by Sam Klein, Valentina Rojas-Posada and Sofia Tong.
Danzy Senna, alumna and author of junior and senior summer reading book Caucasia, came to the high school today for a day of discussions with students and faculty.
Senna, who went to Stanford University and has published two novels, a memoir and a short-story collection said she was very fond of her experiences at the high school.
“I had a very wonderful time here, I was just saying that a lot of the identity that led me that to write this book was formed here,” Senna said.
She had a discussion with the students in A-block classes African American Studies and African American and Latino scholars. She also spoke at an assembly with juniors and seniors during T-block, held a writing workshop and discussion for seniors in Craft of Writing classes during C-block and had a discussion with English teachers during first lunch.
Exclusive Q&A with Senna
What was it like coming back to the school?
“It was really fun. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it’s been a bit of a reunion, because there are people that I went to school with who work here now. The school looks beautiful, and I loved it. It was a good experience for me. I loved Brookline High.”
What did you think of the students?
“They were great! I was just saying, they were like college level questions. They seemed a lot better than when I was a student. A little bit more composed. I kept saying, where are all the wild kids?”
How did you think the assemblies went?
“I loved the Doug E. Fresh musical accompaniment. The writing one was a little more academic in a way, but it was fun to just remember that different era, and how special a space this was.”
Why is it important for us to have speakers and assemblies like this?
“Our paths are not straight. You don’t know at this point where you’re going to end up. I wasn’t thinking of being a writer at that time. I was pre-med in college and ended up going on a very winding path. Just have less fear and more openness about your future and see where life takes you.”
The A-block meeting was held in the MLK room. Senna created an informal environment, joking back and forth with Associate Dean Melanee Alexander and social studies teacher Malcolm Cawthorne while students laughed. Both Alexander and Cawthorne went to the high school with her, and they talked about how their experiences differed from current students. Senna also talked about how inclusive her group of friends at the high school was.
“I had a group where I did not have to choose, where my blackness and mixedness was welcomed and I thrived,” she said.
Senna asked questions about the community at the high school, and whether there were cliques, gangs, or fights. She told a story about a fight she was in while at the high school, going into detail about a black fraternity that had started and how she was involved.
Senna also surveyed the assembled students, asking who identified as mixed race and were from different countries or economic standings from their peers, among other questions. She emphasized the diversity in the room, explaining that this is the way the world looks.
“That’s the world we are living in, races mix and change and this is what we are inheriting,” Senna said.
Among her high school memories, Senna spoke about her experiences writing for The Sagamore, mentioning specific articles she had written during her time here.
She also spoke about experiencing an imbalance in coverage of tragic historical events at the high school. For example, she had read Anne frank three times but had never discussed the massacre of Indians.
In addition, Senna recalled being the only person of color in her class, asking students in the audience if they had shared this experience. Many of them said they had.
“Sometimes it felt like it was my obligation to name the racism in the text for example because racism is only the problem of colored people,” Senna said.
As a literature teacher, Senna said that she lectures her students on how being white does not let you withdraw yourself from conversations surrounding race.
“I try to teach people that white is a race, not that there is no race and that you can get away with not talking about racism because you’re not colored,” she said.
At the beginning of Senna’s elongated T-block assembly, junior Maya Morris introduced the author and spoke of her achievements beyond high school and her success in bringing attention to the issue of race to her literature.
First, Senna again asked students to stand if they identified with any of a number of categories she listed; being mixed race, having parents of different social or economic standings, being the only one of your race in a class, feeling like you were an outsider because of your race, or being able to pass as being of a different race than the one you identify as.
By the end, almost the entire auditorium was standing up, making it distinctly clear how diverse the school is and how universal the feeling of being alone is.
“It was amazing to see that the experience that made me feel the most alone as a child is actually the most universally identifiable experience,” she said. “People all over the world were coming to me saying, ‘I am Birdie Lee.’”
She spoke of her how her childhood inspired the novel, and how it wasn’t until she was in high school that she felt affirmed.
“I didn’t see myself reflected in movies or television, didn’t see myself in the world, it wasn’t until I went to high school that I felt affirmed,” she said. “My novel came from my childhood, a very racially ratified Boston. I grew up in a world where you could not bring all of yourself to the table and really had to choose.”
After she read a passage from her book, Senna answered prepared questions from a panel of upperclassmen who were sitting in a panel on the stage. She responded to each one thoughtfully, often with an accompanying anecdote.
One question was regarding the title, and how she chose it. Senna explained how she hadn’t thought of a title until the very last minute when her publisher was getting ready to send Caucasia to the printer.
“To me, race is more of a geographical space than bodily,” she said. “For Birdie, race was more about where she stood. To me, race is more fluid, and the word race is socially constructed.”
Senna also shared an amusing anecdote about a night she spent with Doug E. Fresh and the Get Fresh crew.
According to Senna, she went to the Doug E. Fresh and the Get Fresh Crew featuring Slick Rick concert, and when she was walking back home with her sister and a friend, a limousine containing Doug E. Fresh, the Get Fresh crew and Slick Rick pulled up. They asked the girls if they wanted to party.
The story took an unexpectedly innocent twist, as Senna described how the rappers bought them McDonald’s food and they watched movies and had their palms read in the rappers’ hotel room.
She finished the assembly by once again stating her personal opinion on race. She added a metaphor, asking the students to imagine themselves as always being surrounded by a number of rings of neon light, which each relate to an aspect of them. Senna explained every time you step into a situation, a different light may shine brighter.
“The idea that you can answer ‘what are you’ as a static answer is an illusion,” she said. “Identity is never a static thing where you are always the same thing at the same time.”
A Doug E. Fresh song played as students filed out of the auditorium.
All seniors in Creative Writing classes attended a workshop and discussion with Senna in the MLK room during C-block. Senna, who teaches creative writing at Occidental College, led some writing exercises, explained what she values most in writing, and answered student questions.
Senna first focused on character, stressing the importance of using significant detail, avoiding adjectives and showing rather than telling.
She then asked students to write a brief character portrait, starting with “He/she is the kind of person who…” Students then shared their responses, varying from “she’s the kind of woman who could always tell when someone had gotten a haircut” to “he’s the kind of guy who has a lifetime supply of campbell soup in his basement.”
Then, Senna asked the audience to imagine both that character’s happiest and their most tormenting memory.
“You want to have a character who’s got problems,” Senna said.
After these exercises, Senna explained that her biggest requirement for a story is that it must be anchored in place and time
“What does it smell like? What do you hear at night?” Senna said. “For me, place is all about character and all about point of view.”
Senna went on to speak about her own writing process as a writer, reminiscing on the difficulties of writing novels, particularly Caucasia. Senna said it took a year of rejection letters before she found an agent who would take on the book, but that each letter had “a kernel of really good advice.”
“Don’t think that the work is done and bad or good based on that first draft,” Senna said. “It’s a messy thing.”
Senna then opened the floor to questions. One student asked if she had any advice on writing college essays.
“Write about how you’re different,” Senna said. “The thing that made you feel the most alone in your life, on paper has the most power and appeal.”