Danzy Senna’s Life Isn’t Black and White
You get a unique perspective on race in America when, like author Danzy Senna, you’re a white-passing African-American. And it makes for some very interesting reading.
Danzy Senna is a bestselling novelist and essayist whose writing explores issues of race, gender, and identity.
She was born and raised in Boston, MA. Her mother, poet Fanny Howe, is white; her father, editor Carl Senna is African-American. Many of Senna’s novels touch upon mixed-race identity. Her acclaimed first novel, Caucasia (1998), written while she completed an MFA in creative writing at University of California, Irvine, is about estranged biracial sisters. It was nominated for the prestigious Orange Prize for Fiction and won an Alex Award from the Young Adult Library Services Association. Her second book, Symptomatic (2004) details a multigenerational friendship between two mixed-race women. Her most recent novel, New People (2017) features a biracial Brooklyn couple.
Senna also wrote the autobiography Where Did You Sleep Last Night? (2009) about her parents’ marriage and divorce. Her essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Vogue, and The New York Times, among other places.
She teaches creative writing at the University of Southern California.
The novelist Danzy Senna is perpetually distracted by the world in her head.
Danzy Senna: I think in stories. I think, every time something happens to happen to me, I start to imagine the story that didn’t happen, and I start to think of it as a “she” and not “me.” And, since I was little, that’s been a sort of source of survival, and a compulsive need to tell stories.
Growing up in 1970’s Boston, Senna used her stories in part to help process the prejudice she constantly saw being aimed at her mixed race family.
Senna: My mother is of Anglo-Irish background and my father identifies as African-American, so I grew up thinking of myself as half-black and half-white, but identifying as African-American because of the time in which I was born. You didn’t have a category of mixed. You were either one or the other. And I grew up in a household where, in the midst of “Black Power,” and for both of my parents, it was very clear to them we were gonna identify as black—in a city as racist as Boston, in a country as racist as America, that the identity in us that needed protecting and shoring up was our black identity. It wasn’t the white side of us.
Senna: I feel very lucky that I was raised with such a feeling of connection to my black identity, and also a sense of never having any shame or sense of negativity around it—because I think everything could’ve gone in that direction, given the time I grew up and the racism that I faced every time I went out of the house. So, my formative experiences were of white people making racist comments to me as a kind of conspiratorial connection to me as a white person. And that happened to me so many times in my childhood and my adolescence that—
AJC: And would you immediately go, “Uh-uh, I’m black?”
Senna: Very early on, I learned to, I’d say, “Ruin the dinner party,” and that became something. I think of that as my origins as a writer, actually, was that I learned very early on that I was going to disrupt, and that I was going… My presence was not going to always be comfortable. And then I had to get comfortable making people uncomfortable. And so, for me, on the act of coming out as a black person in white spaces was where I think the seeds of that came. And it was about learning speech over silence, ’cause there was a very easy solution, which was just not to say anything. And having my parents’ politics drummed into me from a very early age—
AJC: That was never gonna happen, right?
Senna: No, I wasn’t gonna be that girl at that space, where I would not speak out.
Indeed, Senna has become something of an accidental spokesperson for biracial identity. Though different in many ways, each of her published works to date features a female protagonist with a mixed race background. But, she says, none of them are her.
Senna: Everything I write is fantasy. It’s not me. It’s a character, who I’m using to imagine a world that doesn’t exist. It can resemble me in 10 different ways, but the moment I write it as fiction, it becomes not me. And actually, that is required for the fiction to succeed—for me—is for me to depart from what I know. So just because the character is mixed race, is a female born in the same era that I was born, she can be from a family that resembles mine, she can be from Boston, where I grew up, but it is not me. That’s the paradox of fiction, is the moment you write it down, it becomes fiction. And I teach fiction, and I’ll have students hand in a story and I’ll say, “You need to find the point of departure from you, because your work is not free yet. You haven’t allowed it to become somebody else. And the moment you allow this character to become someone other than you is the moment you can find the truth in the story. But if you’re still loyal to your own position, you’re gonna be hemmed in on the page.”
AJC: Do you ever have a mission to have a voice that’s completely unrelated to your origin? There’s no gender shared, there’s no ethnic origin shared, there’s no nationality. Is there any way to start from something that’s absolutely unknown to you?
Senna: I’m a, you know, thief, as all fiction writers are. So it has to come from some deep, you know, psychic wound for it to have any pulse as a story. And I’m not just looking for stories out of the blue. You wanna write about the thing that has kept you up at three in the morning, or scarred you, because that’s where the life is, in your story. It’s not from something abstract, in my experience, so—
AJC: But is the writing about it doing anything to heal the wound?
Senna: Once you begin to turn something into a story and characters, and you become the god of that universe, and that’s a kind of power and a kind of distance that allows you to live with it. So, for me, it’s been everything, creating art, and I can’t imagine what I would do with these experiences and this material, and how I would make sense of it in any other way.
Senna: When I was in college, I was a really serious political activist, and I hadn’t really embraced that I was a fiction writer yet. And I would write these editorials, and I spoke in a language that was highly strategic, political language. And, for me, I found truth in fiction—in that space of no answers and in telling… The language of fiction was the most honest language I could find to talk about the things that I was obsessed by, that were personal and political at the same time. And so, for me, going into fiction was where I found a kind of freedom to explore, and to ask questions of the world, without feeling the need to answer them.
And the world has embraced this insatiable questioning, beginning with Senna’s graduate thesis turned breakthrough novel, 1998’s bestselling Caucasia. It was a coming of age story about a young biracial girl, who’s forced to live under a false identity. Senna’s next book, Symptomatic, came six years later. Her third, five years after that. To date, Danzy Senna has published just five books in a nearly two-decade-long career.
Senna: I’m not a fast writer but I feel comfortable with my output, because I think each book has time to percolate, and the world doesn’t really need just more books. It needs a good book. So, I don’t feel, like, in a rush, and it’s kind of nice to publish this last book—because it’s my fifth book, and I can see, you know, there’s a body of work that’s all speaking to each other. But it’s, somehow the number five… I feel, like, confident that there’s gonna be other books. But I don’t feel in a rush about it. It’s gotta be the slow cooking of writing. You have to go and be very, sort of, organic about the process, and feel the obsession rise in you, and the character come to life for you, and find that quiet space to create it.
AJC: And also just spend more years passing through the world.
Senna: Yeah, everything… I mean, my children were great for my fiction.
AJC: How so?
Senna: Well, I love that my children see me work, and they know that I’m interested in things other than them. I think that’s important. I think that’s healthy. But I think also that children… You’re born again with your children and you suddenly see the world from their perspective, and you see the world from the mother’s perspective—which, I’d always been a daughter. And then I became a mother, and you’re, you know… That’s a much less morally pure position, to be a parent. The moment you have a child, you’re guilty. You’ve brought something into this world that you will fail to perfectly take care of, and perfectly… It’s imperfection, you know, the imperfection of being a mother.
AJC: That’s an interesting perspective.
Senna: You know, Samuel Beckett said, “Fail better.” And that’s all you can do as a mother, and that’s all you can do as a writer. But it kind of brings it home to you, when you have children. “This is gonna be messy, and you’re gonna do this wrong, and you’re gonna try, and then you’re gonna let them go.”
And it is thus, with a healthy understanding of the imperfections of the world, that Danzy Senna continues the slow churn of creating and writing her world.