bad choices about the jobs that we want. It’s because we live in a society in which 70 percent to 80 percent of the jobs that are available are “bullshit jobs,” as the anthropologist David Graeber would say. And we are not going to be able to solve these problems alone just by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. Community is the source of healing, ecosystem is, which means that we can’t just fight for our own rights, we need to fight on behalf of the kids in cages at the border, of immigrant families, of black and indigenous people of color, of people with disabilities, of our elders, of the water, the air, and of the world. That’s what love is, and protecting what we love is what will heal us.
It’s important to remember that in witchcraft there are no spectators. There is no witness in witchcraft. We are all participants. So part of what is really important is that we all become agents and get active. We are all participating in this culture; each of us has a responsibility to change it. The greater our position of privilege, the greater our responsibility to the most vulnerable in our communities. We need to remember that we are not alone. Working together, we can create the world that we want to find.
Witchcraft is not just a practice you do so that you can find the right lover, or sell your house, or get the job you want. All of those things are important for us to attain stability, but witchcraft goes beyond those things. It’s a deeply spiritual practice. It is a practice of connecting to the Spirit of the Earth. The most fundamental and important aspect of witchcraft is celebrating and honoring the sacredness of the earth. Witchcraft is intimacy with the spirit of the world, with the Anima Mundi. And in order to create that intimacy, we have to recognize all the systems of injustice that are damaging the earth right now. And that very much includes white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy, kyriarchy, all of that. The oppression of people of color is intimately bound to the destruction of the earth. Simultaneously, the oppression of women, and women’s rights to control their own bodies, the persecution of queer people, and the assault on indigenous people’s right to inhabit their land, all of these things are bound together. We will feel less powerless and alienated the more we work towards justice.
To be a witch is to recognize your power and your agency. Witches carry the banner for the Spirit of the Earth; we are Her emissaries, working always on behalf of the earth itself, and of the life force that is imminent in nature. As witches, it is our privilege and honor to do this work. If we are not doing it, we are missing out on something deeply beautiful. It would be a huge tragedy for us to deny that beauty in our lives. The practice of witchcraft helps us understand what it means to be a part of this gorgeous living planet, this goddess. We have that connection available to us; witchcraft can help us access it, to our great pleasure.
TM: To take the conversation somewhere a little more worldly—I follow you on Facebook and Instagram and your podcast, Strange Magic. I love that you often share suggestions for simple spells and other magical practices and rituals. Do you have any advice for readers who are interested in practicing magic but don’t know where to start?
AYG: Usually the things I talk about on my social media pages are simple practices that can immediately bring us into deeper intimacy with our lives, which is really the purpose of witchcraft.
Step one. It’s important to create space in your life for your spiritual practice. If you don’t have an altar, it’s a signal that you might not have room in your life for your spiritual practice. So beginners might want to set up a space that they can work in, even if it’s just the top of a dresser or shelf. On your altar you want to have something that represents the four elements—fire, earth, air, water. A candle, a stone, some incense or a feather, a cup of water.
Once you have that, start paying attention to whatever is immediately around you. So maybe you would collect a stone from around your house, or some flowers, or seedpods, or water from a nearby river for your altar. Learn the names of the trees on your street, learn their history, their geology. Where does your water come from? Part of witchcraft is becoming intimate with your nearby environment, getting to know it. That’s what intimacy is: knowledge, listening, paying attention, exchange.
Find the sacred places in your neighborhood, in your city, in the nature that surrounds you. Notice where you feel empowered. You don’t have to go outside of your immediate environment. You can start just by getting to know whatever is around you.
In the morning, I sit at my altar and I call in the spirits of the elements. I say their names. I light my candles, I sing them songs, I read them poetry. I honor them. And I sit with myself. I center myself. And I listen. If you do that you will start to get messages, intuitively, that will help guide you and will help lead you to your next steps.
When you begin to practice witchcraft, essentially you are entering into a relationship with your life as a sacred experience. That is all you really need to do and you will find the teachers you need to go from there.
Author image: Siri Kaur
Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Jami Attenberg, Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne, Hisham Matar, Silvina Ocampo, Robert Pinsky, and more—that are publishing this week.
All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about All This Could Be Yours: “A patriarch’s death strains a family’s already fraught relationships in this dazzling novel from Attenberg (All Grown Up). Shady real estate developer Victor Tuchman suffers a heart attack in New Orleans and is rushed to the hospital. During his final, lingering day, his family mentally rehashes key moments of his life in hopes of understanding the man they are losing. His wife, Barbra, still annoyed about leaving their Connecticut mansion, occupies herself with obsessive walking while remembering Victor’s quick transition from shy suitor to abusive tyrant. His daughter, Alex, flies in from Chicago, desperate to know the truth about Victor’s criminal past, and begrudges her mother’s insistence she let it go and make peace. Victor’s son Gary, who is in Los Angeles to jump-start his career in the movies, avoids answering calls from the family and intentionally misses his flight. Gary’s wife, Twyla, slips into a nervous breakdown during a cosmetic shopping spree, slowly revealing the true root of her distress. As Victor fades, the family’s dysfunction comes to light and they make drastic choices about their future. Attenberg excels at revealing rich interior lives—not only for her main cast, but also for cameo characters—in direct, lucid prose. This is a delectable family saga.”
The Beadworkers by Beth Piatote
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Beadworkers: “Piatote’s debut collection mixes poetry, verse, and prose to form an impressive reflection on the lives of modern Native Americans. Piatote, a Nez Perce enrolled with the Colville Confederated Tribes, fits much nuance and profundity into stories that often reflect on the ways in which contemporary mainstream American culture continues to erase the identities and traditions of indigenous groups. In ‘Beading Lesson,’ the narrator teaches a girl how to make traditional beaded earrings, noting how fewer and fewer people have been learning the skill in recent years. In ‘wIndin!,’ two friends work on a piece of political art, a board game that comments on systemic oppression of Native Americans throughout history. A woman reunites with an old friend and considers the ways their relationship to each other and their families have changed in ‘Katydid.’ The most impressive and longest, ‘Antikoni,’ is a reimagining of Antigone, complete with a chorus of Aunties. In Piatote’s version, Antikoni strives to rescue the remains of her ancestors from the museum where they have been interred by the ‘White Coats’ and ‘White Gloves’—’We were born into this suffering. That our own/ blood would be divided/ from us, that our mourning could never come to an/ end, for it can never/ properly begin.’ The Nez Perce language is featured throughout the verse passages, and Piatote includes many explanatory footnotes. This beautiful collection announces Piatote as a writer to watch.”
Initiated by Amanda Yates Garcia
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Initiated: “Garcia, self-proclaimed ‘Oracle of Los Angeles,’ shares the series of initiations that led to her practice as a professional witch, writer, and healer in her superb debut. Raised in Northern California, Garcia was introduced to the feminist practice of Goddess magic by her mother, but she rejected those teachings for years. After experiencing horrific abuse at the hands of a family member, she left home at 16 for San Francisco, drifted to Europe, then landed in Los Angeles to chase her dream of being an artist. Garcia realizes that, like magic, art made ‘the things we imagine visible to us; it pulls them into material reality and changes the way we experience the world.’ Throughout her travels, she experiences visions that lead her thoughts back to witchcraft. Then, following a stint in grad school, she performs an official witch ceremony on her 30th birthday with members of her L.A. community and realizes ‘nothing could give me the satisfaction of witchcraft.’ She also reveals times of personal ‘darkness,’ such as working as a stripper and pursuing toxic relationships, crediting witchcraft for helping her escape: ‘The moment you stop seeing yourself as a supplicant and start seeing yourself as a participant, a coconspirator, an agent, that shift marks the moment you become a witch.’ Effortlessly weaving Goddess myths from diverse cultures with her own life story, Garcia’s reverent, powerful work will encourage readers to forge their own values and join in her ‘re-enchantment’ of the world.”
The Promise by Silvina Ocampo
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Promise: “This haunting and vital final work from Ocampo (1903–1993), her only novel, is about a woman’s life flashing before her eyes when she’s stranded in the ocean. The nameless narrator has fallen off a ship, and as she floats, her mind takes over, presenting a flotilla of real and imagined memories about the people in her life in the form of a version of the book she promises herself she’ll finish. The book’s main thread is a woman, Irene, and a man, Leandro, with whom both Irene and the narrator get involved. But the fluid narrative also encompasses brief snapshots of a murder mystery, the narrator’s grandmother’s eye doctor (‘In profile, his intent rabbit face was not as kind as it was head-on.’), her hairdresser, her ballerina neighbor, and the fruit vendor to whom her brother was attracted as a boy (‘it was a fruit relationship, perhaps symbolizing sex’). The narrator’s potent, dynamic voice yields countless memorable lines and observations: ‘The only advantage of being a child is that time is doubly wide, like upholstery fabric’; ‘What is falling in love, anyway? Letting go of disgust, of fear, letting go of everything.’ But the book’s true power is its depiction of the strength of the mind (‘what I imagine becomes real, more real than reality’) and the necessity of storytelling, which for the narrator is literally staving off death: ‘I told stories to death so that it would spare my life.’ Ocampo’s portrait of one woman’s interior life is forceful and full of hope.”