New People is the title of Danzy Senna’s compulsively readable and occasionally surreal new novel about an upwardly mobile mixed race couple in New York. It is set in the early winter of 1996, when the dream of a “post-racial America” was still alive.
It is also the title of a fictional documentary in the book that the novel’s narrator, Maria Pierce, and her fiance Khalid Mirsky are about to be featured in.
Maria and Khalid are both biracial, “the same shade of beige,” as she says. They are supposed to be the “new people” inhabiting a colour-blind world where anyone can reinvent themselves into anything they want.
Senna herself has a white mother and a black father, and like Maria her appearance is racially ambiguous. Maria is so light-skinned that she is often taken to be Israeli, Italian, or in one hilariously bizarre set piece a Latina nanny named Consuela.
Khalid is half Jewish and half black, and Senna mines the comedy and the pathos of their relationship. At one point Khalid remarks of Maria “Sometimes she teases me about acting Jewish. You know, like my rabbinical hand gestures. Sometimes I tease her about acting WASPy. The way she says “duvet” instead of comforter. We’re like a Woody Allen movie, with melanin.”
Maria is an academic who is writing her doctoral dissertation on the “ethnomusicology” of Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple. Khalid is a computer whiz who is trying to launch a dotcom startup that sounds vaguely like Facebook in the days before Facebook existed. He’s convinced it will make them rich.
Khalid has his and Maria’s futures all mapped out but Maria isn’t so sure. She says she loves Khalid but she remains distant, happy to let him be the smitten one.
It soon becomes clear that something is going seriously wrong with Maria. Her obsession with Jonestown seems to go beyond academic interest. She is forgetting appointments and plans.
Most troubling of all she has developed an almost adolescent crush on an un-named spoken word poet whom she has begun stalking. Senna leaves “the poet” (that’s all he’s ever called) purposely vague, as if to underline the fact that he represents more of a fantasy of escape than a realistic romantic partner.
Maria was raised by a black single mother who adopted her as a baby, and seemed disappointed in Maria’s non-black appearance. The poet is black, and this seems to attract Maria as a projection of “authenticity,” in the same way Khalid’s mixed race troubles her in a way she can’t quite articulate.
In one very cringe-worthy flashback Maria remembers a time when she and Khalid were university students together at Stanford and Khalid had written an article for the student newspaper about “reclaiming his blackness.”
While high with a friend Maria made a prank call to him in a male voice threatening to lynch him and calling him the n-word. Khalid and everyone else from the university president on down took the threat seriously and Jesse Jackson even visited the campus to cool the tension. Maria has never told Khalid the truth.
New People is both funny and thought provoking. The novel ends without a definite resolution. We leave Maria in an embarrassing and potentially ruinous situation. This might not satisfy all readers, but considering that this is a novel about ambiguity and questions of authenticity and identity it seemed very fitting to me.