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Coat of Many Colors

Sometimes mistaken for an Israeli, novelist Danzy Senna crafts biracial heroines who try on and shrug off cloaks of identity

Susan Comninos
June 10, 2004

Caucasia (1998), Danzy Senna’s first novel, follows a Seventies radical and her biracial daughter as they flee from the Feds under the assumed names Sheila and Jesse Goldman. In her new book, Symptomatic, Senna creates Greta, a mixed-race fact-checker at a New York magazine who declares that Jews “could have been a great race, and instead they’ve spent so much time around the WASPs that all that mediocrity has rubbed off on them.” Born in 1970, Senna studied at Stanford and the University of California, Irvine, and now lives in New York City.

Your main characters are not Jews, yet they identify strongly with them. Why?

Because all of my life, people thought I was Jewish, and particularly Israeli. I grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts, which has a large Jewish population. My boyfriend in high school was Israeli, and we looked alike in a funny way. I’ve always been aware of the identity that I’ve worn into the world: this mask of being Jewish. In New York, I’ve also commonly been thought of as Arab. In cabs, the drivers think I’m whatever they are.

Also, because I’m biracial, but people assume I’m white, I have a hidden identity. And I think a lot of Jewish people walk around with a hidden minority identity. They’ve come up to me on my book tour and said, “I identified with Birdie feeling like a spy, because I’ve been in a room full of non-Jews, and felt uncomfortable when the conversation turned to a certain topic, and felt I had to come out as Jewish, in that moment.” There are a lot of parallels.

Caucasia begins a few miles from Brookline, in Boston—a civil rights battleground and a fraught place for you personally.

Well, personally, my father is black. And my mother is a WASP from Boston and an old-money family. Well, there’s no money now, but they have the name and the silverware. And one of my ancestors was a DeWolfe. The DeWolfes were big slave traders in the Northeast, so I’m directly related to the slave traders and to the slaves. I think I am interested in characters that personify and embody that intersection of these disparate or opposed groups.

In Caucasia, when Sandy goes underground, after hiding guns for black militants during the 1970s busing crisis, she urges her daughter to take a Jewish alias, citing what blacks and Jews have in common—

Good politics, kinky hair and tragic history.

But by the 1990s, when Symptomatic takes place, that sense of black-Jewish solidarity has faded. Why the shift?

I think that probably there has been a shift. There was this alliance in the civil rights movement between blacks and Jews going down South to register voters. In the black community, there’s a certain strain of intellectuals that feels that Jews have kind of pulled out and become more conservative and more mainstream. There’s a sense—though I wouldn’t say it’s predominant or generalized—that that has become less and less the prevalent American Jewish concern.

You have Greta inveigh against Jews at one point in Symptomatic.

Well, if I’m remembering correctly, Greta’s rant is against everybody, and Jews are included. There’s this sense that they have been around WASPs too much, and that they’ve been destroyed by that.

They’ve been “mediocritized.”

Yes. But with Greta, one of the main ideas I’m getting at is that once you start becoming so obsessed with race, you allow racism to kind of seep into you, into your psyche. Once you start that, you begin to see it in everyone. You become sort of crazy. She’s a victim of that.

Greta fixates on the book’s narrator, a young biracial journalist on fellowship at the same magazine. Like Greta, she has ambiguous looks, but she’s nameless. Why?

She’s undefined as a person, at an age when you don’t know who you are. But also, she’s like a Rorschach test for other people’s feelings around race and culture. And because she’s kind of blank, people impose identities onto her. Like Greta chooses a name to call her, while Andrew just says, “Are you Spanish?” And assumes she is.

Andrew, who picks the narrator up on the subway, later takes her to a dinner party where his prep-school friends make racist allusions. Yet she never “comes out” or speaks up.

She’s not very assertive. She’s very passive and she kind of sneaks out of things. Also, I think she’s lonely, and this cute guy on the subway was talking to her. In a different context, she might have—though I don’t think she would have—decided that was going to go nowhere good; she has clearly done this before. She has a history with WASP boys. It’s loneliness.

Do you feel that being a minority in any group dooms one to loneliness, to perpetually feeling like an outsider?

Well, one of the things that I noticed in my writing program was that a lot of the white, gentile men in my class at the MFA program didn’t know what to write about. They were clever with language, but they didn’t have a subject. And as a writer, I find that it’s really a strength to have that outsider perspective. I feel it’s a gift.

Loneliness makes her susceptible to the attentions of Greta, a woman she ultimately comes to regard as “bilious.” Yet she responds to Greta as though they were the only two mixed-race people on the planet. And, of course, they’re not.

Right. I don’t see this novel as being completely realistic. I didn’t imagine it that way. It was actually inspired by Roman Polanski and these horror-thriller films like Repulsion, that I loved from the 70’s, where there’s this obsessive presence or malaise in the atmosphere.

I was also influenced by Vertigo and other Hitchcock movies. So for me, it was a lot of fun to write something that was kind of using that genre. I wanted to write a thriller that involved race and identity. I was interested in the claustrophobia of race and ways that it can trail you. It’s comforting, at first, this sense of sameness. And then it can become this horror, where you can’t get away from it.

There is a powerful yet opaque scene near the end of Symptomatic, when the narrator passes by a storefront church and a man preaches the biblical story of Joseph being thrown into a pit by his brothers.

I feel sort of uncomfortable interpreting it, when I think there could be many different readings of it. But it was definitely a story I was familiar with growing up, of Joseph and his many-colored coat. And it stuck with me, given the violence of it, and the ominous side to it: the person who is supposed to be your sibling, your brother, turning against you viciously. That resonates with Symptomatic, someone very close to you and, in some ways, indistinguishable from you.

Are Greta and your narrator, then, siblings?

Well, there’s sort of a racial sisterhood more than a literal one, in the sense of them being connected around color.

When you wrote Symptomatic, did you think “Wow, I’m taking shots at all these groups, I’m going to be hearing from their representatives”?

When I wrote Caucasia, I was a lot more careful and eager to please. And when I wrote this book, I was not, I was writing for myself. And I hoped that there would be other people who connected to it and enjoyed and on some level got it, what I was doing. But I didn’t feel that same caution, not wanting to offend anyone.

In the book, I’m playing with a lot of stereotypes in terms of the tragic mulatto. And a lot of different characters stray into that area of stereotype, I think. There are ways that I find a lot of these racial stereotypes funny; I don’t know if that comes across, that they’re humorous. To me, I always feel like the really funny things are deeply tragic at their core.

Things fall somewhere between hilarity—

And horror. It’s true! At one of my readings, someone said, “I couldn’t tell whether the book was supposed to be funny or horrifying.” They were confused about the tone. And I said, “Oh, well, it’s supposed to be both.”