'New People' Author Danzy Senna Loves The Troublesome Characters

Aug 5, 2017

New People is a novel where infatuation gnaws at what looks like happiness.

Maria lives in Brooklyn with Khalil, her fiance. They met at Stanford — and they love each other, the light skin color they share, and the life they begin in the late 1990's, Khalil an up and coming dot-commer, Maria a grad student studying the Jonestown Massacre. They're called the "King and Queen of the Racially Nebulous Prom." But Maria's eye wanders to a poet who is vividly and distinctly different from her fiance.

We never see any of his poetry — and author Danzy Senna says she wanted it that way. "I liked keeping him somewhat mysterious, so that he could become more of the object of her projections ... he is unlike her fiance, not mixed-race. He's black, she's biracial. I think there's a quest for maybe authenticity, and for something 'real' that she's looking for and sort of not finding in her life."


Interview Highlights

On the cruel prank Maria played on Khalil

When they were at Stanford — and in some ways, the Stanford of the early '90s was similar to the atmosphere on campuses now and it's highly politicized, and the identity politics are at an all-time intensity, and Khalil has just kind of discovered his black identity, and is embracing his blackness. And Maria and a friend of hers smoke pot one night and decide to play a prank on him ... and they leave him a racist message on his answering machine, in the voice of what they think of frat guys. And the horror is, it then sets off this other chain of events where he thinks it actually is a racist incident, and he ends up mobilizing the campus around his newfound victim status.

On Maria's character

I wasn't trying to write a female character who was necessarily the person I would want as my best friend. Maria's a very conflicted and problematic and sort of deceitful character. And as a novelist, we want the character that's going to kind of cause trouble, in their own life and those of others, and that's where the story is, and the pulse.

On Maria's work on the Jonestown Massacre

I was fascinated with the way that Jim Jones used all the rhetoric of racial liberation and progressive politics and kind of left-wing enlightenment to lead all of these people to their death, and the sort of paradox of the Jonestown Massacre — that it sounded really amazing, in terms of this utopia he was creating, and then it went so terribly wrong. And it reverberated in me as someone who was raised in the '70s in a sort of multiracial family, and a lot of the politics of my parents and their friends were reflected in those people in Jonestown.

On the end of the novel

I leave her in a very precarious position ... I know not everybody reponds to that but for me, I like a story that leaves the problem inside of me, still alive. For me that ending was very clear, and left her very much alive. And I didn't judge her at all as I was writing this. I felt I inhabited her without any judgment, and watched her, and led her down this path, and this sort of rabbit hole. But the characters we love as novelists are the ones that bring us into trouble and conflict.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"New People" is a novel where infatuation gnaws at what looks like happiness. Maria lives in Brooklyn with Khalil, her fiance. They met at Stanford. And they love each other, the light skin color they share and the life they begin in the late 1990s - Khalil, an up and coming dot-commer; Maria, a grad student studying the Jonestown massacre. They're called the king and queen of the Racially Nebulous Prom. But Maria's eye wanders to a poet who is vividly and distinctly different from her fiance. "New People" is the new novel by Danzy Senna, author of the best-selling "Caucasia" and winner of the 2017 John Dos Passos Prize for Literature. She joins us from Martha's Vineyard, Mass.

Thanks so much for being with us.

DANZY SENNA: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: I hope this doesn't give anything away, but what does Maria see in the poet? I mean, we don't see much of his poetry.

SENNA: That's true. We don't have any of his poetry. And the first scene of the novel is just her kind of going into a infatuation state with this poet she sees reading. And I liked keeping him somewhat mysterious so that he could become more of the object of her projections, the way that often people we become infatuated are. And so she fills, into this person she doesn't know very well, all of these commonalities she believes they share. And he is, unlike her fiance, not mixed race. He's black. She's biracial. I think there is a quest for, maybe, authenticity and for something, quote, "real" that she's looking for and sort of not finding in her life.

SIMON: It's a very intricate and clever and moving and ultimately upsetting novel, but I think a reader would keep asking, Khalil is a great guy. I mean, what's her problem?

SENNA: Yeah, I wasn't trying to write a female character who was necessarily the person I would want as my best friend. Maria is a very conflicted and problematic and sort of deceitful character. And as a novelist, we want the character that's going to kind of cause trouble in their own life and those of others. And that's where the story is and the pulse. So for me, this very kind of troubling and troublesome female character was much more compelling than someone who would always do the right thing and make healthy choices.

SIMON: What made you decide to put Maria's pursuit of the story of the Jonestown massacre into the novel? Because this isn't just a phrase - you actually follow her as she researches it.

SENNA: Yeah, the Jonestown massacre is something I've been fascinated with for really seven years, long before I started writing Maria. And I read everything I could about it. I was fascinated with the way that Jim Jones used all the rhetoric of racial liberation and progressive politics and kind of left-wing, you know, enlightenment to lead all of these people to their death and the sort of paradox of the Jonestown massacre that it sounded really amazing in terms of this utopia he was creating. And then it went so terribly wrong, and it reverberated in me, as someone who was raised in the '70s, in a sort of multiracial family. And a lot of the politics of my parents and their friends were reflected in those people in Jonestown.

And I felt the novel is really a comic novel, but there's a lot of darkness and seriousness underneath it. And Jonestown really added, for me, that level of sobriety and tragedy to the story. And I felt if there was one thing that you could study that would sort of throw you over the edge, it would be the Jonestown massacre...

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Yeah.

SENNA: ...For someone like Maria especially.

SIMON: As you mentioned, you're from what I'll call a mixed-race literary family - your mother, the poet-novelist Fanny Howe and then your father Carl Senna, editor and academic. I gather they were divorced when you were young.

SENNA: Yes, they were divorced in the '70s. And I wrote a memoir and talked about how their marriage was sort of - I think I called it an interracial couple out of a dream. They were written up in...

SIMON: Yeah.

SENNA: ...The newspaper, and they were sort of the fantasy, late-'60s interracial couple, two writers getting married at the height of the civil rights movement. And they divorced, then, actually around the time of Jonestown (laughter), which I think that suggests why I'm sort of interested in it on a personal level...

SIMON: Yeah.

SENNA: ...And the kind of - the falling apart of that fantasy. And luckily, you know, it didn't go as badly as Jonestown (laughter). Nothing has...

SIMON: Yeah.

SENNA: ...Ever gone as badly as Jonestown in that era. But, you know, definitely, there was the fantasy and then the reality of their marriage. And so I was raised really thinking a lot about these issues from a very young age. And so it's very natural for it to kind of come into my work.

SIMON: I'm interested in the fact that you write about mixed-race relationships. And I wonder, in our world, the country we live in today - has that become its own kind of literary genre? And forgive me for using the word genre.

SENNA: I think it's always been a theme in American literature. And, you know, one of the things I'm interested in is how American literature - you know, race - Mark Twain, Faulkner, you know, James Baldwin - this is not something that's new. It's part of our origin story as a people. And so it's, I think, always been there. And it keeps coming up. And the thing that's maybe sort of jarring to people who don't think about it every day and it doesn't exist in their skin, is that it is still so much a part of our identity and the thing that we're grappling with, you know, 400-plus years later. You know, it's still part of us.

SIMON: The novel, of course, ends at a certain point. I wonder if Maria goes on in you somewhere. Do you still think of her? Have you figured a way out?

SENNA: I do.

SIMON: Yeah?

SENNA: Yeah, I leave her in a very precarious position. And...

SIMON: Oh, I'll say, yes.

SENNA: (Laughter) And I tend to like stories that end a little bit before there's resolution or redemption. For me, that ending was very clear and left her very much alive. And I didn't judge her at all as I was writing this. I felt I inhabited her without any judgment and watched her and led her down this path and this sort of rabbit hole. You know, I felt very attached to her by the end. And it was hard for me to let her go.

SIMON: I don't mind telling you I admired the ending, but I wish you'd put another three or four pages in there 'cause...

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: ...I wanted to see how things would work out.

SENNA: Yeah, I'm sure you're not the only reader who will feel that.

SIMON: Danzy Senna, her new novel "New People" - thanks so much for being with us.

SENNA: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.