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New People; Beautiful yet Disturbing Read
Captivating from first page
Unfamiliar with any of the writings of Danzy Senna, I came across her newest novel, New People, by a suggestion link from the local library and got on the waiting list to read this rare gem. Where it isn't unusual for me to take down a novel in the afternoon, New People is impossible to put down without taking in every detail cover to cover in a single read.
The dust jacket really doesn't give much detail other than what sounds like a simple love story between college graduates Maria and Khalil, but what transpires between these pages is one of the most unusual premises for a book I have come across in some time.
Starting from the last scene in the book (Spoilers), we find Maria huddled under a bed in the apartment of a young man only referred to in the novel as The Poet waiting for sunrise, with no plans for how she will get out of this situation. She basks at the thought of no longer hearing the police sirens in the street, doesn't think at all about how she will make it out of the apartment, for this moment Maria is as close to The Poet as she will ever be...even though her sister in law to be is on the bed above her...
The evening had begun like several before in Maria's novel long obsession with The Poet. So much so that she had pretended to be a Hispanic nanny for one of the neighbors despite her muted Blackness, and used the charade of watching the baby to climb through an opened window into The Poet's apartment and make herself at home eating from his refrigerator, using his toothbrush and comb, using his toilet, and sleeping in his bed a la Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
Maria's obsession with The Poet is the driving force of her madness, but her beautifully articulated reasoning believes that he is just as much into her as she is into him since the first time she saw him perform at an one mic night with her fiance, Khalil and his sister, Lisa.
Maria's obsession with The Poet is the driving force of her quiet madness and throughout the novel it causes her to lose connection to everything important in her life
Meeting her only in the form of flashbacks, Maria's adopted mother, Gloria, is one the reasons that whatever breaks loose in Maria during her formative years happens.
Given the time of the novel, Gloria has already passed from cancer when Maria has graduated college. Where it is suggested in some parts that Gloria really inspired the goals of education, and self preservation into Maria throughout her upbringing, Gloria is also beat down by the burden of being a single mother working on her college dissertation while trying to raise a young child.
When the stress gets too much of trying to do both, Gloria seems to realize that part of her unhappiness is that the world seems stacked against the success of people of color. Through her own experiences she has trained Maria to believe that it is the White People that have made it this way and that they are stupid and ignorant. White people should never be trusted and they are the true burden of any person of color.
Gloria feels that Maria isn't dark skinned enough when she begins to raise her and she wonders if she should just contact the adoption agency and tell them it wasn't working out and and she needed a child that was darker skinned. Gloria feels that White People judge her when she takes Maria out in public, thinking that she is a babysitter since Maria could easily pass for White or Latino.
Eventually Gloria's fears work their way into Maria by the college years. Even though Maria has had relationships with White men, mostly as a way of rebellion and experimentation, Maria longs for a White man to want her to celebrate her African American heritage. When she finds one such man that is intrigued with her Blackness, as she explains it- she's easily bored.
Then she meets Khalil.
Maria's first impressions of Khalil is that he is too White for her liking, a child of mixed heritage like herself. She doesn't like that he hangs around with hippie-type friends playing hackey sack or listens to pop music. She doesn't like the way he carelessly fits into any social group and isn't burdened by racial boundary lines.
In college, she and a friend call in racially charged threats to Khalil's dorm room and by making him a victim; his outlook suddenly shifts. In Maria's opinion he now represents his race better, and begins to hang around the Black Student Union and make more appropriate friends.
As Khalil and his sister Lisa begin to change and accept more of their African American culture, Maria suddenly begins to be annoyed with that as well.
A Forceful Change
Maria leaves a racially charged message on the answering machine in Khalil's dorm room; forcing him to accepting more of his racial identity. Eventually Maria becomes annoyed with that as well.
All By Myself
Shifting to after graduation, Maria and Khalil on the outside have the perfect relationship although inside she is intensely damaged and pushes him away the more the wedding approaches.
Signing up to be in a documentary that a local film crew is shooting, Maria and Khalil as well as Lisa and The Poet, are expected to be in some basic shots but Maria is now so overwhelmed with the idea of somehow falling in love with The Poet, that she has pretty much put everything else in her life on hold.
As she becomes further isolated from her friends, she has already posed as the nanny for the neighbor and bordering on kidnapping, taken advantage of the situation to crawl into The Poet's window. Maria has used an opportunity of The Poet leaving behind his hat at a party to use that to lure him into what she thought would be a date that ended in disaster.
She is enraged at Khalil for being so boring. She claims that she doesn't really love him and is just going along for the ride to have simple security. She feels now Khalil is too Black and she doesn't like how she has changed him.
To Maria, everything is now about The Poet, even though she hates him after the incident with that hat and vows to never see him again and it is tearing her apart.
Maria's isolation seems to stem from the damage that Gloria has already inflicted on her with the focus of racial identity and belonging the most important lesson. Gloria had instilled in Maria that trying to be an independent woman is what had broken Gloria herself, and now Maria is only focused on finding a way to have The Poet be the Prince Charming that will take care of her for the rest of her life.
Under Bed, Out of Mind
Arriving back to the last scene in the book, everything has broken apart for Maria as she is trapped now under the bed in The Poet's apartment. Spotted crossing through the neighbor's apartment and the rightful nanny who had seen Maria briefly looking in on the baby- has called the police thinking she was an attempted kidnapper and burglar. Police sirens fill the street and she hidden first under a desk, then crawled under The Poet's bed after going through the purse of the woman in his apartment only to realize it was Lisa that was in attendance. After overhearing their coupling in the shower and then in bedroom, Maria lays under the bed frame and waits for morning.
That is where the novel closes, giving us no idea of what Maria had decided to do next. As I discussed with my husband, we came up with a couple theories.
I would like to believe that Maria feels like she has nothing left to hide and just pulls herself out from under the bed and makes her way out, The Poet and Lisa are still sleeping. Maria will have woken herself up out of this delusion and make it unscathed back to her home. She will pack up her bags, and go off again to reinvent herself. I don't think there will be any big lesson learned. She will remain emotionally damaged from her upbringing with Gloria and just drift in and out of the same type of relationships, trying to reinvent herself from time to time with little to no success. Maria won't care about these things though because she will finally feel free.
Her entire existence, I feel she has felt trapped by the boundaries of Gloria, of what she feels are the social norms for women, for her racial identity.
Anyway, that is only by best working theory.
She could emerge and have a fight with The Poet and Lisa. She could lay under the bed and cry silently until they leave and she has a clear escapes. She could turn herself in for the breaking and entering.
I greatly appreciate the fact we will never know what will become of this remarkable woman.