Caucasia by Danzy Senna

“It’s funny. When you leave your home and wander really far, you always think, ‘I want to go home.’ But then you come home, and of course it’s not the same. You can’t live with it, you can’t live away from it. And it seems like from then on there’s always this yearning for some place that doesn’t exist. I felt that. Still do. I’m never completely at home anywhere. But it’s a good place to be, I think. It’s like floating. From up above, you can see everything at once. It’s the only way how.”

First published in 1998 Caucasia offers readers a deeply personal coming-of-age tale. Similarly to her later novels, Symptomatic and New People, Caucasia is a work that is heavily concerned with race, racial passing, and identity. But whereas Symptomatic and New People present readers with short and unnerving narratives that blur the lines between real and surreal, Caucasia is remains deeply grounded in realism and its structure takes a far more traditional route, something in the realms of a bildungsroman novel. This larger scope certainly allows for more depth, both in terms of character and themes, but, ultimately, large chunks of the story do seem redundant.
Caucasia is divided in three sections, each one narrated by Birdie. The novel opens in Boston during the 1970s. Birdie and her older sister Cole are the daughters of a Black father, who is a teacher and scholar, and a white mother, who despite her blue-blood family has become an activist in the Civil Rights Movement.
Whereas Cole’s physical appearance aligns with her racial identity, Birdie pale skin tone and straight hair lead people to assume that she is white. Even aged 8 Birdie is made to feel aware of this ‘dissonance’, more so than ever even when, soon after her parents’ break-up, she begins attending a Black Power School, where Birdie is teased and bullied.
It is Cole who makes life easier for Birdie, and the two are so close that they often communicate in a language of their own invention. While Birdie is in awe of Cole and dreams that she could look like her, she’s also peripherally aware of the privileges afforded to her by her appearance. Not only We also see how their mother treats Birdie and Cole differently (there is a scene in which she implies that unlike Birdie Cole should not be worried about paedophiles/serial killers). Their mother also struggles to help Cole with her hair, and soon their mutual frustration at each other morphs into something more difficult to bridge. When their mother gets involved in some ‘shady’ activities their relationship sours further.
Cole becomes close to their father’s new girlfriend, a Black woman who treats Birdie with diffidence and barely concealed dislike.
This first part, which is titled ‘Negritude for beginners’, lasted longer than I’d anticipated and it is only towards its conclusion when things come to head. In pursuit of racial equality their father goes to Brazil, taking Cole with them, while Birdie flees Boston with their mother who believes the FBI is after her. To escape the feds Birdie’s mother reinvents herself: she is the widow of a Jewish professor. The two settle in New Hampshire where Birdie struggles to adjust to her new ‘white’ identity. Her mother’s paranoia forces her into years of secrecy and suspicion, and Birdie spends her pre-teens in a state of alienation. She cannot truly connect to those around her given that she has to not only deny her racial identity but her past as well. She can’t speak of Cole, her father, or of her life in Boston. This second section, ‘From Caucasia with love’ sees Birdie forming friends, exploring her sexuality, attempting to ‘fit’ in with her peers. When her mother begins dating, Birdie takes a dislike to this new boyfriend. As she spends time with white people who believe that she too is white Birdie becomes acutely aware of just how racist her new ‘friends’ and neighbours are.
In ‘Compared to what’ Birdie, now 14, runs away from home in search of her sister.
As with Symptomatic and New People, Senna provides a razor-sharp commentary on race and identity. While Caucasia is easily the author’s least disquieting work, it still invokes a sense of unease in the reader. The people populating the novel are different degrees of horrible and at times grotesque almost. It provides a narrative in which its main character is made to feel time and again ‘Other’, which aggravates the disconnect she experiences between her appearance and self. The novel does come across as a bit dated at times, in particular with the fixation on Birdie’s mother weight (the author went out of her way to remind us of her ‘enormous appearance, and even after she loses weight we are reminded of her former frame). Birdie herself seemed a bit absent. Her personality is…unfixed? Not really there? While I did find her sympathetic at times, her behaviour at times was hard to understand (and struck me as both cruel and selfish). I appreciated that Senna doesn’t demonise her mother but neither not condone her actions. The way she treats Birdie borders on the emotional abusive and her unwillingness to understand Birdie is highly hypocritical given her many rants against racism and the institution. Worst then foisting a white persona onto her daughter is that she forces her daughter to pretend she is an only child.
In many respects Caucasia brought to mind Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults. While the story do not touch upon the same issues, they do focus on alienated young girls whose fraught path from childhood to adolescence makes them more aware of their own ‘ugliness’, that of others, the lies their parents tell them, and the painful realisation that not all parents love their children.

I found the novel’s finale surprisingly rewarding and heart-rendering. I just wish that the story could have had a bit more focus—I had no interest in Birdie’s ‘friends’ in New Hampshire. Still, already in this debut, Senna showcases her acute understanding of race in America and a penchant for revealing the more undesirable aspects of human nature (cowardice, hypocrisy, cruelty). If you have never read anything by Senna I would probably suggest you start with this as her more recent work is far more cryptic.

my rating: ★★★¼

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