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New People by Danzy Senna


New People by Danzy Senna

New People ambitiously combines comedy of manners with literary thriller. It is a character-driven novel that explores issues of mixed race, love, and infatuation, while examining what it means to be black. It also looks candidly at a mother-daughter relationship in which a daughter is never quite black enough to suit her mother. Issues inherent in adoption and the impact of parental expectations permeate the book.

Set in the late 1990s, New People features a young, upwardly mobile couple, Maria and Khalil, who are planning their wedding. Khalil is a mixture of black and Jewish, and Maria is the light-skinned, adopted daughter of a single mother. Khalil is starting his own dotcom company; Maria is finishing her dissertation on the Jonestown Massacre. Having met in college, they are in love with each other and in what they represent—“the King and Queen of the Racially Nebulous Prom.”

All seems to be going well until Maria goes to a poetry reading and becomes infatuated with the poet. He is not of mixed race; he is a black man. That is all the reader learns about him.  In an interview with Scott Simon, host of NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday, Senna says:

I liked keeping him somewhat mysterious, so that he could become more of the object of her projections ... I think there's a quest for…authenticity, and for something 'real' that she's looking for and sort of not finding in her life. *

A central theme of this novel is why Maria is drawn to the tragedy of Jonestown and the suicide of 918 followers of Jim Jones.  Does she hope to understand what leads people to follow a man to their deaths? Is she grappling with her own emotional instability? At the very least, Maria lacks awareness of her own infatuation with the poet. Ultimately, just like the people of Jonestown, her fantasy leads down a dangerous path and threatens the good life she has planned for herself.

New People is a character-driven novel that examines issues of race, class, and alienation.  In her article, “Once Upon a Time in Post-Racial America,” Alexandra Kleeman concludes:

Having it all is exactly what Maria has been promised as a “New Person”: freedom from the old restrictions, the ability to have the entire Venn diagram rather than just the sliver of overlap at the center. But as the story grows increasingly claustrophobic, more psychological thriller than romance, it becomes clear that being “New” is no release from racial identity. **


**New York Times Book Review, October 6, 2017

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