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.)


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.)

Long distance relationships have negative psychological effects

By Kayla Overbey

Friday, April 27, 2012

University of Kansas sophomore Ryan Xiao recalls sitting back in his apartment after a long day of research. He relaxed by talking to his girlfriend about her day, listening as she told stories about her work as a server in a retirement community. After an hour or so they said goodnight. Xiao logged out of Skype and shut down his computer, crawling into bed 1,028 miles away from his significant other.

During the summer of 2011, Xiao lived in Washington, D.C., doing research for the National Institutes of Health Summer Research Program while his girlfriend stayed with her family in Lincoln, Neb., working a summer job and taking classes through the local university. For approximately three months, his relationship was labeled “long distance.”

“It was really rough. It was frustrating, being that far away from her,” Xiao said. “I’m just glad we’re together now and that time is done.”

According to www.statisticbrain.com, Xiao was only one of 14 million couples who claim they are in a long distance relationship. What Xiao and other couples in long distance relationships may not know is that the strain of being so far from a loved one can produce negative psychological effects, such as depression, heightened anxiety, and loneliness.

Common Problems

Oregon State University licensed marriage and family therapist Kathleen Schiltz said that the negative perception of long distance relationships has probably developed from harmful emotions.

“I think it probably brings up fears in people because of the difficulty and the emotions that can come up around being separated from your partner and your support,” Schiltz said. “You can experience stress, loss of focus, sadness, loneliness. Those are all things that can lead to bigger issues over the long run, like depression or anxiety.”

Schiltz said that feelings of stress can be higher for students, who have the added responsibilities of classes. Although Xiao said he doesn’t feel any lasting negative emotions from his time in a long distance relationship, he does remember the pessimistic attitude he sometimes felt.

“It was hard for me to be so far away and see her so infrequently. I didn’t know what she was doing,” Xiao said.

Xiao said that although he attempted to Skype his girlfriend every day, it wasn’t enough. They saw each other only twice—once over the fourth of July weekend when he flew to Lincoln and once when his girlfriend flew to Washington. Xiao said that the expenses initially bothered him, but were worth it.

“Plane tickets were around $400 per round trip,” Xiao said.

Coincidentally, Schiltz said that expenses, such as the cost of plane tickets, gas and phone bills, are one of the most common complaints in long distance relationships. Conflict, jealousy and loneliness are also common problems.

“I think it’s important to have a real solid sense of yourself and your self-worth, so you can stand through some of that,” Schiltz said.

Most couples expect their long distance relationships to be short term, lasting an average maximum of 14 months according to www.statisticbrain.com. However, some couples find themselves distanced from each other for much longer, just as Zach Rose of Metamora, Ill., and Kristen Adams of Bloomington, Ill., have for the entire two year and eight month span of their relationship.

For almost three years, Rose and Adams have lived roughly an hour apart, traveling to see each other only on the weekends. Their separation began during high school.

“When we started dating, we were from different high schools and different counties,” Adams explained. Their time together was not frequent.  “I had dance practice as much as he had football. The time schedule of only seeing each other for maybe four hours a week was the hardest.”

Making it count

Now Adams attends Heartland Community College in Normal, Ill., and Rose attends Illinois Central College in East Peoria, Ill. With extracurricular activities and busy college schedules, they can go weeks without seeing each other.

“It’s that downtime in between seeing each other that can be the hardest, but we make it work,” Rose said. They spend that “downtime” by taking advantage of technology—Skyping, talking on the phone, texting and using the iPhone app FaceTime.

“Name it, we have done it,” Rose joked. Both Rose and Adams said they work extremely hard to maintain their relationship, especially when it comes to quality time. They dedicate time to one another by avoiding their phones when they’re together to keep their relationship lively.

However, Rose and Adams have their fair share of long distance relationship problems as well. Rose and Adams both resent the constant planning for time together and absence of daily interaction.

Schiltz said that “proximity influences similarity,” and a lack of daily interaction with someone can increase unfamiliarity, which distances couples over time.

“Even something as simple as a haircut can be a reminder of what you’re missing out on,” Schiltz explained.

But Adams and Rose both agree that despite multiple setbacks and missing out on day-to-day intimacy, their long distance relationship is worth it.

“It sure would be nice to go see her in the spur of the moment,” Rose said. “But whenever I see her after a while, it’s almost like the first time seeing her. It is amazing.”

Clothing affects psychological self-perceptions

By Kayla Overbey

Friday, April 6, 2012

  • One of the many birth control mistakes a person can make is not understanding the hormonal effects of birth controls, says Health.com. Other mistakes include not understanding the vast majority of birth control methods, applying condoms incorrectly and using spermicides as the only birth control method.
  • When it comes to sexual health and the sport of cycling, most of the attention has been focused on men. It’s commonly known that spending a lot of time on a bicycle seat can increase chances for erectile dysfunction in men. However, a study conducted Yale researchers reveals that women can also suffer problems from cycling, says the New York Times. There are simple methods to decrease negative effects, such as raising bicycle handlebars or using “no-nose” saddles, to decrease perineum pressure.

Students rock climb for alternative exercise

By Kayla Overbey

Friday, March 16, 2012

The steady rhythm of feet hitting treadmills and sounds of physical exertion fill the air. People walk around, red-faced and tired. But in the basement of the David A. Ambler Student Recreation Fitness Center at the University of Kansas, student Kevin Dinh sits on the ground, positions his feet onto the wall and climbs.

Kevin Dinh is a rock climber. He completes the 45-foot-tall roped course in less than ten minutes. During those minutes, he burned roughly 100 calories.

According to nutristrategy.com average, a 200-pound man can burn over 1,000 calories during an hour spent ascending a rock wall. The intense workout is what initially attracted Dinh to the sport.

“I think the real reason I climb is because I know I need to work out, and rock climbing offers so many different ways to work out,” Dinh says. “And it’s not the same thing every day.”

Dinh is one of many students who have turned to the alternative sport of rock climbing to increase muscle development in atypical parts of the body.

Climbing benefits

While spending 30 minutes on an elliptical or treadmill is sufficient for a routine workout, it can be boring. Varying exercise improves stamina, strength, flexibility, and coordination. Dinh says he hasn’t noticed significant change himself, but his friends and family disagree.

“A lot of people freak out because of how huge my forearms are,” Dinh said. “I don’t see the difference, but everyone keeps telling me I’ve changed. So I’m assuming I’ve changed.”

Rock Climbing Club President Ryan Surface says that although the changes are subtle, muscle development does occur in unexpected areas of the body.

“Generally, your biceps can be sore, your forearms can definitely be sore. Those are usually the first thing to fail [when climbing],” Surface said.

Surface also described how different routes target different muscle groups.

“Climbing definitely works your core, especially on overhanging routes. There are some routes that are kind of like corners, like a dihedral. Oftentimes those are really leg, foot intensive,” Surface said. “It can definitely be a full-body workout.”

Climbing styles

Surface said that three of the most popular styles of climbing are sport climbing, bouldering, and traditional climbing. Sport and traditional climbing are vertical climbs and use safety equipment.  These types of climbing are most popular in North America, Surface said.

Bouldering, on the other hand, requires no gear except for a mattress-like pad below the climber. Bouldering is limited to sequences of no longer then 15 or 20 feet, and requires more muscle concentration than the other two styles.

“Bouldering, to me, really seems like getting down there and doing the most difficult moves you can do. It’s kind of acrobatic, gymnastic kind of stuff,” Surface said.

Because climbing is so physically demanding, the International Olympic Committee is considering lead climbing (similar to traditional climbing), bouldering, and speed climbing for inclusion in the 2020 Olympic summer games. KU student Daniel Siegel understands why.

“There are definitely forms of rock climbing that are legitimate [for competition]. Bouldering is a good example,” Siegel said. “It’s just as much of a mental game, just like chess, as it is physical.”

New climbers

While watching climbers scale KU’s 45-foot rock wall can be intimidating, those new to the sport shouldn’t be shy.

There are five routes on the main wall, each a different skill level. The easiest route is on the far right, and students familiar with climbing are available to belay. There are countless student-created routes on the bouldering walls.

The KU recreation center’s Outdoor Pursuits room rents out free climbing shoes and harnesses to students without equipment. Those who do own equipment are welcome to bring it.

The climbing gym is publicly open to students Monday through Thursday from 4:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. and Sundays from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. From 8:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, the wall is exclusive to the KU Rock Climbing Club.

Dinh says he’ll continue rock climbing to introduce variation into his workout and simply because he enjoys it.

“I always have fun rock climbing, that’s why I do it so often,” Dinh said. “There’s always an ending feeling where you feel good.”

Students are unsure and excited about Kony 2012 movement

By Kayla Overbey

Friday, March 9, 2012


On Monday, March 5th, Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter all started receiving spam comments titled “KONY 2012”. The non-profit organization Invisible Children posted a video about Ugandan indicted criminal Joseph Kony, and his “crimes against humanity.” The video started gaining attention immediately, and now Americans across the nation are in an uproar. However, some students at the University of Kansas are unsure about what’s happening, or why it’s happening now. For some, the video and its responses are creating more questions than concerns.

On Monday, March 5th, the non-profit organization Invisible Children released a video about Ugandan militia leader Joseph Kony. University of Kansas students are both strongly in favor and wary of the cause. The video about his crimes went viral almost overnight and has some students confused.
“I saw the stuff for the Kony campaign last night. Still not really sure what’s it’s all about,” said Taylor Genrich, KU student from Lincoln, Neb. “I know it’s something with the invisible children. There’s a lot of Facebook buzz and Twitter buzz happening, though.”
Some students are frustrated by the mass posts and spam-like nature of the campaign. The immediate responses on Facebook left KU student Beth Buchanan from Kansas City, Kan. critical of college students.
“Facebook is such a wildfire that everyone just blindly posts and it’s easy for students to be like, ‘Oh, I support this cause, I’m educated, I’m making a difference by spreading this word.’ But it’s one thing to watch a video, and it’s a completely other thing to be educated on foreign policy and be educated on what is going on in other countries,” Buchanan said.
Students across campus have already jumped to action by means of Facebook. Allen Schaidle, KU student and activity leader of the KU chapter of Invisible Children from Peoria, Ill., explained that he is in support of the cause and is excited about the eager attitude of the student body. He said that the Invisible Children organization wants to handle all campus events itself.
“Already I know there’s been a couple events started for this,” Schaidle said. “But the president of the KU group of the Invisible Children is asking for those events to be shut down and all the focus be directed toward the Invisible Children group.”
The history of Joseph Kony, and many leaders similar to him, is not short. Genrich said she isn’t surprised by how quickly the word has spread over the past week, but wishes the news could have been publicized and gained such popularity sooner.
“So, I think it’s not surprising because we do have that technology,” Genrich said. “I think it’s surprising because it has been going on for so long. You’d think something would have been done, but with a lot of issues like this, nothing ever actually happens.”
To watch the Kony 2012 campaign video, click here and scroll down.

Student health centers provide opportunities for students

By Kayla Overbey

Friday, February 24, 2012

Top Story — Student Health Centers

  • For Danielle Qidmarrk of Orange Coast College in California, an on-campus student health center is necessary. The Coast Report Online says Qidmarrk believes that more people should take advantage of the services the health center offers. Likewise, University of Kansas students and health officials find that promoting the on-campus health center would be a good idea.

Need the transcript? Click here. Want to read the full article? Click here.

Skin and Sleep

  • BBC News reports that research has taken one-step closer to finding a medication to fight skin cancer. According to testing, patients treated with this drug, Zelboraf, are having “durable responses” and are living longer.