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Senna, Danzy 1970–

Senna, Danzy 1970–

PERSONAL:

Born September 13, 1970, in Boston, MA; daughter of Carl Senna (a journalist) and Fanny Howe (a poet and novelist). Education: Stanford University, B.A. (with honors), 1992; University of California at Irvine, M.F.A., 1996. Politics: Democrat.

ADDRESSES:

Agent—Amanda Urban, International Creative Management, 40 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10019.

CAREER:

Newsweek, New York, NY, researcher and reporter, 1992-94; American Benefactor, New York, NY, contributing editor, 1996-97. Also taught writing and literature at the College of the Holy Cross.

AWARDS, HONORS:

MacDowell Colony fellow, 1997; Stephen Crane First Fiction Award, Book-of-the-Month Club, 1998, for Caucasia; American Whiting Writers' Award, 2002.

WRITINGS:

Caucasia (novel), Riverhead Press (New York, NY), 1998, published as From Caucasia with Love, Bloomsbury (London, England), 2000.

Schnee in Alabama, Lübbe, 2001.

Symptomatic: A Novel, Riverhead Books (New York, NY), 2004.

Contributor of essays to books, including To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism, edited by Rebecca Walker, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1995; Half and Half, edited by Claudine O'Hearn, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1998; and Giant Steps: The New Generation of African-American Writers.

SIDELIGHTS:

Danzy Senna's first novel, Caucasia, traces the imposed separation of Birdie Lee, the light-skinned daughter in a mixed-race family, from her older sister, Cole, the darker of the two mulatto siblings, when racial politics rip apart their family. The sisters are coming of age in 1970s Boston, while their white mother and black father stage protests for racial equity. Birdie is the younger of the two, and her skin is so pale that people often assume she is white. Cole has dark skin, and her black hair hangs in braids. Despite their contrasting appearances, Birdie and Cole are incredibly close, often speaking in a secret language they call Elemeno. Together their family experiences racism at each end of the spectrum. At one point in the story, when Birdie and her father are lounging together in the park, they are approached by police officers who have assumed that Birdie has been abducted. Birdie is enraged at the white community's perception of black people, but she learns that ignorance exists in any race when she goes to a predominantly black school and is ostracized because she is different. Caucasia "explores life in the middle of America's racial chasm," reported Ellen Flexman in Library Journal. Newsweek contributor Laura Shapiro called Caucasia "remarkable," noting that "Senna … knows racial politics first-hand, but she's more interested in their real-life consequences." Senna's knowledge of racial politics comes from her own childhood. The daughter of a white mother and a black father herself, Senna drew Birdie's character from her own childhood struggle with what she called "the experience of ‘looking white’ and identifying as black."

Writing in the first person, Senna uses Birdie to draw conclusions from the telling incongruities in her childhood world. June Unjoo Yang praised Senna's eye for detail in the Hungry Mind Review. "Working within the novel's episodic structure," Yang wrote, "Senna has a knack for plumping up scenes of political significance with attention to small gestures and details that evoke an immediate emotional response." Yang cited an example: "It struck me as odd that my mother hadn't warned Cole not to go to the park, just me," Senna's protagonist observes in Caucasia. "There are perverts, crazies, dirty old men, and they want little girls just like you. Girls like you. When [Mum] was gone, Cole looked up from her Jet magazine and watched me from behind her braids, which hung like bars across her face, dividing her features into sections." The tension in Birdie's family intensifies with the racial and political tension of the time, and when their mother takes their cause to great extremes, the family is separated down color lines. Cole and her father leave in search of a more diverse atmosphere, while Birdie and her mother reinvent themselves in white suburbia. Birdie feels more estranged than ever, attending an all-white high school and mourning the loss of her sister's companionship. Birdie's diversity is stifled as she wanders through a world to which she seems to belong, yet remains isolated from. "What Ms. Senna gets so painfully well is how the standard-issue cruelties of adolescence … are revitalized when they encounter race," wrote Margo Jefferson in the New York Times Book Review.

While most reviewers praised Caucasia, even some who liked the novel criticized Senna's treatment of the topic of race. Most critics agreed that Senna is dead-on in her biting assessments of everything from WASPish behavior to women's communes. However, Yang concluded that Senna is sometimes so unrelenting in her approach that she "runs the risk of sounding shrill and thereby undermining a frank and often thought-provoking meditation on race and identity." Others found her prose to lack such complexity. "In spite of some elegant descriptions and moments of metaphorical precision … Senna seems uncomfortable writing with emotional depth," stated Kathryn Heyman in the New Statesman. "Passages that should be moving are merely sentimental or coy. As a result, politics, not emotions, are engaged." However, Booklist critic Donna Seaman thought Senna's first novel was "as thematically and dramatically rich as fiction can be, infused, as it is, with emotional truth." Since the work's publication, Senna has continued to explore those emotional truths, and always celebrates her ethnicity.

Caucasia "avoids the usual extremes in its depiction of racial tension," pointed out a Publishers Weekly critic. Writing in the Women's Review of Books, Marilyn Richardson described Caucasia as anything but overly pedantic or moralistic. Senna "has perfect pitch for all sorts of dialogue, the technical sleight of hand to place the reader deftly in the landscapes and mindscapes of her characters, laugh-out-loud wit, and a racial political consciousness so integral to her storytelling that it is never didactic." Further, Richardson praised the young writer's respect for her cultural heritage: "With a bow of acknowledgment to her elders—you'll recognize her homage to and commentary upon writing by the likes of Harriet Jacobs, Nella Larsen, Zora Neale Hurston, and Alice Walker—Senna sets in motion a brilliant, beautifully crafted work that continues to challenge the reader's mind and spirit long after the last page is turned."

Senna's novel Symptomatic: A Novel was published in 2004, and it examines some of the same issues as Caucasia. The story opens as an unnamed narrator travels from Berkeley, California, to New York City. The narrator, a biracial woman who passes for white, has secured a fellowship at a well-respected magazine. The narrator begins dating Andrew, a white man, and she moves in with him, only to move out after she meets his racist family. After moving into a Brooklyn apartment her older coworker, Greta, has suggested, the narrator keeps receiving obscene phone calls and overdue bills addressed to the apartment's former tenant. As the narrator gets closer to Greta, it turns out that they share a similar background—both are biracial though they pretend to be white. Greta, it turns out, is something of a neurotic, and by Greta's unfortunate example, the narrator is given an ugly picture of what her future will be like if she is not true to her real self.

Symptomatic, while applauded by critics, did receive some mixed and conflicting reviews. For instance, some reviewers did not think the characters were realistic, while others thought just the opposite. Nevertheless, Seaman, writing again in Booklist, found that the book is a "strung-tight and relentlessly creepy novel." Seaman also noted that the angst the biracial characters feel in the face of racism "is, sadly, all too authentic." Pointing out some of the highlights of the story, a Publishers Weekly contributor cited the "narrator's growing sense of alienation from Andrew, her fatigue with racial politics and her difficulties in adapting to New York life." Noting that Senna's first novel was well-received, Library Journal critic Rebecca Stuhr observed that "her second novel should also be praised as thoughtful and exciting."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

BOOKS

Senna, Danzy, Caucasia, Riverhead (New York, NY), 1998.

PERIODICALS

Booklist, February 15, 1998, Donna Seaman, review of Caucasia, p. 985; November 15, 1998, Bonnie Smothers, review of Caucasia, p. 571; April 1, 1999, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Caucasia, p. 1401; February 15, 2000, Deborah Taylor, review of Caucasia, p. 1096; April 1, 2004, Donna Seaman, review of Symptomatic: A Novel, p. 1349.

Boston Phoenix, May 14-20, 2004, Tamara Weider, "Saving Race."

Entertainment Weekly, April 3, 1998, Megan Harlan, review of Caucasia, p. 89.

Essence, March, 1998, Lise Funderberg, review of Caucasia, p. 66; July 1, 2004, "Danzy Senna," p. 126.

Hungry Mind Review, spring, 1998, June Unjoo Yang, "Watching the Canary," p. 34.

Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 1997, review of Caucasia, p. 1733; March 1, 2004, review of Symptomatic, p. 200.

Library Journal, January, 1998, Ellen Flexman, review of Caucasia, p. 145; April 15, 2004, Rebecca Stuhr, review of Symptomatic, p. 126.

Los Angeles Times, March 25, 1998, Susie Linfield, "Writing about More than Listless Youth," p. E3.

New Statesman, December 18, 2000, Kathryn Heyman, review of Caucasia, p. 55.

Newsweek, February 16, 1998, Laura Shapiro, review of Caucasia, p. 71.

New York Times Book Review, March 15, 1998, Elizabeth Schmidt, "Soul Mates," p. 22; May 4, 1998, Margo Jefferson, "Seeing Race as a Costume That Everyone Wears," p. E2.

Publishers Weekly, December 8, 1997, review of Caucasia, p. 54; March 29, 2004, review of Symptomatic, p. 36.

School Library Journal, September, 1998, Frances Reiher, review of Caucasia, pp. 230-231.

Women's Review of Books, July, 1998, Marilyn Richardson, review of Caucasia, pp. 24-25.

ONLINE

AgBlog,http://www.agblog.com/ (November 14, 2003), "Searching for Danzy Senna."

Bloomsbury Online,http://www.bloomsburymagazine.com/ (November 14, 2003), author profile.

Intermix.org,http://www.intermix.org.uk/ (November 14, 2003), review of From Caucasia with Love.

Salon.com,http://www.salon.com/ (November 14, 2003), Danzy Senna, "Mulatto Millennium: Since When Did Being the Daughter of a WASP and a Black-Mexican Become Cool?"

University of Wisconsin—Stevens Point Web site,http://www.uwsp.edu/ (November 14, 2003), "News Release: Novelist Senna Visits UWSP."

UppityWomen.com,http://www.uppitywomen.com/ (November 14, 2003), Heidi Johnston, review of Caucasia.

WithItGirl.com, http://www.withitgirl.com/ (November 14, 2003), Eric Appleton, review of Caucasia.

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