A Mixed Race Take On What It Means To Be 'Free'

You Are Free
You Are Free
By Danzy Senna
Paperback, 240 pages
Riverhead Trade
List Price $15
Read An Excerpt

A lonely young New Yorker finds a puppy while jogging. A middle class couple tries navigating the treacherous waters of admission to a sought-after preschool. A new mother grows jealous of the chic and thin mom living across the hall.

It's all stuff you may have seen before — but not quite. At least not if Danzy Senna has anything to say about it.

These are all characters in Senna's new collection of short fiction, titled You Are Free. The stories start with the familiar, but soon take subtle turns to reveal racial and other tensions lurking not too far below the surface.

Senna herself is mixed race. Her father is half African-American and half Mexican, while her mother is Irish and English. Growing up in Boston, Senna was raised to self-identify as black.

"I think growing up black or growing up biracial is something that's part of your daily language and your daily awareness of the world you're living in," she tells NPR's Michel Martin.

But she doesn't see her work being about race or mixed race. Instead, Senna uses race as the background of her fiction, as a way to understand the culture and characters.

The stories in You Are Free center around everyday events that could happen to any one of us — but the plots often take disturbing turns.

"I like stories that frighten me, that take me to a place that I'm uncomfortable with, but that leave me with some greater understanding of human nature," Senna says.

In one story, "The Land of Beulah," a young woman goes through a breakup and brings home a puppy. As the story unfolds, she takes her suppressed anger out on the dog.

A main theme in Senna's work is the issue of identity and appearance, especially with women. In "What's the Matter With Helga and Dave?" the narrator is a biracial woman who appears white, but sees herself as black. Her husband is also biracial, but passes as black.

Danzy Senna is a recipient of the Whiting Writers Award. i i

hide captionDanzy Senna is a recipient of the Whiting Writers Award.

Percival Everett
Danzy Senna is a recipient of the Whiting Writers Award.

Danzy Senna is a recipient of the Whiting Writers Award.

Percival Everett

"That leads to all sorts of strange circumstances in their marriage," Senna observes.

She says the story shows that identities are formed by how we see ourselves, but also by how the world sees us.

Senna came up with the title You Are Free from the idea that the only character in her stories who is truly free is an unborn child.

"To be born is to be encumbered by identity and by projections and by a body," Senna says. "Are we really free at this point in history as women? And what is freedom?"

Excerpt: 'You Are Free'

You Are Free
You Are Free
By Danzy Senna
Paperback, 240 pages
Riverhead Trade
List Price $15

What's the Matter with Helga and Dave?

When I married Hewitt, I didn't realize — among other things — that I would become a member of that mewl­ing and defensive group of people known as Interracial Cou­ples. And who could fault them their mewling? Everywhere I went with Hewitt, strangers commented — in subtle and not so subtle ways — on the fact of our unlikely union: me, a white woman, married to him, a black man.

The world, it seemed, though not united in their opinion of our kind, was united in their awareness of our kind, and by ex­tension, their need to remark upon it — the fact of me, a white woman, married to him, a black man.

The only problem, of course, was that it wasn't true. Any of it.

I was not a white woman and Hewitt was not a black man — at least not technically speaking. We were both of mixed heri­tage. That is, we each had one white parent and one black parent. And we'd each come out with enough features of one parent to place us in different categories. Hewitt had come out looking to the world like a black man, and I'd come out look­ing to the world like a white woman, so when we got together, it was like we were repeating our parents' history all over again. We were supposed to be the next generation, all newfangled and melting-potted, but instead we were like Russian nesting dolls. When you opened our parents' bodies you found a replica of their struggle, no matter how hard we tried to transcend it.

In any case, I was passing and Hewitt was passing when we moved into the Chandler that July.

Did I mention I was nine months' pregnant with our first child? I was huge, but I felt strangely light, as if I was floating in water all the time. Pregnancy was a state of permanent ro­mance. I was waiting, breath held, to meet the great love of my life. We both were. We held hands everywhere we went, me a white woman, him a black man.

The Chandler stood out on that strip of beautiful old build­ings. It had been built a year before we moved in, despite pro­tests from the old guard who said it was tacky, would ruin the row of otherwise historical buildings from the Golden Age of Hollywood, buildings that had housed the likes of Mae West, Ava Gardner, and Cary Grant. The Chandler was ugly and new and sat at the edge of the country club, with a banner in front that read now leasing — the chandler — an elegant apart­ment enclave. As you walked up the ramp to the building, another sign, smaller, encouragingly said, You're Almost Home!

The people who lived in the Chandler were an odd assort­ment, every variation you could think of on new money: yup­pies and film executives and starlets-in-training and people awaiting renovations on their houses in the hills and foreign businessmen who must have liked the sterility and convenience of hotel living. I'd been drawn to the cleanliness and order liness of the building and the apartment, the gleaming new washer and dryer, the stainless-steel stove and refrigerator. I knew that motherhood would bring plenty of mess — shit and spit-up, dia­pers piled up to the ceiling, stretch marks. The old me would have wanted to live somewhere crumbling and old, with the charm of gilded-era Hollywood. The new me wanted a sleek, modern hotel suite with centralized air-conditioning and no history and no dirt.

***

It was only after we moved into the Chandler that I noticed all the interracial couples traversing the halls and loitering around the coffee machine.

The building manager herself was in that group — a plump Italian-American girl from Queens who had somehow landed in Los Angeles. She was married to a guy I only ever knew as Dude, a short black man with a Mighty Mouse physique and a high, soft, girlish voice like Mike Tyson's. They had a child together, a very pretty two-year-old monster named Gregoriah. Hewitt and I blanched every time Gregoriah happened to get on the elevator with us. Usually it meant we were going no­where, as he would lie down halfway in and halfway out of the elevator, his arms and legs splayed out, laughing, while the doors stayed open and the elevator stayed still and one of his parents tried to coax him on or off the thing.

Then there were Patricia and Tibor. Patricia was a svelte brown-skinned black woman in her sixties with the fading glam­our of a retired actress. Tibor was her Hungarian husband, a lawyer in his seventies who was built like a snowman — a belly that jutted out as far as mine did during that long, hot fi nal month of my pregnancy.

And then there was the couple down the hall, Helga and Dave. For months Dave remained a shadowy figure. I'd catch a glimpse of his big bright smile and shellacked brown skin oc­casionally on the local morning news, as he interviewed a lion trainer or stood at the base of a mud slide in a fancy suit. But I rarely saw him in the halls of the Chandler, and when I did he would offer his newscaster's accentless and cheery "Hello!" and little else.

It was his wife, Helga, whom I got to know that fall at the Chandler — and it is Helga I think about whenever I drive by that building now, looking somehow still gleaming and new on that old and winding road.

***

It was a week after I gave birth, when I was a battered and swol­len mess, that I first saw Helga. I had big plans that day to go for a walk with George, who was still tiny and otherworldly, not altogether human. It was the first time either of us had left the apartment since we'd come home from the hospital. I made it as far as the sidewalk in front of the Chandler. The cars on Rossmore Avenue were speeding past and the sun beat down from a cloudless sky and I stood with my hands on the stroller, unable to continue. George, asleep in his pram, looked too tiny and too new for such a world. I turned around and went back inside.

It was in the elevator going up that I first laid eyes on her, pale, emaciated, stern-faced, in dark jeans and sunglasses. I glanced in her stroller and took note of the baby's brown skin and corkscrew black curls. She looked only a few months old, but I could not imagine that the mother — with her svelte shape and placid expression — had ever carried a child inside her, much less pushed one out.

The woman glanced at George and me without much inter­est but didn't say a word.

A week later, while out on a walk with Hewitt and George, I saw the woman again, but she was without the baby, and this time — after looking back and forth between my face and Hewitt's — her face broke into an excited smile. She said, "You're one of us!"

I nodded, and said, "Yes, we live in the Chandler too."

She introduced herself as Helga. This time, she peered into the pram at George and proclaimed him adorable, winking up at me as if we were members of the same elite club.

The next day I found a gift for George on the doorstep — a tiny pair of UGG boots, the trendy shearling ones made for ski­ers that all the starlets in Los Angeles liked to wear with micro-miniskirts on ninety-degree days. There was a note attached: Welcome to the Chandler! We are so thrilled to have you as our neighbors. Drinks? Dinner? Soon! Helga and Dave.

I tried the boots on George. They fit okay, but he was wear­ing only diapers, and when I brought him into the living room to show Hewitt, he said, "He looks like a member of the Village People," and made me take them off.

**

I was living on no sleep. George woke every two hours to feed on my sore and chafing breasts.

Hewitt, in a gesture of solidarity, insisted on getting up in the middle of the night with me, and so we began our ritual of sit­ting up together in the dark on the sofa in front of the flickering television while I nursed the baby.

We discovered that Nick at Night was running what they called "Huxtapalooza" — back-to-back episodes of The Cosby Show. Hewitt and I both hated The Cosby Show, with venom and vigor — for its smugness, for the cloying sweetness of the vi­gnettes pretending to be plots, for the surrealism of a rich black family who had no problem integrating into white America.

And yet in those early weeks after the birth, we watched it every night in drop-jawed stultification, our baby suckling away at my sore bosom. I think now, looking back on it, we were in some strange way defending our right to exist as a well-to-do black family — because the world outside our door, in that strange, tilted, black-and-white cookie of a universe that was the Chandler, insisted we were just another interracial cou­ple with a butterscotch baby in a $700 pram. The world out there insisted that as soon as a black man made it, he should marry a white woman. As soon as a black woman made it, she should marry a white man. But at night, in the privacy of our lair, we were that strange rare bird called a black family that squawked and flitted across the screen for a festival and was gone.

Excerpted from You Are Free by Danzy Senna. Copyright 2011 by Danzy Senna. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. All rights reserved.

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