Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Review: You Are Free

Danzy Senna's short story collection, You Are Free, is all about taking chances. Not only for the characters, but also for the author. Each story finds Senna taking a chance, breaking a rule. The collection is invigorating for the creative writing student and a welcome change of pace for the reader.

One of the stories, The Land of Beulah, features a wholly unlikeable character. She takes in a stray dog and takes refuge in beating the animal as her life falls apart around her. Yet, despite feeling twinges of anger and disappointment each time a beating occurs, the reader understands what drives Jackie. Even as the reader feels superior, certain she would never make the same choice, Jackie is someone who seems familiar. A woman told she could have everything who suddenly has it all ripped away from her.

As in Senna's novel Caucasia, race plays a starring role in these stories. The protagonists are all women of mixed heritage, figuring out what that means for them, mostly in relation to men and relationships. Jackie, from Beaulah, is spurned by her lover for being "too white," while the protagonist in What's the Matter with Helga and Dave? is accepted only after being perceived as white by a neighbor. (Incidentally, another risk, having an unnamed narrator). The women in these stories all struggle with race.

Perhaps the story where Senna explores this most is Triptych, where the same situation occurs three times. A young girl is at a dinner the day before the funeral of her mother, contemplates her mother, and the last conversation she had with her mother. Each mother craves a different food, all sadly out of season, and each father is flawed. Each family is so similar, despite the fact that each one is mixed differently. One is a white family, one a black family with one member more fair than the other, and one a family with a black father and white mother. The point Senna draws here is they are all the same. Regardless of the racial makeup of a family, there is the same pain, confusion, death. Senna seeks to humanize race, using the specific instance of black and white interracial unions and children to do so. And she succeeds.

In the first story, Admission, Senna shows a black couple who has applied their child to a prestigious pre-school (and please, pause for a moment over the phrase "prestigious pre-school." Senna would like it that way), and the fallout that occurs when the child is given a second interview and then accepted. How desperately the wife wants it, at first, and how the husband does not even entertain the notion. The whiteness of it all is implied.

And this is perhaps the greatest problem with Senna's stories. That affluence and privilege, while being something afforded to her characters, is considered "white." While struggle and resilience are considered "black." It's wonderful that Senna explores racial relations in her writing, but it seems that "white" is often characterized as greedy, self-involved, affluent. Not to suggest that "white" should be characterized as saintly, but perhaps a bit more even-handedly. These characters seem to relate less to the white half of themselves than the black halves. Race is always a tricky issue, but it seems that a child borne of two races would feel kinship with both.

Senna's prose is deceptively simple. She's just telling a story, it seems. But dig just a bit deeper and you find a daring writer. One willing to take chances, push boundaries, and see what mere words can create.

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