“I feel my role as a writer is to complicate, to leave more questions, to destabilize whatever seems set in stone,” says novelist Danzy Senna. “There’s been this whole conversation about trigger warnings. My half-joking thing is: I really want to trigger people. I want to read work that’s going to trigger me. I’m very committed to writing things that move people to a more uncomfortable place.”
Uncomfortable—and I mean this in the best way possible—is a pretty good descriptor of Senna’s latest novel, New People. The year is 1996. The place is Brooklyn. Our protagonist is Maria, a Columbia University doctoral student struggling to finish her dissertation on modes of resistance in the hymns and songs recorded by the Peoples Temple, the religious cult led by Jim Jones (and ultimately wiped out in 1978, when its leader ordered nearly 1,000 of those who had followed him to the Guyanese settlement of Jonestown to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid).
Maria is biracial, adopted at birth by a single black mother, a graduate student who brought her daughter up on a steady diet of Audre Lorde and Roots, and bemoaned that the light skin and straight hair with which Maria was born never darkened or kinked. (The baby was a “one-dropper,” writes Senna, “that peculiarly American creation, white in all outside appearances but black for generations to come.”) Now Maria is engaged to her college boyfriend, Khalil, whose skin is her exact same “shade of beige,” but who was raised by globe-trotting mixed parents in upper-middle-class bourgeois bohemian splendor, brought up to think of himself as a citizen of the world. Khalil is launching a company, Brooklyn Renaissance, a sort of proto-Facebook for “like-minded souls,” and happily planning his life with Maria: their Martha’s Vineyard wedding; the Brooklyn brownstone they’ll eventually buy and fill with artwork by Lorna Simpson, with children named Indigo and Cheo, with a dog named Thurgood.
Together Maria and Khalil are the keystones of a forthcoming documentary about “new people,” the progeny of interracial relationships of the 1960s and ’70s, the “mud-colored” wave of the future whose own children—those future Indigos and Cheos—will usher in “a new race.” Central casting couldn’t have come up with a more perfect pair—as Khalil tells the camera, “We’re like a Woody Allen movie, with melanin”—but for the fact that Maria hasn’t quite bought into her fiancé’s sunny vision of their future (nor does she share his comfort in his own skin, the ease of his code switching). Rather, like the doomed music-makers of her dissertation, she’s mounting a secret resistance, harboring a dangerous crush on a casual acquaintance, a poet who is not a “new person” but the kind of dark-skinned black man that “cabdrivers pretend not to see.” What lengths will Maria go to in service of this obsession? I won’t give it away, but rest assured, things get very weird.
It’s a rich moment for stories about interracial marriage and biracial identity. Last spring there was Kathleen Collins’s posthumously published short story collection, Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?; earlier this summer we got Zinzi Clemmons’s What We Lose; later this fall, Jesmyn Ward will publish her new novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing. This is territory that Senna has been treading for years: first in Caucasia, her award-winning 1998 debut novel, about a mixed-race girl who passes as white; later in her 2009 memoir, Where Did You Sleep Last Night?, about the author’s white mother and black-Mexican father, and the forces that brought them together and ultimately ripped them apart.
New People is funnier and more twisted than any of the books I just mentioned, as odd a bird as its main character. It’s a darkly comic novel about race, about false utopias, and about the fine line between seemingly innocuous, everyday groupthink—the kind that’s the price of admission for being part of a marriage, or a band of friends, or a tribe of any sort—and Jonestown-level Kool-Aid drinking. Senna writes beautifully about the complexity of identity, the intersection of racial consciousness and class awareness and individual perspective. The world may want to see Maria as a symbol, but the author never treats her as one.
“She was a really fun character to write because she doesn’t fit either the victim or the oppressor,” Senna tells me, speaking by phone from Los Angeles, where she lives. “She’s like a neither and a nor in a lot of different ways.” We chatted more about that, about Senna’s fascination with Jonestown, and about why the conversations her characters are having still feel so relevant, more than 20 years after New People takes place.
Jonestown plays a major role in New People, but it also makes an appearance in your memoir (part of a theory of your father’s about places where multiculturalism flourishes). Why Jonestown?
Jonestown was literally the one subject I didn’t have to research, because I’d been reading about it for about seven years. I was an American studies major in college, and really was especially obsessed with the 1970s, all the social movements of that time. I was born in the ’70s. My parents were a left-wing interracial couple who were of the same moment as a lot of people who went to Jonestown. There were a lot of biracial children there. It was a multicultural/black socialist utopia led by this charismatic white man. I think a lot of the values and the ideas of Jonestown were part of my childhood. So in trying to figure out how things went wrong in my own childhood, I looked to historical models.
Obviously nothing ever has gone as wrong as Jonestown, which went as badly as any utopian society could go. It’s become almost a sort of comic thing: They’ll do a spoof of it on sitcoms. But then you actually look at what happened—it was a mass murder of mostly black and brown people. It’s kind of a footnote, and weirdly glossed over that two-thirds of people who died were African-American, and many of them were African-American women. And then a third of them were children, which is also not worked into our understanding of it. [We think of it as a mass suicide, but] there’s no way that children could have committed suicide. It’s the most disturbing thing. I really was so relieved when I finished this novel, because I never wanted to read about Jonestown ever again.
Maria is writing her dissertation on Jonestown’s ethnomusicology, which feels like this dig at academia and the tiny little plots of land on which academics stake their territory. But it also reflects how important music is in this book: what each character listens to, what that says about his or her identity.
I feel that popular music is our narrative of history in America. Whenever I’m trying to write about an era, the way I go into it is through music.
Part of my interest in this novel was the era of the ’90s, when I came into adulthood in New York. So I was thinking about all that incredible music that formed me. Hip-hop in particular, but also R&B and how what people listened to was such a signifier of where they stood in terms of race and class. And then I also have this recording of the Jonestown album. Yes, I was thinking: What would be the most absurdly academic way to look at Jonestown? But listening to the music of Jonestown is also one of the saddest experiences you can have. There are children all over that album, and you’re listening to these joyful, beautiful voices, and it’s like, every single one of them is dead. It’s pretty dark.
You lived in Brooklyn in the ’90s, and that’s where New People is set. But it seems like you could have set it in 2017, and the conversations these characters are having about race and identity would have felt just as relevant. Why make it historical?
I didn’t consciously make this decision, but I was glad midway through [writing] the novel that it was set then, because social media and cell phones really mess up fiction. You want people to not be locatable and not be so easily accessed. Things could remain a little mysterious.
But I was teaching college creative writing in the last few years, and I did have this strange feeling, talking to my students, that they were telling me things as if it were the first time this had ever been said. I was thinking back to my college years and thought: This is like Groundhog Day. We didn’t have the same words but we were saying those same things.
I can never write about something without a little bit of distance. I joke to my students, you need five years or 3,000 miles to fictionalize something.
Are the conversations different at all? Or are we really in an endless cycle: waking up, going back to sleep, waking up . . .
One thing that’s different is the conversation around blackness. I remember being steeped in the Black Power movement. Now it’s about Black Lives Matter. To me, the request is so modest now. It’s like: That’s all? We just matter? It’s an interesting shift in language that suggests almost a backward step. Black Lives Matter is a necessary and amazing movement. I just think that it’s telling that the thing that’s being treated as if it’s radical is not radical.
In an interview you once said: “Usually my stories come from an autobiographical place, and I look for the story that didn’t happen within the story that did.” I love that idea.
Definitely everything I write comes from that place of the kernel of truth, or the flicker of a familiar character who’s been in my life. But by the writing of it, it becomes somebody else. Maria had to become someone else other than myself. I always think of my fictional characters almost like a first cousin. We share some DNA, but they’re a little bit distant from me. As they become fiction, I’m able to make things happen to them that I wouldn’t want to have happen to me. Or to do things that I wouldn’t want to admit to doing, or see myself doing. So that’s where the real honesty begins.
That’s actually a subject I’ve been really interested in, that relationship with the autobiographical, trying to find a way to describe what I’m doing when I take something that looks and sounds a lot like me, but isn’t me. I’m not at all interested in stories that bear no resemblance to my life. I need something that’s in my subconscious and makes me anxious in a very personal way in order to get that fuel to write about it. It has to draw on those things that are really primal and part of me, but it also has to depart, because I’m excited to see where I can take it in an imaginary way. It’s really somewhere in the middle of the truth and the lie that I’m most excited to be. That’s the space I feel most happy in as a writer.
I read a galley copy of New People, and there’s an unusually large author photo of you on the back cover. That question of comparison is almost invited, especially because so much of what we learn about Maria is about how she looks and how that shapes the way she interacts with the world. That must be a little bit weird.
Oh, man. That’s actually been an issue since I wrote Caucasia. My publisher—it was a different editor then—was really encouraging me to blur that line between me and the main character. I felt like my book tour was literally a defense of fiction, and of me as the author. I think when you’re a writer of color, especially, you get told that you’re writing autobiography a lot. And really what I was most proud of with my first novel was that it was complete bullshit. I think white straight men, they can look and sound as much like their character as they want, and they’re still the author of a work of the imagination. You have to fight more for that position as a woman, or a writer of color, or a gay writer. Anything where you’re other, you’re suddenly writing autobiography.
I’m often asked, Are you going to write about a character who’s not biracial? And I wonder if Richard Ford is ever asked, Are you not going to write about a straight white man again? To me the biracial female is the universal perspective. I could write about it a hundred times.
This reminds me of something else you said in an interview: that you don’t really write about race as much as you write about America. It strikes me that when white writers write about America, they’re largely not writing about race, because they’re not often thinking about race.
I’ve noticed in white fiction in America that the only time race is specified is when a black person comes into the room. The great unspoken thing is whiteness. Blackness is the interjection of race. Whiteness is the absence of race, which I think is the great fallacy.
But for me, everything I write is always described as being about race, and I’m always like, really? Was I writing about race? That’s how people talk. And I’m writing dialogue. Those are characters with a history and a baggage. But I was writing about obsession and marriage and motherhood. I feel I’m writing about a lot of things and the geography is America. So of course race is going to be discussed and noticed.
This interview has been condensed and edited.