Eula Biss

recorded in Chicago, IL


Eula Biss

I’m Eula Biss and I live in Chicago, in Roger’s Park, specifically. I’ve been here almost five years and I’ve been in the Midwest seven, maybe going on eight. And the question was, does the place where I live affect my writing or how does it affect my writing. Chicago has shaped my writing a lot. My book Notes from No Man’s Land  has several essays set in Chicago, and actually the title essay “No Man’s Land,” which I think of as a kind of turning point in the book is about this neighborhood where I live, and about all of these thoughts and questions and conundrums that were churned up by moving here. And the genesis of that essay was moving here, to Rogers Park, and noticing that lots of my neighbors were using the word—lots of my white neighbors—were using the word “pioneer” to describe themselves.  And that word kept bothering me, getting under my skin, also piquing my interest. I wondered, What do they mean by that? Are they comparing themselves to pioneers of the American West? And if so, that’s a really troublesome comparison, for a number of reasons, among them that Chicago is much more densely populated than the American West was [laughs]. But in either case, there’s actually some interesting similarities there, because the pioneers of the American West, I think, also imagined themselves moving into an uninhabited place, but that place was already inhabited, and the Native Americans who lived here lost their livelihoods and all their game—a lot of them starved to death, you know. We all know this story, but it’s a pretty awful story of people starving, dying of disease, being driven out, and being cheated out of their land. So I wondered if something could be made of thinking about that history next to thinking about the process of gentrification, which is going on in this neighborhood. White people moving into a neighborhood that is, at this moment and for the past 15 years, has been mostly a black, Mexican, and a few other groups kind of neighborhood. All of that sounded like I was building to some sort of conclusion, but there is no conclusion [laughs]. Except that I muddled around in those ideas for a while and the essay’s what resulted from that muddling around. But it was very much living here that produced that writing.  And the problems of living here.  And the necessity to these kind of weighted, dicey issues in order to keep living here. I felt that, as a white person living in this neighborhood, I really needed to do some thinking about what it meant for me to be here and what my relationship with my neighbors was and could be. And in my research I found out that the road right here, just past the corner of my apartment building, Roger’s Ave, you probably walked on it on your way here, used to be what was called the Indian Boundary. So, it was part of a treaty that was negotiated. There were two boundaries and within those two boundaries, all the way from I think the Mississippi to Lake Michigan, the whites were given kind of free passage to roam in this territory.  But north of this boundary—and I live north of it—and south of the southernmost boundary, was supposed to be Indian territory. So, I’m like fifteen feet into former Indian territory.  Which is also interesting, and to me, feels a little bit freighted.

Mavis Biss

Iowa figures prominently in that.

E. Biss

Yeah, and Iowa does too, yeah.


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