Reviewed by Alice Farrant
Maria and Khalil are the perfect couple, “King and Queen of the Racially Nebulous Prom”. Maria is a successful scholar, writing her dissertation on the Jonestown Massacre, while Khalil benefits from the dot-com boom as his business takes off. They are even picked to star in a new documentary on people like them, blurring old boundaries as the new century dawns.
Khalil says they make each other complete. Their skin is the same shade of beige. Together, they look like the end of a story.
Set in the late 90s, New People by Danzy Senna follows Maria as she spirals into a one-sided love affair with a New York poet. Maria and Khalil are both mixed race and light-skinned, they are affluent and engaged – ‘the perfect couple’. But perfection is in the eye of the beholder, and being ‘Maria and Khalil’ isn’t as easy for Maria as it seems. As the novel progresses Maria becomes increasingly obsessed with the dark-skinned poet, causing her to flash back to her past as she goes to increasingly strange lengths to be near him.
Senna’s writing style is simple, though not without nuance. New People reads as though it mostly flows from Maria’s head, even though the narration is in the third person. Speech marks are nonexistent and sentences are short. Some descriptions feel out of place, as if shoehorned in to aid the plot rather than benefit the story, but the more you read the less this is noticeable.
Maria is the focus of the novel, and little page space is given to the thoughts and feelings of the other characters. Only her adoptive mother, Gloria, is granted perspective. While this is essential to understand Maria and what has brought her to this point, it would have been interesting to know more about Lisa (Khalil’s sister) or Khalil’s motivations and insecurities. At times I found it difficult to know if I disliked the other characters because of the limited representation, or because of Maria’s interactions with them and how that made her feel.
New People discusses racial identity, challenging how we perceive ourselves and others. As a white individual, I cannot pick apart what it is to be non-white. My privilege precludes me from being able to articulate properly what Maria is going through in the novel. Everywhere I look I see myself, in TV, Film, and advertising; this is not the case for Maria.
The 90s, much like the 2010s now, were a hotbed of racial abuse and tension. Maria and Khalil would have been attending University in the early 90s, where police brutality was rife, leading to events such the Los Angeles Riots in 1992 – it did not feel safe to be ‘other’ in Maria’s America, a country defined by intense racism.
Maria is intelligent and strange, she is partly out of focus with the world. Those that know her tell her in varying ways that she is lucky or privileged when she often she doesn’t feel as though she is.
It’s an expression, she knows, something people say. I don’t feel like myself today. They are usually referring to illness. But there is an “I” who still exists when they say it. They don’t feel like themselves. She doesn’t feel like herself, doesn’t even feel there is an ‘I’ not to feel like.
Maria’s identity is conflicted, she feels unhappily both black and white, in the periphery of both communities. As someone often mistaken for white when she identifies as black it’s important to Maria that she has a black identity, especially while at University. Near the end of the novel, Maria runs through two scenarios, where instead of Khalil she marries a white and a black man.
And she wonders if the lump there has to do with all the times she swallowed her words. If it has to do with her practised easy laugh. If it has to do with all the times she smiled so hard her face hurt.
Both scenarios end with her developing a lump in her throat caused by having to repress half of herself. She can’t comprehend a situation where she won’t reject one part of her race, but isn’t happy within the ‘new people’ category she has been assigned by being with Khalil either.
She wonders, has to wonder, if this has to do with all the times she pretended to hate white people. All the time she pretended to hate half of herself. If this lump has anything to do with all the times she has painted herself, her history, as blacker than someone else’s, in an attempt to gain membership. Pick me! Pick me! I’m the soldier you want.
Parallel with Maria’s story is the Jonestown Massacre, the subject on which she is writing the dissertation for her PhD. On November 18, 1978, cult leader Jim Jones led 909 adults and children to their death by cyanide poisoning. In the 1950s he had gained many African American followers by preaching out against racism. How is it these people fell under Jones’ spell? Is this where multiculturalism could truly exist, in a cult? Exploring what happens when race mixes in the home is a motif Senna has explored in her previous writing, and New People is no exception to this. It raises the question of why Jonestown was a multicultural home for the victims of the massacre when Maria struggles to find her identity with the people she is closest to. But also, Maria questions why Jim Jones is praised by the media for being anti-racist; why is that something journalists wrote into Jonestown history? Condemning racism does not mean you do not have the ability to be racist.
Eleven, all of them black, had been plotting their escape for months, whispering to one another that Another America felt more like the America they had left behind, only worse; they’d noticed since arriving that the black people worked the fields and the top decision-makers were white. They didn’t want to call Jim Jones Father. He was not their father.
New People is an interesting book on racial identity and what it means to straddle two cultures. I feel as though this book offered me more nuance that I was able to understand, and has given me the insight to learn more. While the writing style wasn’t always to my taste I was soon sucked into the story. It is a novel I would recommend reading for the message you finish it with, rather than necessarily loving every page.
Danzy Senna, New People (Riverhead Books, 2017). 978-0735219410 229pp., paperback.
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