Tuesday, May 26th, 2009
Danzy Senna’s new memoir, Where Did You Sleep Last Night?, is an account of a childhood complicated by divorce and racial identity, and of a search through both sides of her family’s history for answers. She recently sat down and answered a few of Rebecca Touger’s questions on her family, her writing, and the man reshaping the dialogue on racial politics, Barack Obama. -Elizabeth Minkel
When did you first hear the folk song “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” Why did you choose it for your title?
Many years ago I heard the haunted Leadbelly song, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night (Black Girl)?” I had just begun working on my book—which I think of in some ways as a history book passing as a memoir—and the song reminded me of my grandmother. She was in many ways the catalyst for this book. She was a secretive and brilliant black woman who had all these children children by an unknown father or fathers—and the lonely quality to the song really made me think of her. Plus, she was a musician from the south who could play any kind of music—and I wanted to pay homage to the southern black music tradition that she grew out of.
Your novels Caucasia and Symptomatic both follow mixed-race characters who grapple with identity and the proximity of history. Where Did You Sleep Last Night? is your first book-length autobiographical writing. How has your family reacted to this more personal narrative?
My family has had a decidedly mixed (no pun intended) response to the book. I could have made everyone happy if I’d chosen to write only about the distant past—my grandparents’ generation, or even just my father’s childhood or my mother’s childhood—if I’d kept the book rooted in the historical perspective. I tried really hard to do this, but it simply didn’t work. I realized at a certain point that the book didn’t work for me unless I also told my part of the story—the part of the history that I’d experienced directly: my parents divorce, my childhood in the aftermath. I realized that this more present history was integral to the other more distant history. It was what made this a book not just a family anecdote. It was the lifeblood of the story. I decided at a certain point in the process that I was willing to take the risk of upsetting some people. I had to risk disapproval. Nobody was going to give me permission to tell this narrative, so I had to give myself permission.
Your mother is a poet-novelist and your father is a scholar-writer. Did they encourage your writing? Did you write much growing up?
My mother encouraged my siblings and me to create. She raised us in an incredibly fertile artistic atmosphere. When we were really small, she would make books with us where we would dictate a story to her and she would write the words and we would illustrate the story with our little crayon drawings and she would somehow with string or glue turn the pages we’d made into a book. She was always playing with language, always talking about literature and art and politics at the dinner table or in front of the news or as she drove us across town; it imbued everything she said and did with us. When we were adolescents she began writing young adult books for money so that we could go away for a few weeks in the summer. She would read us chapters at night and we would offer our suggestions for what the kids would say and wear. She also was always writing her own poems and novels—a single mother scribbling or typing in the midst of chaos—so I got a sense from her that you write to survive. You write no matter what obstacles surround you, you write. It was as natural to her as breathing and still is.
My father was also a very intellectual parent. He was constantly talking to us about race and class and religion and literature. From him I got a strong sense of writing as being tied to social change. He gave me an outsider perspective—a critical distance on the society we live in—that has been essential to my work. In some ways, maybe without intending to, he taught me to not be afraid of speaking my mind. I have him to thank for that.
The America that you explore in pursuit of your family history seems just as racialized as the America you recall growing up in. Have racial realities changed—or not—since the election of the “first black president”? How should we measure progress?
Of course it has changed but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we can expect the “race problem” to go away. This country was founded on racial oppression and genocide and so race is embedded in our psyche as a nation and we would be fools to think it—as an active force in each of our lives—is going away any time soon. There are so many fascinating ironies about Obama’s victory. Even as we see him as black, it was his mixed-ness, his ease with white people (that prep school education and the fact that he was raised by the white side of his family), the fact that he is married to a black woman rather than a white woman (still a taboo) all of this made him palpable, all of this made it possible for us to elect him. We can’t overlook this. But Obama is also a gifted politician and brighter than your average president, so it was also of course his superior strengths as an individual that got him elected. I was teaching college students at Occidental when he was elected and I noticed that the young white men in my class were especially excited about him. It struck me that they identified with him for a multitude of reasons that had nothing to do with race: because he was young, because he was internet savvy, because he was liberal but in a new-school way, because he was a cultural hybrid and they felt themselves to be cultural hybrids. He spoke to them as a generation. So his election both speaks to the subtle nature of contemporary racism and also to the transcendence of other identities, which perhaps drew us all together in the end.
Which authors have influenced your writing? What are you reading right now?
I go in and out of love with various authors. When I was a kid, I was very into Dostoyevsky, Flannery O’Connor, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, a little later, Nella Larsen. These days, off the top of my head, some contemporary authors I read and admire are Murakami, JM Coetze, Lydia Davis, Mary Gaitskill, and Kazuo Ishiguro. I just read for the second time the amazing short novel called Fateless by the Hungarian writer Imre Kertesz.
What’s your six-word memoir?
You are right to be confused.
READ an excerpt from Where Did You Sleep Last Night?
BUY a copy of the book
SEE Danzy Senna on tour