How to Become a Witch in California in the ’80s

How to Become a Witch in California in the ’80s

Michelle Ruiz Keil

Michelle Ruiz Keil’s debut novel All of Us with Wings is one of our summer must-reads. It follows a girl named Xochi as she moves to San Francisco in hope of escaping the traumas from her past. But trouble, in the form of medding fey, won’t let her forget what she’s running from. It’s a book shaped by Keil’s own experiences with change, loss, and magic in California in the 1980s. Here she shares how her history has shaped her life and her novel.

My debut novel All of Us With Wings is a magical coming-of-age story about found family, trauma, healing, and complicated love. It features a 17-year-old Latinx governess, her tween genius charge, the girl’s pagan polyamorous rockstar family, a pair of ancient avenging children, and a Siamese bookstore cat. There are tarot cards, bathtub spells cast on the vernal equinox, a New Yorker-featured bookstore cat, a future-telling 100-year-old koi, and a fey old lady who remembers San Francisco before people called the place California. The setting is in an unspecified time that I call post-punk, a time before the tech industry changed San Francisco and the world and things were a little more magical.

Since All of Us With Wings has been out in the world, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about the role magic plays in my writing and my life. Below, find a guide for becoming a witch in a simpler time.


1. Receive a pack of tarot cards for your sweet 16 from your first love.

2. Read the cards when he’s late, after you fight, when he doesn’t show up.

3. Catch him with a girl you thought was your friend.

4. Leave home and move to a beautiful city by the sea to forget that cheater.

5. Take him back on your 17th birthday when he shows up at your new apartment with a Siamese kitten.

6. Break up again, this time for good. Keep the cat.

7. Notice that when you lay out the cards, the cat watches your every move. Congratulations! You have your first familiar.

8. Go on a road trip. Bring the cat. Dabble with automatic writing and Ouija boards in a trailer park in the California desert on the shores of a prehistoric sea. Scare yourself with your own magic.

9. Learn the difference between divination and sleep deprived psychosis. Decide you are a solitary witch.

10. Run with solitude. Live alone. Get a new deck of tarot cards from a pretty stripper with complicated intentions and fall in love with it. Ignore the incomprehensible booklet written by the deck’s eponymous bad-reputation turn-of-the century magician and focus on the artist who painted the cards—an eccentric British gentlewoman occultist. Decide that’s what you want to be, only Mexican.

11. Decide you are done with love.

12. Fall in love with the most dangerous kind of Pisces. You will never understand them but you will lay the cards out at least one thousand times trying.

13. Break up. Make up. Rinse. Repeat.

14. Buy esoteric books from the shady occult store across town on Egyptian mythology, kabala, and the work of Carl Jung that are so interesting you forget the Pisces for hours at a time.

15. Move to a sunnier street. Find a new business on the corner by the Walgreens—not an occult shop, but a witch store. Inside are familiar faces from your great grandma’s white stucco house—the Virgen de Guadalupe, Santa Teresa, Santa Barbara—standing next to goddess figurines from around the world like sacred, exquisite Barbies. At the counter is a woman with long frizzy lion’s hair and Gloria Steinem glasses. She says, “I can help you,” reversing the familiar phrase. “Need something for a broken heart?”

16. Learn candle magic, ritual correspondences, moon cycles. Use the words numinous, animist and feminist daily. Read the book The Spiral Dance cover to cover, learning European magical basics. Make an altar from a street-scored vintage trunk and a Goodwill velvet table runner. Adorn yourself. Plan your tattoos.

17. Move away from the city, go back to school. Put out your shingle as a tarot reader and teacher. Turn over books at the new age store in your little college town and sigh at all the white faces. Discover the book Jambalaya, Luisah Teish’s Yoruba-infused brujeria. Give thanks and let it go. It’s not yours but it reminds you of something forgotten in your own bones.

18. Go home to your nana’s house and decide together that your family is a matriarchy and the goddess and Guadalupe are two faces of the same deity. Stay up late watching Quincy and Murder She Wrote eating too much Almond Roca.

19. Create your own spells to cleanse a space or ward off jealousy using household ways from the women in your family and things you see in dreams or hear about from other witches—coins, wax, mirrors, fire, honey, water. Only later, when you finally find a coven of powerful Latinx brujas, will you learn these are bruja things.

20. Until then, let the decade change, take care of your familiar and yourself and the people you love. Stop being nice to people who are mean to you. Learn about your culture and cook good food. Practice divination and notice the living things that share your world in all their beauty and sentience. Make art, maybe make some babies.

21. Start writing. Get stuck. Go back to your tarot deck with its burned edges from the time you fell asleep with the frankincense too close to the cards on your altar. Light a candle to set your intention. Draw a card. Notice the ways coincidence accrues to the story you are writing. Watch the story become a book, layer by layer, candle by candle, card by card. When talking about your writing practice describe magical realism as a worldview.

22. Get mad, even after all this time, that the story starts with your terrible first boyfriend— then remember the thing about good revenge and living well. You kept the cards. You kept the familiar. You have the magic. You wrote a book. That’s enough.


Michelle Ruiz Keil is a Latinx novelist and playwright. She teaches writing and curates All Kinds of Fur: A Fairytale Reading Series and Salon in Portland, Oregon. She has been a fellow at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and Lit Camp and is a member of Las Musas, a collective of Latinx kidlit authors. Her published short fiction can be found on Cosmonauts Avenue and in the forthcoming anthology Color outside the Lines. All of Us with Wings is her first novel.


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