In her poem “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law,” Adrienne Rich writes of a woman who is “Poised, trembling and unsatisfied, before / an unlocked door, that cage of cages.” The subject of these lines is unclear, and so is the boundary between the woman and the cage; only the relation between the two is firm, defining. It is also alienating, divisive and halting. Like Rich, Eula Biss—essayist, poet, linguistic trespasser—has an eye for identifying insecurities around dividing lines. Her uncanny knack for seeing cages that entrap others is continuous with her talent for anxiously building them around herself.
In 2008, Biss won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize and published her first collection, Notes From No Man’s Land. Over the course of thirteen essays and innumerable apologies, she travels from New York to California to the Midwest, pointing out along the way the borders that arrange black, brown and white bodies. The collection won a National Book Critics Circle Award, and Biss was hailed as the next Joan Didion, possibly because she wrote her own essay titled “Goodbye to All That.” But Biss is more off-putting than Didion ever was.
Of the woman in her poem, caught in the uncertainty trap, Rich asks, “Is this fertilisante douleur?” Is this fertile pain? Biss is drawn to the same question but frames it differently: Where language is simultaneously the force that locks up and liberates, can anything grow? In America, there is only one side to every border. You are a citizen or an alien, a productive member of society or an invisible one; you’re in or you’re other. Biss explores why this is not a logic problem, but instead a problem of language and of metaphor in particular.
In Notes, Biss writes often about how she, as a white woman, is a racialized subject. It is a privileged role that is, nonetheless, always putting words in her mouth. Biss fusses with her status of diffident white chick as if it were ten sizes too small on her. In the book’s title essay, she recounts some time she spent with her husband in Chicago, where she was teaching at a university. There she observed the history of redlining and played a part in the slow gentrification of her neighborhood, Rogers Park, one of the few racially diverse areas in the city. Her friends and family tell her repeatedly that Rogers Park is dangerous, and Biss comes to resent her racial prerogative to pay for safety with her own detachment from the community. Still, she admits to experiencing her whiteness as a wall between herself and her neighbors. “So many of us have agreed to live within a delusion,” she writes, “that we will be spared the danger that others suffer only if we move within certain very restricted spheres.” The tension between withdrawal and engagement manifests itself in many poignant but undeniably awkward interactions. One night, on the way home, Biss and her husband encounter a group of black boys drinking and riding their bikes on the street and having a good time. As they cross the street to their apartment, one of the boys shouts after them, “Don’t be afraid of us!” Biss doesn’t reply, hurrying toward the gate of her apartment building, unsure of how she should have reacted and full of shame.