Where Did You Sleep Last Night?: A Personal History is a memoir about one of the the more melancholy aspects of Danzy Senna’s childhood: her relationship with her father. Senna’s parents, an interracial couple, married in 1968 with dreams of being a part of an idyllic, multicultural family. This book is a complex blend of remembrance, internal exploration, and detective work, as Senna travels throughout the South to uncover pieces of her father’s story she never knew as a child and young adult.
Though Senna does ultimately finds something that resembles acceptance and understanding, Where Did You Sleep Last Night? does not have a tidy ending, which only lends the book its charm. I talked to Senna about the challenges of writing such a personal story, and what she gained in the process.
What was the impetus for writing this book?
I started the book in a spirit of curiosity. On one hand, I had the fact of my mother’s WASP family history—illustrious, compulsively documented. On the other, I had the complete mystery of my father’s origins. And behind my rather intellectual curiosity was a more emotional quest: a desire to understand my father, a man who I loved, but who had disappointed me quite profoundly in my life.
Was it difficult for you to discover your father’s family history as an adult?
I think I wanted to understand the origins of some of our present day problems. My family is quite fractured. My parents’ marriage was a profound failure, in so many ways. It was a romantic and highly symbolized union of an interracial couple, two writers who met and wed at the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement. Their terrible divorce affected me and my siblings quite profoundly. In some ways we have lived the past thirty years in the shadow of what happened between them. So it was important for me to understand the context out of which they—and especially my father—arose. I needed to understand him in order to understand my own childhood.
What did you gain from researching and writing Where Did You Sleep Last Night?
I began to understand how pathology is passed down from one generation to the next. I came to understand that unless you really take it on—the problem of your family’s legacy—you will pass down the trauma (yours, your father’s, your grandmother’s, your great-grandmother’s) to your children.
How did having a child influence your writing this book?
I began this book when I was single and childless, living in New York, and finished it four years later: married, with two young sons, living in Los Angeles. The connection between these simultaneous births—the book, the marriage, the sons—was not entirely clear in my mind as I was writing, but after I’d finished I saw that in some sense I was shedding one narrative, of my birth family (the act of writing about an experience in some ways distances you from it), while I was trying to construct a new narrative in the form of a new family. That said, having children is also incredibly humbling. I really found myself awestruck that my mother raised three children on her own, without the support of a partner—financial or otherwise. I’m not sure how she did it.
The tone of this book is somewhat melancholy. Does this reflect your own feelings about your upbringing?
No, not entirely. There was a lot of comedy and joy and love in my childhood. This more melancholy and difficult material was just one aspect of my childhood. I was writing about the saddest and darkest elements of my upbringing. That was my subject.
The book has a large focus on your tumultuous relationship with your father, including some of the issues that are central to that conflict: money, his instability, his somewhat contradictory messages about race (e.g., that he bonded with strangers he met on the street, but also spoke negatively about black male writers and didn’t date black women… a sort of horizontal violence). I wonder if you’d talk a little about how your father shaped your view of family and race, both personally and in the US.
My father definitely shaped my view of race. He saw it everywhere—and I, in turn, came to see it everywhere. He also gave me a great sense of racial irony, racial humor—I understood, implicitly, that to laugh at a situation, to see the absurdity in it, is to survive it.
In terms of family, while I was writing this book, my father told me at one point that he believed the greatest casualty of slavery was the black family. He also said that in the black community he grew up with down South, family was a fluid, amorphous thing—people considered one another family who were not in fact blood relatives—in part because so much had been shattered, erased, and destroyed in slavery. People often didn’t know who their real, blood relatives were. Paternity was often — as was in my father’s case — unclear. So people turned to each other electively. The people my father considers family down South are not even necessarily blood relatives, but they brought him in, they brought his mother in, and raised them.
You didn’t have much exposure to the South before researching your family. I grew up in the South and think you do a really great job capturing many of the complex conflicts about the region: the trap of poverty, past and current segregation, the (positive) influence of religion in people’s lives, complicated, and interwoven family relations, the ease with which some people will welcome you into their lives combined with the nearly tangible judgment of others, the importance of food to Southern culture(s). What did you learn from the time you spent in the South?
I felt like I was pretty ignorant about America when I went down South for the first time in order to research this book. I’d only ever lived in the northeast and in California. I was a typical coastal snob. I felt when I went down South that I was really getting my education about America. It’s sort of like when you go to Europe and you feel the ghost of World War II everywhere. When I went down South I felt the ghost of slavery, the ghost of Jim Crow, the ghost of the Civil War, everywhere. It was much more palpable. And I also felt the presence of religion everywhere, which is such a huge part of the country. I’d been raised in a kind of bohemian artsy household in Boston and had been raised eating mostly a diet of WASP food: salmon and arugula. I remember during my trip down South one evening sitting in one of my cousin’s houses eating ribs and mac and cheese and drinking sweet tea with the family and watching American Idol with them and feeling that I was finally in America.
You write “oppression is so often an act of intimacy.” What do you mean by that?
What I was referring to was the fact that we always use this word “segregation” to describe the oppression of black people in this country, but as my father pointed out to me during this book, so much of the oppression happened not in the separation of the races but in the coming together of the races. So much of the violence and the denigration happened on a sexual level, between white men and black women. And so much oppression happened, as I describe in my book, between blood relatives—fathers denying the existence of sons because they were not the same race. Of course, a different kind of intimate oppression also happened in my own family—in the way my father treated my mother. So it’s an idea that is woven throughout the book in so many different ways.
I like that you don’t end the book with a pat “happily ever after” message about race and intimate relationships, despite your family’s current multicultural make up. What do you want the reader to take away from this book?
I can never tell the reader what to take away. I really feel strongly that at a certain point the author’s take on the book is irrelevant and that the book is a text that belongs to the readers. They will bring their own experiences and thoughts to the book, without my input. That said, yes, there is so often the expectation with memoirs that they will be redemptive—that they will end with some kind of closure and perhaps healing. And while I hoped that might come about when I began the book, it’s not what really happened. There were no easy answers and there was no resolution, really, to my difficulties with my father. There were other rewards, but they weren’t necessarily the ones I’d expected when I set out on the journey.
Cross-posted at Flavorwire