You Are Free by Danzy Senna

Danzy Senna has a knack for unsettling her readers. The stories collected in You Are Free are a testament to her ability to create and maintain an atmosphere of disquiet, one that adds to the ambiguous characters populating her stories. The people Senna centres her stories around seem perpetually uneasy and their behaviour—which ranges from being slightly worrisome to downright perturbing—is often a source of confusion to other characters and readers themselves. Like in her full-length novels, Senna hones in on race, racism, and racial identity. Her caustic social commentary is as piercing as it is unstinting. Senna spares no one and this adds to the murky tone of her narratives. As much as I love Senna’s writing, her short stories pale in comparison to her novels. The stories here are not as disturbing as Maria’s spiralling into obsession in New People, or as disconcerting as the narrator’s experiences in Symptomatic, or as compelling as Birdie’s story in Caucasia.

The first story is probably the most accomplished one, as we are introduced to a young couple who, as a ‘joke’, apply for their son to attend one of the country’s most distinguished private schools. When their son is actually offered a spot, the mother finds herself giving the school some serious consideration, while the father is adamantly opposed to it and wants his son to attend a local public school. What makes this story so effective is the increasingly creepy behaviour of the school’s member of staff. The other stories are less memorable, and many of them focus on new parents. I made the mistake of listening to the audiobook version of this collection and I can tell you that there are few things as irritating as an adult mimicking the voice of a whiny child crying for their ‘mama/mummy’. Anyway, the people within these narratives are varying degrees of terrible. Which was expected, but they did seem to share many of the same unlikeable traits, which made them rather samey. The short format also didn’t give Senna much time to flesh them out or to give them some nuance. I also could have done without the animal cruelty which seemed thrown in as an afterthought, or worse, for mere shock value. At times the character descriptions here verged on being lazy, which is quite unlike Senna (a character’s eyes are described as ‘asian’…). The focus on the parent-child and wife-husband dynamics had potential but ultimately the author prioritizes ambience over characterisation (also the lack of queer characters…). Senna is a fantastic author but this collection isn’t quite it…

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Caucasia by Danzy Senna

“It’s funny. When you leave your home and wander really far, you always think, ‘I want to go home.’ But then you come home, and of course it’s not the same. You can’t live with it, you can’t live away from it. And it seems like from then on there’s always this yearning for some place that doesn’t exist. I felt that. Still do. I’m never completely at home anywhere. But it’s a good place to be, I think. It’s like floating. From up above, you can see everything at once. It’s the only way how.”

Enthralling and haunting, Caucasia makes for a dazzling coming-of-age story. With piercing and heart-wrenching clarity, Danzy Senna captures on the page the psychological and emotional turmoils experienced by her young protagonist. Similarly to her later novels, Symptomatic and New People, Caucasia is a work that is heavily concerned with race, racial passing, and identity. But whereas Symptomatic and New People present their readers with short and deeply unnerving narratives that blur the lines between reality and the fantastical, Caucasia is a work that is deeply grounded in realism. Its structure takes a far more traditional route, something in the realms of a bildungsroman novel. This larger scope allows for more depth, both in terms of character and themes. Birdie’s world and the people who populate are brought to life in striking detail. Senna’s prose, which is by turns scintillating and stark, makes Birdie’s story truly riveting and impossible to put down.

Caucasia is divided in three sections, each one narrated by Birdie. The novel opens in Boston during the 1970s Civil Rights and Black Power movements when the city’s efforts to desegregate schools was met with white resistance and exacerbated existing racial tensions. Enter Birdie: her father Deck is a Black scholar who is deeply preoccupied with theories about race; her mother, Sandy, is from a blue-blood white woman who has come to reject her Mayflower ancestry and is quite active in the ‘fight’ for Civil Rights. Birdie is incredibly close to her older sister Cole, so much so that the two have created and often communicate in their own invented language. Before their parents’ rather messy break-up the two have been homeschooled, something that has sheltered them somewhat from the realities of the world. Even so, they both have been made aware of their ‘differences’. Whereas Cole resembles her dad, Birdie is paler and has straight hair, something that leads people to assume that she is white or perhaps Hispanic. During their rare visits to their maternal grandmother, Cole is completely ignored while Birdie receives all of her (unwanted quite frankly) attention. Later on, Deck’s new girlfriend is shown to be openly intolerant of Birdie for not being Black enough. When the girls begin attending a Black Power School, Birdie is teased and bullied. While Birdie is in awe of Cole and dreams that she could look like her, she’s also peripherally aware of the privileges afforded to her by her appearance. We also see how Sandy, their mother, for all her talk, treats Birdie and Cole differently (there is a scene in which she implies that unlike Birdie Cole should not be worried about paedophiles/serial killers). Sandy also struggles to help Cole with her hair, and soon their mutual frustration with each other morphs into something more difficult to bridge. When Sandy gets involved in some ‘shady’ activities her relationship with Cole sours further.
Birdie’s life is upended when Sandy, convinced the FBI is after her, flees Boston. In pursuit of racial equality Deck and his girlfriend go to Brazil, taking Cole with them, while Birdie is forced to leave Boston with Sandie.
Sandie believes that the only way to escape the feds is to use Birdie’s ‘ambiguous’ body to their advantage. Not only does Birdie have no choice but to pass but it is her mother who chooses her ‘white’ identity, that of Jesse Goldman.
The two settle in New Hampshire where Birdie struggles to adjust to new life. While the two spend some time in a women’s commune, they eventually move out and into a predominantly white town. Sandy’s paranoia leads her to distrust others, and secretiveness and suspicion become fixtures in their lives. Being forced to pass and being forced to pretend that her sister and father never existed alienate Birdie (from her own self, from Sandy, and from other people). She cannot truly connect to those around her given that she has to pretend that she is a white Jewish girl. She eventually makes friends and in her attempts to fit in emulates the way they speak and act. Because the people around her believe she is white they are quite openly racist, and time and again Birdie finds herself confronted with racist individuals. other people’s racism.
Senna captures with painful clarity the discomfort that many girls experience in their pre and early teens. For a lot of the novel, Birdie doesn’t really know who she is and who she wants to be, and because of this, she looks at the girls and women around her. But by doing this, she is merely imitating them, and not really figuring out her identity. In addition to having to perform whiteness, Birdie denies her own queerness.
As with Symptomatic and New People, Senna provides a razor-sharp commentary on race and identity. While Caucasia is easily the author’s least disquieting work, it still invokes a sense of unease in the reader. On the one hand, we are worried for Birdie, who is clearly unhappy and lost. On the other hand, we encounter quite a few people who are horrible and there are many disquieting scenes. Yet, Senna doesn’t condemn her characters, and in fact, there are quite a few instances where I was touched by the empathy she shows towards them (I’m thinking of Sandy in particular).
It provides a narrative in which its main character is made to feel time and again ‘Other’, which aggravates the disconnect she experiences between her physical appearance and self. The people around her often express a binary view of race, where you are either/or but not both. Because of this Birdie struggles to define herself, especially when she has to pass as white.
Senna subverts the usual passing narrative: unlike other authors, she doesn’t indict her passer by employing the ‘tragic mulatta’ trope. Throughout the narrative, Senna underscores how racial identity is a social construct and not a biological fact. However, she also shows the legacies of slavery and segregation in this supposedly ‘post-racial’ America as well as the concrete realities that race have in everyday life (Deck being questioned by the police, the disparities between the way Cole and Birdie are treated, the racism and prejudice expressed by so many characters, the way Samantha is treated at school).
Throughout the narrative Senna raises many thought-provoking points, opening the space for in-depth and nuanced discussions on identity, performativity, peer pressure, and sexuality.
The realism of Birdie’s experiences was such that I felt that I was reading a memoir (and there are some definite parallels between Birdie and Senna). If you found Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls and Dog Flowers: A Memoir to be compelling reads I thoroughly recommend you check out Caucasia. I can also see this coming of age appealing to fans of Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults. While they do not touch upon the same issues, they both hone in on the alienation experienced by young girls whose fraught path from childhood to adolescence make them aware of painful truths and realizations (that they are not necessarily good or beautiful, that the people around them aren’t either, that adults and parents can be selfish and liars, that not all parents love their children). I would also compare Caucasia to Monkey Beach which is also an emotionally intelligent and thoughtful coming-of-age. And, of course, if you are interested in passing narratives such as Passing and The Vanishing Half you should really check out all of Senna’s books.

The novel’s closing act is extremely rewarding and heart-rendering. Curiously enough the first time I read this I appreciated it but did not love it. This second time around…it won me over. Completely. Birdie is such a realistic character, and I loved, in spite or maybe because, of her flaws. Her story arc is utterly absorbing and I struggled to tear my eyes away from the page (even if I had already read this and therefore knew what would happen next). Senna’s dialogues ring true to life and so do the scenarios she explores. Birdie’s voice is unforgettable and I can’t wait to re-read this again.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Symptomatic by Danzy Senna

“Every day in this new city I was trying to live in the purity of the present, free from context. Contexts, I knew, were dangerous: Once you put them into the picture, they took over.”

As with her latest novel New People, Symptomatic presents its readers with a claustrophobic and disquieting narrative that becomes increasingly surreal. Both novels are set in the 90s in New York and follow light-skinned biracial women whose white-passing often results in them feeling on the outside of both the white and Black communities. Senna’s razor-sharp commentary on race in America holds no punches as time and again she identifies and dissects everyday slights, aggressions, and hypocrisies. Symptomatic is narrated by an unnamed young woman in her twenties who is interning as a journalist. As she ‘passes’ as white she begins to feel alienated, a feeling that is exacerbated when she witnesses her white boyfriend—who believes she is Hispanic—guffawing at a friend’s racist impersonation. Our narrator is not close to her parents, each of who has embarked on a mystical or religious journey—nor her surfer brother. Senna portrays her feeling of aloneness with incisive precision. The main character feels so severed from her surroundings that she often feels or sees rather disquieting things that may or may not be there. The imagery Senna provides is unpleasant, unsettling, and even grotesque: a “raw chicken wing” lying in the gutter is the narrator’s eyes, however momentarily, a “pink fetus”, a “steak fry” transforms in a “severed finger”, a woman’s “pregnant belly” pokes out “like a tumor”.

A colleague of the protagonist helps her in her hour of need. After breaking up with her boyfriend the narrator needs a new place and this colleague, Greta, hooks her up with an apartment that has been temporarily vacated by its actual rentee. The narrator and Greta become close as they both happen to be light-skinned biracial women. In spite of their age gap, Greta is in her forties, they feel united by their experiences (of others assuming they are white, of being told they are not really Black, of being seen as ‘neither here nor there’). Their thoughts and feelings on race, on white and Black people, can be vicious, full of vitriol, and give us an understanding of them (of the way they have been treated or made to feel). Time and again the narrator is told that there is something about the way she looks, there is an “unsettling” “dissonance” to her that makes others feel uneasy, unable to place her.
As the two women spend more time together it becomes clear to the narrator that Greta is a deeply disturbed and perturbing person. When Greta’s obsession with her forces the narrator to cut ties with her, she soon discovers that the older woman is not willing to let go so easily.

“I felt ill. My symptoms were mild and vague. They roamed my body, like tinkers searching for new temporary homes where they could not be caught.”

Senna’s prose is as always terrific. I was hypnotized by her words, however uneasy they made me feel. Her commentary on race and contemporary culture is both illuminating and provocative, and, weirdly enough, I also appreciate the cynicism of her novels. The world she presents us with is ugly and so are the people inhabiting it. The oppressive atmosphere of her narratives is made all the more stultifying by the perturbing direction of her storylines. Simple interactions between characters are anything but simple as they are often underlined by a sense of anxiety.
Alas, Senna does have an Achille’s heel and that is the final act of her novels. Here there is a reveal which I definitely did not buy into, if anything, it made this one character seem less fleshed out than they were. The character’s spiraling into alienation is halted by witnessing someone who has already embarked on this path of self-destruction. The final confrontation also, as noted by other reviewers on GR, was a bit too reminiscent of Passing. As with New People the ending had a touch of bathos that made me reconsider the novel on the whole.
Still, in spite of this, I do love Senna’s writing. Her prose is mesmerizing and the content of her stories is both disquieting and eye-opening. If you like authors such as Ottessa Moshfegh you should definitely try reading something by Senna.

re-read: a truly disturbing piece of fiction. The mysterious shadows and symptoms haunting our protagonist are truly disturbing.

my rating: ★★

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New People by Danzy Senna

“When she was just a kid, Gloria told her never to trust a group of happy, smiling multiracial people. Never trust races when they get along, she said. If you see different races of people just standing around, smiling at one another, run for the hills, kid. Take cover. They’ll break your heart.”

A disquieting yet hypnotic novel New People makes for a quick but far from forgettable read. Set in the 1990s in New York the story follows Maria, a twenty-something woman who, alongside her fiancee Khalil, will star in a documentary called ‘New People’ which focuses on biracial and multiracial young people in NY. Maria’s pale skin often leads other to assume that she is white or Mexican, a fact that has always made her feel on the outskirts of her Black community (even if her adoptive mother was Black). Maria and Khalil met in college and everyone seems to think that they are perfect for each other: “Their skin is the same shade of beige. Together, they look like the end of a story”. Maria, however, grows infatuated with a Black poet (we never learn his name, he is referred to as ‘the poet’) and seems to believe that he reciprocates her feelings. Believing that they share a connection Maria engages in some creepy and stalkerish behaviour that sees her crossing all sorts of lines. As the narrative progresses we learn more of Maria’s past, and what we learn is not particularly pretty (that ‘prank’ she pulls on Khalil…yeah). We also see her previous relationship, many with white boys, the latest of whom reinvented himself as Chicano. Maria’s uneasy feelings towards racial identity is rendered in stark detail. Senna touches upon the ‘tragic mulatto’ trope by providing a far more modern and relevant commentary on multiracial identity. Senna also captures with uncomfortable clarity Maria’s frame of minds: obsession, delusion, anger, repulsion, despair. While readers are not meant to like her they will feel some degree of sympathy towards her (no doubt to Maria’s own discontent). The narrative has a feverish quality to it, one that really emphasises Maria’s downwards spiral. Shrewd and occasionally scathing the novel explores subjects such as race, identity, belonging, hatred, obsession and alienation without providing easy answers. The questions and discussions that emerge in New People brought to mind the ones in Nella Larsen’s work, particularly Quicksand.
I do wish some things had been handled differently. I would have liked more of Khalil and his sisters and less of Greg. And, although I did appreciate the narrative’s foray into hysterical realism I did find some of the guys to be too cartoonish (such as Khalil’s friend who apparently speaks in clichés :“I love Khalil like a brother. Okay? So if you hurt him, you are going to have to contend with me.”).

I wouldn’t recommend this book to a lot of readers. Maria is a character who exhibits some perturbing behaviour and the narrative doesn’t paint anyone in a good light. The story seems in fact intent on showing how hypocritical and performative people are (and in making you freak out about what Maria is getting up to). The ending lessened also my overall appreciation as it felt both weak and predictable. Yet, I do think that the author told, for the most part, a unique story with a real edge to it. If you are into novels about self-destructive and alienated young women such as My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Luster, and Pizza Girl you should give New People a try.

PS: The book has no quotation marks which is why I opted for the audiobook.

re-read: while not as emotionally encompassing as Caucasia or as incisive as Symptomatic, this book is a really accomplished character study and should definitely appeal to fans of the “she’s not feeling so good” subgenre.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Passing by Nella Larsen — book review

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“It’s funny about ‘passing.’ We disapprove of it and at the same time condone it. It excites our contempt and yet we rather admire it. We shy away from it with an odd kind of revulsion, but we protect it.”

At once alluring and disquieting Nella Larsen’s Passing presents its readers with a piercing examination of the interplay of race, gender, and class in 1920s New York.
Clare and Irene, the women at the centre of this novel, grew up in the same Black neighborhood. Both are light-skinned and can ‘pass’ for white but whereas Irene now lives with her husband, who is a doctor, and two sons in Harlem, and seems to enjoy a respectable middle-class existence, Clare left their community and rumour has it that she is now passing for white.
Irene has never paid much attention to the talk surrounding Clare’s ‘disappearance’ from their neighbourhood. A chance encounter in Chicago reunites the two women. Clare, now living as a white woman and married to a white supremacist, views Irene as a link bank to the Black community and culture that she abandoned. While she’s clearly made the most of the privileges that come with being white, Clare feels a lure towards her ‘old’ identity. Irene too may be more dissatisfied than she’d liked to believe and begrudgingly rekindles her friendship with Clare.

The fraught dynamic between Clare and Irene brought to mind that between Sula Peace and Nel Wright (from Toni Morrison’s Sula). Both sets of women used to be childhood friends, Clare and Sula leave their community only to return years later. Their beauty and insouciant attitude arouse jealousy and envy in their old friends.
While Clare is using Irene as her ticket to re-enter and re-connect with her Black community, she does seem to be genuinely happy to be spending time with Irene. Irene, on the other hand, grows resentful of Clare’s careless vacillation between a white and Black identity. When Irene perceives a new strain in her relationship with her husband she attributes this to the ‘change’ brought by Clare reappearance in her life.

“There were things that she wanted to ask Clare Kendry. She wished to find out about this hazardous business of “passing,” this breaking away from all that was familiar and friendly to take one’s chance in another environment, not entirely strange, perhaps, but certainly not entirely friendly. What, for example, one did about background, how one accounted for oneself.”

Desire and jealousy cloud Irene and Clare judgments. They seem drawn to each other, perhaps because they are in many ways polar opposites. There is an intensity to how Irene thinks about Clare and to how Clare looks at Irene that seemed almost sexual (or maybe that’s just me).
Yet, underlining this mutual attraction is something closer to animosity. Irene judges Clare for passing and for being with a boastfully racist man, while Clare, in her unrelenting efforts to latch onto Irene and her lifestyle, is much harder to pin down. Much about her remains a mystery to us. Irene’s growing hostility towards Clare could also be seen as a defence mechanism, as in this instance aversion may be preferable to attraction.

Larsen’s naturalist approach to her characters’ behaviours and feelings reminded me of Edith Wharton (“Brought to the edge of distasteful reality, her fastidious nature did not recoil. Better, far better, to share him than to lose him completely. Oh, she could close her eyes, if need be. She could bear it. She could bear anything.”) . Larsen, similarly to Wharton, can be incredibly perceptive—in her social commentaries, in her honing on the subtleties of certain feelings, impressions, and thoughts—while also allowing for a certain opaqueness to surround her characters, their motivations and actions. This sense of ambiguity, although present from the novel’s opening scene, soon seems to dominate the narrative, so that the more I read, the more uneasy I felt towards the characters. Larsen’s disillusioned portrayal of marriage and domesticity also made me think of Wharton’s (the two also have a penchant for tragedies). The oppressive unease permeating Irene’s story called to mind authors such as Patricia Highsmith and Danzy Senna.

Larsen doesn’t lose herself in the ethics of passing, rather she portrays the system of white supremacy which seeks to control and undermine people of colour (regardless of their class).
As Larsen navigates themes of race, gender, and identity, she brings to life 1920s New York from its norms to its social hierarchies. Larsen’s commentary on race feels modern and all-too relevant to today’s society.

“The social, psychological, and economic motivations for passing, they also perform acts of literary trespass in exposing the cultural and legal fiction of race.”

Through her elegant and contemplative writing, Larsen captures the discordance between self and society. The tension between Irene and Clare results in a fraught atmosphere, one that makes Passing into a work of psychological suspense. If you are looking for a novel about transformation, liberation, jealousy, and betrayal, you need not look further.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett — book review

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“At first, passing seemed so simple, she couldn’t understand why her parents hadn’t done it. But she was young then. She hadn’t realized how long it takes to become somebody else, or how lonely it can be living in a world not meant for you.”

Brit Bennett’s second novel is a tour de force. The Vanishing Half gripped me from the very pages as I was instantly transfixed by Bennett’s subtle yet penetrating prose.
Bennett is a brilliant storyteller. Not one word is wasted, or so it seemed as I had the distinct impression that her writing was simultaneously concise and striking. Bennett’s prose effortlessly moves from present to past, as her story traverses decades (from the 60s to the 80s) and transports us from the small-town of Mallard in Louisiana to LA or New York. Bennett maps the lives of many characters, who inhabit markedly different worlds, focusing in particular on the lives and voices of the Vignes women.

“The Vignes twins left without saying good-bye, so like any sudden disappearance, their departure became loaded with meaning.”

Most people regard twins, particularly identical twins, as a source of fascination. Bennett, fully aware of this, adds a layer of depth to the mystique of twins by making the Vignes embark on drastically different paths. After witnessing their father’s lynching at the hands of white men, the Vignes have little love for their small-town, and aged sixteen they flee to New Orleans. Things don’t go as planned however and the twins become irrevocably separated. While Stella returns with a daughter to the hometown she so longed to escape, Desiree passes for white and marries a wealthy white man. In spite of this, their bond keeps them tethered together and even as the years go by the Vignes twins struggle to reconcile themselves with the loneliness of their ‘twinless’ existence. Their respective daughters share little in common. While Stella’s daughter Kennedy enjoys a life of privilege, Desiree’s daughter Jude is discriminated for her dark skin by her peers and the adults of her community.

“The hardest part about becoming someone else was deciding to. The rest was only logistics.”

The Vanishing Half tells a heartbreaking and relevant intergenerational tale. While Bennett does not condone the decisions and behaviour of certain characters, mainly Jude and Kennedy, she never condemns them either, revealing instead how viciously deep-rooted racism is. While Stella can enjoy the freedoms that come with being white (and wealthy), her fear of discovery causes her to adopt racist attitudes towards other people of colour and to inculcate racist beliefs in her own daughter.
Like her mother at her age, Jude is eager to leave the confines of the ‘narrow-minded’ Mallard. In college she tries to overcome the insecurities and self-hatred instilled in her after years of being othered.
While the Vignes twins and their daughters may occupy opposing realities, they grapple with similar questions of identity. Stella, Desiree, and Jude, who are alienated by their society because of their race and class, long to belong. Yet, they often sabotage their own attempts to connect to others (Stella’s attempt to bond with her black neighbour ends catastrophically).

“It scared her, how badly she wanted to belong to somebody.”

Bennett navigates the way in which race and class shape the way in which we are seen and treated by others. Her characters are vividly drawn, and it is their contradictory feelings and desires that make them all the more real. Bennett’s narrative doesn’t favor any one perspective, and in doing so allows her readers to form their own opinion of a character’s actions.
The relationships the characters have with each other are fraught. While most Stella, Desiree, Jude, and even Kennedy to a certain extent, all desire to fit in or to form meaningful connections, miscommunications abound as they are unwilling or unable to expose themselves to others.

“He was always doing that, trying to coax her further outside herself. But she felt safe like this, locked away.”

In Bennett’s novel love isn’t neat or easy and identity is an evolving process, her observations on race, class, and family are truly compelling. She touches upon a myriad of topics (poverty, abuse, trauma, unknowability) with thoughtfulness and clarity. To white people like me (I grew up in a really homogenous and racist country) the America Bennett depicts is both disturbing and illuminating. While there are many horrific scenes in The Vanishing Half, I encourage readers to read this novel. Characters such as Reese, Jude, and Early alone are worth knowing. Interspersed in the various narratives there are tender moments of genuine affection and understanding (Jude’s relationship to her mother and Reese are truly heart-rendering).

“You could live a life this way, split. As long as you knew who was in charge.”

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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