In the Nineties, pre–internet stalking, there was real stalking. Recall, or imagine, looking your love interest up in the phone book and then seeking them out — tracking them down — IRL.
Danzy Senna remembers it. In the novelist’s hands — and in the context of our current, hyper-connected era — this analog obsessiveness takes on a queasy discomfort: “She hesitates on the third-floor landing. She has not made a plan. She has not come with a purpose. She had only hoped to bump into him at the record shop. But now she is here, inside his building. She understands that she has crossed a line somewhere. And she understands too that it’s not too late to turn around….But she doesn’t stop.”
What’s the opposite of a love story? In Senna’s world, it’s a darkly comic psychological thriller. Her latest, New People, finds a wayward mixed-race academic named Maria fixating on an unnamed black poet and launching into the sublime destruction of her picture-perfect life.
Senna, 46, was born in Boston, the middle child of Irish-American poet Fanny Howe and Afro-Mexican academic Carl Senna. Though she now lives in Pasadena, California, she spent the late Nineties in Brooklyn while teaching at Sarah Lawrence. “When I started this book,” she says, “I was listening to a lot of the music of the late Nineties, mostly hip-hop, and remembering Brooklyn of a certain time — when I lived there — when a bunch of black artistic college grads were living in a small area.”
Senna has written previously about the fault lines of identity (Caucasia) and unrequited passions that give way to obsession (Symptomatic), but in Maria’s unmoored reawakening she finds a cathartic release for universal anxieties around these themes. Maria lives in the black artistic hub of Nineties Fort Greene with her fiancé, Khalil. She’s a Columbia student working to build “an ethnomusicology of the Peoples Temple,” the cult Jim Jones founded in the Sixties and forced into a horrific demise in the jungles of Guyana. Khalil — who, like Maria, is biracial — hopes to start a black-centric online community, a kind of precursor to BlackPlanet. Just in time for their upcoming nuptials on Martha’s Vineyard, the pair will star in a documentary called New People, about a generation of mixed-race young adults coming of age in the Nineties.
As part of their hip community, Maria, Khalil, and his sister, Lisa, venture out to readings where they meet a poet whose blackness, shyness, and talent attract Maria. The novel opens with her fixation already in place: “Maria first met him several months ago — and now, it seems, he is everywhere she looks. Or maybe she is everywhere he looks.” Despite the poet’s never really speaking, or even being capable of recalling her name, Maria feels there is a connection between them.
“A lot of people I hung out with then had the zealotry of the recently converted,” says Senna, remembering her time in Brooklyn. “I’m always interested in those gaps — places where image and reality don’t quite connect.” Maria herself is uncomfortable in this shadow realm, constantly checking mirrors to see what ethnicity she looks like today, using the people and culture around her to define herself. With a black college boyfriend — one unable to love her — she is black; with a white fuck buddy she doesn’t love, she’s white; with Khalil, she looks New. Yet even that designation would appear to be a reaction to the blackness that Gloria, Maria’s adoptive mother, taught her to embrace.
But it’s too late to back out. Khalil, ever practical, points out that, with a professional film crew around, they won’t have to pay for wedding photos. “Together, they look like the end of a story,” Senna writes of the couple, and you can hear the walls closing in around Maria.
The poet, in some ways, offers a glimmer of hope. “The poet is not a New Person,” Maria decides. “The poet is old-school — a brown-skinned black boy with a shaved head, a scar in his eyebrow.” We learn hardly anything about the poet himself. (He does hate Brooklyn, and does like craft beer.) Yet Maria desperately and single-mindedly attaches her identity to his. She concocts incredible schemes to get to know him, indulging in some light kidnapping, breaking and entering, and theft along the way. She’s rewarded with a thrill at any signifier they have in common. Khalil has her skin tone and all the compatibility of a sibling; Maria frequently describes their sex as wooden. The poet presents something more nuanced and exciting — they’re both black and love Joni Mitchell.
It is painful, humiliating, and terrifying to watch this monomaniacal pursuit. At one point Maria sneaks across a ledge in the poet’s building, slipping from a stranger’s apartment into his. It seems clear to everyone but Maria that this is inappropriate, but Senna has a talent for maintaining a rapport with readers even when Maria is at her most self-indulgent — and despite Maria herself being a less than likable character. This particular instance of b&e makes her an hour late to her future sister-in-law’s birthday, and without the customized present she and Khalil picked out for the occasion.
Even so, Senna’s antiheroine is winningly vulnerable when trying to make a home of a person, and New People is at its best when it delves into the worlds of Maria’s construction, or reconstruction. The one she seems most intimate with is Jonestown. She knows all the players by name, and listens to their audio recordings in her spare time. “The people who went to Jonestown were familiar to me, the kind of multiracial idealists and black-liberation activists who I grew up around, who raised me,” Senna says. “In a way, Jonestown was so familiar and disturbing that I needed to look at it sideways, at an angle. I wasn’t sure what form all my years of research would take until I started writing about Maria.”
Maria herself seems oblivious to the implications of searching so diligently among the faces of this doomed ethno-utopian society. At the start of the novel, her adviser isn’t convinced she’s found what she’s searching for yet. “They need to be in your dreams,” he tells her. But Maria wanders the city in a daze, ricocheting from bad decision to bad decision, barely dreaming at all. Her life seems like it will never make room for the answers she seeks, and Senna enjoys every second she takes to make that clear.