Danzy Senna

Danzy Senna

The Southeast Review

The Southeast Review is published by Florida State University’s Creative Writing Program.

Interviewed by Janeen Price

Danzy Senna is the author of two novels, a memoir, numerous essays and works of short fiction. Her debut novel, Caucasia, a coming-of-age story, was named the Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. It also won the Book-of-the-Month Club’s Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction and the American Library Association’s Alex Award. Her latest book, Where Did You Sleep Last Night?: A Personal History, is a memoir of her journey to solve the enigma of her father’s family history.

Q: Where Did You Sleep Last Night? is your first memoir. What compelled you to write and publish this personal narrative?

A: I was intrigued by this mystery of my father’s mother, a black woman from the South who was educated and ambitious in her youth down South, then gave it all up and became the modest, retiring woman we knew in Boston. There were so many gaps in her story—so much mystery surrounding her. The book began as an investigation into her, and I didn’t think of it as a memoir. But as it progressed, I realized that my relationship to my father—the contradictions in it, the pain and also the love there—was central to the story. So the personal material sort of snuck up on me as I tried to find and tell this other, more historically distant tale. I still consider myself first and foremost a fiction writer…

…Q: You are biracial, the protagonists of your two novels are biracial, and issues of racial identity loom large in all three of your books. How has your exploration of racial identity evolved from one book to the next?

A: That’s a good question, but not one I feel I can really answer. I think my readers could answer that better than I could. But it does lead me to another related thought. Readers have at times over the years asked me, “Are you ever going to write about people who aren’t mixed?” I always feel there is an implicit criticism in the question—as if maybe I should be writing about a white man, or a Chinese woman, to prove my universality. But I never hear white writers being asked, “Are you ever going to write about characters that aren’t white?” And I don’t even hear the question being thrown at black writers who write about black life and black characters. It has made me wonder if the question has more to do with a discomfort with my racial ambiguity. I think people are comfortable with black people writing about black people (and maybe uncomfortable with black people not writing about black people). And I think people assume the universality of white characters, especially if they are male. But they can’t quite wrap their finger around what they see me as. Maybe they see me as white, because that’s what my features read, and can’t really understand why race and blackness would persist as a theme in my work.

So for me I’ve had to really ignore all those questions about subject matter and race, etc., because I think it doesn’t really have to do with my work, the real issues I’m writing about, which I hope are about more than racial identity. Racial identity is there, of course, but to me other questions loom larger. Did Raymond Carver write about white people? Yes, in a way, but in another way, no, that wasn’t his subject. I write books set in multiracial worlds, and from the perspective of multiracial characters. Maybe I won’t always write from that perspective, but I see nothing limiting about it. In writing, the universal is found in the specific. And I have learned that you really have to just write about your obsessions and from a place of truth, and ignore the rest…

Read the entire interview here.

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