Eula Biss is the author of The Balloonists and Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays, winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize and the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award. She holds an MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa and teaches nonfiction writing as an Artist in Residence at Northwestern University. Her essays have recently appeared in Best American Nonrequired Reading, Best Creative Nonfiction, and the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Nonfiction, as well as in The Believer, Ninth Letter, The Iowa Review, and Harper’s.
Carrie Oeding has a PhD in creative writing from Ohio University, and teaches at the University of Houston as a Writing Fellow. Her work has appeared in several journals, including Brevity, DIAGRAM, Colorado Review, Best New Poets, Mid-American Review, storySouth and Third Coast. Her first poetry manuscript has been a finalist or semifinalist for The Vassar Miller Poetry Book Prize, The Akron Poetry Prize, Marsh Hawk Press, and more. She received second place, from judge Brenda Hillman, in The Poetry Center of Chicago’s 2009 Juried Reading Series.
"To Know Is Not Enough"
Carrie Oeding sits down with Eula Biss
Carrie Oeding interviews Eula Biss
Eula Biss is the author of The Balloonists (Hanging Loose Press 2002), a collection of lyric essays, and the recent volume Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays (Graywolf Press 2009), which focuses on place, race, and class in the three significant regions of Biss’s life: New York City, the Midwest, and California. Whatever you would expect from this summary, you will not find it in Biss’s essays. Biss writes about teaching, working, and living in these places in such a way that each experience seems steeped in an understanding articulated best in her essay “Relations”: “What exactly it means to be white seems to elude no one as fully as those of us who are white.” Biss’s honest uncertainty of what to conclude gives her a humble yet incisive perspective on race in America, as when she writes, “perhaps it would be better if we simply refused to be white. But I don’t know what that means, really.” Ultimately, the essays from this latest collection shape the historical and autobiographical through earnest exploration. Biss doesn’t write from the periphery of narrative, but rather explores how narrative dictates our lives, through the ways we look for it and the ways it fails us. We don’t live the stories, and we don’t live outside of them: we live with them. To paraphrase Phillip Lopate on Montaigne, Biss, like Montaigne, allows herself to “enter the tangle and make her way through to what she actually thought about it, not what she was supposed to think.”
Carrie Oeding: In the beginning of your essay “Land Mines,” from Notes from No Man’s Land, you write, “As adults, I think we can admit we do not always love children … Sometimes we are afraid of them, and sometimes we hate how vulnerable they are.” Reading this essay, I’m reminded of the ways adults stave off vulnerability. Particularly in creative nonfiction, does writing present you with more or less vulnerability?
Eula Biss: There’s a paradox here—I feel uncharacteristically invulnerable when I write, but my writerly persona is full of vulnerability. This is not incidental. Yes, a certain unstaved vulnerability is characteristic of who I am as a person, but in my writing I consider vulnerability a tool. A vulnerable persona can be instrumental in an essay, particularly an essay that is working to avoid the pitfalls of righteousness.
CO: No Man’s Land focuses on place as much as race. Or, rather, it denotes the relationship between place and race in the U.S. I’m interested to hear whether you worked on most of these essays after you’d left their place of origin.
EB: Yes, most of these essays were written after I left the places they are about, with the exception of the essays about Chicago. And those essays were significantly more difficult to write.
CO: Since No Man’s Land engages so much with race issues in America, I wonder if you’ve written any essays since its publication that resonate with these pieces, after Barack Obama’s election and during the displays of racism that appear in protest to his policies?
EB: I was revising this collection during Obama’s campaign and I remember feeling dismay at one point because the national conversation about race in that moment felt so misguided, so atrophied, so impoverished. Almost everything I heard about race on the news was silly or stupid and I began to worry that my book assumed some basic understandings that just didn’t exist in this country yet. So I revised my book around this problem, but I haven’t written an essay about Obama.
CO: In “Three Songs of Salvage,” an essay in No Man’s Land, I love the detail and the act of saving pamphlets from distributors on the street. It made me a little disappointed in myself for being someone who shakes her head “no thanks.” Do you maintain other collections? If so, how do they filter into your writing process?
EB: I’ve moved too often to indulge in much collecting, but I have a slight impulse in that direction. I limit myself to flat things, mostly—religious pamphlets, newspaper photographs of disasters, and letters I’ve found on the street. Those letters are still waiting for their moment, but the others have found their way into my writing. And the impetus for the works that were organized around the religious pamphlets and the disaster photos was a desire to release, or reproduce, the inherent poetry of those documents. I was always saving them, moving them from one place to another, with that end in mind.
CO: Are there certain discussions about essay writing that you find unfortunate? Are there topics—or ways of approaching topics—that writers and critics of the genre overuse?
EB: An unfortunate but probably inevitable reductionism abounds in most thinking about genre; the variety I find most offensive and least productive is a tendency toward binary thinking and false dichotomies. The idea that an essay must be either narrative in nature or lyric in nature, for instance. Or the even more disturbing suggestion that we read nonfiction either to receive information or to experience art. Why not both? I’ve always found the literary essay exciting in part because its both-ness, its between-ness, its insistence on that cyborgian space Donna Haraway writes of, arguing for “pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction.” And in a time of information-noise such as the one we live in at the moment, art that works with information—art that has the capacity to organize information and analyze it and recast it and interrogate it and contextualize it—has great subversive potential and social relevance. Of course some artists feel that social relevance is at odds with artistic relevance, but that’s another absurd dichotomy, full of cowardice and blind to history.
CO: What questions do you think we should be asking creative nonfiction?
EB: How about a riff on Montaigne: “What do we know?”
CO: One of my favorite sections in No Man’s Land is from the essay “Goodbye to All That,” which is about living in New York City but primarily spending time in the boroughs. It is a response to Joan Didion’s same-titled essay. You say, “I have at times been mystified by Joan Didion’s ability to tolerate certain myths while she so fiercely and effectively destroys the foundation of many others. But I know now that it is very difficult to dismantle one story without replacing it with another. The romance of narrative is hard to resist.” It nailed Didion for me. I wonder if you think essayists swerve too far from narrative out of mistrust?
EB: Oh, I don’t know! Essayists do all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons. I imagine there are some writers these days who resist narrative more out of disdain than mistrust, and who have come to associate this stance with artfulness. But narrative is awfully hard to escape, no matter how associative or impressionistic or lyric or lacking in syntax your work might be, and narrative keeps maddeningly close company with meaning. Narrative is, after all, the primary mechanism by which we make meaning. And I believe even works that do not provide much narrative on the page are made “narrative” as the reader finds or constructs sense and meaning within them.
CO: This takes me back to the Montaigne line you quoted, “What do we know?” Is this the question from which you essentially start writing? What form do these beginnings tend to take for you: an image, a question, or tension?
EB: Well, I’m not quoting Montaigne exactly, there. His line was: “What do I know?” The motto of the school where I did my undergraduate studies, Hampshire College, is non satis scire: to know is not enough. My writing is born more out of that challenge, I think, than Montaigne’s query. And yes, you’re right on, the beginnings of essays for me are always vague tensions that won’t stop nettling me, or questions I don’t have the words for, or problems I can’t articulate yet, or clutters of feelings around certain words or phrases. It’s easy to see this last one in my essay “All Apologies”—I began this essay by just wandering through all my associations with the word sorry.
CO: You are one of the co-editors of Essay Press. Can you talk about what your interest was in starting the press and how the role of editor affects your perspective of the genre?
EB: I was interested in working on this press in part because I felt I had a debt to pay forward into my community. My first book was published by a small press, Hanging Loose, which is run by a generous group of editors who volunteer their labor and expertise to the end of publishing work that might not otherwise be published. I found Hanging Loose blessedly early in my writing life and have now built something of a career on their generosity, so I feel an obligation to reproduce it as best I can. I think of my work for Essay Press primarily as an act of service, but it’s also been an education. I’ve learned quite a bit about the politics of aesthetics.
CO: Could you speak a little more about what you had to learn and whether there was anything you took from this that was beneficial to your craft?
EB: I’m one of three editors at Essay Press and we make our decisions by consensus, which has at times been difficult to achieve, to say the least. We’ve had some long, hot debates over aesthetics and I’ve learned in the process how enmeshed aesthetic values are with values of other sorts—moral, social, political. My philosopher sister has a sophisticated understanding of this relationship between aesthetic judgment and moral judgment and she’s tutored me in this area but I still operate from a dirty gut sense around this stuff, particularly in my own writing. That said, all the aesthetic decisions I make in my own work now carry a bit more freight and are a bit more tortured.
CO: Are you working on a collection of poetry? What else are you working on?
EB: In the loose moments when I’m not consumed with the work of raising my young son, I’m working on an essay about the metaphors that fuel fears of vaccination. I’ll be writing some more medical essays when I’m done with this one, including a long essay about pain.