Book Review

Notes From No Man’s Land by Eula Biss

great essay collection... from america


NB: all italicised text following this was made by hand on a coach, all non-italicised text added at a later stage.


p. 162 – fear as destructive. “Fear” as a form of control.

Eula Biss’ 2009 collection of essays, Notes From No Man’s Land, has recently been published for the first time in the UK by Fitzcarraldo Editions, probably my favourite publishing house (sorry everyone else). It contains a selection of pieces written by white, American, female writer Eula Biss, and the reason why I’ve mentioned those biographical details is because they are important to the majority of these essays.

“Can you write about race while being white?” is a question I’ve heard and wondered about many times, but what Biss seems to prove here is that it is possible, as her insights and her thoughts are valuable, considered and – probs relevant to their success – personal. This is the quotation I flagged up in my notes on a coach:

Fear is isolating for those that fear. And I have come to believe that fear is a cruelty to those who are feared. I once met a man of pro-football-sized proportions who saw something in my hesitation when I shook his hand that inspired him to tell me he was pained by the way small women looked at him when he passed them on the street – pained by the fear in their eyes, pained by the way they drew away – and as he told me this, tears welled up in his eyes.

Biss is writing in this essay about race, and how something that may seem to contradict traditional ideas of prejudice is actually another act of power. Biss is talking about racists who presume violent intent when encountering different ethnic groups, about people who spread rumours and peddle narratives that dehumanise and delegitimise the lived experience of people of other races; this is an act of power. White people choose to be scared of non-white neighbourhoods, their decisions to “avoid” parts of town that are majority non-white gives them an entitlement, a sense of superiority – choosing to fear, for example, black youths does not give black youths power over the white person who fears them, it instead dramatises the lack of power felt by the “minority” group: the first impression has been stolen, coopted and made eternally negative, the “other” is put on the back foot, the “other” is emotionally injured by the fact that the initial reaction to their presence is worry and fear: this does not give power, it takes it away. That’s Biss’ argument anyway. I think it’s interesting, but I don’t know if I agree.

I don’t know, to be honest, if I feel comfortable being a white person writing about a white person writing about race.

Top of final page of notes – all are perps & victims – good

Let’s have a look at the words of Biss I’m referring to here:

And so perhaps our tendency to imagine victims only in opposition to perpetrators is what prevents us from recognizing [sic] ourselves as an entire nation of self-traumatized [sic] perpetrators – some of us experiencing our trauma as guilt, others as delusion.

The problem with this, though, rereading it clear-headed and analytical like, is that Biss’ argument is basically doing what “some men” do in regards to feminism – i.e. trying to make it all about men. I wrote a piece attempting to satirise this attitude for the Huffington Post last year called ‘Why Feminism Is Good For Us Blokes’, and accidentally slipping into this is something I worry about, being both the possessor of male genitalia and the knowledge (note not “belief”) that those fleshy lumps don’t make me “superior” to people without. It is perhaps possible to argue that racism is “bad” for white people, but even if racism prevents us from living in a perfect world, the existence and continuation of racism doesn’t create problems as bad for white people as it creates for non-white people. White guilt – which, let’s be honest, plenty of white people have never even considered feeling – is not as bad as the negative effects of long-term institutionalised racism. Think about education and – the big example – prisons in America.

I dunno, though, I feel like I’m being v critical even tho I enjoyed this book. SJW snowflake innit

– I read all in one day while travelling N&S then W, leaving my dog behind for the first time in months as I go & do some lucrative work. Not looking forward to sleeping w/o him in a tent, but thankfully Biss’ book [is] v good & provocative company.

-Essays on race from a white person. It feels taboo, even tho shouldn’t, should it? Biss writes about her mother – a white practitioner of Yoruba, African religion. She writes about her education, her teaching & her encounters w/ mixed race family members.
Personal & wide-reaching

Nothing to add to my notes yet.

-Essay on telephone poles, charged opening, hard-hitting, aggressive

Yeah, the book opens with a piece about lynching, and how telephone poles went from a symbol of technological progress to a symbol of mob hanging. It’s bleak, intense, very involving.

-Closing essay on apologies, important too

It’s an essay on political and apolitical apologies, basically about how people refuse to apologise for things unless they have to, and how vast amounts of apologies are spoken with no meaning whatsoever behind them.

-Essay on Irish ingratiating themselves into white America; contrast w/ discussion in Notes about “n******isation of America” after 9/11;

This ties back to the point earlier about everyone being traumatised by racism, by all Americans becoming victims to an external threat. This is a right-wing ideology, that all Americans lost status due to the massive act of terrorism, and this reduced their national and international status, turning all into victims, all into fearful people no longer believing themselves superior. It’s interesting.

-Maturity of text, relevance of text; important to speak about these issues, race as problem not just for black people, implications for a problematic society if things not fixed,

But do we risk just sounding like male feminists, hijacking a movement if we white people speak predominantly about race? Check ethnicity of Fitzcarraldo writers. Maybe I should read writing about race by black people. To only do that is reductive, right? But is my position of privilege speaking there? Mention assume positive intent chat

OK, right, yeah, that’s a thing I’ve encountered people saying recently a few times about people telling people off for speaking racistly, presume their language is not rooted in hate, merely in ignorance. As much as this would benefit me were I ever to accidentally use the wrong word about a minority group, I’m certain that presuming positive intent only ever benefits majority, privileged, positions. Maybe I’m wrong, I don’t know.

I don’t feel comfortable saying too much about this book. I enjoyed it, I thought it was engaging and informative and thought-provoking, but there are topics I don’t feel comfortable sticking my cis-white-man opinions into, and this book writes about a lot of them.

Worth a read, innit. Even if some of its central arguments make me feel uncomfortable.

0 comments on “Notes From No Man’s Land by Eula Biss

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: