An Interview with Eula Biss


“My long-term interest is in the forces that threaten human connection.” 

The evolving thoughts Eula Biss had while rereading a challenging work of auto-ethnography:

“I hate this book.”

“This book is terrible.” 

 “One doesn’t read a book one hates three times.” 


An Interview with Eula Biss


“My long-term interest is in the forces that threaten human connection.” 

The evolving thoughts Eula Biss had while rereading a challenging work of auto-ethnography:

“I hate this book.”

“This book is terrible.” 

 “One doesn’t read a book one hates three times.” 

An Interview with Eula Biss

Mara Naselli
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To read Eula Biss’s work is to watch a writer doing the hard work of disassembling American mythologies in light of the facts. Her essays are shot through with an unflinching examination of our own self-narrated identities, as they relate to marriage, family, racism, vaccination, class, capitalism, debt, and property. In The Balloonists (Hanging Loose Press, 2002), she explores the dissolution of a marriage. In Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays (Graywolf Press, 2009), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, she plumbs the fictions of whiteness. In On Immunity: An Inoculation (Graywolf Press, 2014), she investigates the anxieties and metaphors around vaccination. In Having and Being Had (Riverhead Books, 2020), she writes through the dumbing effect of capitalism’s distortions to examine how we value labor, art, and one another. She is currently at work on her next book, about private property.

In all her work, Biss scrutinizes the nature of our connection in American life. In one of her early essays, “Time and Distance Overcome,” she looks at how telephone poles, instruments of communication, became gallows in public lynchings across the country in the early twentieth century. Vaccines—our greatest collective defense against viral disease—become a symbol of violation and trespass. Money, our shared concrete metaphor of value, becomes a tool of exclusion. Each subject Biss examines exposes the contested ground on which we make and remake our American identities. 

It isn’t easy to see one’s own story on a collision course with the facts. I recently re-read Biss’s essay “Goodbye to All That,” about leaving New York and youthful misperceptions. In Joan Didion’s essay by the same name, she recalls an unfurnished apartment where she hung gold curtains, hoping the warm color would make her feel better. Instead, they blew out in a tangle and were ruined by the rain. Biss also puts up curtains to hide an empty room. By now we know the reference. The stories we tell ourselves are window dressing. 

Biss and I have long shared work as friends, but for her most recent manuscript, she hired me to work with her through the final stages of revision. Though I am familiar with Biss’s subjects and her uncompromising acuity, Having and Being Had presented new challenges for me as an editor and for her as a writer. The pacing and tonal register were new territory for Biss, as was the conceptual heart of the project—capitalism and alienated labor. It eventually became clear that Having and Being Had was a natural next step in Biss’s oeuvre. On two occasions, we sat down via Zoom and talked about how she approached each of her books and the overarching inquiries that have motivated her. 

—Mara Naselli

I. The Marriage of Mission and Style

THE BELIEVER: Each book you write is distinct stylistically, as if you are working to figure out how your medium will best serve a particular subject. How does each project make its demands on you?

EULA BISS: Yes, each book makes different demands, and the part that’s exciting and challenging, from a craft point of view, is figuring out what has to happen stylistically. What are the stylistic requirements of this particular subject matter or this particular project? Who do I have to be as a writer to make this happen?

That question results in works that are fairly stylistically distinct. I have always been preoccupied with how I can bend this medium to my purposes. I wrote my first book, The Balloonists, while I was supposed to be writing my undergraduate thesis, which I intended to be a big, serious work of nonfiction about marriage. I was doing lots of research and making zero progress on that thesis. The only thing I had written were these notes to myself, fragments of memory and experience, all loosely associated with the problem of marriage. 

I couldn’t yet see this as a legitimate way of writing, though it was my way. This was how I talked to myself privately, on the side, but I thought that if I was going to make a public document, I would have to do it the way other people did it. When I allowed myself to let go of that, my notes became The Balloonists.

The breakthrough for me in that book was in embracing an unconventional stylistic and formal approach that felt organic to my thinking and my subject. But I still made some effort to write according to the conventions of genre, and those efforts failed. The only book manuscript I’ve never published was written immediately after The Balloonists and pursued questions posed by that book: What if we discard our received narratives about marriage? What if we reinvent the institution for our own needs? What would marriage look like if its purpose was to serve relationships between people, rather than all the other historical purposes it has served, like consolidating wealth, and making property out of women?

That unpublished manuscript was a bid to be taken seriously as a writer. I had been writing between genres, publishing prose poetry, working in a space that was marginal, and I wanted to be understood as a serious writer. I thought, OK, I’m going to have to speak the language that people take seriously. So I’ll step aside from my playful engagement with the boundary between poetry and prose and I’ll write a straight-ahead work based on journalistic techniques. That book failed in part because there was a disconnect between what the book was saying and the way it was written.

That manuscript was about queering marriage—I guess that might be the best way of saying it. This was in the early aughts, when gay marriage was all over the news. But the way the question of gay marriage was being framed was: Should the government allow gay people to enter this sacred institution? Will it ruin marriage if we let gay people in? My argument was more like, we’d better ruin it—we’ve got to break it to save it.

That argument was too strange for the very straight-ahead stylistic approach I chose—there was a mismatch between the mission and the style. I wasn’t letting myself write about unconventional marriages in an unconventional style; I was trying to force myself to be the serious writer I wanted people to think I was. 

BLVR: What were your stylistic strategies in Notes from No Man’s Land? 

EB: I was writing Notes simultaneous to working on that marriage manuscript. Those essays were an outlet for me to write the way I really wanted to write, the way I felt comfortable writing. That work was a place where I could develop my skills in handling, say, a fractured text that offered a kaleidoscopic look at a question or a problem. But again, this was my side project. It still didn’t feel totally legitimate, and that wasn’t just in my head. The response I would sometimes get from editors when I sent them work was, “What is this?”

At that time, the kind of essays I was writing were still on the far margins of what was accepted as nonfiction. That’s no longer true, and one of the strange experiences of my career arc is that I have mostly stayed in an experimental relationship with my prose, abandoning conventions when I need to, but the kind of writing I do has become increasingly mainstream. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric and Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts—their success with readers brought a way of writing that had been happening in the margins into the mainstream. Claudia had been doing that kind of writing for a long time. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric was a book I admired in grad school. Hilton Als was also doing genre-bending work. The Women was hugely influential on me in college. When I read that book I thought, This is what I want to do! He was combining literary criticism, sociology, personal narrative, autobiography, biography—drawing widely from all these different modes and approaches and making his own work, which was a response to his own questions and ideas. That was exciting to me. 

BLVR: One of the most interesting things in re-reading Notes from No Man’s Land was the notes, which function as a shadow text, tracing one thread of inquiry to the next. There’s a mainstream idea, particularly around the personal essay, that the essayistic mode is breezy and impressionistic. But these notes show a rigorous undergirding of research and thinking.

EB: That notes section in Notes from No Man’s Land was inspired by Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. When I hit the notes in that book, I thought, Oh, I’ve got to go back and read this book again. The notes were what signaled to me that the book was doing something more complicated than I had originally understood.

The word notes in the title of Notes from No Man’s Land is an homage to James Baldwin, but notes is also my word for the private conversation I have with myself on the page. In Notes from No Man’s Land,I developed that private conversation into a public document. I was talking to myself, but I was also talking to history. I was propelled by the urgent necessity to better understand my race in this historical context. What does it mean to be white in this country now?

I lived in New York City when I started writing that book, and it was palpable to me that my race meant something to the people around me. I could see that. I felt it in interactions. I had this unsettling sense that all these people around me seemed to understand something about me that I didn’t understand about myself. I felt like, OK, I can’t continue to be dumber about whiteness than everyone around me.

BLVR: In Notes you take up the mandate Baldwin puts to whites early in his career: Save yourselves. Save your own soul. None of this is going to get better until you recognize you’re not winning.

EB: Yes, exactly.

BLVR: Since both No Man’s Land and On Immunity, we’ve had a revival of white nationalism and a pandemic heavily politicized over vaccination. 

EB: I’ve always believed that I can’t write timely work, because I’m such a slow writer. The one book I didn’t publish was going to be my timely book, written in response to the debate over gay marriage. If my work is prescient in any way, it’s because I write from the questions that feel most pressing in my everyday lived life. Because I’m a product of this culture, things that feel pressing to me are often things that feel that way to other people. But it takes some time for the things that feel pressing in our everyday lives to become a public conversation. On Immunity did not look like a major book when I began work on it. At that time, my subject looked small and unnecessary, domestic and gendered. But the question of vaccination felt huge in my everyday life. This question was tearing apart communities of new mothers, but the national discourse hadn’t caught up yet, for reasons I think are sexist. 

BLVR: To be honest, when you told me you were writing a book on vaccination, I thought, What? Certainly that prejudice was embedded in my response.

EB: I didn’t even take vaccination that seriously. At first I didn’t want to write a book—I just wanted to write an essay. The subject kept spilling over the bounds of a single essay.

II. The Shape of Thought

BLVR: What about the stylistic demands of On Immunity? That book has a very different voice from Notes from No Man’s Land. It’s more discursive.

EB: That more discursive quality came directly from the pressures of my material. As I learned more about my subject matter, I saw more clearly that part of what was going on behind many people’s fears of vaccination, including my own, was very loose associative thinking, which I recognized because I’m an associative thinker. The shape of my work up until that point was usually dictated by association, my most comfortable mode of thought. Over the course of researching that book, I made the dreadful realization—I was going to have to write a book that critiqued the way of thinking that was most natural for me.

I investigated various loose associations around vaccination, like the idea that the financial corruption of big pharmaceutical companies is corrupting the purity of vaccines. I came to see that, actually, the evidence doesn’t point to that. My research led me again and again to the understanding that these associations might make sense to me and might be, in many ways, legitimate associations, but they don’t lead to truths. It was a horrible thing for me to realize. The whole book became an exercise in critiquing my own style of thought. The actual writing was painful. It hurt. It hurt my brain. I was working against my own impulses as a thinker and constantly checking myself and constantly forcing myself to rewind an association and think it through and logically parse it out. It was psychologically and creatively exhausting. When I finished that book, I felt good about it, felt proud of it, felt I had really pushed myself and made myself write in a way that wasn’t comfortable for me. And I also felt like I never wanted to do that again.

BLVR: It made you sick.

EB: Yeah. It brought me to my knees. So the permission I gave myself when I finished On Immunity was to let myself do whatever I felt like doing in the next book. Let it be associative, let it be poetry, let it be whatever. This book was real work, so the next one’s going to be play.

BLVR: And funny.

EB: As it turns out, Having and Being Had was real work too. Also painful. But it started as play, with me messing around and making jokes. And I allowed myself to return to wide associations. 

BLVR: It’s a remarkable insight for you to discover that associative thinking could not govern the form of On Immunity

EB: On Immunity was actually about the shape thought takes. It was as much about metaphor as it was about vaccination. That book demanded that I interrogate what metaphor is, how it’s working in our discourses, and how it’s working on a very personal level. I had to examine the metaphors that we use in our own minds for what we’re doing when we inject something into our bodies. Is that a violation? What metaphors does the penetration of skin invite? For a lot of people, that invites rape metaphors. Rape, sexual violence, physical violence, and state violence come up again and again in conversations about vaccination. It’s a powerful metaphorical space. 

Working with metaphor was one of my inheritances from poetry—from being trained by poets, from reading poetry, from being in community with poets, from writing poetry. My relationship with metaphor was then deepened and complicated in writing On Immunity. I had to regard metaphor as a tool, rather than just using it. I had to ask: How is this tool best used? I entered Having and Being Had with a much more sophisticated understanding of how I wanted to use metaphor and how it’s responsibly employed. And what its dangers are too.

I didn’t want to go into writing about capitalism with a knee-jerk, unexamined attitude that capitalism is just bad, whatever it is. That’s why that book has this refrain: “What is capitalism?” I didn’t want to let myself critique something I couldn’t even define. 

III. The Pliability of Metaphors

BLVR: In your work you consistently show how pliable our interpretations of metaphors can be. Metaphor can lead us to define ourselves against others. Or it can lead us to understand how deeply interconnected we are. 

EB: Yes.

BLVR: Plato wanted to get rid of poets because poets have the ability to ignite the passions and compel us to abandon our reason. I love that your books, using the tools of the poet and the tools of reason, bring a thinking, feeling pressure to urgent and emotionally volatile questions. 

EB: Yes. Feeling is a kind of thinking, and thinking often comes from feeling. That tension you noted in On Immunity around connectedness and disconnectedness—as you’ve observed, that’s a through line across all my work. Every book I’ve written is about relationships between people and the ways those relationships are threatened by institutionalized ideas. My long-term interest is in the forces that threaten human connection. 

For me, the most everyday experience of pain around racism is the way it damages relationships and makes certain kinds of relationships impossible or improbable. Even the people who seem to be benefiting materially from racism are losing relationships with other people and losing a depth of relation and a richness of relation. 

I didn’t think about that until you brought it up—this thread through all the books—but one of my primary investments in writing about racism is trying to recognize and understand the damage that’s done interpersonally. And also to reclaim the possibilities. As with marriage. There’s an institutionalized idea of what marriage is, and we have to work around that idea. In a racialized society, we’ve got to somehow figure out how to be in relationship with one another outside of the damaging, destructive concept of racial superiority.

IV. Inoculation Against Forgetfulness

BLVR: There is a relational inquiry underway in Having and Being Had around money and class. This book is so formally and tonally distinct from your previous books. How did you approach this manuscript? 

EB: At first, I just wrote and watched what was happening. After doing some preliminary, exploratory writing, I knew the book would be composed of short, titled pieces written in the present tense. This lashed me to the moment in which I was writing. The book was about money and class, and I had more money in that moment than I’d ever had in the past. My strong inclination was to retreat into the past, where I’d had less money, to hide in a situation that felt more comfortable on the page. 

Many of the rules I imposed on my own writing in this book were about not allowing myself to hide. In one piece I recount a conversation with my sister where I tell her that I haven’t bought a house so much as I’ve bought a $400,000 container for a washing machine—I’m kind of joking and kind of serious. When I revisited that conversation on the page, I saw that I had rounded down considerably. The actual cost of the house was $485,000, so really, I should have rounded up to $500,000. I had to ask myself why I had lied to my own sister. The answer was because I felt self-conscious.

I was aware that my sister had paid about half that price for her house. I knew who I was talking to. I did the thing many of us in the middle class do when we’re talking to another member of the middle class who’s in a different housing market or a different income bracket—we adjust the facts of our own life slightly. I did that without really thinking about it. So I made a rule for myself that there would be no more of that.

I had projects in this book that were private, as well as public projects. For the reader, I wanted to explore and expose middle-class complicity. For my own private project, it was really important to me that the narrator not be disingenuous. 

It took me a while to understand the tone or posture that emerged in this book, a tone that was somewhat relaxed and light and fairly sardonic. This was a different tone for me. As I watched the work unfold, I understood that making an earnest or self-serious critique of class and capitalism felt disingenuous to me. 

BLVR: And would be absurd. 

EB: Yes! To be honest, I had to be making fun of myself. And yet, I’m serious about my own conviction that there are no winners in this unjust system. I feel the same way about whiteness—social hierarchies are mutually destructive to those at the top and the bottom. I’m dead serious about that.

Years ago the novelist Lê Thị Diễm Thúy described the Vietnamese tea ceremony to me as a writing lesson. The aesthetic of the ceremony is to hold heavy things as if they are very light, to lift a teapot as if it is made of air. And then to hold light things, such as a teacup, as if they are very heavy. This motion, sinking and floating in two different directions, is part of what creates the beauty of the ceremony. That was a lesson on aesthetics I never forgot—it spoke to my sensibility. I have an appreciation for heavy subjects treated as if they’re light, and light subjects treated as if they’re heavy. I think both things are happening in this book in various ways.

BLVR: It took me a while to figure out how to approach Having and Being Had in manuscript.

EB: It was interesting to me that you had to go through that process as a reader. I didn’t feel that much ahead of you at that point, even though the book was almost done when I showed the manuscript to you. I had all these questions and misgivings about what was going on in it. There were quite a few elements that I knew had to be a certain way, but I didn’t know why. I was just feeling my way through. I came to you in this very trembling state—I thought, It has to be this way, but I don’t know why! Help me! 

BLVR: I do think works contain their own instruction manuals. 

EB: You told me the book would provide the key to read the map. By the time I gave the manuscript to you, I knew it required a lot of interpretive work. I wanted to craft a surface for this book that was pleasurable and easy in a way, to hide my own work as a writer. So much of this book is about different kinds of labor. But it is also about pleasure, and where we find pleasure in work and where we don’t. I was enjoying the fact that I was putting a tremendous amount of work into making the book read as if it hadn’t demanded all that work. 

It’s a book that offers the reader both pleasure and work, ideally. You helped me by articulating your own interpretative work as a reader, and by showing me where that work was too much of a strain.

BLVR: I struggled with the manuscript, in part, because I misread it at first as an argument with intellectual history. Then, at 3:00 a.m., after a few passes, the images began to click and I realized it needed to be read as a poem. 

EB: Yes, as a poem. With attention to metaphor and suggestion and pattern and repetition. There’s a repetition of the word understanding in this book. I feared losing a certain kind of understanding by moving into a new economic status. There is an essential knowledge—there’s no better word—
a knowledge that you acquire through being in constant conversation with people who are financially insecure. I had a visceral fear when I made this move into homeownership that I was going to become out of touch, that I was going to lose some essential, everyday knowledge. There’s a common assumption that once you have that knowledge you never lose it. People often announce their class status as the class they grew up in, and the fantasy is that you never lose what you learned from being in that situation. But you can lose what you learned. I felt myself losing it. Knowledge is fragile.

V. The Gift Economy

BLVR: Political theorist Danielle Allen has written how, as a country, we have privileged liberty over equality. Yet when we are confronted face-to-face with inequality, we are so ashamed that we lie to ourselves about our own privilege and sheer good luck.

EB: Those lies and that shame are both socially destructive. The particular aspect of capitalism that most interested me in Having and Being Had was how capitalism was shaping my relationships with other people. Where was it damaging those relationships? What was it making possible or impossible? That’s one reason why the book is saturated with a quiet sense of loss. I experienced real loss alongside material gain. And the two are not unrelated to each other.

There’s a quote I love from Fred Moten in his book The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study: “I don’t need your help. I just need you to recognize that this shit is killing you, too, however much more softly, you stupid motherfucker, you know?”

That’s how I feel—this shit is killing me too. Terms like allyship don’t appeal to me because that language implies that you’re providing aid in someone else’s war. That’s not how I think about it. I feel like, no, actually, I’m fighting my own war, for my own sake. 

We’re the inheritors of a lot of historical—

BLVR: Assumptions?

EB: I wanted to just say mess. We’ve inherited this historical mess that we call whiteness. And this historical mess we call capitalism. This mess is so pervasive in so many parts of my life that I’m not even sure where to locate it. 

The question that led to Having and Being Had came out of a short chapter in On Immunity that’s explicitly about capitalism, specifically vampire capitalism. One of the things capitalism is taking from us is our ability to trust other people’s motives. If you live in a society where the assumption is that everyone’s motives are profit driven, that generates a kind of ambient paranoia, a general lack of trust. When I saw this in anti-vax literature, I began to wonder, What is capitalism doing to us psychologically? How is it hurting our ability to trust each other and interact with each other in productive ways? How is this system shaping my life and my relationships and my own thinking? Are there ideas I can’t have because I’ve absorbed the tenets of capitalism in some fundamental way? Are there possibilities in my life that seem unapproachable because I’ve absorbed the precepts of capitalism? And the answer was yes. Yes, there are.

Part of the personal work of writing Having was undoing some of the assumptions I had absorbed so I could make decisions that looked like bad decisions according to the logic of capitalism, but that were the right decisions for me. I had to really talk myself through the question: What is capitalism doing to my mind?

I’m increasingly interested in this intersection between things that are real—like interactions with other people—and powerful concepts that are essentially imaginary. Race is conceptual, but it’s a reality in our everyday lives. Racism does real damage. And it’s an idea, an imaginary idea.

What ultimately brought me to writing about land as property, which will be my next book and is the companion book to Having and Being Had, is that property, like race, is conceptual. One of Robert Nichols’s central points in Theft Is Property!: Dispossession and Critical Theory is that the idea of land as property is wholly conceptual. Land is real and you can occupy land and have a relationship with land as a person. But once you step into the idea of owning land, you’re in an entirely conceptual space. The ownership of land isn’t real, in that sense. David Graeber argues that property relationships are really relationships with other people. We’re not talking about our relationship with a thing when we talk about owning property. We’re talking about the rules we are making about how we can interact with each other. He writes, “Property is a social relation… [that] consists of the right to exclude ‘all the world’ from access to a certain house, or shirt, or piece of land.” Private property is one person saying, Here’s what you other people can’t do. Not Here’s my relationship to this thing

BLVR: In Having, the search to rethink the value of connection and art-making functions as an antidote to the predatory effects of the marketplace.

EB: Art-making and parenting are similar in that way. They are both antidotes to the market in part because they hold little economic value. We don’t parent for profit. And most artists make art at a loss.

BLVR: And yet both parenting and art-making can be undone by the perceived and actual pressures of the market economy. It is difficult to understand the value of art if we take the market to be its primary measure. It wasn’t until I read The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World by Lewis Hyde that I could finally see that art-making and the market are at odds. The disposition best suited to art-making is the logic of the fairy tale, not the logic of the balance sheet. 

EB: What’s beautiful about this is that The Gift is a book you gave me! It’s emblematic to me of the gifts that are passed between artists in community with each other. There’s an informal system among artists of supporting each other, supporting each other’s work, reading for each other, as you and I have read for each other, and providing all these necessary services. It’s not just editing each other and critiquing each other. It’s also providing each other with the sense that what we’re doing matters, which is essential if you live in a system where your work doesn’t matter unless it earns money.

As I was working on Having, I came to the decision that I would sell the book to buy myself time to write. And I did. I sold it for more money than everything I’d earned as a writer for the whole twenty years of my writing career that preceded this book. Making money off a capitalist critique within a capitalist system felt subversive and at the same time the opposite of subversive—emblematic of what I get to do with the position I’m in. The book is full of contradictions and both parts of this particular contradiction are true. There’s true subversion in what I did with the book and it’s also a true manifestation of privilege.

I recently read an interview with the painter Julie Mehretu. She was commissioned to do a mural for Goldman Sachs, and she put some thought into why she would take a commission from this huge financial institution. She had her reasons and they were artistic—it was going to be the biggest work she’d ever created and she had ambitions that were going to be made possible by this commission. She said all this without apology. I liked her clarity. Her clarity of purpose was about serving her vision as an artist. If a bank was going to give her five million dollars to execute her vision, then as an artist, she was going to take it.

BLVR: To serve the work.

EB: Yes. Which brings us back to The Gift. Questions about capitalism throughout Having are overt. What is less overt is that I’m also thinking about generosity and gifts and informal economies. As much as I’m critiquing certain elements of capitalism, I’m celebrating the true generosity that I encounter in my daily life. I’ve been the beneficiary of so much generosity. The book opens with a list of all the things that people in my apartment building in Chicago gave to me—those material things stand in for the sense of generous community I enjoyed there. I also enjoy that kind of community among artists. Part of why the book is filled with these little exchanges with other artists and other writers, including you, is that I’m celebrating the richness these exchanges bring to my life—exchanges with people who are generous intellectually, who share their ideas and push my ideas and see where I’m going with my thinking and then support that thinking by, say, giving me the book The Gift. You sent me on this trajectory that turned into a major project for me. 

As I wrote Having and Being Had, I thought about how the book could be generous. One of the generosities, as I see it, is that I made all my critiques through myself. 

BLVR: You give the reader a way to look at a system intimate to our own lives. To examine one’s own situation is threatening and scary. There’s so much ink spilled about the limits of the first-person narrator, the limits of the personal essay, but this is an example of how high those stakes can be.

EB: That’s what I want it to be. I’m a believer in the plural first person, the first person who stands in for a whole class or set of people. Most first-person speakers are not speaking for everyone, but they might be speaking for a group. I’m offering a mirror, and if the reader has certain things in common with me, that mirror is going to create a complicated reading experience. Some readers are ready and eager to look into the mirror, and some will want to look away. 

BLVR: There’s a mastery to drawing a reader into doubting her own mythologies. It’s the reader’s choice to stay with her own confusion, unsettledness, discomfort. 

EB: I learned a lot about how my book probably feels to readers by reading My Life with Things, by Elizabeth Chin. As an anthropologist, she studied consumption and the consumption habits of poor people of color in Connecticut. But in this book, she decided to turn the same tools on herself, a university professor, and to take field notes on her life. Initially, I read it and thought, I hate this book. This book is terrible. I found it disturbing, but I wasn’t ready to admit to myself why. Then I read it again, and a third time. Then I thought, One doesn’t read a book one hates three times. 

BLVR: That’s the gift economy at work—working on you in ways you’re not engineering, ways that are not merely reinforcing views or feelings you already have. In fairy tales there is often a bid to engagement, and sometimes these relationships are scary or even dangerous. A crow or a bear or an old woman asks something of you, and the journey begins. You don’t know where you will go, but you know you will be transformed, as long as you don’t deny the bid. In The Gift, Hyde writes, “The passage into mystery always refreshes. If… we can look once a day upon the face of mystery, then our labor satisfies.” 

EB: That’s the gift of literature—it’s transformation, but it’s transformation you have to participate in. It’s not the touch of a wand; it’s much more like the contract with an old woman and the labors. There are often labors in fairy tales, a series of labors or tests, and the transformation is enacted after those labors, or through those labors. I think the works that have offered me the most radical transformation are works that were very difficult for me—not hard to read for formal reasons, but difficult because it was hard to hear what they were saying.

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