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Eula Biss Wins National Book Critics Circle Award

Her essays offer a moving look at America’s complicated racial landscape

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March 12, 2010 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Eula Biss, Northwestern University artist in residence, is the winner of the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism for "Notes from No Man's Land: American Essays." Winners of the awards were announced last night in New York.

A weaving of personal insights with historical realities of America's complicated racial landscape, "Notes from No Man's Land" was described in the Los Angeles Times as "a beautiful exercise in consciousness." Biss teaches nonfiction writing in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

"Her book is a brilliant example of `braided narrative,' which she and Brian Bouldrey introduced several years ago to the new creative nonfiction curriculum at Northwestern," said poet Mary Kinzie, director of the Creative Writing Program at Northwestern. "Unlike typical newspaper stories, the research for braided narratives is driven by the writer's preoccupations, much as lyric poems are; hence the alternate term `lyric essay.'"

Kinzie pointed out the seemingly unremarkable picture of a telephone pole on the cover of "Notes from No Man's Land." "When Eula started to write one of the book's essays about the telephone, she realized that the telephone pole represents not only progress but also the terrible history of lynching in this country," Kinzie said.

The book's essays also cover the treatment of New Orleans residents after Hurricane Katrina and Biss' experiences as a new resident in a gentrifying neighborhood in Chicago. "Fears about racial differences, which the essays so eloquently bring home, still are extremely potent in this country," Kinzie said. 

The winner of a Rona Jaffe Writers' Award, an Illinois Arts Council Award and a Pushcart Prize, Biss is co-founder and co-editor of Essay Press. The small press is dedicated to publishing innovative essays in book form.

Biss' essays have appeared in "The Best American Nonrequired Reading," Harper's, the Iowa Review, "Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Nonfiction" and other publications. "Notes from No Man's Land" was published by Graywolf Press. "The Balloonists," her first book, was published by Hanging Loose Press in 2002.

The undergraduate creative writing program in Northwestern's English department will celebrate its 30th anniversary in April. The program -- which has a strong national reputation -- recently added a creative nonfiction track to its long-established curriculum in poetry and fiction. Among the writers it has nurtured are National Book Award winner Dan Chaon, the multi-faceted poets Anne-Marie Cusac and Joshua Weiner and the daring prose writer Nick Reding.

The National Book Critics Circle, founded in 1974, consists of approximately 600 book reviewers around the country; its annual awards for best books are offered for six categories: autobiography, biography, criticism, fiction, nonfiction and poetry.

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