Black, White and the sad, skin-deep shades of Gray

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Caucasia by Danzy Senna

I know a lot of avid-bordering-on-fanatical readers who adore books just a little way too much than most of us do: armed with handy, neon highlighters or metallic gel pens, they’re furious to shade/underline/encircle phrases of gold that are worth remembering. Others, they keep a journal and jot down their favourite paragraphs to quote. Most days, I’m profoundly jealous of their uncanny patience to achieve that level of consistency. There are days however, that I’m grateful I’m too lazy for that habit. This is one of those latter moments, because if I do, then I might’ve ended up having all my fingers paralyzed by now, trying to shade/underline/encircle/copy Danzy Senna’s entire book, Caucasia, from the very first line down to the last. It’s magical and pensieve and so, so good.

Gracefully juggling themes such as societal discrimination, isolation, belongingness, racism and beauty, Caucasia is so good you could almost see yourself driven and pierced between the tug of war of skin versus kin.

The novel takes us all the way back to the 70’s, in the heart of a bizarre family riveting in its dysfunctionality: a black, intellectual father, a white politically-radical mother, and two sisters—caught amidst family fault lines and cross-fires of colors and races.

It’s great when a book transports you so seamlessly in another world and in another side of history, but it gets magical when your mind gets to inhabit the lives of the characters to a point where you can almost see, hear, feel, heck even taste, their stories and experiences. Caucasia does that, wonderfully.

The novel’s poignant and precocious voice belong to its heroine, Birdie Lee, the younger and the white half of the two sisters; Cole is the eldest, taking after their black father. And I guess it would be a giveaway to say that my favourite thing about this book is the sisterhood subplot. Or maybe it’s just a theme I’m totally, subjectively biased about. The book opens:

“Before I ever saw myself, I saw my sister. When I was still too small for mirrors, I saw her as the reflection that proved my own existence. Back then, I was content to see only Cole, three years older than me, and imagine that her face—cinnamon skinned, curly-haired, serious—was my own. It was her face above me always, waving toys at me, cooing at me, whispering to me, pinching at me when she was angry and I was the easiest target. That face was me and I was that face and that was how the story went.”

But sentimentality aside, this sisterhood is, more than anything else, the core of every event that happened here; as if all the years that slipped by were glued to the bond of these two girls, fighting the forces and gaps that proximity and philosophy imposed on them. It’s triumphant, but not quite—it’s almost there, just almost; and it’s all kind of bittersweet.

Sometime in her life, Birdie looks back:

“She had been twelve. She had slipped into bed with me, giggling. Her body beside me felt different, softer, more alive, as she said, ‘Birdie, Ant kissed me today.’ I had closed my eyes, feeling sad but not wanting her to notice. I had felt her drifting away from me, into another world. I would always be three years behind her. That difference was forever.”

And what makes this so much more than just a nostalgic family diary? The intelligent depiction of the story’s bigger backdrop—Society, as a bigger, more dysfunctional family, where you either feel so cramped and suffocated or cold and isolated. Birdie swings from one experience to another, carefully narrating transition after transition.

“I don’t know when, exactly, all that began to change. I guess it happened gradually, the way bad things usually do. The summer before I turned eight, the outside world seemed to bear in on us with a new force. It was 1975, and Boston was a battleground. My mother and her friends spent hours huddled around the kitchen table, talking about the trouble out there. Forced integration. Roxbury. South Boston. Separate but not quite equal. God made the Irish number one. A fight, a fight, a nigga and a white…”

And then years later, in a conversation with her aunt:

“It’s funny. When you leave your home and wander really far, you always think, ‘I want to go home.’ But then you come home, and of course, it’s not the same. You can’t live with it, you can’t live away from it. And it seems like from then on there’s always this yearning for some place that doesn’t exist. I felt that. Still do. I’m never completely at home anywhere. But it’s a good place to be, I think. It’s like floating. From up above, you can see everything at once. It’s the only way how.”

I remember having finished this book and just being silent for a moment, hopeless romantic that I am, and being grateful—not because I found this book, but because I believe otherwise; this book found me.

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