Monday, June 20, 2011

Where Did You Sleep Last Night?: A Personal History by Danzy Senna

Where Did You Sleep Last Night?: A Personal History
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Danzy Senna's books, "Where did you sleep last night? A personal Memoir" has a beautifully woven, beautifully written and deeply emotional prose. I found the writing style entrancing, albeit choppy and all over the place. I felt as if she subjectively trying to look from the outside in. She was trying to put all the pieces of her history together, which shows through the lack of cohesiveness in the narrative. In this book, Senna tries to find, regroup and recount her search for her family's roots. More than a memoir, or a search for her family history (mostly paternal), this was more of a vehicle which made her feel close to her father. She explores and comes to terms with her relationship with her father, which is a troubled one.

It is ironic that she writes about her maternal side of the family: "This side of my family was above all else interested in their own narrative...They were invested in remaining the protagonist of the story." By definition, a memoir, is a book where you narrate your own story.

Danzy Senna is born to writers: Carl Senna, a black southerner with a troubled, mysterious and interesting childhood, whose origins are murky at best; and Fanny Howe, a white Bostonian whose ancestor line is full of writers and historical figures. Her parents divorced while she was still young and she narrates her troubled and disappointing relationship with her father. This book shows the childhood anger and resentment she still seems to foster toward her father. Yet, she clings to his roots as more than an integral part of her own identity, as well as her memories of their shared experiences (whether happy or disappointing memories).

She writes of her father, perhaps mirroring her own feelings about herself, "Every descriptive statement you could make about my father could be contradicted by the sentence that followed. He was half of everything and half of nothing." She searches fervently for her father's roots and retells her experiences through her expedition all over the south with great and telling emotion. It is as if she is finding a missing part herself.

Her maternal history is full of literary and history figures, it is a rich history indeed. Yet, she drily describes that she went to a public library to do research about her maternal side of the family. There is very little emotion, chapters involving her maternal side of the family are written in a prose that is observational and detached. She writes about her mother that:

"She was a Bostonian...She was a blue-blooded white Anglo-Saxon Protestant whose roots on one side linked her to the founders of this country, and on the other side to the most elite of the Anglo-Irish literary establishment. She had an identity so solid and so gilded that she was able to discard it, stomp on it, and endlessly make fun of it-and finally to renounce it in her marriage to my father."

This is a telling paragraph, I believe, because it presents us with a side of Senna where she is proud, yet tired of this heritage. Throughout the book she seems to yearns for a deeper connection to her father's roots, whose she seems prove to be a critical part of her own identity. It could have been more cohesive, but it was enjoyable and easy to read.

Frankly, I am surprised that this book is dedicated to Percival, her husband, when it is clearly a book written to explore her relationship with her father and her paternal roots. This is a great book. It is choppy and all over the place: the telling signs of a book that was difficult to write and experience. It could have been more cohesive, but it was still enjoyable and easy to read. 

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