Uncomfortable questions in ‘No Man’s Land’ make for rewarding experience

A book review by Kayla Overbey

November 14, 2012

Earlier this year, I cracked open the inaugural University of Kansas Common Book, Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays (Graywolf Press) by award-winning author Eula Biss. With books like 50 Shades of Grey floating around on national bestseller lists, I was craving something that would restore my faith in humanity. This book, unlike any other I’ve read before, was intellectually stimulating and caused me to question my background and history as well as examine what being “white” means to me.

The book was chosen as the University of Kansas’ very first Common Book, meant to be read by all freshmen and taught in core courses like journalism, psychology, sociology, and business.  The book is composed of a collection of personal essays by Biss. They detail her experiences with race in different places, from a little town in Mexico to New York City to the desegregated utopia of Buxton, Iowa.  Each essay balances research and anecdotal experience, which I personally loved. Her writing style is so personable and unique.

Now, I’m not incredibly familiar with essay-style non-fiction books and especially not with books that question what I understand about being a white girl from western Kansas. I usually stick to ever-popular dystopian novels and good old fantasy fiction. But when I finished this book, it immediately passed some of my preferred stories to float around at the top of my favorites list.  It’s just so different. It made me think, it invited me to evaluate myself, and I was able to ask myself some questions that I’d never considered before. Am I aware of the still significant divide when it comes to race? Is there a part of me that wishes I wasn’t white?

The only way I can describe my personal response to this book is as a positive struggle. Rather than just invite you to read, it asks you to interact. I scribbled notes in the margins, underlined sentences that struck me as beautiful and marked passages that deserve to be revisited. I’m sure I’ll wear down the spine over time as I return to those fundamental questions.

I realize now that while I took the book pretty well, there are a lot of students who didn’t. One professor told me a student voiced that she felt attacked by the book. Why? Because she’s white. A student told me she thought Biss wasn’t necessarily experienced enough to write a critically acclaimed book (I’ll let you decide that one for yourself). I ended up writing a story over the controversy for a journalism class and had the fortune of calling Biss to discuss the book. I about peed my pants when I finally got her number. I told her about some of the reactions, and she, quite gracefully, told me she appreciated the not-so-golden feedback. In fact, she encouraged it.

“Actually, I would be very, very disappointed if the book did not make some people uncomfortable, defensive, angry,” she quietly explained. “I think all of those negative emotions are necessary and inevitable when encountering some of these ideas for the first time.”

She was soft-spoken and contemplative but voiced large ideas and opinions—a style of speaking that exactly mirrors the writing in Notes from No Man’s Land.

Would I read this book again? Yes, and I’m sure I will read it many times over. Is it an easy read? No. Is it rewarding? Well, that’s up to the reader. For me, it was. I experienced a range of reactions and heard even more from the people I spoke to. How will you react?

(This was posted on The Siren Journal’s website on November 14, 2012. I’m posting it here to archive my work. Read the original post here.)