Danzy Senna (born 1970) is an American novelist and essayist. Her first work, Caucasia (1998), has been translated into ten languages and has won multiple awards. The winner of a Whiting Award, Senna is the author of three novels, a memoir, and a short-story collection, along with numerous essays centering on issues of identity, motherhood, gender and race. Her work has appeared in a range of publications, including The New Yorker, Vogue and the New York Times.
Early life and education
Danzy Senna was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, the middle of three children.
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 novel is described as "a subversive and engrossing novel of race, class and manners in contemporary America." New People tells the story of Maria, a young woman living at the end of the twentieth century with her fiancee, Khalil. They are the perfect couple, "King and Queen of the Racially Nebulous Prom." Their skin is the same shade of beige. They live together in a black bohemian enclave in Brooklyn, where Khalil is riding the wave of the first dot-com boom and Maria is plugging away at her dissertation on the Jonestown massacre. They've even landed a starring role in a documentary about mixed people like them, who are blurring the old boundaries as a brave new era dawns. Everything Maria knows she should want lies before her—yet she can't stop daydreaming about another man, a poet she barely knows. As fantasy escalates to fixation, it dredges up secrets from the past and threatens to unravel not only Maria's perfect new life but her very persona. In early blurbs for the novel, Rachel Kushner (The Flamethrowers) says: “New People sparkles with precision, and with antic and merciless hilarity. I was seduced into reading it in one sitting, but will be thinking about it for a long time to come. This book—utterly grave, and yet beautifully light-hearted—is a wonder." Mat Johnson (Loving Day) says: “Danzy Senna detonates the bomb between respectability and desire. In hypnotizing prose, New People kicks you in the gut, then sings you a lullaby. Read this and be haunted. Senna is a master."
- 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)
- 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.
Senna lives in Los Angeles, California with her two sons.
- "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.
- 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.
- "Danzy Senna". danzysenna.com. Retrieved 2015-08-10.
- "Danzy Senna". danzysenna.com. Retrieved 2015-08-06.
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/)