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‘New People’ Riffs on Race and Love, With a Twist

“Maria is 27,” Senna writes near the start. “She is engaged to marry Khalil, who loves her unequivocally. She is the one he has been waiting for his whole life. Maria loves Khalil. She never doubts this. He is the one she needs, the one who can repair her.”


Danzy Senna

Mara Casey

Run, Khalil. There is crookedness in Maria. She knows it, her mother knows it. (“A strange baby,” her mother observed in a diary. “She’s perfectly cheerful, but I sense coldness.”) And softhearted, softheaded Khalil, we fear, will get to appreciate its full measure. He’s already had a taste. For kicks, Maria once disguised her voice and left him a voice mail message threatening to lynch him: “We’re gonna string you up by a dreadlock, man, and light you on fire.”

The couple met at Stanford in the late 1980s. They were both biracial and “the same shade of beige.” It was a symbolic union, a chance to wash away any ambiguity and be reborn, together, into simple, straightforward blackness. They move to Brooklyn and get engaged. Khalil’s dreams are suddenly in reach — “a tribe of children and a brownstone and a big hairy dog named Thurgood” — but Maria is slipping from his grasp. She’s meant to be working on a dissertation, about the Jonestown massacre, but spends more time fantasizing about — and stalking — a friend of Khalil’s, a poet.

Senna’s aim is precise and devastating. She conjures up ’90s-era campus politics with pitiless accuracy: the white students wearing “Recovering Racist” pins; the black girls hacking off their “‘colonized’ hair”; the empty gestures and the beautiful gestures — the shrillness, to be sure, but the sweetness too.

These are, admittedly, easy targets, but Senna lampoons the worlds she knows, the people she’s been. (Maria is her middle name.) This amused self-implication supplies her caricatures with their damning details but keeps them from feeling cruel. Imagining married life with Khalil, Maria envisions their home full of Lorna Simpson paintings and indigo mud cloth pillows. “Their first baby will be like the messiah of Mulatto Nation.”

These sections sing. They are so fluent, and seem to have been so much fun to write, that other strands of the story suffer neglect by comparison. Plot points and characters that seem significant are allowed to wither on the vine: a supernatural element; a documentary on racially ambiguous couples called “New People” that follows Khalil and Maria; a white ex-boyfriend of Maria who suddenly starts styling himself as a queer, Latino activist.

It’s “strange to wake up and realize you’re in style,” Senna wrote in a 1989 essay called “The Mulatto Millennium.” No more the delicate, doomed “half-castes” of 19th-century novels like “Clotel” — “hybridity is in.” And this year, the 50th anniversary of Loving v. Virginia, which struck down laws against interracial marriage, it dominates. There has been the rediscovery of writers like Kathleen Collins (“Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?”) and Fran Ross (“Oreo”). There have been interracial relationships shown on screens big and small, in “The Bachelorette,” “The Big Sick,” “Master of None,” “The Incredible Jessica James” and “The Handmaid’s Tale.” The year’s most profitable film so far is “Get Out.” Op-eds declare that interracial love will save America.

But being watched is not the same thing as being seen. Visibility does not guarantee freedom. And freedom is so elusive, so prized in Senna’s work. In her short story collection, “You Are Free,” the only truly unfettered character is, pointedly, a fetus. But I found one other instance. In “Caucasia,” two biracial sisters create a dialect of their own, and with it, a bespoke universe apart from a world intent on defining them. They find liberation, for a time, in language, in self-definition. There is no easy consolation in “New People.” But in its insistence on being read on its own terms, its commitment to complexity, it does something better than describe freedom. It enacts it.

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