Kids tend not to pay too much attention to the kids in the grades below them, but are often acutely aware of the older kids at school. Danzy Senna was ahead of me while we were attending school in Brookline, Mass. She seemed to be a part of that rare circle of friends who are cool yet not cruel.
When her first novel, Caucasia, came out, I thought at first that my deep reaction was in part because the descriptions of the schools in the story were painfully accurate. But the book was so successful with other readers that she says it took her years to recover from the media attention and high expectations to begin writing again.
Senna now lives in New York City, where her latest novel, Symptomatic, is set. Africana spoke with her by phone at the home of her mother, the writer Fanny Howe, in Martha's Vineyard.
Your parents are both writers. Did you write a lot growing up?
Yeah, I did it for fun. I didn't ever think I was going to become a writer. I wrote a novel when I was eleven that was terrible. It was sort of a soap opera. I did a collection of short stories. I was pre-med in college as an attempt not to become a writer like them. I failed all my science and math classes, so I decided to go with the family trade.
Do you still find it fun today, or do you feel pressure now?
It's something I'm compelled to do, rather than that a choice. It's difficult. It's work. But it's a kind of work that I feel is worth the suffering that goes with it.
Your new book, Symptomatic, has a very different pace than Caucasia. Did you know going in that it would read more like a thriller?
I definitely wanted to write something that was hard-edged and kind of minimalist. It was a style that I was drawn to and that fit the atmosphere of the book. I was really influenced and inspired by thrillers. I've always loved that as a genre in film and in books, when it's done really well. My favorite is Roman Polanski, but I also love Brian DePalma and Hitchcock. It was a challenge to write a really short novel. I think writing a long novel is a lot easier in some ways.
Why is that?
I think you don't have to make as many choices, and practice economy in every chapter. It was a style I really wanted to train myself in. I so admire those writers that can pull it off, write a 200-page novel. It's not my instinct; I tend to write a lot. I wanted it to be stripped down to the bare essentials of the story.
Even though we don't have as much detail about the life of the narrator in Symptomatic, we know she suffers more than Birdie did in Caucasia. Birdie is being taught to hide her identity, whereas this character has already learned to hide who she is.
She does suffer a lot in the book. She's somebody who people project things onto. She's kind of a blank because she doesn't know who she is. It leaves her vulnerable. One of the critiques I got about Caucasia was that I didn't really deal with the issue of passing because there's an elaborate plot around it, and she's a child, and she's forced into it. So it didn't deal with the kind of character who might actually pass as white, and somebody who's really complicit in all of the problems in the world around them. Once you deal with an adult character, you kind of have to take that on because they're making choices. She makes a choice not to tell [her WASP boyfriend] Andrew that she's black, and she makes a choice to go and live with him and put herself in that world. She makes a choice to be friends with Greta, even.
There's that early scene where the narrator doesn't confront Andrew or his friends at the party. I'm waiting for her to get up and say something, or to have a strong internal reaction. Instead, she goes to the bathroom and sort of falls asleep.
I've had some readers upset by that scene because she doesn't do anything. Are we asking [fiction] to prescribe what we want someone to do, or to describe what somebody might do? I think there's something about a character being very passive that forces the reader to experience the emotion. If I was to have her stand up in that scene and give a rant against these people, I don't think the reader would feel it as much themselves. There's something important about those absences in fiction that force you to respond in a way that the character's not. I was also thinking about a kind of weariness that I and lots of other black people, mixed people, have experienced around race and white people. You're constantly put into that position of having to educate. There comes a point, maybe, when you decide not to do that, that you're going to remove yourself from the situation instead.
What it means for you as a writer with knowledge of this legacy of "tragic mulatto" characters, and Greta in certain ways plays out these dramatic stereotypes that you rallied so hard against in Caucasia.
One of the things I'm sort of wary of in the multiracial movement is a denial of the persistence of racism. In this Tiger Woods model, we're all just happy to be mixed, and we're so cute and we're so Benetton. There are still issues that you confront being mixed. There are really difficult experiences that you have if you appear white and you're not white. I really wanted to take on the tragic mulatto stereotype in many ways, but not simply through creating a character for whom none of this is an issue.
The way I see [the term "tragic mulatto"] used in academia is to dismiss something, to not actually grapple with what the author is talking about. Greta falls into that stereotype in many ways, but the main character is much more complicated. I think Greta is the horror of what the main character could become should she let these experiences seep into her and become a part of her. I don't even see Greta as being, in some ways, a real character. I see her in many ways as a ghost, a reminder of the past and all these images we have to consume in this culture. So for me, that's precisely what the main character has to fight against.
You use a lot of humor to get at those other questions. There are a lot of absurd situations in the book.
I was sort of taking the piss out of all of these stereotypes in the writing of it. I'll read the same scene to two different audiences. One will be laughing hysterically and one will be dead silent. It seems to fall on racial lines. When I read scenes in front of white audiences, there's no laughter. It's very quiet. There's this liberal nervousness: can we laugh at race? When you're in a more mixed audience, there's much less self-consciousness around that. Humor is one of the ways you deal with race and racism.
One of my [biracial] friends read said that in this book I explained a lot less. There's an attitude of, if you get it, you get it, if you don't, too bad. In Caucasia, I think I was much more concerned with not offending anyone, and taking on some of these issues that hadn't been written about. I felt this great sense of responsibility. In this book, I felt much more playful and less concerned with everybody's response to it.
Now you're working on a novel about your grandmother?
I'm doing some research and not clear the form it's going to take. That's something I'm going to be working on at the New York Public Library this year as a fellow in their center for writers and scholars. That one is in the research phase, and I'm writing something else. It's set in California. I'm reading a lot of nonfiction about cults and brainwashing. For me, the nonfiction is helping me get into the story. I'm loving working on the third novel, it's more fun that working on the second. Now it's part of a body of work. I'm not responding to Caucasia, I'm not responding to Symptomatic. I'm just writing, and getting to play out some of my obsessions on the page.
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