Online Edition: Summer 2009

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 Notes from No Man’s Land

 American Essays

 Eula Biss

 Graywolf Press ($15)

 by Scott F. Parker

No Man’s Land was a nickname for “the sparsely populated place between the city of Chicago and the city of Evanston, the place just north of the boundary that once designated Indian Territory, a place where the streets were unpaved and unlighted.” In Notes from No Man’s Land, Eula Biss uses those three words to describe what she sees in America as a whole. What interests Biss in this volume of essays are all the no man’s lands in our country—public schools in New York, the gentrified neighborhoods of so many cities, and the psychological spaces of black children who think black dolls are uglier than white ones—places where people are cut off from themselves.

We’re all familiar with those old doll studies, but few of us have confronted what they mean as head-on as Biss:

I do not know exactly how the word “nice” was used in 1939 but I do know what it means now to describe a neighborhood as “nice” or another part of town as “bad” and I know what “nice” hair is and I know what it means when my landlady tells me, as I’m applying for a lease, that she won’t need my bank account number because I look like a “nice” person.

Biss puts her complicity at the forefront of all her essays (in this case, she takes the apartment and internalizes the guilt). She’s as devastatingly honest with herself as she is with the rest of us, and she resists the easy finger-pointing solutions that seduce so many cultural analysts. In the essay “Back to Buxton,” Biss identifies her own self-misunderstanding in thinking that when she moved to Iowa City she had found her true home: “I am haunted by the possibility that I was happy when I arrived in Iowa at least in part because of my misconception that I had come to a place where the people were like me.” Later, following the essayistic impulse to move from the personal to the cultural, she reflects on the state of fitting-in at the University of Iowa, in light of a study which found that minority students reported feelings of frustration, alienation, and unhappiness:

     I found myself wondering, as I read the report on diversity at the University of Iowa, whom this particular version of diversity was serving and whom it was intended to serve. For whose sake, I wondered, did the university want to increase the number of minority students from 9 percent to 10.9 percent? It did not seem to be for the sake of those students, for the sake of their education, or for the sake of their selves. I suspected that it was more for the sake of the institution, so that it could appear properly progressive.

Whether pointing out the self-serving hypocrisy of modern institutional agendas or rewriting Joan Didion’s famous “Goodbye to All That,” Biss’s steady gaze is invaluable to the contemporary essay. It is almost impossible to imagine that any of the books Notes from No Man’s Land beat out for the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize could have been more deserving. Reading this book will force you to take a long, hard look at what’s going on in a no man’s land near you.


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