Caucasia by Danzy Senna


I spent most of the time I read this book thinking about it in terms of this, what I would say about it when I was done. I’m apparently known to be a grammar Nazi, but I didn’t spend my time reading this book  looking for editorial mistakes. Hell, I didn’t even look for holes in the plot. I was engrossed in this book for the last week. It’s one of those that you put down and think about it frequently until you can pick it up again. I kept Brakk updated on the plot and twists, though my method of communication was usually me reading quietly and then suddenly looking at him and saying things like “I don’t think the Feds are really after them…” and then either go on a diatribe as to how I was correct in my hypothesis or just drop my nose directly between the pages again.

I found this novel over the summer. I was fairly broke at the time and had just learned of what I personally think is one of the coolest things I’ve ever been able to go to. Share Faire’s are pretty much the shit. If you don’t know what it is, this is a picnic of fucking awesome. You have shit you don’t want anymore. It’s not broken, or at least whatever it is it isn’t trash. Pretty much anything you can think of that’s cluttering your house, but some other person may actually need. At the time  I went to the one of these events in Friendship Park  I was in pretty desperate need for clothing. Between another bad ass night when I was able to pick through clothes in the back room of a local bar that holds a seasonal clothing swap and this experience, I have been able to have clothes that actually fit me. They make me feel good, and for the first time in my life, I actually feel a little creative in my own personal style. If you want to see this awesome shit in action click here.

I picked up a ton of books that afternoon. I put them on my shelf and then got caught up in summer and didn’t read much except for a sociology textbook I got into for a bit. When I did feel the urge to read this particular title would jump out at me, but I would pick it up, read the synopsis, decide there was no way I could feel a connection with that plot and put it back on the shelf.

If I’m going to be honest, I can’t remember if I started reading Caucasia before or after I started this blog. However, directly after I wrote the first entry I remembered that there was a time when I didn’t read the synopsis of  a book. If I liked the author, I’d give it a chance. If I liked the cover, it would go in the cart. I would simply stay within my comfort genres and that was that. I’ve opened my mind to more genres over the last few years, and somewhere along the way started reading the backs of books again. Last Saturday, I decided to go back.

Don’t keep reading if you have been brainwashed by my awesomeness and would like to also start judging books by their covers because I’m going to outline the story now:

On the surface, in the synopsis, I have very little to connect with in this story.It’s set in the mid 1970’s to the early 1980’s and tells the story of a girl who has a black father and a white mother. She lives in Boston and her mother is a little of the fucking cray side, but only sometimes and she never really hurts anyone, she just loses her shit from time to time. One of the sisters is darker skinned than the other. These two  have bad ass sisterly bond, complete with their own made up language (which if I were to judge the author, I think she could have come up with something better to name it). It’s a coming of age story, so eventually there is a gradual separation of this sisterhood as the older child enters her pre and early teens. But this is bond is important, and essentially drives the rest of the book.

This story isn’t just about being a child of a biracial couple and how that would have been fucking tough in the times these kids are being raised. It’s obviously a huge line of the plot of the story, but this book is also about what a child would go through if her parents were revolutionaries, maybe. How her mother may be crazy, well, no she is crazy but everyone is just trying to figure out to what degree. The author tells us a story, as well, of a girl who is posing as white, and how in the late 70’s and early 80’s it would really suck if your life depended on you keeping your mouth shut when someone uses the word nigger and later kike, at times with a disgust so thick that it would manifest in violent ways. Suck is an understatement. That’s fucking torture. All the while it seemed that no one comforted this child. I really don’t want to give too many spoilers, just in case even one person wants to read this book when I am done, but a lot of crazy shit happens to this girl. The book opens when the main character is roughly 8 years old and goes on until she is in her teens.

The more I read, the deeper into the tale I got, I realized there was quite a bit I identified with. You can tell that somewhere in her life the author had a mother very similar to my own. She writes about the character being taught that books can be stolen, but never defaced. She actually uses the line that books are sacred. It was up until recently that I was the exact same way. No longer. I have a good friend, my best friend, who has taught me that books become a part of you if you treat them like you are actually interested in them. She writes in her books, underlines shit she likes or doesn’t. I can’t be sure, but I think if you look she most likely has arguments against theories she disagrees with written in quick, almost illegible, dark ink in the margins of her books. I let a bit of my friend come out of me while reading this book, not giving a shit about the spine or if the pages got a little bent. Caring only about connecting with the book in every way I possibly could.

One of my favorite parts of the book, and maybe the part I’ll remember most years from now, is in the last half. The character is older now and creeping closer to the edge of teen angst. Another obvious connection we had.  I was in the basement of my work, smoking a cigarette and reading as fast as I could during my 10 minutes. I turned a page to see my one of my all time favorite books, Ethan Frome, mentioned. It wasn’t just mentioned, it was actually being read by someone in the book. One line of dialogue and suddenly I knew this book would be with me forever. The same friend who has taught me that reading a book without kid gloves doesn’t mean you don’t love it, has also opened my eyes to how awesome, amazing, breathtaking even, it can be when a friend or even a stranger, and apparently a fictional character, have read one of your most loved books. I loved this character significantly more at this point.

I could also identify with her lack of being able to really call a place home. She talks about having left some place once and that when you try to go back that place is different and how you subsequently search the rest of your life for something you aren’t ever going to be able to find. The characters life is much more extreme than mine, but I spent years of my life traveling the same 500 mile stretch leaving Illinois or leaving Pennsylvania. They always changed and I never felt like I was going back. Only that I was leaving.

I was impressed with Senna’s ability to show the change in age of her character through her writing. The character thought like an 8 year old when she was eight, but also like a 15 year old when she was 15. I’ve found that oftentimes the characters voice stays the same in other coming of age books, always seeming adult, like someone looking back. Senna did something different here and I really appreciate it.

Lately I’ve been feeling extremely alone when it comes to family. Not my “Pittsburgh Family” the wonderful hodgepodge of friends that I’ve made in the last year or so. My ‘born with’ family. I’ve felt isolated and like no one I know here can truly understand how I feel because they don’t know said family. That was the part of this book I identified with the most, and needed even more. This girl is on the run, she has a secret that she can’t tell anyone and it affects every single part of her life. She didn’t do anything, she is a child. However, she is also the product of someone who did do something, and the fact that none of this is fair never comes into play. I felt sorry for her because I so often feel sorry for myself. I feel as if I have been left to deal with the emotional fall out of things that those older than me in my family have somehow come to terms with already. It’s as if the problem is done for them and so they don’t have to worry about it anymore, never really understanding that I feel like I’m standing alone in the midst of a nuclear winter. Towards the end of the book I found myself wanting to scream at the adults, tell them to stop being insane and just tell this girl “Well, fuck, we’re real sorry that we didn’t think about you even a little bit while we were completely fucking you emotionally. Let’s go have ice cream and then come out of hiding and we’ll stop expecting you to be a normal girl now because we realize we’re lucky you haven’t committed matricide yet.”

That never happens for this girl and it isn’t going to happen for me either. It’s not a problem, it’s a fact of life. Sometimes the adults are stupid, sometimes what they fuck up hurts you forever, sometimes you have to take things into your own hands, and sometimes you just have to leave. I think by the end of this book both the main character and I had learned the same lesson. Sadly, I’m 28 and real and she’s 15 and fictional. Either way- lesson learned.

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One Response to Caucasia by Danzy Senna

  1. Nancy Yohnka says:

    I think this is a book I would enjoy. If you ever nerd to talk I hope you know I’m always here even though I’m 500 miles away. By the way could you use an extra $5? Love you.

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