Caucasia: A Novel

Caucasia: A Novel

by Danzy Senna

Paperback(Reprint)

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Overview

Look out for Danzy Senna's latest book, New People, on sale in August!

Birdie and Cole are the daughters of a black father and a white mother, intellectuals and activists in the Civil Rights Movement in 1970s Boston. The sisters are so close that they speak their own language, yet Birdie, with her light skin and straight hair, is often mistaken for white, while Cole is dark enough to fit in with the other kids at school. Despite their differences, Cole is Birdie’s confidant, her protector, the mirror by which she understands herself. Then their parents’ marriage collapses. One night Birdie watches her father and his new girlfriend drive away with Cole. Soon Birdie and her mother are on the road as well, drifting across the country in search of a new home. But for Birdie, home will always be Cole. Haunted by the loss of her sister, she sets out a desperate search for the family that left her behind.

The extraordinary national bestseller that launched Danzy Senna’s literary career, Caucasia is a modern classic, at once a powerful coming of age story and a groundbreaking work on identity and race in America. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781573227162
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/28/1999
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 282,825
Product dimensions: 5.14(w) x 7.99(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Danzy Senna's first novel, Caucasia, was the winner of the Book-of-the-Month Club's Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction and an American Library Association Alex Award. It was a finalist for an International IMPAC Dublin Award, and was a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. Her short fiction and essays have been widely anthologized. She is a recipient of the 2002 Whiting Writers' Award and currently holds the Jenks Chair of Contemporary American/Letters at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.

What People are Saying About This

Thomas Keneally

A superb new writer...A fresh and robust American voice.

From the Publisher

"Lucid and magnificent."—James McBride, author of The Color of Water"The visual conundrums woven through Danzy Senna’s remarkable first novel [will] cling to your memory. There's Birdie, who takes after her mother's white, New England side of the family—light skin, straight hair. There's her big sister, Cole, who takes after her father, a radical black intellectual. It's the early seventies, and black-power politics divide their parents, who divide the sisters; Cole disappears with their father, and Birdie goes underground with their mother...Senna tells this coming-of-age tale with impressive beauty and power."—Newsweek"[An] absorbing debut novel...Senna superbly illustrates the emotional toll that politics and race take on one especially gutsy young girl's development as she makes her way through the parallel limbos between black and white and between girl and young woman...Senna gives new meaning to the twin universal desires for a lost childhood and a new adult self by recounting Birdie's struggle to become someone when she can look and act like anyone."—The New York Times Book Review”Extraordinary...A cross between Mona Simpson’s Anywhere But Here and James McBride’s The Color of Water, this story of a young girl’s struggle—to find her family, her roots, her identity—transcends race even while examining it. A compelling look at being black and being white, Caucasia deserves to be read all over.”—Glamour"Brilliant...a finely nuanced story that explores the matter of race through the eyes and heart of another white black girl."—Ms.”Senna brings an accomplished voice to this vivid coming-of-age tale, offering images sweet and sorrowful of a child caught on the fault line between races.”—USA Today

Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

Birdie and Cole are the daughters of a black father and a white mother, intellectuals and activists in the Civil Rights Movement in 1970s Boston. The sisters are so close that they have created a private language, yet to the outside world they can't be sisters: Birdie appears to be white, while Cole is dark enough to fit in with the other kids at the Afrocentric school they attend. For Birdie, Cole is the mirror in which she can see her own blackness.

Then their parents' marriage falls apart. Their father's new black girlfriend won't even look at Birdie, while their mother gives her life over to the Movement: at night the sisters watch mysterious men arrive with bundles shaped like rifles.

One night Birdie watches her father and his girlfriend drive away with Cole-they have gone to Brazil, she will later learn, where her father hopes for a racial equality he will never find in the States. The next morning-in the belief that the Feds are after them-Birdie and her mother leave everything behind: their house and possessions, their friends, and-most disturbing of all-their identity. Passing as the daughter and wife of a deceased Jewish professor, Birdie and her mother finally make their home in New Hampshire. Desperate to find Cole, yet afraid of betraying her mother and herself to some unknown danger, Birdie must learn to navigate the white world-so that when she sets off in search of her sister, she is ready for what she will find.

 


ABOUT DANZY SENNA

The daughter of a black father and a white mother, both writers and activists in the Civil Rights Movement, Danzy Senna grew up in Boston and attended Stanford University. She holds an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of California, Irvine, where she received several creative writing awards. She lives in New York City.

Praise

"Lucid and magnificent." —James McBride, author of The Color of Water

"Senna's remarkable first novel [will] cling to your memory. There's Birdie, who takes after her mother's white, New England side of the family—light skin, straight hair. There's her big sister, Cole, who takes after her father, a radical black intellectual. It's the early seventies, and black-power politics divide their parents, who divide the sisters; Cole disappears with their father, and Birdie goes underground with their mother...Senna tells this coming-of-age tale with impressive beauty and power." —Newsweek

"[An] absorbing debut novel...Senna superbly illustrates the emotional toll that politics and race take on one especially gutsy young girl's development as she makes her way through the parallel limbos between black and white and between girl and young woman...Senna gives new meaning to the twin universal desires for a lost childhood and a new adult self by recounting Birdie's struggle to become someone when she can look and act like anyone." —New York Times Book Review

"Brilliant...a finely nuanced story that explores the matter of race through the eyes and heart of another white black girl." —Ms.

 


DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
  • Caucasia begins with Birdie's recollection: "A long time ago I disappeared. One day I was here, the next I was gone." Why does Birdie come to think of herself as having "disappeared" when living as Jesse Goldman? Is her ability to disappear a blessing or a curse? Is Birdie "passing" when she calls herself black, or when she calls herself white? When is she not passing?
     
  • Cole and Birdie speak Elemeno, a language named after their favorite letters in the alphabet, "with no verb tenses, no pronouns, just words floating outside time and space, without owner or direction" (p. 6). How does Elemeno reflect the sisters' positions in their family and in the world? Why does Elemeno continue to be so important to Birdie throughout the novel?
     
  • In what ways is the tension between Sandy and Cole typical of that between any mother and daughter, and in what ways is it specific to an interracial family? Do you agree with Cole's statement: "Mum doesn't know anything about raising a black child" (p. 44)? Does Sandy treat her two daughters differently based on their appearances?
     
  • Why do you think Deck treats Birdie with a "cheerful disinterest-never hostility or ill will, but with a kind of impatient amusement" (p. 47)? Do you think he loves Birdie? How do Birdie and Cole respond differently to Deck's teachings on race? Who internalizes his vision of America more? By the end of the novel, have Cole and Birdie embraced or rejected their parents' philosophies about the world? Which sister seems to have become more like Deck, and which more like Sandy?
     
  • Officially, Birdie has no name. Her birth certificate "still reads 'Baby Lee,' like the gravestone of some stillborn child" (p. 17). Her sister's name, meanwhile, was originally Colette after the French novelist, but was later shortened to Cole. Discuss the significance of the sisters' names.
     
  • Sandy and Deck are initially drawn together by a quote by the French existentialist writer, Camus, who wrote: "Do you drink coffee at night?" What does this initial encounter tell you about their compatibility, or incompatibility? Why does their relationship eventually sour? Do you believe they were torn apart because of external pressures, or internal ones? Do you think they would have stayed together had they lived in a less racially divided city or in another country altogether? By the end of the novel, does Birdie believe that her parents really loved each other? Do you believe that they did?
     
  • Birdie refers to the time she spends on the run with Sandy, while "the lie of our false identities seemed irrelevant" (p. 116), as "dreamlike." Despite a sense of loneliness, Birdie says she felt "comfort in that state of incompletion" (p. 116). Do you feel that this experience weighed more positively or negatively in Birdie's development? By the end of the novel, has she found "completion"-or will she continue to live in this state of incompletion?
     
  • How did Sandy and Birdie's stay at Aurora affect Birdie's emerging sexual identity? How do her sexual experiences with Alexis compare to her later sexual experiences with Nicholas in New Hampshire? Does Birdie's emerging sexuality in any way parallel her search for racial identity?
     
  • Redbone lurks in the background of the novel as a sinister figure. Why does he initially take such an interest in Birdie? Why does he take her photograph in the playground? Do you believe he is in part responsible for the troubles that befall the family? Ultimately, who or what do you feel is to blame for Cole and Birdie's separation?
     
  • Birdie often seeks her reflection in other women's faces. What parts of herself does she see mirrored in Cole? Sandy? Maria? Samantha? Dot? Penelope? Mona? Others? What are the potential advantages and disadvantages to being a chameleon?
     
  • Birdie holds on to a fantasy of helping Deck's research by spying on white people while "passing." How does she fail or succeed in her study? What does she find out? Does she become Jesse Goldman, or is she able to remain Birdie in disguise? Are her fantasies about Deck shattered or fulfilled when she encounters him at the novel's conclusion?
     
  • At some point in New Hampshire, Birdie starts to add items to her box of "negrobilia." Discuss the significance of the various "artifacts" Birdie keeps in her box. Do they succeed in helping her remember Cole and Deck?
     
  • In the woods one night in New Hampshire, Samantha says to Birdie: " 'I'm black. Like you' " (p. 242). Do you think Samantha has been aware of Birdie's racial heritage all along, or is Birdie mishearing her? What or who gives Birdie the courage to finally leave New Hampshire?
     
  • Birdie sees her mother as "a long-lost daughter of Mayflower histories, forever in motion, running from or toward an utterable hideaway" (p. 286). In your opinion, is Sandy more "a hero, a madwoman, or a fool" (p. 332)? What motivated her to take up a life of political activism? What has she sacrificed in the process?
     
  • Do you agree with Deck that race is "a complete illusion... a costume" (p. 334)? Does Birdie and Cole's experience prove that racial identity is simply a costume, or something deeper?
     
  • In the novel's conclusion, Birdie says to her sister: " 'They say you don't have to choose. But... there are consequences if you don't.'" Cole replies: " 'Yeah, and there are consequences if you do.'" What are the consequences of choosing and not choosing? Have Birdie and Cole chosen one part of their racial heritage over the other by the novel's conclusion?
     
  • Birdie writes, "While there seemed to be remnants of my mother's family everywhere-history books, PBS specials, plaques in Harvard Square-my father's family was a mystery. It was as if my father and Dot had arisen out of thin air." Does her mother's white family's written history shape her identity more than her black imagined one? How does knowing or not knowing one's history contribute to one's sense of identity? Does what we learn about ourselves through oral or written histories give us a different understanding of ourselves?
     
  • Do you agree with Deck's theory about mulattos in America functioning as canaries in the coal mine? Is Birdie a canary in the coal mine? What do you imagine her fate will be?

Customer Reviews

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Caucasia 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 34 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is an interesting look into the world of a bi-racial girl and how she tries to fit into each world juxtaposed with what it's like to be a political radical. This was an outstaniding first novel hopefully there will be more to come.
Geisha More than 1 year ago
I am getting a master's in English literature, and having read a wide spectrum of books I can honestly and unequivocably say that this is one of the best books I've ever read. Why? When it comes right down to it---it touched a nerve that evoke tears, laughter, wonder, yearning, relief. Thank you Danzy Senna.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Really deep and intellectually stimulating book. Not as heavy and tough to read as I thought it would be-- it definitely captured my attention. It brings up interesting issues about race and identity and mindsets that existed years back, although I don't know how accurate they are.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was a strikingly, beautifully written novel.I loved the way birdie and cole still stayed in contact with each other, or at least tried to.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I've read this book for a course on race and ideology and I must say, it is one of the best books I've ever read!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I will definetly recommend this book to every one i know..It was beautifally written and keeps you wanting more!..
sumariotter on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I raced through this book--I was pretty immediately drawn in and couldn't put it down. I could strongly relate to the horror of Birdie's having to grow up as a liar, because she can not tell the truth (of her biracial heritage) for her family's safety. This seems a weird aspect of the book to grab me perhaps but I know what it is like to grow up with something about yourself that you can not tell other people and how that stops you from developing real relationships or trusting any relationships that you do develop. There are lots of other horrors in the book and her story illustrates well issues of racism in America. Her characterization is not that subtle...but it feels very real nonetheless, like an autobiography.
lvelazqu2000 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Caucasia is amazingly written to reveal the experience of a child being born white and black. Birdie looks white and her sister looks black which for that reason alone are treated differently by their parents and respective families and society. This book clearly talks about identity and how culture and people can influence it. It also reveals a period in history in the 70's when there was radical thinking and a desire for radical change. Clearly, Danzy Senna intelligently described race and class issues in humanity. It's a very interesting and engaging book. Highly recommended.
mana_tominaga on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Born to a biracial family in 1970s Boston, Birdie witnesses her family disintegrate from racial tensions. Her father and older sister move to Brazil, hoping for utopia, and Birdie and her mother go underground, adopting new identities. Birdie eventually sets out to find her sister and reconnect with and examine her past. A stimulating story about race and skin color, and how both have profound powers to shape our experiences.
katydid-it on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was a great surprise of a book, chosen for our book club. The main character, Birdie, is wonderful for her honesty and naivete. The story was engrossing with enough depth to make it stick in your mind. Also, having grown up in Massachusetts during the same years, I felt a strong connection to the story.
CBJames on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I want to say that Danzy Senna writes about the margins of race. Does that convey what I'm thinking? Towards the end of her novel, Caucasia, several characters discuss whether or not race really exists. Is it something real, or just something society has constructed? This question is vitally important to Birdie Lee, the narrator of Danzy Senna's novel Caucasia. Birdie's mother is white, the daughter of Boston Brahmans, born to wealth and priviledge. Her father is black, an academic and radical who teaches at Harvard. Birdie looks white like her mother. Her older sister, Cole, looks black like her father. While Birdie is favored by their rich white grandmother who only refers to Cole as your sister, Cole is favored by their father and by many of their black family and friends. The novel is set during the fading years of the 1960's and 70's Black Power movement which both of Birdie's parents are heavily involved in. They send their daughters to an all black school with a Pan-African curriculum. In spite of her nearly white skin, Birdie is basically raised as a black girl.When her mother goes into hiding to escape the F.B.I. who want her for her involvement with violent radical groups she takes Birdie along. Her father keeps Cole. Years go by and Birdie never hears from either. Meanwhile, her mother gives her a new identity, as a Jewish girl named Jesse. The two settle down in rural New Hampshire where Birdie finds a kind of normalcy attending the local public schools and making friends with the white girls she meets there.Because they think she is white the people she meets, even her close friends, feel free to openly be their racist selves. Since she believes her mother will be in danger if anyone ever finds out who she really is, Birdie must keep quite while her classmates make fun of the only black girl in the school and while her mother's boyfriend makes a casual remark unaware of how racist he is.But none of this is why I like Caucasia so much. At its heart Caucasia is a book about family. What makes the first half work so well is the wonderful relationship between Birdie and her sister Cole. The two are fully drawn, complex believable characters, but there is a fantastic element to them, something kind of magic. Big sisters protect little ones, little sisters look up to big ones, but these two have a secret language. Their bond goes much deeper than blood, certainly deeper than skin color. Once Birdie and her mother go underground together, the novel becomes a mother/daughter story. This bond is certainly deep, but it's not as wonderful. Birdie's mother is not someone who can be completely trusted. We never know what she did, in fact we soon begin to suspect that the only F.B.I. agents chasing her may be in her head. Birdie loves her, as any child loves her mother, but her love includes a healthy dose of hate. Did her mother only take her along because she couldn't go into hiding with a black daughter? Was Birdie her second choice? The second half of the novel is a portrait of this mother/daughter pairing. I was reminded of Mona Simpson's wonderful novel Anywhere but Here. Like that novel, I found reading Caucasia to be like spending time with friends. My favorite kind of character driven novel.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
From the minute I started this book, I found a hundred things to relate to while I watched Birdie Lee grow up. The issues with your hairstyle not "matching" your face, being forced to choose between one ethnicity and another, the eternal separation between siblings with different skin tones...the list goes on and on. I have been searching for years for Birdie's story without even realizing it, and I feel as though Danzy Senna has done a marvelous job of creating a setting where all the struggles of a young mixed girl can be witnessed at once. Brilliantly written and an excellent example of biracial-friendly literature!
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I have to admit the title of this book really turned me off. I thought it would be more intricate than I could handle. Boy was I wrong! I could not put this book down and enjoyed the author's writing style. The character's came to life and stayed with me even after I closed the book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Birdie's family is a microcosm of our nation we separate to find our ourselves and nuture our pride, but we only become truly mature and sane when we acknowledge our shared history and connection to each other.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A wonderful summer read!! This book kept my attention...and, I would recommend this book!!!! Also the book made me think!!!!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a biracial female who happens to be very fair and who has been mistaken for being caucasian, I can relate to the deeply disturbing and heart wrenching experiences in this book. Many biracial people are forced to choose between being Black or white in America. Depending on your skin color, hair texture, etc., you are either not white enough or not Black enough, as some are not even acknowledged by their family. This book was hard to put down.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thought this was a great book and I would recommend it to anyone. I also think having a narrerator of mixed races was a crucial and good part of the book because it brought different views on racial discrimination- from someone who could see it from both ends of the spectrum.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am 13, and I love to read but this is one of the best books I have ever read! It was very obvious that the author was biracial( I apoligize if that was the wrong word to use) she made you feel like you could very easily realte even if it had no connection to our personal life WARNING! Mature Content and Language! Soory for the Spelling mistakes
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thought it was an awesome book! A real page turner! :)~
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was one of the best books that I have read in a while. Danzy Senna writing is magical and beautiful as she describes Birdie Lee and her life as a biracial child and matures into young adulthood. This novel is a eye-opener for those who just do not know, but want to know.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Outstanding and highly recommended. This story pulls you in from the beginning as the story unfolds when sisters Birdie and Cole are separated, all the way to the reuniting of the two sisters at the end. I felt empty and incomplete until I finished the book. This is a book you just can't put down and forget about it. I would love to see Caucasia the movie.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was a wonderful blend of real life and life which most people haven't yet experienced. She takes us into a different world, and explains life with so many details that it is overwhelming. The story itself is great, a new way to put growing up with a borderline-insane mother, missing a peice of you're life for many years upon reuninting.