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Saving race
With Symptomatic, the follow-up to her acclaimed debut novel Caucasia, Danzy Senna again delves into race in America ó and defies second-book syndrome

ITíS EVERY YOUNG writerís dream: to have a first novel achieve critical acclaim and monetary success. But a dream is usually all it is, and for Danzy Senna, it was no different. She certainly didnít expect the attention and praise her debut novel, Caucasia (Riverhead Books, 1998), received; after all, the book was originally written as her graduate-school thesis.

Senna, the biracial daughter of poet Fanny Howe and activist and writer Carl Senna, was raised in Boston in the 1970s ó not exactly a hotbed of tolerance for mixed-race families. Her experiences in Boston and beyond have helped mold her as a writer; Caucasia told the story of biracial sisters dealing with some of the same ugliness doled out to her own family. Senna has also written extensively on the frequent experience of being mistaken for white, and how itís led to an uncomfortable exposure of prejudices and intolerance in those around her.

In her latest novel, Symptomatic (Riverhead Books), Senna again surveys a familiar racial landscape. Her narrator is a biracial young woman often mistaken for white; she develops a friendship with an older, similarly mixed-race woman that begins as an antidote to loneliness and alienation, but gradually grows into something both complicated and frightening.

Q: Tell me where the idea for Symptomatic came from, and how you ended up writing it.

A: I love thrillers, and I love the old Roman Polanski, Hitchcock thrillers, and I wanted to think about race and identity and use the kind of thriller plot. And I was interested in the sort of claustrophobia of race, and the claustrophobia of identity, and how you can sort of become trapped by it. But in this case itís more literal. I was also interested in doubles, and that comfort that you initially feel when you have an identification with someone, and how that can kind of turn smothering. So racial identity, and then identity in general, sort of as something that can be comforting and terrifying and smothering, all at once.

Q: The narrator isnít given a name in the book. How come?

A: I was thinking of a million different names as I was trying to write this book, and then I decided not to have one, because I think that sheís a character who people project things onto, and she doesnít have a very strong sense of herself, and I think that thatís her weakness. So sheís kind of like a Rorschach test for other people, and her ambiguity kind of brings out these responses in the world around her. Sheís a young woman, and I donít think sheís fully identified herself in who she is. I wanted her name to even not be clear; I wanted people to be able to lay things on her throughout the novel.

Q: How much of you is in the narrator?

A: Like my first novel, I always think of my narrators as a sort of cousin, someone Iím related to, but not that closely. But enough that I can identity with them. I think fiction is always ó you sort of look for the story that didnít happen within the story that did. She responds differently to, for instance, that first scene [of subtle racism] than I would have. I wanted a character whoís more complicit in the racism around her, and a little bit maybe not wanting to look at things directly. Less confrontational.

Q: How would your reaction to that scene ó in which thereís an undercurrent of racism at a dinner party ó have been different?

A: Thatís what I meant about the story that didnít happen within the story that did, in that, thatís something that has happened to me a million times, in terms of being at a dinner party, a party, or wherever there are strangers, and having it turn ó something thatís pleasurable and sort of seductive suddenly turns. I guess I learned very early to ruin the dinner party, and I became comfortable with that, but I wanted a character who wasnít going to do that, and was going to slip out instead. Less confrontational and kind of weary ó thereís a weariness to her, like sheís been through this before, and she doesnít even want to address it.

Q: Do you envision this as a movie? I could almost see it onscreen as I was reading it.

A: Iím 33, and I was raised on movies and literature, but I think often very visually, and this book was influenced by a lot of movies; I was really into the sort of pulpy aspect of it. So in a way, Iím not sure it would work as a movie. It might, but it seems to refer so much to film. Itís possible. I never think that way, though. I never think: Iím writing this to be adapted. That would be interesting, if someone wanted to do that, but I feel like the book is kind of addressing film and film noir and thrillers. Itís a little bit of a reference point for that. But you never know.

Q: If you were writing your own press materials for the book, how would you describe it?

A: I think thatís why Iím not a PR person! Iíve been asked a lot about Caucasia, and then about this book, like, "What was your point in writing this?", and I always feel like, I wouldnít have had to write the book if I couldíve summed it up. I donít want to be that conscious of my own intentions and able to paraphrase it. I feel like thatís someone elseís job, and the critics also can read into it.

This book actually was written a lot from my subconscious, and itís a much more psychological novel than my first novel. I think the first novel was more social, and this is more psychological, and so I kind of felt like I went into this dream state to write it. I think itís a thriller about identity and race and a young woman becoming the object of another womanís ó sort of her double, her interest, her obsession. She becomes the object of this other womanís obsession, based on this random fact of what they have in common. But I donít know how I would describe it otherwise, and I think thatís probably a good thing ó for me, anyway.


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Issue Date: May 14 - 20, 2004
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