Eula Biss’s most recent work, On Immunity: An Inoculation, was named one of the 10 Best Books of 2014 by The New York Times Book Review. Regarding the book, Entertainment Weekly stated, “By exploring the anxieties about what’s lurking inside our flu shots, the air, and ourselves, [Biss] drives home the message that we are all responsible for one another. On Immunity will make you consider that idea on a fairly profound level.” Her second book, Notes from No Man's Land: American Essays, examines race in America from different points of view. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism in 2010. Her first book, a collection of prose poetry entitled The Balloonists, was published by Hanging Loose Press in 2002. Biss’s writing has been supported by an NEA Literature Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Howard Foundation Fellowship, and a Jaffe Writers’ Award. She holds a B.A. in nonfiction writing from Hampshire College and an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa, and she currently teaches creative writing at Northwestern University. Her work has appeared in Harper’s, The Believer, and The New York Times Magazine. In a conversation with Natalie Tomlin, Biss discusses how becoming a parent influenced her writing process, how she approaches parental fear, and her dedication to “the possibility of people changing their minds.”
Natalie Tomlin: Your work is incisive in its effort to confront, question, and challenge both cultural and personal fear. Can you talk more about how fear emerged as a larger theme in your work?
Eula Biss: Writing about race and racism is what brought me to writing about fear. And reading James Baldwin, probably, is how I found my way into thinking of fear as a kind of violence. In Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin writes about how hatred and bitterness can damage the person who is consumed by them, and the same is true of fear. But, more importantly, fear does damage to the person who is feared, the object of fear. Culturally, we tend to recognize hate as potentially damaging, but we are more forgiving of fear. We even have laws that allow an adult to shoot an unarmed teenager if that adult feels afraid, for instance. Marilynne Robinson recently wrote an essay about fear, and she observed that we nurture it and respect it and celebrate it. Writing Notes from No Man's Land brought me to a critique of fear that I picked back up and honed a bit in On Immunity. Vaccine refusal is a fairly good example of how a certain kind of fearfulness, nurtured too well, can be dangerous to other people. But it isn’t the only situation where that is true. It’s more of a case in point.
NT: Another theme I see arising in your work is individualistic vs. communal concerns in raising a child: a caretaker’s choice to vaccinate can be guided by fear of how vaccines can affect her child or a concern to protect the herd; perceptions of crime and city life can be guided by fear of the “other” or a genuine commitment to live with and understand all people. Can you speak to how this inquiry might carry over to other parts of your life with your child and family or to our current social climate?
EB: There are some serious political implications to this, but, first of all, I think the assumption that the interests of the individual must be opposed to the interests of the collective is misleading, and, in many instances, that’s a false opposition. It’s very American to think of the individual as needing freedom from the collective, but there are many situations, and vaccination is just one of them, where the interests of the individual and the interests of the collective are entirely intertwined. I was intrigued by some research that I looked at around the influenza vaccination, for instance, in which mathematicians used game theory to model what an entirely selfish individual would want to do in a flu epidemic—in that case, they found that vaccination would be in that person’s best interest, and no altruistic action would be needed to stave off an epidemic. There aren’t any vaccines on the market now that only benefit the collective without offering any benefit to the individual—doctors consider that unethical. A malaria vaccine was developed some time ago, for instance, that would not protect a person from getting malaria but would protect her from transmitting it, but ethical concerns prevented that vaccine from reaching the market.
As much as the functional family can serve as a model for the functional community, and as much as the family might help us think through questions of shared property and shared labor, it isn’t any more productive to fetishize the family than it is to fetishize anything else. I tend to consider the “do what’s best for your own family” mentality fairly dangerous. One exaggerated illustration is the opening sequence of most action movies, in which the hero’s family is hurt, threatened, or endangered in some way—that threat to the family is enough, apparently, for American audiences to accept all sorts of subsequent violence (the shooting of random people, the exploding of cars, the destroying of buildings, etc.) that we wouldn’t typically find ethical. I think it should be very concerning to us, as mothers, that a perceived threat to the family can be used to justify mass violence.
I don’t think I always make the right choices in this arena, but I do try to scrutinize the choices I make for my family and for my child, and that scrutiny has been informed by my writing. An article in Bloomberg News recently caught my eye, for instance, because it included some troubling statistics on the public schools in Evanston, where my son is a student. There is strong evidence that black students are not served as well by these schools as white students, though the exact reasons for that are not entirely clear. One term that came up in the article that has stayed with me was “opportunity hoarding.” (An example is a disproportionate number of white students in advanced placement courses.) That term has made me think, “Hmmm, I wonder if I’m engaged in opportunity hoarding?” That’s been a point of reflection for me.
NT: One of the reasons your work on parenting has such resonance for me and others is because I relate so strongly to the anxiety of parenthood you depict. For instance, in On Immunity, you became upset after discovering the chemicals used in your daughter’s mattress and made an effort to secure her a new one. That experience resonated with me, as I shopped for glass baby bottles instead of those that may contain PVC. What are some of your thoughts on our contemporary anxieties and constructive solutions or outlets to our anxieties?
EB: To refuse the current parenting culture, which is heavy on anxiety, takes the kind of guts that any counter-culture move always takes. I think it’s entirely within our power to choose to parent 80s style, but, yes, there might be some social repercussions for that. On paper, almost every danger that worries us as parents is, in fact, less prevalent than it was in the 70s and 80s, from chemical exposure to homicide. So, one of the questions I was trying to ask while writing was, “Why are we so afraid?” I don’t think I ever found my way to one single answer to that question, but I did convince myself, through writing the book, that I, myself, was not willing to do anything, including parent, in a manner that was driven by fear. That doesn’t mean that I don’t still feel fear and anxiety as a parent, but I do try to avoid letting them be the driving forces behind my decisions. You can feel a feeling and not act on it—isn’t that, actually, what so many of the lessons of early childhood are about? You might be angry, I understand, but that doesn’t mean you can hit someone! And you might be afraid, but that, too, does not entitle you to put other people at risk.
NT: You weave diverse sources into your work: personal experience, scholarly sources, theory, and news. I happened to read both On Immunity and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts while pregnant last year and got excited about the innovative work you both are doing in nonfiction. Can you elaborate on how your work has evolved into the collaged style you offer in the book and which writers you looked to for inspiration as you worked to use and draw connections between many sources?
EB: To some extent, my style is a reflection of how I think. I’m a highly associative thinker, and I don’t tend to think of information sourced from personal experience as essentially different from information sourced from texts or news. That’s all reflected in my approach to the page. Maggie and I both started out as poets, and our first books were both published by Hanging Loose Press around the same time. Both of us have a tendency to treat paragraphs a little bit like stanzas. My friend Robyn Schiff calls them “stanzagraphs”! The work of poets like Schiff has certainly shaped my prose. The book is slightly less associative and collaged than some of my earlier work, and that’s because the demands of the project called for a bit more cohesion. The writer I was learning from the most while I was writing was Susan Sontag. But both Robyn and Maggie were reading drafts and helping to guide my decisions.
NT: I read that you spent years researching and reading before writing the book and that you let the ideas emerge in their own time. Are you able to share the way in which you fueled such a pursuit, both practically and psychologically?
EB: It isn’t typical for me to spend so long researching before I begin writing, but, in this case, my process was shaped by the constraints of my life. I had a newborn baby, and, for that first year, it was much easier for me to find time to read than it was for me to find time to write. After I put my son to bed in the evening, I was often too exhausted or scattered to write but not to read. So I read histories of vaccination, and of infectious disease, and of the anti-vaccination movement in Victorian England. I didn’t, initially, set out to research a book. I just wanted to write an essay. But I had read so much by the time I started writing that the scope of my project emerged as a book.
I try to follow where my work takes me—that is part of the pleasure of the process. I had the luxury of letting this process unfold because I was given several grants that allowed me to reduce my teaching and give more time to writing. That was essential for me. And that’s something that I’ve learned to respect about my own writing process—it takes time. And that time takes money. I’m fortunate to work at an institution that allows me to “buy” my own time back in exchange for a reduction in my salary. I’m also fortunate to have a mother who is an artist. Thanks to her, I’ve always understood that artists don’t live like other people.
NT: How did your writing process change when you became a parent? What were some challenges and how did you overcome them?
EB: The amount of time I could spend on writing was already confined by my work as a teacher, but I was accustomed, before I had a child, to indulging in some very long days, and I often wrote late into the night. That ended when I became a parent. At first, I thought I would write short works after my son was born, to match the short spans of time that I had for writing, but I almost immediately found my way into a long project. And, to my surprise, the interruptions in my writing time were not always unproductive. In many situations where I would have continued to bang my head against a problem on the page, I had to put down my work instead and go pick up my son from preschool. When I returned to my work the next day, or maybe several days later, I often had a solution to the problem, seemingly by magic. (It was like that fairy tale about the girl who is given impossible tasks but always wakes from a despairing nap to find them completed for her.)
I discovered that my mind continued to work over problems on the page even when I wasn’t at my desk, and this was a great revelation for me, learning that it can be productive to walk away from the work. That said, finding time to write was challenging, and I still needed to take five days away from my family to finish the book. I was in the final stages of writing then, and just reading over what I already had on the page could take me a couple hours, so I needed a few long days to bring the work to completion. I managed that by staying in a hermitage at the Christine Center, where some wonderful nuns provided me with meals.
NT: Your work reflects a strong commitment to listening to—and empathizing with—multiple points of view. Do you have suggestions for how parents can engage in empathic listening around divisive issues such as immunization or school of choice?
EB: One of the essential aspects of essaying, for me, is disagreeing with myself, contradicting myself, and changing my mind. “Do I contradict myself?” Whitman asked. “Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” We all contain multitudes, and our multiplicity is part of what On Immunity is about. Almost all of the ideas that I explore in that book are ideas that I inhabited at one point or another. And the book is, in part, a record of me changing my mind. I was unwilling to cast women who were vaccine-hesitant as ignorant or stupid, in part, because I think that’s a misogynist stance, but also because I was one of those women. As a teacher and a writer, both, I’m dedicated to the possibility of people changing their minds. I’m wary of any “mindset,” even my own, because I don’t think a mind should be set. Good thinking keeps moving.