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Essays from America

BY REBECCA KOONS | APRIL 15, 2009 7:30 AM

Tonight, author Eula Biss extends an ‘invitation to thought’ with a reading at Prairie Lights.

With an undeniable passion for writing and the drive to improve her craft, author Eula Biss is making her mark on the world of nonfiction writing. The Graywolf Nonfiction Prize winner will present essays from her latest essay collection, *Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays*, at 7 p.m. today at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St.

Biss received a bachelor’s degree in nonfiction writing at Hampshire College before she moved on to the UI to further her knowledge and skills and obtained an M.F.A. For Biss, it was the desire to become part of a community, as well as teaching, that drew her to the UI.

“I had been working on my writing without the support of an institution for a number of years, and I was eager to be part of a community of writers,” she said. “I chose the nonfiction program at the U of I because I had seen some interesting writing coming out of that program.”

Notes from No Man’s Land is a collection of essays that combine elements of Biss’ experiences living in various regions of the country with the multifaceted concepts of ethnicity and ethnicity identity in the United States today. The idea of ethnicity, however, was not Biss’ initial intent for the book. She said the theme of ethnicity in particular began to “emerge” from several personal essays she had written over the years.

“The inspiration for this book was my life and my experiences as a citizen of this country,” she said. “When I began to gather those essays together into a collection, I also began to work with that theme more intentionally.”

Though the book is driven by the idea of experience, one should not anticipate a Biss autobiography. As she explains, “None of these essays are ‘about’ my experiences so much as they are about those questions and ideas that my experiences raised for me.”

In addition to her blossoming career as an author, she has devoted much of her time to teaching nonfiction writing at Northwestern University. While she shares her gift for writing with college students, she is also able to build on her talent in the process.

“I’ve found that teaching nonfiction writing is the best way for me to continue to study my craft and refine my own skills as a writer,” Biss said. “My students and I engage many of the same problems, and our conversations are a fruitful way for me to work through some of those problems.”

One might also say the same thing of Notes from No Man’s Land, which she describes as her own “invitation to thought.” Biss hopes to truly engage her readers, using the “struggling” of her mind to “forward the struggling of their own minds.”

From “Letter to Mexico”

I am sending you a photocopy of a passage from the book Shame and Its Sisters. This photocopy was sent to me not long after I returned from Mexico, by the man who was my traveling companion there. It begins, “If I wish to touch you but you do not wish to be touched, I may feel ashamed.”

If you were to ask me now, “Why did you go to Mexico?” I would not be able to answer you honestly. I might say that I went to learn a language I have been trying to learn for a decade and still cannot speak.

Shame and Its Sisters continues, “If I wish to look at you but you do not wish me to, I may feel ashamed. If I wish to look at you and at the same time wish that you look at me, I can be shamed. If I wish to be close to you but you move away, I am ashamed.”
——————————————
As we drove across the border I saw a long line of people waiting to go to work in San Diego, their bicycles locked on the fence near customs. In the months before leaving for Mexico, I took a Spanish class at San Diego Community College taught by a woman who commuted from Tijuana. Sometimes, she told us in class, it took her more than two hours to get across the border. That Spanish class is the only course I have ever failed.

Once across the border, there was a wall of corrugated metal that we drove along, and razor wire, and a ditch, and a lone man carrying a plastic bag in the sun, and a sudden change in the surface of the landscape, which I did not anticipate because San Diego and Tijuana are closer than sisters, almost two halves of the same city. But San Diego is green along the highways, and Tijuana is not. In San Diego, dusk brings the rhythmic sound of sprinklers, but here it does not.

The Colorado River is split down its deepest channel by the border. So much water is drawn off by both countries that the river rarely reaches the ocean anymore.

Every day, a good part of Mexico’s share of that water is used to cool the turbines at two new power plants in Mexicali. The plants are owned by American companies, and most of the power they generate is sold to California and Arizona. These power plants and two thousand maquiladoras, American-owned factories along the border, are the fruits of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has been in effect for more than a decade now. The ten-year reports on NAFTA reveal that Mexico, like the United States, now has a small number of billionaires. And the real wages for everyone else have fallen. One of the promises of NAFTA was that it would make Mexico more like the United States. And it did in that it widened the gap between the richest people in Mexico and the poorest.

When we stopped, after driving south for an hour, in a very small town with one cantina that was also a motel, I asked a woman standing by the bar, “Por favor, necesitamos un cuarto para esta noche.” It was a sentence I had repeated over and over to myself in the car until I could say it somewhat casually. The woman said, “Hold on honey,” and pulled me by the arm up to the bartender, saying, “Ramon, this little girl doesn’t speak English.”

In La Salina that evening all the Americans were having their weekly potluck at the cantina. I would discover that, beyond the guarded gate next to the cantina, the town of La Salina was inhabited almost exclusively by Americans. Ramon, the bartender, and Gustavo, the waiter, spoke English, and no one else, as far as I could tell, spoke Spanish. That night, while firecrackers popped outside on the beach and strains of “La Bamba” and “Achy Breaky Heart” pounded through the floor of my room, I realized that I could never leave my country. I could check out any time I liked, as the song goes, but I could never leave.

— Eula Biss, from “Letter to Mexico,” *Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays*


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