Writing About More Than Listless Youth


A novelist I know asked what I'd been reading lately. "Caucasia," I answered. He looked displeased, as if he'd suddenly eaten something sour. "It's OK--but I like perfectly crafted sentences," he said. "Well," said I, "those are nice. But I like novels that are about something."

Danzy Senna, the 28-year-old author of "Caucasia," has written a book that is not always perfectly crafted, but it is about many things, and important ones too. If you have tired of first novels in which the listless youth of America have listless sex, listen to listless music and listlessly consume junk food, "Caucasia" should interest you.

"Before I ever saw myself, I saw my sister," the novel begins. It is narrated by Birdie Lee, a young girl whose life revolves around her beloved older sister, Cole. The two are so close they communicate in their own secret language, Elemeno. But they don't look close to the outside world; in fact, they are regarded as an uncomfortable oddity. Birdie and Cole are the daughters of Sandy, a tough blond blueblood ("Her interests were literature, existentialism, and the Holocaust") and Deck, a cynical black intellectual who considers white liberals "a disease." Through some genetic roll of the dice, Birdie looks as white as her mother, and Cole looks as black as her dad--a fact that will, however unfairly, determine the sisters' destinies and their parents' affections.

The place is Boston, the time the mid-'70s. Sandy and Deck are caught up in the radical politics of the period, including their city's vicious struggles over busing. To Birdie, though, "this thing called Black Power" is a mystery: "All I knew of it was that my father agreed with it, my mother and her friends supported it, and it had something to do with the length and consistency of my father's hair."

Two events smash the girls' world. First, their parents' always-volatile relationship finally explodes, and Deck and Sandy separate ("They felt the loss before it happened, and their love was defined by that loss," Birdie observes). Then Sandy becomes involved in some nebulous revolutionary activity--something dangerous involving guns--that goes terribly wrong, and Sandy and Deck decide that Boston is no longer safe. Deck takes 12-year-old Cole (who looks, after all, like "his" daughter and is in fact his favorite) and flees to Brazil; Sandy takes 9-year-old Birdie and disappears.

With new, phony identities--Birdie passes as a white Jewish girl named Jesse Goldman--mother and daughter travel underground for four years, following a sad route of "zigzag chaos" until they settle in a small New Hampshire town. "In those years, I felt myself to be incomplete--a gray blur, a body in motion, forever galloping toward completion--half a girl, half-caste, half-mast, and half-baked, not quite ready for consumption," Birdie recalls.

And in those years, Birdie learns many useful things: to lie, to spy, to betray, to deceive, to dissemble, to fade, to hide. "Strange as it may sound, there was a safety in this pantomime," she explains. "The less I behaved like myself, the more I could believe this was still a game." But she never learns to stop missing Cole. And throughout her travels, she carries her box of "negrobilia," filled with tenderly preserved artifacts from her former life with her forever lost, miscegenated family.

It is a curiosity of recent American fiction that so few novels address race in ways that are moving, complex, realistic or lucid--or, for that matter, address it at all. "Caucasia" is an exception. It is not a feel-good book about the brotherhood of man; it explores both the centrality, and the lunacy, of racial identity in America. And it does so through the eyes of Birdie Lee, a character as peculiar, particular, believable and compelling as any you are likely to encounter.

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