Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Meltingpot Book Review--"Where Did You Sleep Last Night?"
I read Danzy Senna's first book, Caucasia and fell in love. With the story. With the characters. With the book. I finished reading and immediately wanted a sequel, or at least another novel written by Senna that would explore issues of race and identity in such a moving, creative and unique way.
Caucasia tells the tragic story of what happens when an interracial family-- mom is White and dad is Black-- self destructs. Mom takes the lighter daughter and flees East, Dad takes the darker daughter and goes West. And never the four shall meet. The story is narrated by the lighter sister as she is forced to pass as White and reinvent herself as the single daughter of a single White mother. Knowing that Senna herself is a very light child of a White mother and a Black father, I assumed that some parts of Caucasia were autobiographical. And judging from her new memoir, Where Did You Sleep Last Night?, my assumption was very correct.
It almost feels wrong enjoying this book because it is so rife with pain -- Senna's as yet extinguished pain over her upbringing with her warring parents. Mom is a descendant of some of Boston's most distinguished Blue blood families. Dad grew up in the South shuttling between orphanages, dirt-poor relatives and a mother who struggled to provide for her children. But the story isn't a woe-is-me tell all. Even though there seems to be a lot to tell in that vein i.e. Dad's violent alcoholic past, mom's racist relatives.
Instead, Senna spends the majority of the book looking into her father's mysterious past, with the idea that if she understood better where he came from, perhaps she could forgive him for his failures as a parent. Similar to the quest Bliss Broyard went on in her book, One Drop, where she looked for her father's hidden "negro past" in New Orleans, Senna makes a similar trip to the South. But unlike Broyard who began her mission after her father's death, Danzy Senna's father comes along with her for part of the journey.
So, even though Where Did You Sleep Last Night? is very much a memoir, the book almost reads like a racial thriller as we try to find out if Senna's father is really the child of a Black mother and a Mexican boxer or if that was a story invented by the women who raised him. Senna is a one-woman genealogy detective and takes the reader along with her, interspersing flashbacks of memory from her difficult childhood. And it all comes together really well. What's more, the characters hanging on Senna's family tree include such a range of famous names, beginning with her parents, both well-known writers in their own right, and leading all the way back to one of America's most powerful slave trading families, the DeWolfes of Rhode Island.
Final thoughts? You should read this book if you loved Caucasia and want to know the real story behind the story. Read this book if you enjoy great memoirs told in exquisitely rendered voices. Read this book if you want to understand a little bit more about America's torturous racial past and how it manifested in the lives of real people. Just read the book. You won't be disappointed. And then please tell me what you think.