Saturday, June 13, 2009

Eula Biss: Essayist extraordinaire

Essays and short stories have been my reading domain of late. The essay has also been where I've been focusing my own writing energies.

While the essay is not uncommon, and many writers utilize the essay as a writing platform, an entire book of essays in the wrong hands can often go flat.

Several weeks ago, I happened upon Eula Biss reading her essay, "Time and Distance Overcome" on C-SPAN's BookTV. She was in the midst of the essay, which uses telephone poles to convey several themes about America, including the inherent racism represented by our history.

The telephone pole allowed wires to be strung, linking communities and eventually the entire country. We now view this and Alexander Graham Bell's invention of the telephone as wondrous things. Biss points out in her essay that Americans at that time opposed telephone poles vociferously.

She writes about the New York Times in 1889 reporting a "War on Telephone Poles." Biss tells us that as soon as the telephone company erected a new pole, home owners and business owners would saw it down, even resorting to defending their properties from telephone poles with rifles.

According to Biss, newspaper editorials at the time considered telephone poles as contributors to urban blight.

Despite America's initial disdain for telephone poles, Biss writes that "it would only take four years after Bell's first public demonstration of the telephone for every town of more than ten thousand to be wired, although many towns were only wired to themselves. By the turn of the century, there were more telephone poles than bathtubs in America."

Thomas Edison is quoted as saying that "telephone poles annihilated time and space and brought the human family in closer touch."

Telephone poles also made convenient stations upon which to lynch blacks, something I never learned in history class, and wouldn't have known, if this essay by Biss, contained in her collection of essays, Notes from No Man's Land: American Essays (Graywolf Press, 2009).

Biss doesn't blame telephone poles. They were merely an instrument, a practical one at that given that they were tall and straight, had a cross bar, and they stood in public places, making them great for humiliation and degradation, key elements of lynchings.

Writing about telephone poles and lynchings might seem perverse, and evoke discomfort from readers, Biss conveys something about America in this essay, about racism from our nation's past that is not common knowledge, even though telephone poles are ubiquitous.

Her essays are like that. She looks at things, like race in America, and the prevalence of fear in our country, through a lens somewhat altered from the norm.

We also learn from Biss that her father told her that her grandfather was a telephone lineman and "broke his back when a telephone pole smashed him against the road."

The 13 essays in the book are placed in sections, three of which are geographic divisions where each essay is rooted--New York, California, and the Midwest.

In "Black News," Biss breaks down illusions outsiders have about San Diego, with its beaches and white sand, just like advertisements she had seen, promoting the city.

Biss writes that "most of the people on Pacific Beach were young and white and tanned and muscular." Biss assessed from the beaches that San Diego was "almost entirely white." She would learn later that this wasn't the case.

She didn't live near the beach--she couldn't afford to. She lived in a section of San Diego that was predominantly African-American, where there were "four liquor stores within two blocks two blocks of my apartment." She points out that the nearest bus stop was 10 blocks away.

Biss landed a part-time job as a reporter and photographer for the Voice and Viewpoint, the African-American community paper in the city.

She learned from this that news is different, depending on who hold s editorial control. The beat she covered yielded news that wouldn't be found in the cities white-owned and white-controlled newspaper, the San Diego Union-Tribune. For instance, the Voice and Viewpoint didn't carry a beach report. The Union-Tribune didn't report on Child and Protective Service's (CPS) systematic assault on black families.The CPS beat was one that Biss was assigned to. Biss learned that not all news was the same, and who reported on it really mattered, and who read the paper mattered more.

What holds these 13 disparate essays together is Biss's obvious chops as a writer. Not one of the essays is a "clunker." Her skill allows her to tie together lynchings on telephone poles, governmental malfeasance towards African-American families in San Diego, and in her essay, "Is This Kansas," the intellectual and ideological poverty of college students, and college administrators in the Midwest.

While all of the essays have a thematic center, which is race in America, a subject fraught with peril for any writer, Biss never comes across as heavy-handed, or haranguing readers, and the essays aren't about ideological axe-grinding.

Throughout Notes from No Man's Land, Biss regularly showed her adeptness and skill as a writer, tackling tough subjects in each essay, but always with a twist or turn that took you somewhere different than you originally thought you were going. In the process, you admired the journey, and how Biss made you think about her points.

This is Biss's first full-length work, made possible when she won Graywolf's Nonfiction Prize for 2008.

I'm sure this will be the first of many books from Biss, as this first book of essays is a winner.

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