Danzy Senna

Award-winning Novelist & Memoirist
Author of the Bestseller Caucasia

Readings & Lecture Topics

  • An Evening with Danzy Senna

“Senna’s dynamic storytelling illuminates personal revelations that are anything but black and white.” —Entertainment Weekly

“Danzy Senna’s probing and marvelous stories delve into the deepest layers of the human heart and psyche, all while showing us a multi-colored, multi-flavored, and most importantly multi-layered world to which we all—lovers, mothers, nomads, strangers—could easily belong.” —Edwidge Danticat

Danzy Senna is the author of two bestselling novels, Caucasia and Symptomatic; a memoir, Where Did You Sleep Last Night: A Personal History (2011); and the short fiction collection, You Are Free (2011), which contains riveting, unexpected stories about identity under the influence of appearances, attachments, and longing. All books are published by Riverhead Press.

Her debut novel, Caucasia, the story of two biracial sisters growing up in racially charged Boston during the 1970s, became an instant national bestseller. It was the winner of the BOMC Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction and of an Alex Award from the American Library Association. It was a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year, one of Glamour’s three best books of the year by a new writer, one of School Library Journal’s Best Adult Books of the Year for Young Adults, and a finalist for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. It was also a book club selection of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer and the Contra Costa Times. Caucasia examined the politics of race with rare honesty and clarity. The LA Times called Caucasia as compelling as any you are likely to encounter, and a book that explores both the centrality and the lunacy of racial identity in America. It sparked a newfound focus on biracial cultures in America, a part of our population that does not fit into any clean category.

Senna’s second novel, Symptomatic (Riverhead Books), is a psychologically astute novel that continues to examine the complicated topic of race. Her narrator is a biracial young woman often mistaken for white; she develops a friendship with an older, similarly mixed-race woman that begins as an antidote to loneliness and alienation, but gradually grows into something both complicated and frightening. Symptomatic is a psychological thriller rooted in the very extremes she avoids in Caucasia. Elle Magazine writes, “Symptomatic proves the raves [for Caucasia] were right on target…Senna throws everything into her literary stew, ambition, love, obsession, jealousy, and race.”

Senna lives in Los Angeles.

Danzy Senna’s website

Danzy Senna is the author of two bestselling novels, Caucasia and Symptomatic; a memoir, Where Did You Sleep Last Night: A Personal History; and the short fiction collection You Are Free. She was the winner of the BOMC Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction and of an Alex Award from the American Library Association. Caucasia was a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year, one of Glamour’s three best books of the year, one of School Library Journal’s Best Adult Books of the Year for Young Adults, and a finalist for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

YOU ARE FREE: STORIES (Stories, 2011)
Each of these eight remarkable stories by Danzy Senna tightrope-walks tantalizingly, sometimes frighteningly, between defined states: life with and without mates and children, the familiar if constraining reference points provided by race, class, and gender. Tensions arise between a biracial couple when their son is admitted to the private school where they’d applied on a lark. A new mother hosts an old friend, still single, and discovers how each of them pities and envies the other. A young woman responds to an adoptee in search of her birth mother, knowing it is not she.

When Danzy Senna’s parents got married in 1968, they seemed poised to defy history. A white woman with a blue-blood Bostonian lineage and a black man raised by a struggling single mother, these two beautiful young American writers were boldly challenging long-held racial biases. When their marriage violently disintegrated eight years later, it was all the more heartrending given the hopeful symbolism of their union. Decades later, Senna looks back at her parents’ divorce and their wildly opposing backgrounds: on her mother’s side, a white America both illustrious and shameful, and on her father’s side, a no less remarkable history. Digging deeper, she reconstructs a long-buried family mystery that illuminates her own childhood; her enigmatic father; the power and failure of her parents’ union; and finally, the forces of history.

CAUCASIA (Novel, 1998)
A young girl learns some difficult lessons in Danzy Senna’s debut novel Caucasia. Growing up in a biracial family in 1970s Boston, Birdie has seen her family disintegrate due to the increasing racial tensions. Her father and older sister move to Brazil, where they hope to find true racial equality, while Birdie and her mother drift through the country, eventually adopting new identities (Sheila and Jesse Goldman) and settling in a small New Hampshire town. Birdie/Jesse tries to find her niche in this new world of eye shadow and gossip and boys, but she also wants to remain true to herself and find a common ground between her white and black heritage. She sets out to find her sister and reconnect with that part of her that has been lost for so long; the search takes her far from the settled, safe life she had in New Hampshire to a far more ambiguous, and unsettled, existence, one in which her own definitions of herself become muddled; and her search for her sister leads ultimately to a search for her own true identity.

TRIPTYCH (short story excerpt)

That evening, Solidad sat at the kitchen table and chopped collard greens and watched her mother move around, cooking dinner, cheerful and oblivious, humming along with Karen Carpenter on the radio. Or maybe it was Joni Mitchell, she isn’t sure. As she thinks about it, she isn’t sure about any of the details. She can’t remember what her mother was wearing, whether she was thin or fat, how she wore her hair back then, in a braid down her back or frizzed up and wild around her face. She can’t remember what her mother looked like before the illness. Hard as she tries, she can’t conjure up her face. It’s slipping away already. She knows there will come a day when she doesn’t miss her mother anymore—a day when she only misses the feeling of missing. But she’s not there yet. She still feels something of the dead hovering inside of her. It lives for a moment in her chest, misshapen and bruised as a backyard fruit. She closes her eyes and lets it hang inside of her period. Then it falls away too heavy to hold. She starts up the engine and moves toward the road. It is still wide open.

—from You Are Free


In 1975 my mother left my father for the last time. We fled to Guilford, Connecticut. It was a rich town, but we rented an apartment in a tenement that the town’s residents referred to only as “the welfare house.” The backyard was a heap of dead cars. We lived on the second floor. Below us lived the town’s other nonwhite residents, a Korean war bride and her two half-Italian sons. Beside them lived an obese white mother and son. I don’t know if we were officially hiding out from my father there—or if he knew where we were all that time. In my memory it seems that a long time passed before we saw him again, long enough for me to forget him. And I remember the day he reappeared. I was five, and I heard the doorbell ring. I raced in bare feet to see who was there. I saw, at the bottom of the dimly lit stairwell, a man. His face was hidden in the shadows, but I could make out black curls, light brown skin.

“Hi, baby,” he called up to me.

I stared back.

“Don’t you know who I am?”

I shook my head.

“You don’t know who I am?”

knew and I didn’t know.

CAUCASIA (novel excerpt)

Before I ever saw myself, I saw my sister. When I was still too small for mirrors, I saw her as the reflection that proved my own existence. Back then, I was content to see only Cole, three years older than me, and imagine that her face—cinnamon-skinned, curly-haired, serious—was my own. It was her face above me always, waving toys at me, cooing at me, whispering to me, pinching me when she was angry and I was the easiest target. That face was me and I was that face and that was how the story went.

don’t know when, exactly all that began to change. I guess it happened gradually, the way bad things usually do. The summer before I turned eight, the outside world seemed to bear in on us with a new force. It was 1975, and Boston was a battleground.