Essayist and 'Spy' Eula Biss Goes Looking for Trouble

By Matt GolosinskiMarch 13, 2017

Eula Biss is careful with her words. She’s also fearless in harnessing language’s revelatory power to produce evocative essays that meld poetry, nonfiction, and myth.

The celebrated writer interrogates language, getting it to reveal its secrets as she explores complex subjects like race, relationships, identity, or the immune system. The Balloonists, her quasi-autobiographical 2002 debut, creates a spare yet arresting expressionistic portrait of a family under pressure:

My mother was in the bathtub crying and I was standing outside the door waiting, just in case she decided to slip her head under and keep it there. The other kids were upstairs. The problem was about money, of course. She was afraid she wouldn’t have enough for us to eat.

Biss, professor of instruction in Northwestern’s Department of English where she teaches creative nonfiction, doesn’t let even familiar terms off the hook: “privilege,” she reminds us in the recent “White Debt,” a meditation on race, derives from Latin words for private and law, and so “describes a legal system in which not everyone is equally bound.” Less thoughtful authors might stride blindly over that foundation, and so render invisible a nuance that, instead, is central to an urgent social discussion.

But Biss never has retreated from challenging topics. Her 2009 collection, Notes from No Man’s Land, examined institutional racism and won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism and the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. She’s also turned personal challenge into art. On Immunity: An Inoculation, her heralded 2014 book, offers a deeply researched excursion into medical science and owes its origins to the traumatic birth of her son. The delivery resulted in emergency surgery, which included blood transfusions and an intervention whose physicality impressed upon Biss the interdependency of bodies: individual bodies, the body politic, and a body of knowledge — in this case, immunology.

The complex labor also set her on a fearful journey, one that transformed from a “sunlit moment” along Lake Michigan into a life-and-death struggle: “I imagined myself swimming in the lake, which became, against my will, a lake of darkness and then a lake of fire and then a lake without a horizon,” she writes in On Immunity. Such reflections led to conversations with other mothers about childrearing issues, including vaccinations and those profound apprehensions that can grip new parents. (The book also includes detours into vampires and Voltaire, whose Candide served as a partial touchstone.)

Throughout the text, the immune system functions as a lens through which Biss articulates humanity’s deep connection. “No single human has the genetic material to fight every disease, but collectively we’re genetically diverse enough that humans as a whole can’t be wiped out by one disease,” she has said. “A single body can’t stand alone against disease, but a collective body can. That, to me, is a beautiful metaphor.”

Though Biss has no formal science training — she earned her MFA in nonfiction from University of Iowa in 2006 before joining Northwestern’s Weinberg College as an Artist in Residence — she spent several years interviewing medical experts and reading about immunology — including an undergraduate textbook in the subject. “It turns out the immune system is the most complicated system in the body,” Biss says. “I’d be better off trying to understand neuroscience than immunology.

Still, by persevering and immersing herself into the topic, Biss modeled the advice that she offers her students: Try not to bore yourself.  Her methods work: On Immunity earned distinction on numerous “Best Of” lists and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Biss isn’t exactly sure about the source of her writing’s moral sensibility. It may partly derive from her physician father’s “deep humility” and almost “Catholic” approach to his profession, or else her mother’s maverick commitment to making art and her love of recounting myths that, when unpacked, yield life-enriching principles. (The myths of Achilles and Narcissus frame On Immunity.) Regardless, each of her three younger siblings shares this sensibility: “My sister is a philosopher with an interest in ethics, my brother teaches history and has an interest in racial politics, and my youngest sister, the most practical of us all, is a therapist and a social worker,” says Biss.

Widely published, Biss’ work has appeared in the Believer, Harper’s Magazine, the New York Times Magazine, as well as in respected literary journals and in anthologies such as The Best Creative Nonfiction and Pushcart Prize. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Howard Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts and was selected as one of Crain’s “40 Under 40” in 2015. She and her spouse, John Bresland, English, founded a conceptual band, STET Everything, which has yet to produce any music. Research News interviewed Biss about her work, which includes being what she calls a “spy, a smuggler, and a translator.”

Your writing has an elevating beauty that’s both resilient and, perhaps, at times delicate. It’s been likened to “spare Japanese brushstrokes.” These qualities seem at odds with our bombastic, “post-fact” national discourse, so much of which traffics in fear. In On Immunity you’ve written that “our fears are dear to us.” Has our vocabulary grown increasingly “dreadful,” and with what consequences?

Every time I teach George Orwell’s 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” which is nearly every quarter, it feels newly relevant to me. On the first page of that essay he writes: “A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” Orwell is particularly lucid on the reciprocal relationship between thought and language, and his essay is a reminder that political language has long relied on imprecision to hide the realities of political action. But it is political action, not the language that obscures it, that is the true threat.

Can we use language to refine our thinking and save us from ourselves?

I’m currently engaged in a long, ongoing debate with myself about the limits of language. Sometimes that debate spills over into conversations with other writers, like Maggie Nelson, who once said to me, “Saying is doing.” I haven’t concluded my debate with myself or Maggie, but I do know that one of the hazards of loving language, as I do, is that you can come to believe that language has a power it does not actually possess. I once had a difficult conversation with some students about the n-word. When one of the students said, “That word lynched people,” I had to pause the conversation to clarify that, no, that word did not lynch people. People lynched people. And a lynching can happen without anyone ever saying the n-word. That doesn’t mean words don’t matter, or that language can’t be damaging, but I think we have to be careful not to give language the attention that action deserves.

On Immunity advances a view about our “shared physicality.” Yet, our national discourse, including advertisements and public policy, often encourage us to dream ourselves unique and apart from the Other. How do you regard these seeming contraries?

I don’t think there is a contradiction there. I think we can understand ourselves as unique individuals who are both independent and interdependent if we let go of the assumption that those concepts are in opposition to each other. One of the ideas that I was pursuing in On Immunity was the possibility that there is no clear division between self and other. All of us are both. Immunology is heavily dependent on the concept of “self” and “other,” but any immunologist will tell you that our bodies consist of more cells that are classified as “other” than cells that are classified as “self.” And we can’t live without that other stuff that’s in us. Self and other are just as tricky when it comes to citizenship. Think of the “dreamers,” for example — people who were brought to this county as illegal immigrants at a very young age. They may not technically be citizens, but they have grown up here, they have been educated here, and in many cases this country is the only home they remember. Are they self or other? I’d say they’re both, just as most of us are.

The narrative of privilege, including white privilege, is one that you’ve explored in your work. What attracted you to this subject and why do you believe it so important?

Being someone who looks white has made me interested in thinking about whiteness and what my whiteness means to the people around me. Because of the religious community my family belonged to when I was a teenager, and because of the neighborhoods where I lived in New York City in my early twenties, and because of my short stint as a reporter for an African American community newspaper in San Diego, I’ve been in a number of situations where my whiteness was remarkable. You don’t need to spend time as the only white person in the room to think about whiteness, but being the only white person in the room can certainly serve as an invitation to reflection. For much of my early adulthood, my whiteness was not invisible or comfortable, and I couldn’t avoid thinking about it. As Toni Morrison has observed, whiteness confuses nobody so much as it confuses white people. In my work, I often write from confusion, from uncertainty, and from trouble. The subject of whiteness is so full of trouble that I find myself drawn back to it again and again.

You also remind us that power is embedded in privilege — a word that means “private law” — and that the law doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing depending on one’s socioeconomic and racial background. 

There’s an inherent injustice there. But I sometimes wonder, when I hear the word “privilege,” if that’s really the right word for the problem we’re trying to talk about. In her book Negroland, Margo Jefferson writes: “Privilege is provisional. Privilege can be denied, withheld, offered grudgingly and summarily withdrawn. Entitlement is impervious to the kinds of verbs that modify privilege.” So, perhaps “entitlement” is the word we want. John Bresland, my colleague in creative writing, doesn’t use the term “privilege.” He prefers the term “power,” particularly when talking about whiteness. “White power” is, I think, a more discomfiting term. And it can be more revealing. As a woman who, into my middle age, has often been perceived as younger than I am and is often treated like a little girl, I have an enduring interest in both power and authority. Like whiteness, power and authority are full of trouble, and my writing has offered me some wonderfully complicated opportunities to both use and refuse power and authority.

As a faculty member at a prestigious university, are you ever concerned about succumbing to your own species of privilege? How do you safeguard against this?

My position here is a tremendous luxury, particularly for an artist. I grew up believing that an artist couldn’t have the kind of life I have. I still don’t quite believe it. And yes, I have some persistent questions about what I’m doing in the University, and what the University might be doing to me. “The University and the Undercommons,” an essay by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, has provided me with some valuable guidance in facing these questions. I try to follow their injunction to “be in but not of” the university. 

In his review of my most recent book, Dwight Garner called me a “class spy.” I like that term, and I’ve come to understand my role in the University variously as a spy, a smuggler, and a translator. Over the course of my career as a writer, I’ve engaged more and more with the scholarship around me here, and that engagement has led to quite a bit of time spent translating English to English. I love all the great thinking I’ve found within the University, and I’ve worked hard to smuggle some of that thinking out of the University through my writing.

What early experiences shaped your interest in writing?

Working with young writers who are hungry for permission to pursue their art has made me acutely aware of how lucky I have been in that regard. My mother gave me what I now understand is the very rare impression that the most important thing I could do with my life was to make art. When I was young, my mother wrote poetry and edited a literary magazine. She went on to work in other mediums, and she ultimately dropped out of the middle class to work as an artist. Her bookshelf is where I found some of the first books that really moved me. I still have the worn copy of William Carlos Williams’s Pictures from Brueghel that I took from my mother’s bookshelf when I was 12, and his “Song” remains one of the only poems I know by heart.