How do you identify? Has your identity opened an inescapable void? How far will you go to authenticate your identity?
In Danzy Senna’s “New People”, she satirizes what life means as the desired mulatto – new person – and what one’s life means existing in an accepted schizophrenic reality. Meet Maria. Seductive and mysterious. She’s engaged to Khalil, another “new person”, living in mid-90s Brooklyn in a brownstone filled with black art and voices they chose to embrace after years (as seen in flashbacks) of trying to make their pseudo-whiteness work – and fail – for them.
However, someone – perhaps, something – threatens the wonderful embodiment of neo-soul she hopes to create and share with Khalil.
As mentioned before, we meet graduate school student Maria in her late twenties and in 1996 Brooklyn. Via a series of interspersing flashbacks, we travel with her on both sides of the coasts (New York City and California) as she figures her role in this society as a new person.
What’s a new person? Mulattoes. Biracial people, specifically, black and white as their lives tend to trouble the minds of others unlike other mixes.
Via her flashbacks, we see her navigation as a new person as she dates both white, black, and fellow new people in college. Years later she’s set to marry Khalil, a fellow new person, and we meet various personalities around her, including her soon-to-be sister-in-law Lisa, her adoptive mother, Gloria, and the poet. The latter threatens the semi-perfect world she desires, tumbling her into schizophrenic reality. Does she want to marry Khalil and build their world with children in a lovely brownstone filled with academia and black artistic joy? Or, does she risk everything with the poet, a mysterious soul she yearns to share a casual rendezvous?
What occurs boils into madness and confusion at certain cost.
Maria. Maria. Maria. At first, she draws me to follow her. She’s biracial, but she’s fully aware of her path, bumpy and scattered, as she figures her placement in America’s racialized society. Light enough to pass as Hispanic or Mediterranean, her skin affords her chances to see how some white people feel about blacks or “others” when the former feels comfortable to speak with abandon. She attempts to bandage her reality by dating white students and “forgetting” their sly remarks until she becomes persona non grata by letting others know their racism’s not welcomed around her, earning her nicknames and semi-ostracization.
She decides to date black and enjoys that world. When she meets Khalil, a fellow biracial student, they seek joy and pleasure, opting to leave their white sides behind and take control of their black sides in a sense of “hyper-blackness”: reading James Baldwin, listening to the hottest rap and soul songs, and surrounding herself with the hippest of hip.
Throughout the book, she rumbles as an hysteric, caught between self-inflicted drifts between reality and fantasy. Bits of her offer sociopathic tendencies, particularly around a baby she watches in the story, a childhood incident, a campus prank towards her then-boyfriend, Khalil, and her chase for “the poet”. We never learn his name nor does it matter. She deems him by his hobby or profession and we follow her obsession, leading to its final bow.
Surrounding Maria, Senna creates personalities either attempting to ground her footing or possibly hindering her reality: Khalil, the love of her life, skates between both worlds, even though he seemingly strives to stay on the black side; Lisa embraces her blackness, even if it comes off as try hardy; Gloria, her adoptive mother, paving insight for her daughter to dance realities challenging her as she matures, and “the poet”, a mysterious fellow, defined by a hat, a brief drink, and his relationship with women, including one close to her. They shape Maria’s life as she wanders in wait for something real and strong.
Funny enough, Maria resembles parts of me as did Lisa. They exists in my 1990s’ collegiate memories, and Senna’s portrayal of them rings true, shaking me to the core.
Senna’s satire nails the faux black-bohemia of pre-hipster 1990s’ Brooklyn documentary-style. We watch, not as readers, but as viewers, stumbling and fumbling with Maria’s view of pictures, true or false, before her. Her writing’s quick without purpose prose, but with specificity. Senna references black life and its art as an actual partaker, not someone researching the time for story’s sake. She’s listened. She’s heard. She’s used. Her winks at cultural nuances do not exist to say “Look how cool I am.” They serve to say, “Do you remember?”
Sometimes you wonder if she lived as Maria…
Also, Senna’s writing creates claustrophobic moments, which troubles me. Am I seeing what Maria’s seeing, or am I imposing what I wanted her to see? If I’m mentally troubled as I’m reading, I thank the author for creating an immersive world where even I question my place. In addition, she furthers to the claustrophobia by including slivers of Maria’s Jonestown Massacre research, which denotes a deadly chase for one’s identity and creating my false senses of foreshadowing.
Nonetheless, Maria and her world’s not the perceived tragic mulatto cliché, the story runs deeper and far more complex, thanks to Senna’s words. She lampoons the search for racial authenticity, finding the audacity in trying to click boxes pushed by generational racial gate-keepers.
Senna’s ending bemuses me. I read the paragraphs repeatedly, almost trance-like, to figure how it ends. The ambiguity kills me as I’m not a fan of ambiguous endings. I do not seek happy endings after each book I read, but I prefer clear ones to those seeking depth when I’m not ready. I plan to email her in hopes she’ll help me grasp the final paragraph. She’ll probably roast me as a doofus. Yet, I humbly accept the roost to chat with her.
New People entertains, albeit worries me for Maria and, in a smaller sense, Khalil. Will she/they survive? Will he stand by her as she tumbles into a schizophrenic kaleidoscope? Will I ever tire of Senna’s writing (her fifth novel)? No. But, if you have not journeyed through her works, perhaps you should remedy that faux pas.
Verdict: 3.5/5 Scotch and Milks (The ending deducted a half-point)