Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss

Review published on June 12, 2017.

Originally published in the United States by Graywolf Press in 2009, this powerful essay collection about how identity is bound up with race and place has recently been made available in the UK by Fitzcarraldo Editions, who previously published Eula Biss’s On Immunity, a wide-ranging study of vaccination practices.

Although Biss is white, she considers herself to have had ‘mixed’ influences in her life. For instance, her mother converted to the West African Yoruba religion and had a black boyfriend and later a Chinese husband; and Biss has a half-Jamaican cousin. Furthermore, she remembers how when she and her sister were growing up they had different coloured dolls, with hers known simply as “Black Doll”.

In one of the best individual essays, “Relations,” Biss discusses psychology studies in which children overwhelmingly associated such black dolls with negative words like “bad” and white dolls with positive ones like “nice”. Also woven through is the eye-opening 1999 case of a white woman being treated by a fertility clinic who had a black couple’s embryo accidentally implanted alongside her own and thus gave birth to ‘twin’ boys – one black and one white. A custody battle ensued to decide whether these babies who had shared a womb were actually brothers. This unprecedented ethical dilemma revealed much about American attitudes towards race and belonging.

Apart from when she taught at the University of Iowa, Biss has generally lived in places where she is in the minority as a white person: in Harlem, where she taught in public schools; in San Diego, where she lived in a poor area and worked as a reporter for an African-American newspaper and then as a bilingual (English and Spanish) receptionist for a chemical factory; and in Chicago, where she and her husband can only afford to live in a sizable apartment because theirs is considered a rough, minority-predominant neighbourhood.

The title piece interrogates notions of pioneers and frontiers, with Biss carefully pointing out how the adventuresome connotations of such terms are counterbalanced by the fact that natives must usually be displaced for others to take over. Who actually owns places, and what do names really say about Americans when most have immigrant ancestors? she asks.

A few of these essays, including the first and the last, are in a slightly different style: short paragraphs of loosely related anecdotes. In “Time and Distance Overcome” she recounts the early history of the telephone and cites instances of telephone poles being used for lynchings, while in “All Apologies” she gives a history of apologies for atrocities, whether that be slavery or apartheid. Unfortunately, these mostly come across as disjointed lists of facts.

The text has been brought up to date for this edition with a short coda entitled “Murder Mystery” about the recent spate of police shootings of black men in America. The whole book feels timely, though, because the injustices and absurdities it mentions are ongoing: black parents are more likely to be investigated for abuse and have children taken away into foster care; and we continue to fear people who are unlike us while failing to recognise true threats close by.

“Race is a social fiction. But it is also, for now at least, a social fact,” Biss writes, and this strong set of essays examines those facts with bravery and eloquence. I would highly recommend this to readers of Joan Didion and Leslie Jamison.

Rebecca Foster 4/4

Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss
Fitzcarraldo Editions 9781910695395 pbk Apr 2017

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