“Our willingness to believe the news is, in many cases, not entirely innocent.”
In my weaker moments, those moments when I have desired nothing so much as the comforting thud of an enveloped book arriving through my letterbox, I have come perilously close to signing up to a subscription with Fitzcarraldo Editions, a publishing house for which I have a deep admiration despite having not read any of their books. Some time ago I must have signed up for their newsletter, and now and again an e-mail thuds comfortingly into my inbox and I read it with an indecent level of covetousness, lingering over the description of the latest book which, invariably, suggests immediate purchase is necessary. There’s just something about the kind of books that Fitzcarraldo publish that resonates like a harp in my soul. And despite all of this, despite my finger lingering over the 12 month subscription button on more than one occasion, despite a back catalogue filled with books like Second-hand Time, Pond and Zone all of which I would read in a heartbeat, I’ve never yet succumbed, though the temptation is like the promise of a hit of something craved and perhaps it is this temptation alone, the delicious thrill of it, which has held me back all along. Because a temptation fulfilled is less fun, in many ways, than one which continues to offer the anticipation of fulfilment, and in this way I continue to dangle that subscription just out of reach though the back catalogue, it seems, is perhaps still a temptation too far which is how Notes From No Man’s Land landed on my doormat.
Notes From No Man’s Land is a series of essays concerned with the issue of race in America, identity politics (though Biss admits she doesn’t entirely understand what this is) and the disparity in the way the actions of white Americans are perceived compared to the black community. Yet that description itself is a whole lot less complex than the book itself is, and offers a certainty which Biss doesn’t grant through the essays. Because Biss is a questioner, a questioner and an observer and a wonderer and with her eyes open she sees injustice and inaccuracy and disparity wherever she looks. Starting with the question of race is in itself a complex point, as Biss explains with uncustomary absolutism – “There is no biological basis for what we call race, meaning that most human variation occurs within individual “races” rather than between them. Race is a social fiction. But it is also, for now at least, a social fact. We may be remarkably genetically similar, but we are not all, culturally speaking, the same.” – Biss begins in an unusual place, the invention of the telephone and, more specifically, the telephone pole. Here she explains the history of the development of the telephone, the wires that connect us and the extraordinary fact that we are all connected, and the way in which the march of the telephone pole was restricted and resisted by those whose property they crossed. This exploration morphs into the use of the telephone pole as a vehicle for lynching black men, black men accused of, whether or not convicted of, harassing white women, or of stealing white people’s property or murdering white people. It’s a powerful parallel: the technology which is designed to connect us being used to rip communities apart. As Biss reflects, things are not innocent.
From there Biss explores different stories of prejudice and damage to the black community, formed from her interactions in New York, California and the Midwest and the various jobs she has performed and stories she has explored. Each of the essays interleaves Biss’s experiences with some horrifying story which would be unbelievable if they weren’t true. Stories of the heavy-handedness of Child Protection Services who routinely strip black children from their families, stories of ‘integration’ which mean tolerance of a small number of ethnic minorities in an area, stories of the way the media report, or more truthfully mis-report, events which happen in predominantly black areas, like the reporting after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, as she reflects on here:
“Unlike the reports of violence, many of the reports of looting in New Orleans were, in fact, substantiated. There were witnesses and photographs. But, again, the story – that blacks are thieves – was already in circulation before the events took place. The facts of the reports may have been true, but the motives driving the reporting, and the motives behind the public fascination with the story, were based on old lies about who steals from whom in this country. And it was evident from the strange enthusiasm, the eagerness, with which the reports of looting were met that readers were not interested so much in the looting as they were in how well it supported their sickest suspicions of black people. Our willingness to believe the news is, in many cases, not entirely innocent.”
But it is both the complexity and over-simplification of stories which absorb Biss. She examines the way stories are structured and how we use them to reinforce power or disempower others, to reassure ourselves and to confirm our existing views and fears. In particular, she reflects on both diversity efforts and the way in which white fear is spun and reinforced to perpetuate prejudice and conflict in a very powerful essay called No Man’s Land:
“My cousin recently travelled to South Africa, where someone with her background would typically be considered neither white nor black but coloured, a distinct racial group in South Africa. Her skin is light enough that she was most often taken to be white, which was something she was prepared for, having travelled in other parts of Africa. But she was not prepared for what it meant to be white in South Africa, which was to be reminded, at every possible opportunity, that she was not safe and she must be afraid. And she was not prepared for how seductive that fear would become, how omnipresent it would be, so she spent most of her time there in taxis, and in hotels, and in “safe” places where she was surrounded by white people. When she returned home she told me, “I realised that is what white people do to each other – they cultivate each other’s fear. It’s very violent.””
In a time when the rhetoric tells the white communities in both the UK and US to fear the ‘radical Muslim’ this narrative seems as prevalent as ever, and I’m drawn to the recognition of all those times I’ve heard people, white people generally, complain that black or Asian communities do not ‘integrate’ by which they mean they do not give up their non-white culture and live, often, in communities in which ethnic minority groups dominate, largely because the white community move out. And we talk of ‘gentrification’ to mean areas in which there is a white, often middle-class resurgence, and we fail to talk about the failure of the rich to integrate or the ways in which the white community, through this fear, fail to role-model integration by taking taxis and avoiding certain areas because there are ‘gangs’ which is, often, another way of saying ethnic or black communities. The stories we tell ourselves, as Biss recognises, are often fictions or, at the very least, nothing more than perspectives and the most powerful narratives are the ones which are told by the most powerful people with the greatest reach and we should, as she suggests, be wary of them. As she reflects:
“I would realise later that going to the beach in San Diego is like going to Wall Street in New York. It is not only a centre of elite commerce – it is a place where the city’s imagination of itself resides. And I would begin to understand that the city of San Diego imagines its beaches white by telling itself the same story over and over, which is also how some of us, when we read The New York Times, convince ourselves that this is The News.”
In these times of ‘fake news’, of 24/7 coverage of events like the Manchester and London attacks by the mainstream media who simultaneously barely report the bombings in Afghanistan or Iran, we would do well to remember that these are some of the stories but not all of the stories, and that there are other stories which demand both our outrage and attention and which we will never see, not because they don’t exist but because they don’t reinforce the narrative that those in power want us to hear. And what Biss does, in this powerful collection of essays, is remind us to listen, because she listens, and not just listen but really think about what these stories are telling us, because narrative is rarely simple and listening is really hard and now and again we need to be reminded of that. I was glad to receive this timely reminded, through a series of essays which are intelligent and balanced and generous, at times amusing but always thought-provoking. And Biss shows a kind of mental flexibility which is both admirable and inspiring and I found myself wishing we could all be so willing to examine the issues we face with such honesty and humility and so penetratingly. I’m glad that my moment of weakness led me to these extraordinary essays and that my faith in Fitzcarraldo was not misplaced. I think that back catalogue might turn out to be too tempting after all.