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.)

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KU’s Common Book Author Eula Biss sparks discussion of race, identity and culture

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.

White Guilt

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.”

Contact  at kayla@politicalfiber.com.

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.)