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The Boston Phoenix Darkness Visible

A coming-of-age novel about being in between.

By Elizabeth Manus

FEBRUARY 16, 1998: 

CAUCASIA, by Danzy Senna., Riverhead Books, 353 pages, $24.95.

It is 1975, in the South End, and two sisters, Birdie and Cole Lee, are lying on their big brass bed talking in a secret language called Elemeno (after their favorite letters of the alphabet). Beyond the bedroom door, their parents are fighting, and beyond the walls of their home, other battles rage ("A fight, a fight, a nigga and a white. . ."). Cole is explaining to her eight-year-old sister that Elemeno isn't "just a language, but a place and a people as well." In fact, the Elemenos are ultimate survivors who can shift form, color, pattern -- "beige in the sand, or blank white in the snow" -- in a "quest for invisibility." But something about that logic doesn't sit well with her little sister: "What was the point of surviving if you had to disappear?"

Caucasia is Danzy Senna's answer to that question, which will become a particularly urgent one for Birdie; she and Cole have a black father and a white mother, but Cole is dark-skinned while Birdie looks white. Birdie needs her sister nearby to see her self, confirm her own blackness. But she loses that security when politics come between their parents, who are intellectuals and activists in the civil rights movement. Sandy Lee, née Lodge -- father a Harvard classics professor, mother a blueblood socialite descended from Cotton Mather -- has become increasingly radical, playing hostess to assorted militants. Her husband, Deck, an associate professor of anthropology at Boston University, thinks she's 10 years too late for the revolution; he's all for theory and Frantz Fanon and keeping critical distance. First, the marriage falls apart, and the girls remain with their mother. Then things change overnight; the Lees decide to divide the family along color lines.

Suddenly, Deck takes Cole to Brazil with him and his new black girlfriend in search of racial equality. And the next morning, believing the Feds are after her, Sandy grabs Birdie and heads deep into an America of fast-food restaurants and motels. With new identities as Sheila and Jesse Goldman, they run for four years, Sandy "home-schooling" her daughter in the fluorescent glare of parking lots and laundromats. Their flight finally ends in a small New Hampshire town where the people express their prejudices either publicly ("nigga, spic, fuckin' darkie") or privately.

There, seemingly living a normal life again while passing for white, Birdie learns that subverting one's identity, while a survival tactic, is a painful exercise in self-erasure. Whether taking mental notes on the racism that's seemingly all around her, as her father always urged, or simply trying to keep herself from making a mark -- "Be a presence that no one quite remembers," her paranoid mother exhorts -- she soon grows formless and blurry, the weight of her double consciousness straining her filial loyalty. Race may be a construct, Senna suggests, but that doesn't mean it can be disregarded. Longing to be part of the visible world again, Birdie flees to Boston to reclaim her identity and track down her sister and father.

Birdie's racial alienation works as a perfect metaphor for the general alienation of adolescence, and her reemergence from underground encapsulates the dutiful child's necessary separation from her family in order to enter adulthood. So it's particularly disappointing that Birdie, as the narrator, fails to evoke that period in a consistently engaging way. The book is mottled with clichés and overwritten passages, sometimes to the point of distraction. The prose, as a result, often comes off as stilted or irritatingly wistful. Senna violates repeatedly the cardinal rule of telling instead of showing, which, especially given the compelling story line, is rather annoying. And the dialogue sometimes rings tinny. Perhaps a vigorous line edit could have brought the book to its full potential; Senna's talent does emerge in many lyrical, nuanced passages.

As for the main cast, Sandy -- fierce, foul-mouthed, vulnerable -- is a memorable character, and Cole and the girls' aunt are rendered convincingly. Deck's theorizing is thought-provoking, but he's a less rounded character. Birdie herself falls prey to the heavy-handed prose, but her love for her family -- and especially her need for Cole -- is authentic.

Ultimately, the ideas give Caucasia its staying power. "It doesn't matter what your color is or what you're born into, you know? It matters who you choose to call your own," Sandy tells young Birdie. By the book's end, her older and wiser daughter has learned that one has to choose to live visibly and audibly. "Because there are consequences if you don't," she tells Cole, who replies: "Yeah, and there are consequences if you do."

Elizabeth Manus is editor of the PLS.

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