Silas Hansen on “No-Man’s Land” by Eula Biss

Silas Hansen’s essays have appeared in Slate, Colorado Review, hansen_photoThe Normal School, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and elsewhere, and have earned an AWP Intro Journals Project Award and a notable mention in Best American Essays.  He teaches creative writing at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.  You can find him at silashansen.net and @silas_hansen.


I teach most—if not all—of the essays in Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss in virtually every class I teach.  I use “Time and Distance Overcome” to talk about segmented essays and utilizing white space, “Relations” to talk about how to successfully blend research and personal experience, and “Goodbye to All That” (alongside Joan Didion’s original) to talk about how essays (and essayists) can speak to and complicate each other. But my favorite essay from the collection to teach?  “No-Man’s Land,” originally published in The Believer.  Why do I love teaching this essay?  Oh, let me count the ways.  But I’m going to focus on just two of them. 1) Her use of research—specifically about pioneers in the American west. The essay, which also lends itself to the title of the collection, is Biss’s attempt to make sense of gentrification and our collective fear of those who are unlike us.  In addition to her own experiences with gentrification, Biss explores the concept in a more academic way—using research about violent crimes, fear, and race—but she begins with Little House on the Prairie. Yes, that’s right.  In an essay about gentrification, we begin with pioneers.  She writes of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s childhood on the frontier, and of her own fascination with the book series as a child.  Then, about halfway through the essay, she tells us about her own neighborhood in Chicago—Roger’s Park, which Biss tells us is one of only twelve neighborhoods in the city with no clear racial majority.  This is where we get to the crux of the essay: that gentrifiers are the modern-day pioneers.  Biss tells us about her white neighbors, who refer to themselves as “pioneers” in the neighborhood.  Then she writes:

The word pioneer betrays a disturbing willingness to repeat the worst mistake of the pioneers of the American West—the mistake of considering an inhabited place uninhabited. To imagine oneself as a pioneer in a place as densely populated as Chicago is either to deny the existence of your neighbors or to cast them as natives who must be displaced. Either way, it is a hostile fantasy (159-160). […] This is our inheritance, those of us who imagine ourselves as pioneers. We don’t seem to have retained the frugality of the original pioneers, or their resourcefulness, but we have inherited a ring of wolves around a door covered only by a quilt. And we have inherited padlocks on our pantries. That we carry with us a residue of the pioneer experience is my best explanation for the fact that my white neighbors seem to feel besieged in this neighborhood. Because that feeling cannot be explained by anything else that I know to be true about our lives here (161).

This made so much sense, when I read it for the first time, but it also blew my mind. This is a realization we wouldn’t be able to have without knowing what Biss knows: about how Laura Ingalls Wilder’s father (and also Wilder herself) viewed the Native Americans they encountered and how he reacted to those encounters (by putting locks on their pantry, by staying up all night with a gun across his lap, etc.).  With this research, we see the connection she sees, and, ultimately, the realization feels the way a realization in an essay should: unexpected, but somehow still inevitable.

  1. Her characterization of herself.

This essay is also a perfect example of something else I try to teach my students to do: characterize themselves honestly and objectively, with their flaws and complications front and center.  This is something a lot of nonfiction writers struggle with—especially younger writers, who are just starting out.  We want to be likable; we want people to identify with us.  But, as Philip Lopate suggests in his essay, “On the Necessity of Turning Oneself into a Character,” it’s important for nonfiction writers to “express[… their] opinions, prejudices, half-baked ideas, etc., provided [they] are willing to analyze the flaws in [their] thinking” (24).  Without this, it seems to me, the narrator is less engaging—and, ironically, less likable. I often teach these essays alongside each other—Lopate’s craft piece, and “No-Man’s Land”—because I think Biss does such an exquisite job of doing just this.  In an essay about such loaded subjects—gentrification, racialized fear and violence, etc.—it would have been easy to censor herself and try to put the most politically-correct version of her thinking on the page.  But in the essay, particularly when she talks about race-based fear, Biss takes ownership of her own prejudices, and it leads to some of the most poignant moments in the essay. For example, Biss ends the “In the City” section with a story about a night when, on their way home, the narrator and her husband encounter two young black men on bicycles.  Biss writes, “As we stepped off the sidewalk and began crossing the street toward our apartment, one boy yelled, ‘Don’t be afraid of us!’” Another writer might have backed away from this moment and transitioned into more research about the links between race and fear to avoid interrogating their own problematic thinking; instead, Biss writes one my favorite moments of the essay:

I wanted to yell back, “Don’t worry, we aren’t!” but I was, in fact, afraid to engage the boys, afraid to draw attention to my husband and myself, afraid of how my claim not to be afraid might be misunderstood as bravado begging a challenge, so I simply let my eyes meet the boy’s eyes before I turned, disturbed, toward the tall iron gate in front of my apartment building, a gate that gives the appearance of being locked but is in fact always open (155).

I love this moment because it’s so honest—it’s Biss telling us about the fear she felt, in the moment, and also interrogates it (by thinking about what she wanted to say, by expressing her own disturbance at her reaction, and through the symbolism of the gate appearing to be something it’s not).  The more research-based discussion of fear based on race and perception is riveting and important, but this moment snaps everything into place.  It shows the reader that no one—not even this writer, who is so consciously interrogating these ideas—is immune from these flaws, and it encourages the reader to interrogate their own experiences in the same way. There are other things I love about this essay—and the others in the collection—including the structure, the way she incorporates metaphor so seamlessly, and the beauty of her language, and I could gush forever about it.  In short, though, it’s an excellent example of the kind of work I want to see my students produce—and the kind of work I strive to produce myself. References Biss, Eula. “No-Man’s Land.” Notes from No Man’s Land. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2009. 145-169. Lopate, Phillip. “On the Necessity of Turning Oneself into a Character.” To Show and To Tell.  New York: Free Press, 2013. 17-25.


Click here to read an Assay post on Eula Biss’ “Time and Distance Overcome” by Marissa Landrigan.

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