NEA Literature Fellowships

Eula Biss

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(2012 - Prose)

Excerpt from Notes from No Man's Land

I worked, during my first year in New York, in some of the city's most notorious neighborhoods: in Bed-Stuy, in East New York, in East Harlem, in Washington Heights. That was before I knew the language of the city, and the codes, so I had no sense that these places were considered dangerous. I was hired by the Parks Department to inspect community gardens, and I traveled all over the city, on train and on bus and on foot, wearing khaki shorts and hiking boots, carrying a clip-board and a Polaroid camera.

I did not understand then that city blocks on which most of the lots were empty or full of the rubble of collapsed buildings would be read, by many New Yorkers, as an indication of danger. I understood that these places were poverty stricken, and ripe with ambient desperation, but I did not suspect that they were any more dangerous than anywhere else in the city. I was accustomed to the semi-rural poverty and post-industrial decay of upstate New York. There, by the highways, yards were piled with broken plastic and rusting metal, tarps were tacked on in place of walls, roof beams were slowly rotting through. And in the small cities, in Troy and Watervliet, in Schenectady and Niskayuna, in Amsterdam and in parts of Albany, old brick buildings crumbled, brownstones stood vacant, and factories with huge windows waited to be gutted and razed.

Beyond the rumor that the old hot dog factory was haunted, I don't remember any mythology of danger clinging to the landscape of upstate New York. And the only true horror story I had ever heard about New York City before I moved there was the story of my grandmother's brother, a farm boy who had gone to the city and died of gangrene after cutting his bare foot on some dirty glass. "Please," my grandmother begged me with tears in her eyes before I moved to New York, "always wear your shoes."

And I did. But by the time I learned what I was really supposed to be afraid of in New York, I knew better -- which isn't to say that there was nothing to be afraid of, because, as all of us know, there are always dangers, everywhere.

But danger was an abstraction to me then, not something I felt. In fact, I can recall vividly the first time I made the intellectual deduction that I might be in a dangerous situation -- I was riding the subway in Manhattan well past midnight, and I noticed after just a few minutes on the train that I was the only woman in that car. At the next stop, I walked into the next car, which was also full of men, and so I began traveling the length of the train. I eventually found a car where a woman was sleeping with her head resting on the man next to her, but by then I was unsettled. I looked into other trains as they passed us in the tunnels, and I looked at the people waiting on the platforms. Women did not ride the subway alone very late at night, I realized. And as I made this realization I felt not fear, but fury.

Even now, at a much more wary and guarded age, what I feel when I am told that my neighborhood is dangerous is not fear, but anger at the extent to which so many of us have agreed to live within a delusion -- namely that we will be spared the dangers that others suffer only if we move within certain very restricted spheres, and that insularity is a fair price to pay for safety.

Fear is isolating for those that fear. And I have come to believe that fear is a cruelty to those who are feared. I once met a man of pro-football-sized proportions who saw something in my hesitation when I shook his hand that inspired him to tell me he was pained by the way small women looked at him when he passed them on the street -- pained by the fear in their eyes, pained by the way they drew away --  and as he told me this tears welled up in his eyes.

One evening not long after we moved to Rogers Park, my husband and I met a group of black boys riding their bikes on the sidewalk across the street from our apartment building. The boys were weaving down the sidewalk, yelling for the sake of hearing their own voices and drinking from forty-ounce bottles of beer. As we stepped off the sidewalk and began crossing the street towards our apartment, one boy yelled, "Don't be afraid of us!"  I looked back over my shoulder as I stepped into the street and the boy passed on his bike so that I saw him looking back at me also, and then he yelled again, directly at me, "Don't be afraid of us!" 

I wanted to yell back, "Don't worry, we aren't!" but I was, in fact, afraid to engage the boys, afraid to draw attention to my husband and myself, afraid of how my claim not to be afraid might be misunderstood as bravado begging a challenge, so I simply let my eyes meet the boy's eyes before I turned, disturbed, towards the tall iron gate in front of my apartment building, a gate that gives the appearance of being locked but is in fact always open.

("No Man's Land" from Notes from No Man's Land: American Essays. Copyright © 2009 by Eula Biss. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, MN,

Eula Biss is the author of The Balloonists (Hanging Loose, 2002) and Notes from No Man's Land: American Essays (Graywolf, 2009). She holds an MFA from the University of Iowa and teaches nonfiction writing at Northwestern University. Her work has recently been recognized by a Guggenheim Fellowship, a 21st-Century Award from the Chicago Public Library, and a National Book Critics Circle Award. Her essays have recently appeared in The Best American Nonrequired Reading and The Best Creative Nonfiction as well as in the Believer, Fourth Genre, and Harper's. Her current work is concerned with metaphor in medicine and explores the intersection of public health and private decisions in the first year of an infant's life.

See our Art Talk with Eula Biss on the Art Works blog.

Photo by Eula Biss

Author's Statement

As a working mother who both teaches and writes, I lack nothing except time. All three of my pursuits -- mothering, teaching, and writing -- have a tendency to, in Betty Friedan's words, "expand to fill the time available." Three ever-expanding demands pressing against the limits of a day can produce a surprisingly desirable effect something like the checks and balances imagined into our three-part government. But those checks and balances are designed to resist dramatic change, and can prohibit certain kinds of ambition. I initially planned to work on just a handful of short essays for a few years after the birth of my son, but almost immediately a demanding book project emerged out of the new thinking I was doing as a mother. This project did not just fill my spare time at the end of the day, this project required me to learn about epidemiology and epistemology, to interview immunologists and toxicologists, and to become a dramatically different kind of writer. Though the experience of motherhood produced this project, pursuing it threatened my time with my son. By affording me time away from teaching, this generous fellowship has helped solve that conundrum. It will allow me to be both writer and mother. And the first, I am learning, depends very much on the second, just as the second depends on the first.