REVIEW by Ashley Owen

NWR Issue r17

No Man's Land

by Eula Bliss

This collection of essays, writes Ashley Owen, is a topical, frank, informed, lyrically poignant and at times deeply personal exploration of racial tension in the US
Eula Biss’ essay collection Notes From No Man’s Land was first published in 2009 – though you can hardly tell. Aside from internal dating, there is little in Biss’ frank, informed, and at times deeply personal exploration of racial tension in the US to suggest that its recent 2017 re-publication wasn’t its first printing. The subject matter is now, as it was then, as it ever seems to be, depressingly, achingly, immediate.

It feels unseemly, somehow, to say I ‘enjoyed’ Notes From No Man’s Land, but it is a word as accurate as any other. Biss’ writing is lyrically poignant and carefully crafted while also retaining a sense of intimate conversation; we might, at times, be two friends chatting. She handles the weight of her subjects deftly, but never delicately, and pulls no punches, even when addressing her own whiteness and privilege. Biss is not shy in recognising that, for all her empathy, she only experiences racially based prejudice as a witness. But this too is complicated: many times – while working in Harlem, while on holiday in La Salina, in her suburban Chicago neighbourhood – Biss finds herself an unintentional outsider. The colour of her skin makes her initially untrustworthy, and because the weight of history corroborates that mistrust, Biss does not bristle at it; instead, she bears it, quietly, musingly, making friends among her neighbours and co-workers while contemplating her own culpability.

This comes to a head in the essay ‘All Apologies’, where Biss weaves the responses of various US presidents to slavery, to Native American genocide, to Japanese internment camps and the Korean war with her own family memories and experiences of teaching in urban New York. What is the nature of an apology, she wonders. When is it appropriate to offer one, and what ought it to mean about one’s behaviour? Can you apologise for something you didn’t do? She relates an incident where she was verbally harassed by a student at one of her schools, and opted to report the issue to the principal. As she waits in his office, a student is brought in. ‘But it wasn’t you,’ Biss tells him, in the face of his apology. ‘Yeah,’ he says, ‘…but it might have been my cousin.” Pages later, after analysing presidential responses to Rwandan genocide, the violation of Chinese air space, and sexual scandal, Biss herself apologises for slavery. ‘I didn’t do it,’ she offers, ‘but it might have been my cousin.’ Her acknowledgement of that confused liminal space between guilt and denial, where it is possible to recognise the consequences of something that one did not do, invites a crucial conversation. How do we begin to heal a wound without admitting that it exists?

The collection’s coda, written for the 2017 publication, contains a litany of familiar names: Michael Brown. Tamir Rice. Eric Garner. To that list we might add Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Charleena Lyles. Days ago, an off-duty black officer was murdered by a white colleague who failed to recognise him. When interviewed about the incident, the murdered man’s lawyer questioned the white officer’s assertion that he shot because he feared for his safety. This ‘perception that the black man is automatically feared’, he said, ‘has been a national discussion for the past two years.’ And therein lies the inescapable truth at the heart of Biss’ every essay: that throughout a long and complicated history of racial subjugation, extortion, tension, and uneasy cohabitation, the conversation, amongst those with voice enough to have such a thing, has ranged from blatantly victim-blaming to so passively sympathetic as to be rendered unhelpful. (I am reminded of a southern phrase, ‘bless your heart’. It is a thing you say when you feel genuinely sad, but also useless, and have nothing else to offer. It is also a thing you say when what you actually feel is impatience, and a certainty that whomever is complaining to you has brought their problems on themselves.) Black deaths remain a black problem, not a national one. Not a human one. And it hurts us all. ‘We’re all victims in this murder mystery,’ Biss says in closing, ‘…and we’ll never solve it if we can’t see that.’

And yet, we are not without hope. Biss’s opening essay, ‘Time and Distance Overcome’, twines the advent of telephone poles with the history of antilynching legislation, and with her grandfather’s history as a lineman. Telephone poles made convenient lynching locations in all but four states. A telephone pole broke her grandfather’s back, smashing him into the ground when it collapsed. And telephone poles connected the nation in way it had never been before. Biss recalls how one summer in Nebraska, she saw a telephone pole sprout leaves after a heavy rain. ‘Nothing is innocent,’ she reminds us. ‘But nothing, I would like to think, remains unrepentant.’ Perhaps that moment of optimism, penned in 2009, is betrayed by her essays’ relevance in 2017; perhaps it is merely a promise we have yet to live up to.

Ashley Owen is an editor at Gwasg Gomer.


previous review: Brood by Rhian Edwards, Translating Mountains by Yvonne Reddick and A White Year by Anna Lewis
next review: Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children's Fantasy: Idealization, Identity, Ideology (Dimitra Fimi, 2017)


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