Hello, fellow Germs! Summertime is in full swing, and I hope you are enjoying the season. For the July edition of Belle Lettres, we will be focusing on Danzy Senna. Senna is an essayist and a novelist who is best known for her debut novel, Caucasia. Senna has published a short story collection as well as numerous essays that center around issues such as race, gender, and motherhood.
Senna was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1970, and she is the second of three children to Fanny Howe, a novelist and poet, and Carl Senna, an author and a college professor.
Her mother is a white, Bostonian native while her father is black and Mexican, and Senna often writes about characters who are biracial like herself. Senna graduated with a B.A. from Stanford University and an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of California, Irvine.
Senna published her first novel, a coming-of-age story titled Caucasia, in 1998. Set in Boston during the mid 1970s, Caucasia tells the story of a biracial girl named Birdie Lee. Birdie sees her sister, Cole, as a reflection of her blackness. Birdie’s light complexion makes her appear white, which causes confusion and surprise from strangers in one incident when she’s out with her dad. Birdie’s appearance allows her to change her identity to fit in with her surroundings, and through Birdie’s point of view, Senna shows us how identity is not as solid as we think it is.
Senna released her second novel, Symptomatic, in 2004. Symptomatic follows the narrative of a mixed-race, unnamed young woman who is going to New York on a journalistic fellowship. Senna once again explores the themes of racial identity and the feeling of being unable to fit in anywhere. In Caucasia Senna looked at race through family relationships (Birdie and Cole), and in Symptomatic the narrator is in a comforting, borderline-obsessive relationship with an older woman named Greta, who is biracial like herself. Greta expresses hate toward both races while the narrator would rather be in the background and not spend her time thinking about the complexities of race.
Senna took a personal turn with her next work. During her fellowship at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, Senna did research and wrote her autobiography, Where Did You Sleep Last Night?: A Personal History, which was released in 2009. In Where Did You Sleep Last Night?, Senna writes not only about her parents’ marriage but also about her dad’s mostly unknown background. While her mother can “trace her lineage back to the Mayflower,” the only thing Senna knows about her paternal grandparents is that her grandmother was a black woman and her grandfather was a white Mexican boxer who disappeared after her father was born. Senna shows how racial politics played a role in two ways: the first being part of the reason her parents’ marriage had ended and the other being the difficulty in tracing her father’s family history while her mother’s was easily accessible. In the end, Senna hopes to mend her father’s unknown history as well as her relationship with him.
Senna released her fourth and most recent book, You Are Free, in 2011. You Are Free is a collection of short stories that covers themes such as gender, class, and race. In one story — “What’s the Matter with Helga and Dave?” — even though both characters are biracial, Helga appears to be white while Dave appears black, which stirs up stereotypes from strangers. In other story — “The Land of Beulah” — a woman adopts a dog whose breed is unidentifiable after her boyfriend breaks up with her for not being black enough; unfortunately, she takes her frustration out on the dog. The title of the book is interesting because Senna allows the reader to look at the breakdown of the personal lives of the characters. While they may appear to be free of something, the characters — as well as the audience — wonder if that is the kind of freedom worth having.
Senna has received numerous awards for Caucasia, such as Book of the Month Award for First Fiction and the American Library Association’s Alex Award. It was also listed as a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. Senna was also the recipient of the Whiting Award in 2002.
Through her work, Senna explores what it means to be in-between in a society that is fixed on being one or the other. While this kind of “freedom” can be complicated, it allows us to define who we are, not who others want us to be.