The next installment of "How Close Is Too Close?" Exploring Danzy Senna.
Fair Warning: I adore Senna's novel, Caucasia. It is one of the most effective and powerful novels I have ever read about America's tangled attitude towards race. And it is mostly not fiction, this tale of two sisters, Cole and Birdie, so close they have invented their own language.
The sisters are the creation of a marriage between two revolutionaries: Deck, who is black, a promising young literary lion from Louisiana; and Sandy, who is white, a Mayflower descendent, the daughter of a Harvard professor who is the lion's teacher and mentor. It's 1975, and Boston, a city previously divided into clear lines of white and black, is about to fracture into race riots, but these two hope to remake the world, both through direct action and their daughters.
The girls get stuck in a Black Nationalist school, where the darker Cole flourishes, while pale, straight-haired Birdie Lee stumbles through Black Power classes.
One of the most haunting scenes in the book happens early, when Birdie's father, more comfortable with the daughter who resembles him, is forced to take seven-year-old Birdie, instead, to the Boston Public Garden for some alone-with-Daddy time. Birdie notices the nicely dressed elderly white couple walking their fancy dog. They seem concerned or angry, as she reads the comics with her head on her father's lap.
A moment later, two policeman show up. "You can tell us, kiddie. He can't hurt you here. You're safe now. Did the man touch you funny?"
It's no wonder her father prefers to spend time with the African-American-looking Cole.
The marriage soon ends, mostly because Sandy, the mother, wants to wade into the fight, a la the Symbionese Liberation Army, while father, Deck's, revolutions are more intellectual. The children are divided between the two, mostly by color. Deck and his new "strong, black woman" girlfriend take Cole off to Brazil, while Sandy goes on the run from the FBI, taking little Birdie with her. "You've got a lot of choices, babe. You can be anything. Puerto Rican, Sicilian, Pakistani, Greek. I mean, anything, really."
They settle on Jewish, with Sandy the widow of a Jewish academic, Birdie, his daughter. Birdie longs for her sister, longs to fit in, longs to be ordinary, and can never be so.
This powerful novel was clearly written as a way to seek clarity and identity from a background of pain and confusion. Senna was and remains estranged from her father, (Carl Senna, author of The Black Press and the Struggle for Civil Rights, and The Fallacy of I.Q.) whose brilliance disappeared into paranoia, drinking and rage. I don't know about her current relationship with her mother, the poet Fanny Howe.
Senna continued to write about her family, this time as non-fiction. But more about that later.
I know nothing about Senna's real sister and the brother she removed from the story, except that they were, she says, badly damaged by their parents' divorce. I only hope that this powerful novel provided some healing for the entire family, not just the extraordinary writer, Ms. Senna.