This past week's shop pick was NEW PEOPLE by Danzy Senna. NEW PEOPLE is a quick read, but packs a big punch. Senna's book is a bold exploration into biracial identity from the POV of a white passing woman and it's evocative, perturbing, and does a heck of a good job illuminating the hypocrisy of performance, especially with regards to racial identity. The prose is not in verse nor is it lyrical, but it's so uniquely written the book feels almost more like a dream or a descent into a fragmented madness, which is fitting for the protagonist's journey throughout the story (and I'll discuss a little about why, don't worry!)
Set in 1990s New York, Maria, our protagonist and her fiance Khalil are both ambiguously biracial and as Maria keeps telling herself, "the perfect couple". Throughout the book, Maria contends with her place in society as a white-passing woman. Maria still chases the idea of blackness she's grown up with -- a blackness her mother has always hoped Maria would understand and embrace, but one that Maria feels is cut off from her. Maria's fiance Khalil acts almost as a foil to Maria's ambivalence about her blackness. He seems to have proudly 'grasped' his blackness in a way Maria feels is inaccessible to her.
As Maria and Khalil's wedding approaches, Maria begins to feel the weight of her limiting beliefs and detach from reality. Maria seems to feel her choices are either Khalil or unhappiness, a choice that fuels her emotional detachment from him. Maria never considers that instead of being married to anyone and redefining her sense of self, she could still choose to find her own way of existing in the world and one that's not beholden to anyone's expectations of what she should be.
As Senna unravels Maria's past throughout the book, however, we see where Maria has learned about whiteness and blackness and where Maria has decided she fits in. Senna doesn't hold back on Maria or Maria's past -- she presents a full color version of Maria, one that is flawed, scathing, and obsessive. Maria might not be liked by everyone, but because she feels so real it's hard to watch Maria choose to loose herself to a hell of her own making. Maria has a bright future, but only if she chooses it. Ultimately though, it seems that Maria forgets that she is the one controlling herself and her future. Maria loses herself in the fantasies of what could be and what was instead of being anchored in the present.
Senna has crafted a hypnotic, dreamy book with giant ambitions in NEW PEOPLE and concludes that subjects like race, identity, and love can never be explored to satisfaction. NEW PEOPLE is the kind of book with a protagonist that's hard to watch, but harder to look away from. As Maria continues to let go of her reality, she becomes increasingly unstable, increasingly haunted by the pressures of feeling caught in the middle and readers, it's quite the ride.