Danzy Senna is an American novelist and essayist. Her first novel, Caucasia (1998), has been translated into multiple languages and has won several awards. The winner of a Whiting Award, Senna is the author of five books and numerous essays centering on issues of gender, race and motherhood; her most recent work is the novel New People (2017). Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Vogue and the New York Times. She is a professor of English at the University of Southern California.
Early life and education
Danzy Senna was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, the middle child of two writers, poet and novelist Fanny Howe, and author and editor Carl Senna (The Fallacy of IQ; The Black Press and the Fight for Civil Rights). Her mother is white; her father is African-American. Growing up, Senna attended Boston public schools as well as the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts, an alternative school in Roxbury founded to instill racial pride in black children through arts education. Senna graduated from Brookline High School.
She did her undergraduate degree at Stanford University, where she was the founder and editor of the literary journal, Enigma: The Stanford Journal of Black Expression. She earned an MFA in creative writing from University of California, Irvine, where she began and completed her first novel, Caucasia.
Senna's first novel, Caucasia (1998), received the Book of the Month Club's Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction, was nominated for the Orange Prize for Fiction, and won the Alex Award from the American Library Association. The novel was also a finalist for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and was named a Los Angeles Times "Best Book of the Year". Caucasia, a national bestseller, has been translated into ten languages. Caucasia is narrated by a young biracial girl, Birdie Lee, who is taken into the political underground by her mother, and forced to live under an assumed identity. The coming of age story follows Birdie's struggle for identity and her search for the missing parts of her family.
Her second novel, Symptomatic (2004), is a psychological thriller narrated by an unnamed young woman who moves to New York City for what promises to be a dream job – a prestigious fellowship writing for a respected magazine. The narrator feels displaced, however, and is unsure of how she fits into the world around her. She becomes the object of an older woman's attention after they bond over their similarly mixed heritage. As the older woman's interest turns into obsession, the narrator must figure out what their relationship means to her, even as both of their lives seem to spiral out of control.
Where Did You Sleep Last Night?
As a fellow at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, Senna researched and wrote the autobiographical work, Where Did You Sleep Last Night?: A Personal History (2009). She recounts the story of her parents, who married in 1968. Their marriage was opposed by some family members and friends as the two American writers came from wildly divergent backgrounds. Her mother was a white woman with a blue-blood Bostonian lineage. Her father was a black man, the son of a single mother and an unknown father. When their marriage disintegrated eight years later, one family friend called it "the ugliest divorce in Boston’s history." Decades later, Senna looked back not only at her parents’ divorce, but at the family histories they tried so hard to overcome. Her often painful journey through the past is epitomized by the question posed to her as a young child by her father: "Don’t you know who I am?".
You Are Free
Senna's short story collection, You Are Free (2011), was described by Kirkus Review as, "Deft, revealing stories [from] a writer for our time...a fresh, insightful look into being young, smart and biracial in postmillennial America." In the title story, a woman’s strange correspondence with a girl claiming to be her daughter leads her into the doubts and what-ifs of the life she hasn’t lived. In "The Care of the Self," a new mother hosts an old friend, still single, and discovers how each of them pities and envies the other. In the collection's first story, "Admission," tensions arise between a liberal husband and wife after their son is admitted into the elite daycare school to which they’d applied only on a lark.
Senna's most recent book, New People (2017) was named by Time magazine as one of the Top Ten Novels of 2017. New People tells the story of mixed-race Maria and her fiancé Khalil, who live together in '90s Fort Greene, then populated by black artists and bohemians. The seemingly perfect "King and Queen of the Racially Nebulous Prom" is troubled by Maria's fixation on a black poet she barely knows. The novel was in part inspired by Senna's fascination with the Jonestown massacre. Doreen St. Félix writing for the New Yorker praised the novel for making " keen, icy farce of the affectations of the Brooklyn black faux-bohemia."
- 2017: Dos Passos Prize
- 2004: Fellow, New York Public Library's Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers
- 2002: Whiting Award
- Book of the Month Award for First Fiction (Caucasia)
- American Library Association's Alex Award (Caucasia)
- Finalist for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (Caucasia)
- Listed as a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year (Caucasia)
- New People, 2017. Riverhead Books: New York. ISBN 9781594487095.
- You Are Free (Stories), 2011. Riverhead Books: New York. ISBN 9781594485077.
- Where Did You Sleep Last Night?: A Personal History, 2009. Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York. ISBN 9780374289157.
- Symptomatic: A Novel, 2003. Riverhead Books: New York. ISBN 1573222755.
- Caucasia, 1998. Riverhead Books: New York. ISBN 1573220914.
- "Bringing Down Bébé: How One Mother Mistakenly Hoped a Year in Paris Would Transform Her Sons". Vogue. Retrieved 2015-11-20.
- ""Oreo" by Fran Ross Is an Overlooked Classic About Race". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2015-11-20.
- "Danzy Senna > Ph.D. in Creative Writing & Literature > USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences". dornsife.usc.edu. Retrieved 2018-03-03.
- PBS Program Club (2003). "Matters of Race: Writer bibliographies". Pbs.org. PBS. Retrieved 14 April 2012.
- "Danzy Senna - Caucasia". danzysenna.com. Retrieved 2015-08-11.
- New York Public Library (2012). "Special Invitation: Danzy Senna in conversation with Rebecca Walker". Nypl.org. New York Public Library. Retrieved 14 April 2012.
- Matthews, David (6 August 2009). "Sunday Book Review: Searching for Father". The New York Times. Retrieved 14 April 2012.
- Smith, Zadie (September 2011). "New Books: You Are Free". Harper's. Harper's Foundation. 323 (1, 936): 73–76. Retrieved 31 May 2012.(subscription required)
- Rosenwaike, Polly (2011-05-06). "Book Review - You Are Free - By Danzy Senna". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2015-11-20.
- Bausch, Richard. "The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction | W. W. Norton & Company". Retrieved 2015-11-20.
- "'New People' Riffs on Race and Love, With a Twist". Retrieved 2018-03-03.
- "'New People' Author Danzy Senna Loves The Troublesome Characters". NPR.org. Retrieved 2018-03-03.
- "In Her Manic New Novel, Danzy Senna Offers an Antihero for the Times". Retrieved 2018-03-03.
- Félix, Doreen St (2017-08-07). "Danzy Senna's New Black Woman". The New Yorker. ISSN 0028-792X. Retrieved 2018-03-03.
- "Danzy Senna". danzysenna.com. Retrieved 2015-08-10.
Kleeman, Alexandra. "Once Upon a Time in Post-Racial America," New York Times Book Review, Sunday, October 8, 2017. (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/06/books/review/danzy-senna-new-people.html)
Sehgal, Parul. "‘New People’ Riffs on Race and Love, With a Twist," August 15, 2017. (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/15/books/review-new-people-danzy-senna.html)
St. Félix, Doreen. "Danzy Senna's New Black Woman," The New Yorker, August 7, 2017 (https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/danzy-sennas-new-black-woman)
Felsenthal, Julia. "Danzy Senna Doesn't Mind if Her New Novel Makes You Uncomfortable," Vogue.com, August 3, 2017 (http://www.vogue.com/article/danzy-senna-new-people)
Press, Joy. "Author Danzy Senna on Finding Inspiration After Leaving Brooklyn," New York Magazine, August 2017 (http://www.vulture.com/2017/07/danzy-senna-on-new-people-and-leaving-brooklyn.html)
Jerkins, Morgan. "The Old Problems of New People," The New Republic, June 22, 2017. (https://newrepublic.com/article/143452/old-problems-new-people)
Bellot, Gabrielle. The Ineradicable Color Line: Danzy Senna's New People," Los Angeles Review of Books, August 1, 2017. (https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/the-ineradicable-color-line-danzy-sennas-new-people/)