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.”

Enthralling and haunting, Caucasia makes for a dazzling coming-of-age story. With piercing and heart-wrenching clarity, Danzy Senna captures on the page the psychological and emotional turmoils experienced by her young protagonist. 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 their readers with short and deeply unnerving narratives that blur the lines between reality and the fantastical, Caucasia is a work that is deeply grounded in realism. Its structure takes a far more traditional route, something in the realms of a bildungsroman novel. This larger scope allows for more depth, both in terms of character and themes. Birdie’s world and the people who populate are brought to life in striking detail. Senna’s prose, which is by turns scintillating and stark, makes Birdie’s story truly riveting and impossible to put down.

Caucasia is divided in three sections, each one narrated by Birdie. The novel opens in Boston during the 1970s Civil Rights and Black Power movements when the city’s efforts to desegregate schools was met with white resistance and exacerbated existing racial tensions. Enter Birdie: her father Deck is a Black scholar who is deeply preoccupied with theories about race; her mother, Sandy, is from a blue-blood white woman who has come to reject her Mayflower ancestry and is quite active in the ‘fight’ for Civil Rights. Birdie is incredibly close to her older sister Cole, so much so that the two have created and often communicate in their own invented language. Before their parents’ rather messy break-up the two have been homeschooled, something that has sheltered them somewhat from the realities of the world. Even so, they both have been made aware of their ‘differences’. Whereas Cole resembles her dad, Birdie is paler and has straight hair, something that leads people to assume that she is white or perhaps Hispanic. During their rare visits to their maternal grandmother, Cole is completely ignored while Birdie receives all of her (unwanted quite frankly) attention. Later on, Deck’s new girlfriend is shown to be openly intolerant of Birdie for not being Black enough. When the girls begin attending a Black Power School, Birdie is teased and bullied. 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. We also see how Sandy, their mother, for all her talk, 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). Sandy also struggles to help Cole with her hair, and soon their mutual frustration with each other morphs into something more difficult to bridge. When Sandy gets involved in some ‘shady’ activities her relationship with Cole sours further.
Birdie’s life is upended when Sandy, convinced the FBI is after her, flees Boston. In pursuit of racial equality Deck and his girlfriend go to Brazil, taking Cole with them, while Birdie is forced to leave Boston with Sandie.
Sandie believes that the only way to escape the feds is to use Birdie’s ‘ambiguous’ body to their advantage. Not only does Birdie have no choice but to pass but it is her mother who chooses her ‘white’ identity, that of Jesse Goldman.
The two settle in New Hampshire where Birdie struggles to adjust to new life. While the two spend some time in a women’s commune, they eventually move out and into a predominantly white town. Sandy’s paranoia leads her to distrust others, and secretiveness and suspicion become fixtures in their lives. Being forced to pass and being forced to pretend that her sister and father never existed alienate Birdie (from her own self, from Sandy, and from other people). She cannot truly connect to those around her given that she has to pretend that she is a white Jewish girl. She eventually makes friends and in her attempts to fit in emulates the way they speak and act. Because the people around her believe she is white they are quite openly racist, and time and again Birdie finds herself confronted with racist individuals. other people’s racism.
Senna captures with painful clarity the discomfort that many girls experience in their pre and early teens. For a lot of the novel, Birdie doesn’t really know who she is and who she wants to be, and because of this, she looks at the girls and women around her. But by doing this, she is merely imitating them, and not really figuring out her identity. In addition to having to perform whiteness, Birdie denies her own queerness.
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. On the one hand, we are worried for Birdie, who is clearly unhappy and lost. On the other hand, we encounter quite a few people who are horrible and there are many disquieting scenes. Yet, Senna doesn’t condemn her characters, and in fact, there are quite a few instances where I was touched by the empathy she shows towards them (I’m thinking of Sandy in particular).
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 physical appearance and self. The people around her often express a binary view of race, where you are either/or but not both. Because of this Birdie struggles to define herself, especially when she has to pass as white.
Senna subverts the usual passing narrative: unlike other authors, she doesn’t indict her passer by employing the ‘tragic mulatta’ trope. Throughout the narrative, Senna underscores how racial identity is a social construct and not a biological fact. However, she also shows the legacies of slavery and segregation in this supposedly ‘post-racial’ America as well as the concrete realities that race have in everyday life (Deck being questioned by the police, the disparities between the way Cole and Birdie are treated, the racism and prejudice expressed by so many characters, the way Samantha is treated at school).
Throughout the narrative Senna raises many thought-provoking points, opening the space for in-depth and nuanced discussions on identity, performativity, peer pressure, and sexuality.
The realism of Birdie’s experiences was such that I felt that I was reading a memoir (and there are some definite parallels between Birdie and Senna). If you found Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls and Dog Flowers: A Memoir to be compelling reads I thoroughly recommend you check out Caucasia. I can also see this coming of age appealing to fans of Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults. While they do not touch upon the same issues, they both hone in on the alienation experienced by young girls whose fraught path from childhood to adolescence make them aware of painful truths and realizations (that they are not necessarily good or beautiful, that the people around them aren’t either, that adults and parents can be selfish and liars, that not all parents love their children). I would also compare Caucasia to Monkey Beach which is also an emotionally intelligent and thoughtful coming-of-age. And, of course, if you are interested in passing narratives such as Passing and The Vanishing Half you should really check out all of Senna’s books.

The novel’s closing act is extremely rewarding and heart-rendering. Curiously enough the first time I read this I appreciated it but did not love it. This second time around…it won me over. Completely. Birdie is such a realistic character, and I loved, in spite or maybe because, of her flaws. Her story arc is utterly absorbing and I struggled to tear my eyes away from the page (even if I had already read this and therefore knew what would happen next). Senna’s dialogues ring true to life and so do the scenarios she explores. Birdie’s voice is unforgettable and I can’t wait to re-read this again.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

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