Book: Caucasia by Danzy Senna
Publisher: Riverhead Trade, 1998
Genre: Ethnic Studies, Contemporary Fiction, Literature
Source + Date Read: College Library + May 2011
Recommend: For those who enjoy literature that make you think about social constructions, and the politics of identity.
Book Pro’s: Main character, Birdie, highly relate-able and her teenage angst isn’t uncommon.
Book Con’s: Some of the characters are incredibly frustrating.
Favourite Line: “They say you don’t have to choose. But… there are consequences if you don’t.” Cole replies: “Yeah, and there are consequences if you do.”
The final product of any novel is a series of choices. It is a series of puzzle pieces compiled by the big wigs of the publishing world to fit into a perfect little package. The cover of Caucasia is startlingly simple. Two women, as indicated by their non-gender neutral symbol, are holding hands. One is black, and another is white. As they hold hands they seem to make a unique whole. Something that is half-this and the other, half-that. It lends itself to novel’s content, and I think its simplicity should be cherished and lauded.
My American history is non-existent, so my apologies for the muddled time line. The story commences on the American East Coast in the heyday of ethnic tensions. I believe this is sometime in the 1960s and the 1970s. There is violence, confusion and in the middle of it stands a little girl, being tugged into too many directions. It is the story of a family, one parent white, the other black.
In the beginning we meet the torn little girl, her name is Birdie, at least she remembers it as such, and she is the protagonist of the story. It is her that we get to know. Along the way we meet her beloved sister Cole, her family and the many characters from her travels around America. Birdie is truly loveable, confusing, angsty, angry and torn. She is your average teenager with a bit more on her plate that she can handle.
Caucasia is a coming of age story told through the eyes of Birdie, a biracial female. Her mother, the WASP from a Harvard family met an African-American student, married and became a radical. Their union produced 2 children, Cole, looking very much like her Black father, and Birdie, a girl of confusing skin color and indeterminate ethnic origin. At least, to those that initially look at her. Birdie’s family life quickly turns to chaos as her parents divorce amidst the ethnic conflict, much of which they have instigated through radical work. Birdie’s mother takes her, believing that Bridie can pass for Jewish and her father takes Cole to Brazil, their rainbow utopia. With her family split and her self-identity shattered, Birdie realizes that she’s being pushed to choose a side as she passes for something she isn’t. As her mother and her travel from town to town she meets some interesting people. Finallyher mother settles in a small town in Maine where Birdie undergoes personal revelations some years later and runs away to California to look for her beloved sister, Cole.
I’ve given a brief synopsis of the story and it feels so woefully inadequate. Caucasia is rife with conflict that always seems to pile on top of Birdie’s shoulders. Somehow, she feels that her passing is wrong and she clings to her little box of negrobilia. Yet, she acknowledges that she isn’t fully Black, and her appearance is far from it. When in Maine, an African-American female calls her black, Birdie is unable to answer and appears to go through an identity crisis.
If you couldn’t tell already, this story is personal to me because I am biracial as well. I have a black mother and a white father, and like Birdie, I am of indeterminate ethnic origin. Danzy Senna, the author, is also biracial. With a black Mexican father and white mother, she has admitted her own personal identity crisis. Senna channels her confusion, anguish and sheer anger into Birdie as the character rages and withers under the invisible conflict. In the last chapter, Birdie asks her sister if she should make the choice, should she choose. Cole withers under this, and points out that she chose, but her choice had consequences and Birdie’s avoidance of it will have consequences too.
This novel is a charming example of the many complexities and intersections that mar the politics of identity. Never a simple thing, Senna encourages readers to think on cultural and social constructions, and what this does to people who do not fit into its neat little boxes. Senna’s use of language and setting make this conflict appear universal, as the troubles of the present day are found in contemporary America. Indeed, my only conflict with this novel its pace which borders on lazily slow at times. I recognize that Senna uses the passing of time and physical space to build Birdie’s character, anger and personal anguish, but it’s over-use dulls the novel a bit. Indeed, if Senna had cut her writing here a bit, I think she would have benefited to use those extra pages to fluff out the ending a bit, which appears abruptly and hastily done.
Nevertheless, Caucasia is a literary triumph giving readers a glimpse into a subject often avoided by the public. I highly recommend this novel and would love to know what everyone thought of it! Drop your comments below if you’ve read it.