“We are all students of memory. Each of us has our own truth to tell…”
Danzy Senna is the author of two novels—Caucasia, which won the 1998 Book-of-the-Month Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction, and the bestselling psychological thriller Symptomatic (2003). Both deal with the complexities of race in America and the struggles faced by children of mixed race. A graduate of Stanford University and the MFA program at the University of California, Irvine, Senna is the recipient of a Whiting Writers Award and a fellowship from the New York Public Library. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, the writer Percival Everett. The Rumpus recently arranged for writer and scholar Amina Gautier to interview Danzy Senna—the result, along with Gautier’s review of Senna’s new memoir, comprises that magical literary beast: The Rumpus Original Combo.
The Rumpus Review of Where Did You Sleep Last Night?
Imagine walking down the street in a major US city and seeing tributes to your ancestors everywhere you turn. Street signs, maps, train stations, and markets all bear the names of your relatives and pay homage to your lineage. Your family’s accomplishments and prominence are not only clearly documented, but entwined and indistinguishable from the history of the city and the growth of the nation itself.
This is novelist Danzy Senna’s background, on her mother’s side of her family. Her paternal heritage is far more elusive, less visible, and less emphatic. As every writer of fiction knows, there are always at least two sides to every story—but sometimes, even frequently, there are innumerable sides to the story. Where Did You Sleep Last Night?: A Personal History is Senna’s effort to tell another side of her parents’ story, to document and understand the circumstances that led to their coming together and, eventually, their coming apart. Senna’s memoir is not so much an accounting of her life as an exploration of where and how that life fits into her parents’ story.
Senna’s parents, writers Fanny Howe and Carl Senna, married one year after the Supreme Court decision that overturned the ban on interracial marriages. Their marriage was a combination of contrasts: the white and the black, the older and the younger, the wealthy and the impoverished, the daughter of a famous attorney and the son of an obscure woman, the impeccably pedigreed woman and a man with little documented history at all. The history of Howe’s family— complete with shameful secrets—has been documented and brought to light again and again by generations obsessed with themselves and their genealogy, Carl Senna’s family history has been carefully suppressed, concealed, distorted, hidden, and miscommunicated. What their daughter inherited is a veritable tangle of bloodlines, shadows, and surrogates.
Senna’s memoir crosses genres, combining elements of autobiography and travel narrative such that her personal journey to disentangle her father’s mysterious history becomes a literal journey and road trip. Guided by her father’s scattered remembrances and fragments of family lore, readers follow her through rural sections of the South, chasing fragments of stories from Louisiana to Alabama, and meeting people to whom she may or may not be related to by blood.
Where Did You Sleep Last Night? may at first seem to be an attempt to balance the scales between the two sides of Senna’s family and legitimize her father’s family history. But her work seeks not just a historical reckoning but also an explanation for her father’s upbringing and her parents’ divorce, and for the impact race and class had on the two. The memoir is not a bemused recollection by a woman looking back fondly on happy memories from childhood—Senna’s memories are of separation, poverty, and scenes of abuse. Her father’s story, which she slowly uncovers as she travels across the South, is more of the same; his is a story of orphanages, secrets, abuses, and scandals.
Class affects the marriage of Senna’s parents as much as, if not more than, race. For although Fanny Howe has the pedigree of a Boston aristocrat, her marriage severs her from wealth and privilege; and although Senna’s father was “a Negro of exceptional promise,” he could not entirely escape the demons of an impoverished childhood and so “lived up to all the stereotypes that his fellow Americans had ever secretly or not-so-secretly harbored about black men.” As Senna explores the dynamics of the marriage, she critiques these implicit elisions of race and class. At turns, Where Did You Sleep Last Night? is both a subtle and scathing indictment of the influence race and class wield and the ways individuals attempt to resist such categorizations.
The book is structured loosely; some chapters are lengthy while others comprise a mere two pages. Drifting from past to present to past and back again, at times there seem to be two Danzy Sennas telling the story: the wistful and hopeful voice of the child lingers in the adult’s voice, merging unrequited yearning for a father’s rehabilitation with grim anger. One voice can objectively acknowledge the web of circumstances that molded and shaped her father; the other still wants him to pay her back for what she experienced. While Senna’s memoir is, at times, a bit overly conscious about the act of writing (lists and vocabulary words and definitions are inserted into the narrative), Where Did You Sleep Last Night?, with its probing questions about identity, race, class, genealogy, legitimacy, and history, asks us to consider the ways in which some individuals write themselves into history while others are too conveniently left out of the record.
The Rumpus Interview with Danzy Senna
Rumpus: Where Did You Sleep Last Night? is a title which seems to suggest much at a first glance. What is the significance of this particular title to the overall work?
Danzy Senna: This was the original title from the moment I first began writing the book. It’s taken from a Leadbelly blues song from the ‘40s entitled “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” The other title of the song is “Black Girl,” and the song is a haunting and lonely song about a black girl suspected of where she slept the night before. It made me think of my grandmother because the book was originally more of a historical exploration of my father’s family. I didn’t think I was going to bring myself into it at all. I decided to keep the title because in many ways history is affected by who sleeps with whom.
Rumpus: This is your first lengthy piece of non-fiction. How was writing a memoir a different challenge than writing fiction? Were the stakes in any way higher, or were some aspects of the writing simpler?
DS: I never thought I’d write a memoir. It was more emotionally different. I thought it would be easier in terms of craft, but it was not, ultimately. Ultimately, I found myself still trying to construct a narrative and some of the same problems are built in. You have to have a plot or some story that has propulsion to it. What I had were scattered fragments—of memory, of history, etc.—and I had to create order out of chaos. Writing the memoir brought up similar craft issues, as well as the lurking other problem of writing about people who are still alive. Everyone has a share in the story and feels that the story belongs to them. How do I give myself permission to write the story?
Rumpus: In your acknowledgments page, you thank your father for understanding that each writer has his/her own truth to tell. How would this story be different if told through the eyes of one of your siblings?
DS: Writing a memoir is like writing a work of fiction. The poet Irene Miller said that writing memoir is not only about what we include; it’s just as much about what we choose to leave out. It’s also about what memories you deem are important enough to tell. There are things/memories that are seared into my brain that make the memoir mine. My sister doesn’t feel that the memoir accurately reflects the childhood she had in certain ways. Then that’s something you deal with by writing your own. We are all students of memory. Each of us has our own truth to tell. In terms of the acknowledgment to my father, I had to recognize that in some ways his journey was represented in my writing of the memoir. He knew some things that he’d never told me. It was his truth to tell. His memories affected his childhood very profoundly. The process of writing about things that are painful… in some way, we do that to put it [the pain] to rest in the form of creating art out of the experiences. Ultimately, he had his own truth to discern and I had mine.
Rumpus: Class seems to play an important factor in your parents’ marriage and your consequent childhood. Not only are your parents from different racial backgrounds, but different socioeconomic backgrounds. In the memoir, you mention meeting a college boyfriend’s parents who also have an interracial marriage, but one which seems to “work.” Have you ever wondered how different things might have been if your father had come from a well-to-do family, or if your mother had come from poverty as well?
DS: We seem to see only race when we look at people. This story is just as much about class. My parents had not only an interracial marriage, but an interclass one. I consider myself to be “mixed” in terms of class as well. I grew up with a certain degree of privilege in terms of my parents’ education, language, and their experiences. In many ways, my background reflected that of a middle-class child. Other experiences reflected a much poorer childhood. I was constantly aware of us being financially unstable. Being of my mother’s and father’s worlds, the cultural influences of both are in me. My parents’ marriage failed for a host of other reasons, because of my father’s personal demons, and maybe my mother’s too.
Rumpus: You mention that the family members on your mother’s side were all a family of writers, but writers obsessed with writing about themselves. You yourself are the child of two writers and I wonder how your family legacy either influenced or impeded you from being a writer and writing this particular story?
DS: That’s funny. I got to Stanford convinced I’d be a doctor, even though everything I did pointed to my being a writer. I did not want to fall that close to the tree. I wanted something much more solid than being a writer. I took my chemistry and calculus courses and failed them horribly. After that, I went into American Studies. Then I tried to become a journalist. I was a fact-checker and was the worst fact-checker because I looked at it from a fiction writer’s perspective. I’d read a sentence and think it felt true. Then I went to UC Irvine and accepted my fate and started doing what I love. You just have to be truthful with yourself.
Rumpus: In a sense, every venture into writing is a search of some sort, but this is much more pronounced in the case of writing a memoir. My final question is to Danzy Senna the writer and Danzy Senna, the protagonist of Where Did You Sleep Last Night?: In writing this memoir, did you find what you sought?
DS: I found a lot more than I thought I was looking for. Without giving too much of the book away, as I was digging, I found a secret that hadn’t been told and what I found was much more remarkable and explosive than I thought it would be… However, I didn’t find “redemption” or “healing” in one sense, the way you might expect. I wrote this book over a period of four years and, in that time, I met my husband and had two babies, so there was some connection for me in letting go of the past and trying to create another family for myself.