This week’s review is another collection of essays (published once again by Graywolf Press, no less!), but what can I say? My wheelhouse is my wheelhouse. I do worry about becoming redundant, though, so before I begin to accidentally tread familiar territory, espousing things like “the expert blending of memoir, criticism, and journalism” and “the examination of the personal to reach a conclusion that’s universal,” let me tell you a truth about this book. It made me uncomfortable. It made me deeply uncomfortable. And this discomfort is so crucial, so necessary, that I want to make sure it’s not overlooked. Why did it make me so uncomfortable? To put it bluntly and succinctly, this is a book about being white in America.
In Notes from No Man’s Land, Biss excavates the framework of race that underlies nearly every part of American life, from where we live (and why we can afford to live there), to how we experience school, to our response to natural disasters, even to the toys we cherish. The book is organized by Biss’s experiences living and working in different parts of the country, and the large, challenging concepts are belayed by her personal experiences, and her frankness in exploring them. Biss is not easy on herself, and this enables the reader the same sort of unflinching self-examination. In her essay “All Apologies,” for example, Biss explores some examples of official “apologies” that have been issued by our government, juxtaposing them to her own apologies as a way to explore the tension between remorse and the more selfish desire to be absolved. She writes of the time she punched her younger sister in the stomach, saying, “It was an experiment. And I was sorry the instant my fist hit her. Sorry before I even saw her face, covered in shock, a horrible purple. […] ‘I’m sorry,’ I gasped. ‘I’m sorry.’ But I already felt something else. I grabbed her arm desperately. ‘Please,’ I said, ‘don’t tell.'”
If the description of this book as being “about whiteness” seems strange, it’s not by accident. The white perspective has been the default in our national conversation for so long that it’s unusual to see it articulated, and that’s precisely why this book is so important. Biss is in a unique position to write about this topic. She herself is white, but she is directly related to people who are not, and as such, she seems to have grown up constantly aware of whiteness as an identity, rather than as a lack of one. She recalls her experiences as they oscillate between extremes of wanting to reject white identity but, at the same time, reaping its benefits. The rejection of whiteness itself contains paradoxes, as well; Biss seems to want to distance herself from her white identity as a judgment of the system that has elevated her from others, but she also seems aware that doing so might be to deny one’s own complicity in this system. At times there is a palpable tension in the works as Biss examines the ways race has scarred this country and yet, by doing so, implicates herself. This tension is smart, as it keeps Biss from treading into a sort of White Savior complex. Instead, she is informative and honest, and the lessons she derives from her experiences are jumping-off points into a much broader conversation, one that appears in daily life again and again. This book needled under my skin and lives there now, prickling every time I turn on the news, or go out to eat, or look for apartments…
There is so much to unpack here, and these essays provide no easy answers. The act of examination that this book creates seems to be an important start, but the book leaves you with the staggering work left to be done from there, work that is so immediately pressing. It feels like a call to action, one that it as necessary today as it has ever been.