Saving race

Saving race

The Boston Phoenix
May 14-20, 2004

Tamara Wieder

With Symptomatic, the follow-up to her acclaimed debut novel Caucasia, Danzy Senna again delves into race in America — and defies second-book syndrome

IT’S EVERY YOUNG writer’s dream: to have a first novel achieve critical acclaim and monetary success. But a dream is usually all it is, and for Danzy Senna, it was no different. She certainly didn’t expect the attention and praise her debut novel, Caucasia (Riverhead Books, 1998), received; after all, the book was originally written as her graduate-school thesis.

Senna, the biracial daughter of poet Fanny Howe and activist and writer Carl Senna, was raised in Boston in the 1970s — not exactly a hotbed of tolerance for mixed-race families. Her experiences in Boston and beyond have helped mold her as a writer; Caucasia told the story of biracial sisters dealing with some of the same ugliness doled out to her own family. Senna has also written extensively on the frequent experience of being mistaken for white, and how it’s led to an uncomfortable exposure of prejudices and intolerance in those around her.

In her latest novel, Symptomatic (Riverhead Books), Senna again surveys a familiar racial landscape. Her narrator is a biracial young woman often mistaken for white; she develops a friendship with an older, similarly mixed-race woman that begins as an antidote to loneliness and alienation, but gradually grows into something both complicated and frightening.

Q: Tell me where the idea for Symptomatic came from, and how you ended up writing it.

A: I love thrillers, and I love the old Roman Polanski, Hitchcock thrillers, and I wanted to think about race and identity and use the kind of thriller plot. And I was interested in the sort of claustrophobia of race, and the claustrophobia of identity, and how you can sort of become trapped by it. But in this case it’s more literal. I was also interested in doubles, and that comfort that you initially feel when you have an identification with someone, and how that can kind of turn smothering. So racial identity, and then identity in general, sort of as something that can be comforting and terrifying and smothering, all at once…

Q: You wrote in an essay that “in Boston circa 1975, mixed wasn’t really an option.” How did you deal with that?

A: I always identified as black. That was, I think, the only choice for me. The other choice wasn’t psychologically healthy for me, because my whole family didn’t have that option. So I think black was my identity, and in many ways still is, though I think of black and mixed as related in a complicated way. I think of myself as mixed, and I think of myself as part of a long history of African-American writers, so I don’t see them as so distinct as people do these days.

Q: Did you ever feel resentful that mixed wasn’t an option?

A: I didn’t desire that as an option. The black community was where I placed myself, and I felt actually sort of disparaging of people who identified as mixed; that seemed kind of tragic to me, because it seemed like they were avoiding the politics and the power relations that were really at the heart of race, to me. So a lot of my politics grew around this identity growing up, of identifying myself as black and seeing race as much more than a biological category. I think now I don’t worry so much about what I identify as; that just seems sort of simplistic, to suggest that there’s one answer to that. But I don’t feel badly that I didn’t…

Read the entire interview here.

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