Danzy Senna

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Danzy Senna
Author Senna.webp
Born1970 (age 51–52)[1]
Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.
OccupationNovelist, essayist, professor
GenreFiction, non-fiction

Danzy Senna is an American novelist and essayist. She is the author of five books and numerous essays about gender, race and motherhood, including her first novel, Caucasia (1998), and her most recent novel, New People (2017). Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Vogue and The New York Times.[2][3] She is a professor of English at the University of Southern California.[4]

Early life and education[edit]

Danzy Senna was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, the middle of three children.[5] Her parents are the poet and novelist Fanny Howe, who is white, and the editor Carl Senna, who is black.[6][7][8] They married in 1968, the year after interracial marriage became legal, and Senna was born in 1970.[7][1] They divorced in 1976.[9] Growing up, Senna divided her time between her mother and father's homes.[6] Senna's maternal grandmother is Irish actress and playwright Mary Manning, who acted for Dublin's Gate Theatre.[10]

Senna attended Brookline High School[11] and Stanford University. She earned an MFA in creative writing from University of California, Irvine, where she began and completed her first novel, Caucasia, which won several awards and became required reading for many college courses.[12]



Senna's first novel, Caucasia (1998), 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.[13] The novel 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.[14] It was also longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award and was named a Los Angeles Times "Best Book of the Year".[14] Caucasia, a national bestseller, has been translated into ten languages. When Senna published Caucasia, her father called to demand a loan.[7]


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?[edit]

Senna's two novels were followed by the memoir Where Did You Sleep Last Night?: A Personal History (2009).[9] She recounts the story of her parents, who married in 1968. 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. Senna recalls her father being determined "to hammer racial consciousness home to his three light-skinned children."[6] 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?".[15] In 2010, Danzy's father, Carl Senna, sued Senna for "libel, privacy invasion, fraud, and misappropriation of his name and likeness" in the book and claimed she had misled him in telling him what the book was about in order to get information from him for the work.[16]

You Are Free[edit]

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."[17] 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.[17][18][19]

New People[edit]

Senna's most recent book, New People (2017) 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.[20][21] The novel was in part inspired by Senna's fascination with the Jonestown massacre.[22] The New Yorker praised the novel for making "keen, icy farce of the affectations of the Brooklyn black faux-bohemia."[23] Time magazine listed the novel as one of the Top Ten Novels of the year.[24]


  • 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)
  • Longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award (Caucasia)
  • Listed as a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year (Caucasia)[25]


  • Caucasia, 1998. Riverhead Books: New York. ISBN 1573220914.
  • Symptomatic: A Novel, 2003. Riverhead Books: New York. ISBN 1573222755.
  • Where Did You Sleep Last Night?: A Personal History, 2009. Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York. ISBN 9780374289157.
  • You Are Free (Stories), 2011. Riverhead Books: New York. ISBN 9781594485077.
  • New People, 2017. Riverhead Books: New York. ISBN 9781594487095.


  1. ^ a b "Danzy Senna's darkly comic take on racial identity". CBC Radio. 2018-06-15.
  2. ^ "Bringing Down Bébé: How One Mother Mistakenly Hoped a Year in Paris Would Transform Her Sons". Vogue. Retrieved 2015-11-20.
  3. ^ ""Oreo" by Fran Ross Is an Overlooked Classic About Race". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2015-11-20.
  4. ^ "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.
  5. ^ Graham, Renée. "Investigating family secrets". Boston.com. Retrieved 2022-01-06.
  6. ^ a b c Press, Joy. "Author Danzy Senna on Finding Inspiration After Leaving Brooklyn". Vulture. Retrieved 2018-03-03.
  7. ^ a b c Skurnick, Lizzie. "In Interracial Family's Story, A Nation's Past". NPR. Retrieved 2022-01-06.
  8. ^ Félix, Doreen St (2017-08-07). "Danzy Senna's New Black Woman". The New Yorker. ISSN 0028-792X. Retrieved 2018-03-03.
  9. ^ a b Kaplan, Erin Aubry (2009-06-21). "'Where Did You Sleep Last Night?' by Danzy Senna". Los Angeles Times. ISSN 0458-3035. Retrieved 2022-01-06.
  10. ^ "She a Rican or something? Making a (literary) case for Danzy Senna's Afro Latinidad" (PDF). University of La Laguna. Retrieved 6 January 2022.
  11. ^ Klein, Sam. "Alumna and author Danzy Senna visits high school". The Sagamore. Retrieved 2020-06-14.
  12. ^ "'New People' is a '90s Novel of Love, Identity, and Privilege". ELLE. 2017-08-03. Retrieved 2018-03-03.
  13. ^ "Danzy Senna - Caucasia". danzysenna.com. Retrieved 2015-08-11.
  14. ^ a b PBS Program Club (2003). "Matters of Race: Writer bibliographies". Pbs.org. PBS. Retrieved 14 April 2012.
  15. ^ Matthews, David (6 August 2009). "Sunday Book Review: Searching for Father". The New York Times. Retrieved 14 April 2012.
  16. ^ Brown, Karina (2010-05-13). "Author Sues Daughter Over Memoir". Courthouse News. Archived from the original on 2020-01-30. Retrieved 2022-01-06.
  17. ^ a b 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)
  18. ^ Rosenwaike, Polly (2011-05-06). "Book Review - You Are Free - By Danzy Senna". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2015-11-20.
  19. ^ Bausch, Richard. "The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction | W. W. Norton & Company". Retrieved 2015-11-20.
  20. ^ "'New People' Riffs on Race and Love, With a Twist". Retrieved 2018-03-03.
  21. ^ "'New People' Author Danzy Senna Loves The Troublesome Characters". NPR.org. Retrieved 2018-03-03.
  22. ^ "In Her Manic New Novel, Danzy Senna Offers an Antihero for the Times". Retrieved 2018-03-03.
  23. ^ St. Félix, Doreen (2017-08-07). "Danzy Senna's New Black Woman". The New Yorker. ISSN 0028-792X. Retrieved 2018-03-03.
  24. ^ "The Top 10 Novels of 2017". Time. Retrieved 2022-05-20.
  25. ^ "Danzy Senna". danzysenna.com. Retrieved 2015-08-10.

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