“Old Wasp Money Meets Angry Black Poetry,” Double X, 1 July 2009
A Q & A with Danzy Senna, author of Where Did You Sleep Last Night?
In 1968, Carl Senna married Fanny Howe. He was a black American poet and writer from the Deep South; she was the daughter of an old money, white American family with members who had founded the Atlantic Monthly and owned slaves. The marriage was doomed, but it produced author Danzy Senna, who came of age after the break-up. She soon realized that her parents’ story was both an emblem of a new, hybrid national history and a cautionary tale about the limits of love and the importance of origins.
Senna gamely excavates her own quintessentially American ancestry in her new memoir, Where Did You Sleep Last Night? Her previous books, Caucasia and Symptomatic, are fictionalized treatments of race and identity in America, where self-consciousness, bloodlines, and cultural disjuncture reign. Where Did You Sleep Last Night? is Senna’s true story—at once a portrait of her family and a detective story. Senna travels from the American South to 1960s Boston in order to discover the forgotten history of her black relatives.
Senna spoke to Double X from her home in Los Angeles about the difference between fact and fiction and “optical ineptitude” when it comes to race.
What prompted you to write a memoir?
In the differences between my family histories, there’s an implicit question about race and the way narratives are told or buried. I thought about how much documentation there was of my mother’s family history, and then the void on my father’s side. But it started from a more personal curiosity about my father and my grandmother and where they had come from.
I thought the book was going to be more of a genealogical mystery and excavation when I began it. And then my father took me down south and I realized then that I was going to have to put in this more personal narrative as well—because that was driving my interest in the story. And I didn’t really want to write a memoir, but it kind of snuck up on me.
Obviously there’s an outline that is “true” here—but often you only have a few documents and some photographs, so you fill in the blanks. How did you put together the stories of your grandmother, Anna, your shadowy grandfather, and others in your father’s past?
To fill in the blanks with my imagination felt like such a different beast to me than writing fiction. And yet at the same time I guess I drew on my fictional sensibilities in trying to create a sense of suspense and the pacing of a detective novel. Because I wanted it to have that feeling of what I had experienced while I was trying to find this story.
A memoir is so much about what you leave out of the story. I had hundreds and hundreds of pages that I never used in this book. I realized that part of what makes a memoir work is choosing to create a lot of white space around things and letting those things breathe.
In the book, you struggle with the question of who is biologically related to you, and to one another. You’re frequently looking for some tether, the “one drop” of shared blood that proves a common history. How did this complicate for you the very idea of family?
Part of the subtext of the book is that I was having babies while I wrote it. So I created my own family as I excavated and explored the past, and I was creating my own family in the future.
In terms of the one drop thing: I knew growing up, or suspected, that I was part Mexican because of the clues that my grandmother had dropped, and my father’s mixed appearance. And I knew that my father was mixed and was very bound up in that, as I describe. I understood myself to be black. But then I started to believe that race was a construct. History and knowledge about blackness is very much a plague amongst black people in this country who are not pure African. I remember in college looking at pictures of Malcolm X and his mother and reading about the Harlem Renaissance and realizing that all the icons of negritude and blackness were also very mixed, and feeling like I was part of a long tradition. And that one drop is such a part of it.
Have you read Dreams from My Father, the president’s memoir? How do you place your book within the ever-growing literature of lost families and interracial love in America?
I didn’t read Dreams From My Father. And it’s ridiculous that I haven’t read it, but I have not. In terms of my family, my parents were doomed for a lot of reasons, some of which had to do with their class and race differences and a lot of which had to do with my father’s personal demons. My mother once said “it’s not love, it’s something else.” And I met people later who talked about meeting them and how in love they were and I found journal entries from my mother that revealed that there was really a lot of love and passion between them, so I think a lot of that was revisionist history on her part. Her being so bitter about my father in the present that she was unable to remember what drew them together.
But I think there was a sense also on her part that they were part of a wave of history that they came together by forces that were outside of them. Her father was a civil rights lawyer, and she was a civil rights activist ,and they were writers, and there was the exotic allure of the other. And so when she says “something else,” she’s probably talking about a lot of those factors.
You’ve called this memoir a detective story—and yet family secrets seem universal. How does this participate in the trendy field of amateur genealogical research?
What’s funny is my mom is completely disinterested in her WASP lineage, and is sort of embarrassed by it, and on the other side is my father searching desperately for any fragments that can tell him who he is. My father has been really fixated on finding out exactly what are the strains of his blood and wanting to find out where in Africa and where in Mexico his ancestors come from. There was so little that he had growing up in terms of a sense of family, continuity. And he had a kind of displaced fixation on the thing that he can name, or have a legal document that he didn’t have growing up. I’ve never found that interesting. What interest me are these really intimate memories and details about my father that have been seared into my brain.
You mention eating out with your father and getting strange looks from bystanders who thought you were a couple. How did traditional notions of gender and race play into this perception that you didn’t belong in the same room?
People see white woman, brown child or brown woman, light child, and they don’t know how to configure it in their brains. Though to me it’s obvious that the brown child looks like the mother or that I look a lot like my father, I think most people have this kind of optical ineptitude.
At one point in the memoir, you ride up to New Hampshire with your father, pretending to be his Puerto Rican bride in order to win a free video camera. It’s a hilarious story, and raises questions of memory and permanence and amnesia. So why did you want the camera so badly?
My brother and I used to take a tape recorder and spend hours creating fictional worlds on the tape recorder and playing it back to ourselves. There was a kind of fascination with recording and creating a replica of what had just happened. I think it was part of our atmosphere of growing up in a bohemian, poetic household. I tried to write it as a short story and tried to write it fictionally and somehow it didn’t work.
Your dad is the reason for the book, but it’s your paternal grandmother that ends up being the center. Can you talk about Anna and the choices she had to make as a woman in pre-feminist America, including giving up her children—not once but twice?
She had three children that were significantly lighter skinned than she was. And she was in our home when I was little helping to take care of me. And she was very modest and kind of retiring figure. In photographs she’s often absent, or at the edges, looking away. She was very thin, a chain smoker, and died young of cancer, a clerk in the city courthouse and just sort of a modest, humble woman. She was from the Deep South, had left, and never gone back. She was very educated, very intellectual and an incredibly gifted pianist who had traveled with the Erskine Hawkins big band.
And behind that veneer—we called her “Nana,” but behind that was “Anna,” the person she had been. That was a dissonance [as I learned about her] that really interested me, and also her secrecy about the father of her children. She said it was a Mexican boxer who had disappeared, and the fact was that none of her children remembered this Mexican boxer, so it seemed odd to me, that gap in information.
She was a devout Catholic, and she would just give fragments of information to my mother that were tantalizing—but she would clam up if anyone tried to question her at length. She was in New York for a while and talked about being hospitalized for a nervous breakdown; what was that about? But she was the first person I think I really loved. She was my surrogate mother for two years while my mother had two children in quick succession. She died when I was a little over 2 years old.
Do you feel that you’ve solved the family mystery, finished the story, laid this to rest?
I understood at a certain point that I would never have the full story of my grandmother, Anna. She never wanted that story known in some ways, and she was a very private woman, and so she remains an enigma. At the end of the book her motivations, her intimate relationships remain kind of mysterious. But in the journey of trying to figure out the question of who my father was, what are the forces that created him—I think I achieved a personal sort of catharsis. I let go of something that I had been holding inside of me and storing for a long time regarding my father.
My husband is African American and our sons are kind of racially ambiguous looking. As a mother I have my own series of conflicts and juggling and figuring out how to be a provider and mother. For me, the subtext of the book, looking back on it, is what my father says, that the greatest casualty of slavery is the black family. This is the text of me trying to create a black family out of these shards of history, of African destruction, and trying to create something positive and intact, with the weight of history pressing behind me as I do that.