By Kayla Overbey
Thursday, October 4, 2012
Critically acclaimed author Eula Biss spoke to more than 700 readers about her controversial book, “Notes from No Man’s Land,” on Oct. 4 at the University of Kansas. The discussion included topics of community and neighbors as well as excerpts from the book, which is composed of essays focusing on race and identity in America.
The book won the National Books Critic Circle Award and is in use as the inaugural book for the KU Common Book Program. Incoming freshmen were given “Notes from No Man’s Land” as part of a “campus wide initiative to engage first-year students” and build community, according to the KU Common Book website.
Race and Identity
“Notes from No Man’s Land” tackles racial identity and prejudice in America through a blend of personal experience and research. Biss reflects on her experiences working as a “black news” reporter, resisting tourism in Mexico, living in New York City and recognizing the diversity inherent in different locations and cultures. The introduction, which initially explains the history of telephone poles and then develops into a discussion about lynching, sets a radical tone.
“I do see it as my responsibility to exist within this skin, this body, this identity, in the most ethical way possible,” Biss explained. “This book is my struggle with that thinking. And I don’t think it’s easy thinking.”
One of the main goals for the book is to facilitate discussion. However, race and equality are not always easy to chat about. Sarah Crawford-Parker, assistant vice provost and director of First Year Experience, said that a university atmosphere is perfect for such dense subject matter.
“We need to understand [racial] complexities,” Crawford-Parker explained. “We need to understand where people are coming from. If we can’t have those conversations here, where will our students have [them] once they go out into the world of work?”
“Notes from No Man’s Land” has inspired course material in sociology, journalism and psychology classes, among others. Despite its adaptability, the reception has not been universally positive.
For some students, the readings have resulted in cases of “white guilt,” a collective emotion felt by some white people for the racist treatment of people of color, both historically and presently. Scholarly authors like Shelby Steele and Judith Katz helped to develop this idea. Howard Graham, associate director for academic programs in the First Year Experience program, said one of his students felt “accused” while reading the book.
“The question almost verbatim was—and I give the student so much credit for being honest—they said, ‘I just feel like she’s accusing me of something,’” Graham said. “It’s interesting that some students are feeling ‘attacked,’ I think. Vulnerable is a better word.”
Many white readers have experienced an automatic, defensive reaction against the idea of racism during book discussions. While Biss said her intention was never to attack anyone, she does believe that these moments of discomfort inspire deeper thinking.
“Actually, I would be very, very disappointed if the book did not make some people uncomfortable, defensive, angry…” Biss said. “I think all of those negative emotions are necessary and inevitable when encountering some of these ideas for the first time.”
Biss is no stranger to the thoughts her essays present. She admitted to feeling troubled by the content, even to the point that she no longer wanted to write the book. However, she worked through the dilemma, just as students should in uneasy classrooms situations.
“It means that they’re being challenged in ways that are deeply uncomfortable. And I actually think that’s fundamental to education,” Biss said.
Difference of Opinions
The common book has caused students to form a range of reactions. KU junior Nicole Rissky from Tecumseh, Kan., said she enjoyed “Notes from No Man’s Land” because she, and many students entering college, could relate to the idea of self-evaluation. However, Rissky “felt naïve” after reading about “obvious” societal inequalities.
“I really do think it’s a good addition to the curriculum,” Rissky said. “I think that it challenges students and gives them a chance to get a taste of the kind of thinking they’ll be doing in this new chapter of their lives.”
On the other end of the spectrum is Lexie Coutts, a KU junior from Atchinson, Kan., who said during a sociology class that the implicit message of white guilt offended her. Coutts has lived throughout the Midwest and as a result, the content did not surprise her.
“To me, [Biss] seems very whimsical in her life and ideals,” Coutts said. “I’ve lived lots of different places so I don’t really feel like I was learning anything from Eula Biss.”
Rhavean King, an African-American KU freshman from Memphis, Tenn., read the book during a summer course and Skyped Biss during the class. She said she appreciated Biss’ head-on approach to racism in America and found it unusual to see a white woman writing about race in such a contemporary way.
“When I read about things like this, I always get it from an African-American standpoint, because a lot of times those are the only people comfortable enough to talk about it,” King said. “But having a Caucasian woman write about her experiences—being discriminated against, being in African-American neighborhoods, things like that—that really struck me.”
Crawford-Parker and Graham both emphasized that the goal of the common book is to inspire thought within readers, despite differing opinions.
“We’re all bringing our own lens and we all see slightly different things,” Crawford-Parker said. “That’s what generates the conversation, the discourse, the exploring of some of these ideas further. Again, we didn’t want everyone to think the same exact thing about some of these issues.”
After hearing the struggle students are experiencing, Biss expressed one wish she had for this book: She hoped that all readers would walk away with more questions than answers.
“I would love for the reader to engage with the most challenging and most difficult questions that the book presents, and I think that among those are questions of identity,” she said gently. “I mean that in the most expansive, metaphysical sense possible. I mean that in a ‘what is the cost of being human?’ kind of way.”
Photo contributed by KU Common Book Committee.
(I wrote this story as a student reporter for Political Fiber on Oct. 4, 2012. I’m posting it here to archive my work. Read the original publication on their website.)