Danzy Senna Doesn’t Mind If Her New Novel Makes You Uncomfortable

Danzy Senna Doesn’t Mind If Her New Novel Makes You Uncomfortable


Julia Felsenthal, Senior Culture Writer

“I feel my role as a writer is to complicate, to leave more questions, to destabilize whatever seems set in stone,” says novelist Danzy Senna. “There’s been this whole conversation about trigger warnings. My half-joking thing is: I really want to trigger people. I want to read work that’s going to trigger me. I’m very committed to writing things that move people to a more uncomfortable place.”

Uncomfortable—and I mean this in the best way possible—is a pretty good descriptor of Senna’s latest novel, New People. The year is 1996. The place is Brooklyn. Our protagonist is Maria, a Columbia University doctoral student struggling to finish her dissertation on modes of resistance in the hymns and songs recorded by the Peoples Temple, the religious cult led by Jim Jones (and ultimately wiped out in 1978, when its leader ordered nearly 1,000 of those who had followed him to the Guyanese settlement of Jonestown to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid).

Maria is biracial, adopted at birth by a single black mother, a graduate student who brought her daughter up on a steady diet of Audre Lorde and Roots, and bemoaned that the light skin and straight hair with which Maria was born never darkened or kinked. (The baby was a “one-dropper,” writes Senna, “that peculiarly American creation, white in all outside appearances but black for generations to come.”) Now Maria is engaged to her college boyfriend, Khalil, whose skin is her exact same “shade of beige,” but who was raised by globe-trotting mixed parents in upper-middle-class bourgeois bohemian splendor, brought up to think of himself as a citizen of the world. Khalil is launching a company, Brooklyn Renaissance, a sort of proto-Facebook for “like-minded souls,” and happily planning his life with Maria: their Martha’s Vineyard wedding; the Brooklyn brownstone they’ll eventually buy and fill with artwork by Lorna Simpson, with children named Indigo and Cheo, with a dog named Thurgood…

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