A Mixed Race Take On What It Means To Be 'Free' Danzy Senna's stories begin with the familiar, but quickly take subtle turns to reveal racial tensions lurking below the surface. As part of Tell Me More's Summer Blend Book Club series, host Michel Martin speaks with author Danzy Senna about her new collection of short fiction, You Are Free.

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

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, the last of our series and essays on coming out.

But now to the first book in TELL ME MORE's Summer Blend Book Club. That's our summer-long series, where we're digging into stories that explore the experience of being mixed race or multicultural in America.

In our first book, a collection of short stories, a lonely, young, single New Yorker finds a puppy while jogging. A middle class couple tries to navigate the treacherous waters of admission to the sought after preschool. A new mother grows jealous of a chic, sleek and thin mom living across the hall. It's all stuff you've seen before, you might say. Well, yes, but not quite. Not if Danzy Senna has anything to say about it.

These are all characters in a new collection of her 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. And Danzy Senna is with us now to tell us more about her latest work and hopefully talk about her previous books as well. She's with us from our NPR studios in Culver City, California. Danzy Senna, thanks so much for joining us.

DANZY SENNA: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: Now, for people who aren't familiar with your work, your previous books have all touched on race in some way. But you were saying earlier that you don't see your work as being about race or being about mixed race, but rather that race is the geography of your stories. Could you talk a little bit more about that?

SENNA: Yes. I feel that to write about America is to involve the subject of race that is so much a part of our national identity. And for me as a person growing up in this country it was always a part of my family's conversation. And I think growing up black or growing up biracial, it's something that's part of your daily language and your daily awareness of the world you're living in.

So, race is part of the conversation the characters are having. It's part of their identity. But there are then these universal stories that emerge from their lives of, you know, loneliness or motherhood or jealousy and these are the real subjects of the story. But then race is always there in the background because this is where we live and this is the world that I observe in front of me as a writer.

MARTIN: So in a way it's like the race is a fact of life and then the story flows from that as opposed to having it be kind of revealed as race being the point. Like, I remember in - you remember, like, a chorus line that stepped up - Broadway stage play where the one dancer steps out and says, I'm so and so and I'm black. Like, that's the whole story right there.


SENNA: Exactly. Yeah, the plot in my story is not the race. But it's - I have a lot of fun with race too and it's a source of humor and irony and a way to kind of understand the culture and the character themselves. But it's - the plot is usually something else.

MARTIN: Well, I want to talk about the lighthearted part of it first, but I want to talk about the disturbing part before that. In this latest collection of work, "You Are Free," what I saw is that you begin with everyday events that could happen to any one of us. But then you kind of pull apart these circumstances and they sometimes take a disturbing turn.

For example, in "The Land of Beulah," it all starts with this very, you know, it seems like a very innocent thing. This young lady who's going through a breakup, brings home a puppy. And you think, oh, that's nice. And then it takes this kind of ugly turn. And a number of stories have a turn. And I was wondering, did you start with that idea in mind?

SENNA: Usually my stories come from an autobiographical place, and I look for the story that didn't happen within the story that did. 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.

And so, in that story I was looking at that kind of suppressed rage and she's the object of all these projections. She's biracial and a woman. And so it's constantly being projected upon. And then she goes home and sort of takes these things out on this dog. But it came from just the spark of something that had happened to me, but then I took it to a place that was not autobiographical, thank God.


MARTIN: Yeah, I was going to say. I don't want to go into all the details, but I was kind of hoping I didn't have to call animal protective services on you to do a little checkup.

SENNA: Right.

MARTIN: You do, though, approach, as you mentioned, some very serious issues with kind of a lightheartedness, for example, in the story "What's the Matter with Helga and Dave?" The very first passage sets the tone for the rest of the story. Do you mind reading that for us?

SENNA: No. No problem.

(Reading) 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.

(Reading) 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.

(Reading) Hewitt had come out looking to the world like a black man, and I had 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 new fangled 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.

MARTIN: See, that's what - I love that. Of course I do because we asked you to read it. But I think it tells you so many things about what we want to talk about. One of the central themes is how appearance is irrelevant. I mean, you know, how in this country there was the so-called One Drop Rule. That if you had one drop of African-American blood, then you are African-American under the law with all - what that entailed at various points in our history.

But one of the conceits of your fiction is that people don't know just by looking at you, you know, what you are. But then that can take some interesting turns. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?

SENNA: Yeah. No, I mean I think all of the characters in here and I always think of mixed race people as sort of human Rorschach tests. That the world looks at you if you're racially ambiguous and their reaction to that ambiguity and what they read in it tells you a lot more about them than it does about you. And that's been, you know, something certainly in my life, but in the lives of these characters. And I think it's also something for women, too. And that women in this story - this identity of being a female is central to these stories.

But, you know, the character in this story, of Rachel, who's the narrator of "What's the Matter with Helga and Dave" appears to be a white woman but doesn't see herself as white. She sees herself as black and she's married to a man who's biracial, who considers himself black. And so, when they meet up with another interracial couple, that couple believes that they're the same and reads them as another interracial couple. But...

MARTIN: So they're passing as interracial.

SENNA: They're passing as an interracial couple, but they actually have the same background. And then that leads to all sorts of strange circumstances in their marriage. And it kind of raises a kind of vulnerability to their marriage. But I think I was interested in the idea of how our identities are formed both by what we identify ourselves as, but also by what the world sees us as. And both of those things are always in play and can at times be in tension and in conflict with each other.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

It's the first book in our Summer Blend Book Club series. We're speaking with Danzy Senna. Her latest work "You Are Free" is a collection of short stories that are funny, intense and definitely provocative. And of course I have to ask you the annoying question that people of mixed background are often asked, which is what are you?

SENNA: What am I?

MARTIN: What are you?


SENNA: I am free. No.


SENNA: I am, my father is half African-American from the South and his father was Mexican from Mexico. So he's black and Mexican. And my mother is - I call her a wasp. But she's half Irish and half English, Anglo-Saxon and from Boston. So those are the facts of who I am. But I was raised in Boston to identify myself as black. Both my parents were very politicized and active in the Civil Rights Movement. And they raised all three of us to identify ourselves as black. And I grew up very much strongly identifying as that.

And this was kind of - I was born in 1970 before the era of the Census having a category for mixed race. Before Tiger Woods was cablanasian. And it was either you were white or black. And so my parents very much wanted us to feel pride in the identity that was most under attacked by the world, actually, and to feel good about that. And they succeeded in that.

So, at this point in my life, you know, I'm much less interested in the sort of simple answer to that question, which is so common and we always get as mixed people.

But I'm interested in kind of deconstructing the question itself and asking the person who wants to know, why do you need to know and why is it uncomfortable for you that you don't know? And, you know, I'm less interested even in that movement than I am in writing about ambiguity and power and economics and looking at the history of these terms.

MARTIN: Well, economics, too, is something that comes to the fore in your story "Admission," which is about a - what do you want to call it - kind of a creative, middle class black couple. They're creative people, you know.

SENNA: Yeah. Artists.

MARTIN: Artists. And they are applying to an elite preschool. And this is one of those experiences that is not universal. I mean, some people in some parts of the country, some people in some communities will listen to this and go, what? What are they talking about? But for some people this is going to be extremely familiar. Because there's this whole idea of preschool as the gateway to everything else in life.

SENNA: Right.

MARTIN: And so there's this dilemma about whether they - they say that they're applying to this preschool just for research for her latest play, but then, actually, they're not. And so they have to kind of deal with this. But what's interesting to me about it is it takes a turn into how each of them was raised and what they've come - which of them actually moves freely in this world and which of them does not.

SENNA: Right. Exactly.

MARTIN: So, where'd you get the idea for this?

SENNA: Oh, you know, once again, the spark comes from reality and just, you know, living in Los Angeles and hearing all of these mothers, the anxiety around schools is really a conversation about class. And I think in this country we talk all the time about race. But we rarely acknowledge that this is a very class-based society that we live in. And some people are trapped from day one into one class and others into another.

And I wanted to write about a couple that was very much saw themselves as iconoclasts, as left wing, as very much challenging the power structures. And they have a child and they're looking at schools. And the woman comes from a working class family and was raised in the public schools. And seeing a lot of children who suffered and who were struggling and had nothing. And her husband is black middle class and kind of has a very solid sense of himself and his power in the world as an artist, and doesn't feel threatened or insecure about his position.

And so this applying to schools brings up this difference between these two people. And they're both black, but their differences are really class-based in this story.

MARTIN: Oh, you know what? I have to ask you, where does the title come from?

SENNA: I took it from this story, "You Are Free" in here where this woman is chanting to her unborn child, you are free, you are free, you are free. And the idea behind that is, you know, just that in a way the only character in these stories who is free is the one that has not been born yet. To be born is to be encumbered by identity and by projections and by a body. And so I just liked that phrase and all that it kind of conjured up. Are we really free at this point in history as women? And what is freedom? It seemed very much at the heart of all of these stories.

MARTIN: Danzy Senna is the author of a new series of short stories titled "You Are Free." She's also the author of "Caucasia and Symptomatic." And she was kind enough to join us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Danzy Senna, thank you so much for joining us. Come back and see us.

SENNA: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: The next book in TELL ME MORE's Summer Blend Book Club will be "The Latte Rebellion" by Sarah Jamila Stevenson. You can check out excerpts from our upcoming books, as well as this interview with Danzy Senna by going to NPR.org, click on Programs, then on TELL ME MORE. Please read along with us.

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