To be alive and witness ongoing sociopolitical tug of war in fights for diversity and equity as dominant groups lose their foothold is remarkable. Politics and fashion are recycled, people are taxed, worn through trying to keep up, and position themselves to gain currency and privilege to fit into a scheme. Socioeconomic schemes, racial schemes, political schemes, gender schemes, religious schemes and age schemes. I am schemed out! As beings we all participate in one scheme–the human scheme. So I begin here…
This issue of Bookissh introduces a new occasional feature, “The Race Space” in which I’ll share works exploring race related topics both intersectional and sociopolitical using a variety of genres to do so. This issue of Bookisshh explores the work by author Danzy Senna, who writes race from the inside looking out as a member of an interracial family during the climate of her times. Senna examines society’s intersection and imposition on one’s identity and how people are forced to choose and declare who they are according to race. Senna raises the trope, “The world is Black or White” up the flagpole and submits it to varied storm.
I’ve read Senna’s entire body of work to witness her characterization of identity in crisis as people enter relationships, work and life overall. Also shared in this issue is the work of Dr. Brittany Cooper as she finds her Black Girl superpowers and challenges intersectional feminism and how Black feminsim fares.
Cooper is not easy reading but remains essential reading as she shares research, philosophy, policy and embeds it in personal experience. She will alter your lens for certain.
Author Background: Danzy Senna has published 3 novels, 1 memoir and 1 collection of short stories. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Vogue and The New York Times. She is a professor of English at the University of Southern California and hails from Boston. Senna holds a BA from Stanford and a MFA from USC Irvine.
Senna, a child of multiracial parents and divorce uses her work to coalesce how race indemnifies family, self and community and when intersection brings conflict to this condition.
New People by Danzy Senna / Literary Fiction
New People is about the inner struggle to claim identity when nature and nurture are turned inside out. Enter Maria and Khalil, subjects of a documentary in production titled, “New People.” Maria and Khalil are on the brink of traditional achievements widely valued in this country: marriage, matriculation and start up entrepreneurialism. They are young, bright, free, live in New York and have a vibrant social scene providing a hip backdrop for Maria’s story.
Maria is being choked and tangled by her individuation from her family and the patriarchal nature embedded in her graduate school program.
Maria’s adoptive mother dies leaving behind a legacy of loss as well as an incomplete dissertation. Maria’s mother imbues Maria with a flaming awareness of race and racial differences. As Maria struggles through her dissertation on the Jonestown Massacre, readers learn how and why lost people suffering identity issues join cults and how those stories never end well.
Maria becomes lost as her wedding day encroaches and goes off on a personal thriller known only to herself. She becomes a stalker of sorts she and taken with a man, a shadow version of her father, a poet representing all things natural is unlike her very mixed and privileged fiancee. Maria enters her poet’s world and solely without his permission. It is a heightened experienc
The ending is abrupt and frustrating likely because it’s too idealistic to believe that we can resolve ourselves to the cellular degree. Characteristic of Senna’s work she leaves her readers with the impressions: Though from the outside life looks good, life is incomplete and a happy ending doesn’t make it less so. It is an honest approach that sizzles slowly in the fortress of comprehension.
Senna delivers a language to readers that is insightful and clever. She describes race using adjectives and textures demonstrating the beautify which former discriminations have stifled.
Caucasia: A Novel by Danzy Senna / Literary Fiction
Symptomatic by Danzy Senna / Literary Fiction
Senna transfers elements found in her freshman novel, “Caucasia” into “Symptomatic” with her continuing theme of racial identity, broken families, eccentric multiracial parents, moving to a new place, coming of age and adds a little suspense/ thrill a little late in the narrative.
Senna employs an unnamed narrator who is vulnerable. A young bi-racial college graduate lands a fantastic gig at a New York magazine tells the story of the worst experience of her life. The narrator is displaced, young, finding herself and latches on to someone similar in make-up but much older and bitter to being psychotic who takes control of the narrator’s life putting her in the most dire of circumnstances.
In Symptomatic Senna constructs rich inner and outer dialogues for characters as they explore, respond and develop within a larger social context. Senna intersects her characters with experiences regarding race and their historic and social resonance. Senna forces characters see their racial selves both inside and outside and forces the world to see that seeing as well.
Senna’s prose for diatribe is biting and deeply truthful. There is no fat or fluff stuffed into these moments. Reading her words, it’s easy to see how words can hurt and heal depending on who, when and why characters are speaking them.
Once again, Senna offers little resolution in this work as the identity by-products of multiracial or “New People” as Senna so refers changes with time. As generations pass the thinking both inward and outward and eludes the multiracial tweener generation from which she and her characters stem forth. They bear the struggles that their parents did too strange and fruitful as it seems. In its incompleteness her writing is compelling and beautiful.
Where Did You Sleep Last Night by Danzy Senna / Personal History
This autobiography unfolds during a journey on which Senna travels with her father to the many homes of his prior origin. The journey is bracketed between Senna moving her life toward a committed marital relationship on the front end and the birth of her first child, a son on the back end. Her father, Carl Senna, brilliant, Black, political and financially challenged is the glue that binds it all together for Senna.
During the narrative Senna carefully unfolds details of her father’s scattered origin revealing some surprises which might raise a devoted parishioners’ brow as she unearth’s unfortunate secrets protected by the Catholic Church.
As Senna detects her paternal racial origin stemming from Black enslaved peoples, gifted pianists and hardworking Southern parishioners, she quietly catalogues her maternal history deeply entrenched in old New England caucasian landed gentry to include Harvard professors, plantation owners and endowers of major New England institutions. Senna was honest when conferring her Caucasian side’s relationship to the slave trade and/or Jim Crow but it reads as mention and not dirty gritty detail nor long term consequence.
Senna admits to maternal biases in the rediscovery of her family and it’s impact upon her. Her eyes are clear and her heart speaks fluidly as she ushers a new life into today’s continuing racial binary world as being white and other.
Senna shows readers her holiday table jam-packed with too many family members from multiple multicultural walks of life while walking into new ones. We see her growth and witness the beginning of her peace. Senna is coming into who she is and all she is. Senna is an interracial child who has chosen for herself and her newly born son no matter how the world sees them or tells them who they should be. Senna will unfold the moments and let a new story, defined by its own standards, tell itself.
You Are Free by Danzy Senna / Short Story Collection
A sound collection of Senna’s work displays her influences, themes, and core elements as Senna dramatizes intersectional challenges of being multiracial a generation forward.
Senna creates for her readers a beautiful, brown rainbow spectrum showing and naming manifestations which occur when cellular matter mingles and new strands of DNA are created. Senna describes characters as high yellow, tawny, butterscotch and more all poetic in their unique beauty.
Senna forces readers into the interior chaos a multiracial person may experience as they build their identity, share intimacy, interact with visible and invisible social ways and mores.
For Senna and her characters the struggle is real and ever present. Though they may be first generation born of multi races they experience the same conflicts their parents did as they fought to live their shared truths. Characters contend with the clash when races, cultures and classes come together and try to maintain a semblance of wholeness during these moments.
One can accuse Senna of being a visionary as she gives great play and consideration to an expanding universe of multiracial couples and families and though they’re similar in being multiracial, how that comes together is entirely variable from situation to situation and unique responses are resultant.
The cast of characters includes: violent, unapologetic fathers, weak, ill, victimized mothers, estranged friends, new born multiracial children, eccentric elder females who are maternal and not at the same time, and one woman who stands witnessing, questioning, and deciding on her life as she’s faced with truth and change. Her main character is consistently overshadowed with a racial question—who am I if I’m not entirely this or that and ultimately does it matter?
To Senna it does matter which is why she puts her characters into compelling, meditative scenarios which often end abruptly, unresolved and at times, unhappily. Her work while quirky is honest and as she finds comfort within the Black and white origins of her family leaning in to her Black identity, here she quietly remains, inclusive of her white kin leaving her readers here.
Eloquent Rage by Dr. Brittany Cooper / A Black Lives Matter Memoir