Book Review: Basic Witches by Jaya Saxena and Jess Zimmerman

Basic Witches Book CoverBasic Witches: How to Summon Success, Banish Drama, and Raise Hell with Your Coven by Jaya Saxena and Jess Zimmerman was published in 2017 by Quirk Books. I pre-ordered the book because it’s illustrated by Camille Chew, whose work I’ve followed for a bit. I’m so excited that she’s getting magickal book illustration gigs, so I actually bought this book to support her. It’s very modern and ‘hip’ looking, designed to attract, presumably, young women. The color scheme of the book, especially the internal illustrations which don’t have any gold, is exactly the same as the Little Paper Forest Zodiac Deck that I just reviewed. The book itself is hardcover with gold foil details (all the yellow parts shown are metallic in person), and a much appreciated ribbon bookmark built in. It’s divided into seven sections with illustrations throughout, some of which are very funny. Every chapter ends with a set of spells related to the content that was covered therein.

The book is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, in part, and absolutely not for real witches. At the beginning of Chapter 1 the authors define “a witch” as any woman who is rebellious: “For our purposes witchcraft means the kind of mundane pursuits that might once have resulted in accusation: … not caring what men think, … and just knowing stuff” (15). They continue, “If you speak when you’re told to be quiet … you’re practicing witchcraft” (15). Then I put the book down for four months.

Seriously, I stopped reading after the first few pages because I was really offended that the authors we like “Yeah there’s actual witchcraft, but also being smart is witchcraft,” which it’s not. At all. Basic Witches is not about witchcraft basics, but rather plays with the slang term “basic” (the title is essentially a pun). From Wikipedia: “basic” is “used to pejoratively describe middle class white women who are perceived to predominantly like mainstream products, trends, or music.” In that sense, the book really is basic, in the pejorative sense, because it’s appropriating witchcraft, which is experiencing a cultural moment much like it did in the 90s. The authors even reference The Craft, which is getting a reboot due to the same phenomenon.

The authors provide short spells in an attractive format, and very simple bits of history (which are not up to my research standards). However, they also say they don’t believe in witchcraft, and that spells don’t really do anything but change your outlook … so it’s like The Secret or whatever. I think that one of the authors is related to one of the Salem non-witches, but I’m related to one of the judges, so it’s not a credential in and of itself. In short, I’m not sure that either of the authors are witches, but they don’t have any issues with taking pieces of witchcraft culture and using them to write and sell book. Because witches are ‘cool’ right now? For more on this see my article How to Spot Fake Witches Who Just Want to Sell You Something. Furious, I stopped reading, but then I needed a book I could read in less than a week to meet my book reading goal for the month, and I picked it up again.

Despite my being very angry at the first few pages, the book isn’t all bad. Actual witches aren’t going to find the spells useful, or at least I didn’t, but young women who are interested in dabbling in witchcraft may like it. The authors are clearly intelligent, and they don’t dumb down the concepts that they present. Even though most of the book isn’t about witchcraft at all, it has a lot of advice that young women need to hear about accepting themselves, consent, and relationships. Not just romantic partnerships, which are covered, of course, but how to make friends or end toxic relationships. Sexuality is discussed in the book, and aesexuals are presented as a valid orientation – which you basically never see – and the authors work very hard to be inclusive. The book then, in the substance of it, becomes a sort of advice book for young women which is accepting of a lot of different types of women. The “spells” at the end of the chapters are meant to help with these issues symbolically, with the authors plainly saying that they are not magick, but more like self-affirmation exercises.

Objections aside, there is a space in the market where a lot of young witches or young people interested in exploring witchcraft are not being represented. Moon magic (separate from witchcraft) is very popular right now, and I suspect a large number of people who read my moon posts are in this category. That’s totally fine, and I love that people are exploring a more mystical side of themselves, regardless of whether they identify as witches. What I do take issue with is the way the authors of Basic Witches are using the witchcraft identity while simultaneously undercutting it. I think, as non-witches, the authors have no idea how hard it is for witches to find like-minded people. That if we are ‘out of the broom closet’ it will endanger our relationships and livelihoods, because people still are very afraid of us. The authors seem to be interested in ‘the occult’, but that’s doesn’t make it okay to take a marginalized population and try to redefine membership in it from the outside.

Conclusion

As a book that seeks to give young women a way of empowering themselves, it works, but I do not recommend it to anyone that identifies as a witch. What the book did make me realize is that Millennial witches probably need something different than what traditional publishing houses like Llewellyn are giving them. If anyone reads Basic Witches and then decides that they want to be a real witch, that’s great, and I wouldn’t hesitate to give it to any young women who was thinking about thinking about becoming a witch.

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