Poetic Explorations of American Culture, History, Race, and the Downsides of NYC

Book review: Notes from No Man’s Land, by Eula Biss

I discovered Eula Biss’s confrontational but melodic, intelligent and analytical writing in the collection Tales of Two Americas. It’s a great collection of essays, stories, and poems all dealing somehow with various aspects of American inequality. She contributed a piece about the concept of white debt, and how it’s not something that can be repaid simply by saying we’re not going to be racist anymore (I’m heavily simplifying, but you get the gist and should read her piece anyway because she can say it better than I can.)

I was delighted to find she’d written an entire collection of such”American essays”, as this is subtitled, heavily featuring, or spun from, her experience as a white woman raised in a multicultural, multiracial extended family. She writes here about what that means to her, including her mother’s relationship with a black man and indoctrination into the African Yoruba religion, as well as her biracial cousins’ experience being non-white in America and her connection with them, including living together in Brooklyn.

And maybe worth mentioning is that this collection, published in 2009, is highly lauded – it’s won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism and the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. I found the accolades well deserved.

It’s poetically written, in a way that paints such striking pictures from Biss’s memories. Like in this passage, giving a feel of what her childhood in the unusual cultural setting of Yoruba (for a white American kid) must’ve been like: “I fell asleep to the distant sound of drums, which I was not always entirely sure was the distant sound of drums. Rain, blood in the body, explosions in the quarry, and frogs are all drums.”

The essays are a hodgepodge of racial explorations combined with her own impressions, among many other varied topics – that kind of all over the place exploration being something I love in essay collections.

But she’s deft at weaving it all together, like when she begins the collection with a piece ruminating on Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone, observing, “Even now it is an impossible idea, that we are all connected, all of us” and goes on to look at why that is and isn’t true. She also pulls in document sources and stories from history that complement her personal stories, like when describing a strange, headline-grabbing custody battle after an embryo mixup, which boils down to an issue of race: “Are the baby boys brothers in the eyes of the law,” asked the New York Times, “or two separate people who just happened to arrive in the world on the same subway car?”

The standout piece for me was her creative reworking of Joan Didion’s famous essay about leaving New York City, “Goodbye to All That”. A native of upstate New York, Biss also found herself in a love/hate relationship with New York City at an age too young for it (but when are you ever ready to be on your own in New York, I guess – it doesn’t work like that). But unlike Joan, she leaves New York and doesn’t return, so her essay becomes more of a conversation with Didion about her interpretation of the place, which despite being an unhappy, melancholy experience, was still very different from Biss’s.

It’s an exquisite piece of writing and maybe because I also lived many years very young in New York and loved and hated it like everyone else, I connected so much with her experience there. Not to mention how well written it is. I could read that essay over and over.

Some favorite lines from it:

But that is not the way it really happened. That is how I learned to tell the story of my life in New York. I learned to make my experience of being young and new to the city sound effortless and zany. It was not… I didn’t mention that I couldn’t hear out of my right ear because it became clogged from crying. I didn’t mention all the time I wasted in bed, staring at the ceiling, debilitated with dread.

Did I know it would all cost something sooner or later? All the bewilderment and disorientation? I’m not sure. But I remember the moment when I realized exactly what it had already cost me. A friend and I thought it would be fun to go ice-skating in Prospect Park, but, like most things in New York that are supposed to be fun, it was miserable. 

I was most comfortable with people for whom New York was not a mirage, and I most trusted people who hated it there.
New York took everything I had.

I came to New York very young, and I left still young but not the same.

If you like this dreamy, poetic, explorational and mildly, but not obnoxiously, confessional writing style, coupled with thoughtful, careful musings on race in America, you’ll love this. Beautifully written, intelligent reflections on growing up and beginning to open your eyes to how the world works around you, race relations in modern America and historically, and impressions, observations, and analysis from a very gifted writer.

Verdict: 4/5

Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays
by Eula Biss
published February 3, 2009 by Graywolf Press (Macmillan)

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2 thoughts on “Poetic Explorations of American Culture, History, Race, and the Downsides of NYC

  1. What an interesting read. I’m curious, are the nonfiction/fiction pieces clearly defined? I love books that have a mix of pieces like this, but am always irked when a first-person short story reads like an essay only to throw me for a loop as I figure out that it’s fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Actually this whole book is nonfiction essays, so no chance for confusion! It’s an excellent read. The other book I mentioned at the beginning of the post, Tales of Two Americas, is the kind of mix you’re thinking of, and those pieces are clearly defined as what they are.

      Liked by 1 person

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