Notes from No Man’s Land

WE THINK WE ARE reading one thing. Then suddenly we find it is a different thing entirely: the tablecloth has vanished from under the place setting, and yes, some of the crystal has been broken. This is both the theme and the method of Eula Biss’s powerful essays on the nature of identity, national and racial and personal. We are not necessarily who we think we are, or hope we are: our permuted history and wishful recall of it have made a hash of everything. And Biss is going to set the record straight, or at least write a new one containing the music and force of her singular thought.

This is the effect from the first essay of Notes from No Man’s Land, “Time and Distance Overcome.” Here she sets out some facts surrounding the birth of the telephone, which are certainly interesting enough. But then the landscape suddenly turns sinister, and now the new poles (“only coincidence” that they “so closely resembled crucifixes”) appear “convenient as gallows” for the peculiarly American pastime of lynching. The anecdotes, breathtaking in their grotesque horror, are surrounded by caesuras of blank space. We are meant to connect them using our own acts of comprehension. Her way of writing is both generous, in trusting our ability to complete the work of understanding, and pointedly damning.

Among her subjects are notions of the foreigner, the “different” (from what? she asks), the recipe of race — and also writing, how it can be used as an iron-tipped miner’s tool to get deeper underneath. She frequently uses herself, and the discomforts of her own personal history, as the leading edge: “But now, I hated them for suddenly being my people, not just other people,” she writes of being across the Mexican border in the presence of boorish, drunk Americans.

“In school in Ensenada I learned the words for different kinds of food and some parts of the body. I did not learn how to say, “The excesses of my country are paid for by your country.” But I learned to say, “I have a stomachache.” And in one of my final lessons, I learned the construction me da verguenza. Literally, “it gives me shame.”

“Three Songs of Salvage” is about identity and religion by way of memoir, that of the child of a mother who briefly adopted the traditions of Yoruba. But of course it is really about much more: by leaving out the lines connecting all the dots, she leaves us to imagine a greater whole, much in the way a book without illustrations does. You make your own pictures, with deep colors from the palette of your own history. In a beautiful passage describing the diary of her great-great-great-grandfather, who buried four wives, Biss remarks that he wrote a twenty-page sketch of his life consisting of nothing but names and dates. “The facts alone weren’t enough to express what he had lived, but he didn’t have anything else.” It is hard not to see this as a statement of the essayist’s own mission: to subvert the idea that facts cannot be emotional. When used by a literary architect, they become overwhelmingly so.

Always, she is keen to strip off the decorative covers from our most beloved locutions, revealing language’s sordid service to our fears: “The word ‘gang’ is frequently used to avoid using the word ‘black’ in a way that might be offensive.” She appears to make statements clearly meant to be controversial — “The system [of free schools] was designed specifically for the education of freed slaves and established public education in America as the method we use to manage large populations of our own people who frighten us” — but on further reflection reveal themselves as simply, baldly, true. She is merely going to corners of the American experience that are rarely visited.

Every one of these strongly voiced essays can blow through you like a stiff spring wind, warmth and bracing cold admixed in one atmospheric phenomenon. They derive their depth less from what is fully explained than from what is not: that which is suggested, implied, pointed to. Or heard as a whisper in the silence.

Eula Biss is what one might call a literary biologist, one who observes closely, quietly, the social ecology of the human animal. She reports her findings with the authority of a scientist who has tested her hypotheses in the well-equipped laboratory of an incisive mind. That they come out touched with poetry is yet another proof of her final point: we are unique, even as we are grouped — and held rapt — by situation and history. By the constructs of blood and place. And by, as she says, “the stories we tell ourselves.” In Notes from No Man’s Land, they are stories with the power to haunt.