Notes from No Man’s Land

Eula Biss

With a new afterword

Published 19 April 2017, French paperback with flaps, 240 pages

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A frank and fascinating exploration of race and racial identity, Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays begins with a series of lynchings and ends with a series of apologies. Eula Biss explores race in America and her response to the topic is informed by the experiences chronicled in these essays – teaching in a Harlem school on the morning of 9/11, reporting from an African American newspaper in San Diego, watching the aftermath of hurricane Katrina from a college town in Iowa, and settling in Chicago’s most diverse neighbourhood.
    As Biss moves across the country from New York to California to the Midwest, her essays move across from biblical Babylon to the freedmen’s schools of Reconstruction to post-war white flight. She brings an eclectic education to the page, drawing variously on the Eagles, Laura Ingalls Wilder, James Baldwin, Joan Didion, religious pamphlets, and reality television. These spare, sometimes lyric essays explore the legacy of race in America, artfully revealing in intimate detail how families, schools, and neighbourhood participate in preserving racial privilege. 

‘Eula Biss’s elegantly structured essays in Notes from No Man’s Land are delivered with a deceptively quiet insistence that nevertheless leaves the reader shaken.… in a detached, poetic narrative voice that is as mesmerising as it is sure-footed, Biss deftly turns to a consideration of what happened next.… So it is with the rest of this wondrous book.… She begins in one place and confidently leads somewhere unexpected. She picks and worries at the idea of race in America – incarceration, education, social welfare.… Lyrical she may be, but she is also exhilaratingly bold. Notes From No Man’s Land offers an uncompromising interrogation of a troubled land by a writer who refuses what could be her birthright as a white woman … Biss is rare in that she does not treat her own race as the default (the norm from which ‘people of colour’ are somehow deviating). The fact that this in itself is remarkable proves the value of her endeavour.’
— Ellah Allfrey, The Spectator

‘I can’t think of an American writer at work today who matches Eula Biss’s combination of lyrical precision, exhaustive research, timely provocation, and fiercely examined conscience.’ 
— Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts

‘Two of the qualities that make Eula Biss’s essays in Notes from No Mans Land compelling and beautiful are precision and independence – independence from orthodoxies of the right and left and the conventions of literary essays and their displays of sensibility and sensitivity. And whatever topic she takes up she dissects and analyzes with startling insight that comes from deep reading and original thinking. She’s important to this moment, important to the opening up of what essays can be, important for setting a standard of integrity and insight, and she’s also a joy to read.’ 
— Rebecca Solnit, author of Hope in the Dark

‘The essays in this book were written prior to Trump’s election, and have acquired extra resonance in light of it. At a time of profound uncertainty about what it means to be American, Biss’s insights on the history of American migration, both internal (rural-urban, and vice versa) and external, are especially timely … Like so much of Biss’s writing, the message here is simultaneously both forceful and measured – no mean feat when there is so much at stake.’ 
Houman Barekat, Irish Times

‘[Notes from No Man’s Land] is an archival project, a wide-ranging, elegantly shaped collage…. Biss is … consistently enlightening.’ 
 — Jamie Fisher, the TLS

‘Biss notes formidably well – unsparingly and sometimes lyrically … justifiably compared to Joan Didion.’
— Kevin Gopal, Big Issue North

Notes From No Man’s Land is the most accomplished book of essays anyone has written or published so far in the twenty-first century. Notes From No Man’s Land is the kind of book that rewards and even demands multiple readings. It provokes, troubles, charms, challenges, and occasionally hectors the reader, and it raises more questions than it answers. It is strident and brave in its unwillingness to offer comfort, and, unlike all but a handful of the best books I have ever read, it is unimpeachably great.’
— Kyle Minor, Salon

 ‘Notes From No Man’s Land is a beautiful exercise in consciousness; in bringing both intelligence and experience to bear on a subject that has implications for the way one behaves in the world.’
— Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times

Praise for On Immunity

‘Sontag said she wrote Illness as Metaphor to “calm the imagination, not to incite it,” and On Immunity also seeks to cool and console. But where Sontag was imperious, Biss is stealthy. She advances from all sides, like a chess player, drawing on science, myth, literature to herd us to the only logical end, to vaccinate.’ 
— Parul Sehgal, The New York Times

‘On Immunity is brave because it will attract hostility from those she implies are selfish or misguided in refusing to vaccinate. Her arguments are profoundly compelling, and her narratives are braided together with beauty and elegance. The book is itself an inoculation – it grafts and unites different traditions of the essay, and in doing so creates something stronger and more resilient. And its urgent message is an inoculation against ignorance and fearmongering: may it spread out through the world, bringing substance and common sense to the vaccination debate.’ 
— Gavin Francis, Guardian

‘On Immunity … weaves metaphor and myth, science and sociology, philosophy and politics into a tapestry rich with insight and intelligence.’
— Jerome Groopman, The New York Review of Books

‘A philosophical look at the history and practice of vaccination that reads like Joan Didion at her best. If you are yourself a nonfiction author, your initial response to this book might be to decide immediately on another line of work; Biss is that intimidatingly talented … This is cultural commentary at its highest level, a searching examination of the most profound issues of health, identity and the tensions between individual parenting decisions and society.’ 
— The Washington Post

Eula Biss is the author of The Balloonists, Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays, which received the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism, and On Immunity. Her essays have appeared in The Best American Nonrequired Reading and The Best Creative Nonfiction, as well as in the Believer and Harper’s. Her writing has been supported by fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Howard Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Biss holds a BA from Hampshire College and an MFA in Nonfiction Writing from the University of Iowa. She teaches at Northwestern University and lives in Chicago.