Sample Book Reviews
Slipperiness of Identity
Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays
244 pages; paper, $15.00
A little over a year after the election of Barack Obama, one of my students updated her Facebook status, writing, “Stop saying ‘Post-racial,’ or I will punch you in the jaw.” I wondered who sparked her outrage: A naïve liberal? A cynical racist? Or a lazy reporter, dutifully marking the passage of time with yet another year-in-review story? Her outrage, I’m sorry to say, amused me in a decidedly patronizing way; “There, there,” I thought, “good for you for being mad at anyone who thought Obama’s election marked the end of racism in America.”
I began reading Eula Biss’s brave collection of essays on race in the US, Notes from No Man’s Land, with the same kind of patronizing approval that I had for my student. While I was prepared to agree with Biss’s arguments, I reserved judgment on whether she had anything new to offer to the conversation. I weighed the novelty of her perspective as a white, privileged woman whose mother had embraced West African religion against her Iowa Writer’s Workshop pedigree, and, for a time, I merely admired her skillful and beautiful writing as I traveled over uncomfortably familiar ground. I read protectively, sparing Biss as long as I could from some sort of final dismissal as too earnest, too sorry, too white to matter.
"Biss is up to something wonderfully mature, intelligent, and new."
But I was wrong—because I’d mistaken her for myself, reading out of a sense of weary and cowardly liberalism, looking over my shoulder to see if anyone noticed who was really being too earnest, too sorry, and too white. Biss is up to something else, something wonderfully mature, intelligent, and new. In these essays, Biss reexamines not only her own history but that of her country, revealing in both delicate, poetic prose and blunt, necessarily emotionless journalism the truths, both painful and triumphant, of the American experiment. As she self-corrects her earlier reading of a children’s classic, she offers us a way to read her own story, writing,
“When I return to Little House on the Prairie now, as an adult, I find that it is not the book I thought it was. It is not the gauzy frontier fantasy I made of it as a child. It is not a naive celebration of the American pioneer. It is the document of a woman interrogating her legacy.”
Notes from No Man’s Land is Biss’s interrogation of her own legacy, one that is at once both distinct within the American experience and distinctly American.
Biss positions herself as a member of a self-described “mixed” family, explaining how, through marriage and adoption, she has biracial, black, and Cherokee cousins, and black and Chinese half siblings. She lived for a year in Brooklyn with her biracial first cousin; she taught creative writing in inner city schools in New York; she wrote for an African American newspaper in San Diego; she traveled to Mexico; and she studied in Iowa City, where she considered the difference between media coverage of post-storm looting by local university students and by Katrina survivors. But her most enduring connection to non-white culture was nourished by her mother, who left her husband and adopted a West African religion, the Yoruba tradition, and introduced Biss and her siblings to its art and ritual. Biss recalls, “There were weekends when I stood next to my dancing mother in a small, sweaty room that smelled of coconut oil and pulsed with the batá drums of Yoruba ritual.” Biss’s memories include “salty beans and rice” and singing “in a language we did not understand.” Even so, the experience remains embedded in Biss’s consciousness and identity.
Except, that is, when authenticity threatens to drift away; Biss hints at the slipperiness of identity as she finds herself missing pieces of her own past. She writes, “In college, I remember, the African-dance class humiliated me. Beginning dance students could perform the ritual dances of my childhood better than I could. Everything I had once thought was mine, I was learning, was borrowed or stolen or already lost to me.” But she struggles, successfully, to reclaim her legacy, defiantly proclaiming her ownership of the sound of the drums; “Now, on a bar stool in Harlem, my blood fights against my skin to rush out and meet the sound of the congas. I want to get up and say I know this sound. It is mine. We have spent days and nights together and this sound has been inside my body.” Biss is accustomed, she tells us, to being asked about her first name, Eula, by those who really mean to ask, “What are you?” And every essay in the collection seeks to answer that question, not just to satisfy individual curiosity, but as a way of answering the collective question, “Who are we?”
The collection’s first, and shortest, essay, “Time and Distance Overcome,” is a quiet, almost entirely journalistic piece about the evolution of the telephone pole in America that, in many ways, sets the tone and introduces the themes of the entire collection; the essay also introduces us to Biss’s curiosity and drive to make sense of history. She reports, “Mark Twain was among the first Americans to own a telephone, but he wasn’t completely taken with the device. ‘The human voice carries entirely too far as it is,’ he remarked.” She moves on to report the vandalism that brought down unlovely telephone poles in communities across the land, but asserts the inexorable spread of wired communication among and between towns, writing, “By the turn of the century, there were more telephones than bathtubs in America.”
In someone else’s hands, this essay might have been a lovely meditation on the telephone pole as a symbol for the shortened distances between people. But, as she tells us in an afterward, as she perused the archives of The New York Times, collecting stories from 1880 to 1920 that included the phrase “telephone pole,” she came upon numerous stories that revealed another use of these structures: the lynching of blacks. Her afterward reveals that the abrupt shift in the essay from the recitation of telephone pole facts to lynching stories mirrored her own shift of focus, and, after telling story after story about murder and mutilation, she must rely on understatement to draw her journalistic essay into her own story: “Now, I tell my sister, these poles, these wires, do not look the same to me.” And in every subsequent essay, Biss reevaluates her legacy, seeking the ways, however painful, appearance and even identity changes after honest and informed reflection.
Biss interrogates her identity in essay after essay, and understands that many readers will share her disappointment at what she discovers. The essay “Letter to Mexico” finds her at a cantina in La Salina, embarrassed by the behavior of another American. Her first reaction, “I felt sick with hatred then for my own people,” later shifts into a deeper understanding of her membership in a national population, like it or not:
“In the United States, it is very easy for me to forget that the people around me are my people. It is easy, with all our divisions, to think of myself as an outsider in my own country. I have been taught, and I have learned well, I realize now, to think of myself as distinctly different from other white folks—more educated, more articulate, less crude. But in Mexico these distinctions became as meaningless to me as they should have always been.”
The moments like these—when Biss is able to see herself through others’ eyes—transform her at the same time they identify uncomfortable truths about Americans who think we know better than others. The same white Americans who trouble themselves with questions of authenticity—Who ought to feel guilty? Who ought to apologize? Who can walk the delicate line between race-blindness and finding contentment in diversity?—are exactly the Americans who need to model Biss in her moments of intense self-examination.
I regard Biss’s essays as brave, not only because she’s addressing race in the US, and not only because she’s doing so from her own perspective, but because she encourages us to consider the worst in our history alongside tantalizing realities of greatness, community, and tolerance. Her move to Iowa introduced her to the fantastic, near-mythological story of Buxton, a small, short-lived mining town that offered true racial integration. “It was a prosperous place,” she writes. “But, more than that, it was a place that enjoyed unusually good race relations.” Even a scholarly study meant to test this myth of racial harmony in the early 1980s failed to find evidence that contradicted the memories of former residents, and Biss is not afraid to label the idea of Buxton as “a kind of promise.” This collection offers the same kind of hopeful promise: that within feelings of truly expressed guilt lie, Biss writes, “an impetus to redemption.”
Mary Pettice is an associate professor of English at Lebanon Valley College. She has published creative nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and reviews, and is currently at work on a collection of essays about adoption and reunion.