Notes from No Man’s Land
(Graywolf Press, 2018)
“Identity,” James Baldwin wrote, “would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self; in which case, it is best that the garment be loose.” The racial, social and geographic boundaries which form those identities are at the center of Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land. Originally published in 2009, the collection of hybrid essays—part memoir, part cultural critique—earned Biss the 2008 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize and the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. The book seamlessly weaves literary essay, journalism, and cultural critique, placing Biss alongside genre-bending nonfiction writers like Maggie Nelson, Leslie Jamison, and Wayne Koestenbaum. This November, Graywolf Press released its ten-year anniversary edition of Notes from No Man’s Land; Biss’s compelling investigation of race and privilege in the United States remains as timely and relevant as ever.
Notes from No Man’s Land opens with “Time and Distance Overcome,” a series of vignettes that juxtapose the histories of two American inventions: the telephone, and lynching. At the turn of the 19th century, telephone poles were constructed across the United States, and later transformed into the gallows that hung black men’s bodies “like flags in still air.” Biss spares no grim detail—her frank reportage exposes the gravity of America’s darker history. “In 1898, in Lake Cormorant, Mississippi, a black man was hanged from a telephone pole,” she writes. “In Danville, Illinois, a black man’s throat was slit, and his dead body was strung up on a telephone pole,” she continues. The litany is jarring. Yet even in the macabre, Biss is poetic in her use of syntax, speaking in the passive voice. “The poles, of course, were not to blame,” she writes, not once naming those who were. That, of course, is understood, but Biss’s rhetoric is emblematic of the language we use to distance ourselves from racial violence.
Biss concludes the section by turning inward, reflecting on how, as a child, she thought the telephone poles were magnificent. “Nothing is innocent,” Biss’s sister reminds her. “But nothing,” Biss would like to think, “remains unrepentant.” It is, perhaps, through articulating these narratives that Biss hopes to begin the process of atonement.
Yet Biss is not one to condemn, and no one’s complicity is scrutinized as acutely as her own. “I have rarely turned down any of the privileges my skin has afforded me,” she writes in “Relations,” a meditation on race and passing. As a white woman who was raised with African traditions in a multiracial family, Biss grapples with the legacy of whiteness she feels separate from yet cannot escape. Later, in “Back to Buxton,” she admits the sense of ease and familiarity she experienced after moving to the Midwest:
At the time, I am sure I would have denied that race had anything to do with my sense of belonging, but I would not have denied that certain everyday actions, like walking to the grocery store, were more comfortable because I was not in a place where my race was noticed.
Here, Biss offers no simple solutions. “Perhaps it would be better if we simply refused to be white,” she writes. “But I don’t know what that means, really.”
In “Is This Kansas,” Biss is confronted with the myths inherited by the young, mostly white undergraduate students she instructed at the University of Iowa. For one, they believe racism only exists in the past. She writes: “These things, they informed me with exasperation, had already been resolved a long time ago.” And so, when Hurricane Katrina obliterated Louisiana, her students—as well as the American media, Biss keenly notes—were quick to perpetuate the unsubstantiated reports of looting and violence in New Orleans. “We were talking about everything White Americans feared would be taken from us by Black Americans.” Today, it is not difficult to see the continuum from Black Americans to migrant caravans.
In “Goodbye to All That,” Biss borrows from Joan Didion’s landmark essay of the same title, rearranging Didion’s syntax in order to convey how disparate their experiences of New York were. Young and broke, Biss arrived in New York hoping to find her voice as a writer. The reality was rather bleak. “Everything was irrevocable, and nothing was within reach,” Biss writes, inverting the Didion line, that “nothing was irrevocable, everything was within reach.” Like Didion, Biss is unsentimental and precise, and the result is almost like a conversation between the two writers. Where Didion reflects her time in New York with a sense of endless possibility, Biss is dejected. “Joan Didion suggested that it is a city for only the very young,” Biss writes. “In my worst moments, especially when standing on Madison Avenue, I have suspected that it is a city for only the very desperate or the very deluded.” Through her brilliant rewrite, Biss reveals that Didion’s iconic New York story is actually not about New York at all. It is about the fictions we tell.
The reissue of Notes fromNo Man’s Land concludes with one additional essay, a coda entitled “Murder Mystery” that echoes the litany of lynchings in the book’s opening essay. These names, however, are all-too-familiar: “In 2015, an unarmed black man named Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri,” Biss writes. From there, the list of continues: Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner. All killed by police for crimes “real or imagined.” Yet unlike the opening essay, Biss does not hide that the police are responsible for these men’s deaths, nor does she say they are the only ones culpable. To do so would be too convenient. Instead, Biss considers her own guilt when a black neighbor invites her over for a murder mystery party. “We’re all victims in this murder mystery,” she writes, “and we’ll never solve it if we don’t recognize that. We’ll just continue wandering around, lost in our given identities, interrogating each other, wondering who the guilty party might be.”