One might question some of her choices, but no one could accuse Maria Pierce, the protagonist of New People, Danzy Senna’s provocative new novel, of ordinariness. Perhaps that’s no surprise, given that she—like her equally light-skinned, dreadlocked fiancé, Khalil, whom she met at Stanford in the early 1990s—is biracial. They are two of society’s “New People,” children born to mixed-race couples in the late ’60s and early ’70s, offspring she calls “the progeny of the Renaissance of Interracial Unions.”
It’s November 1996. Maria and Khalil, subjects of a documentary about biracial children, live in Brooklyn as she works on a dissertation about the Jonestown massacre. She’s the sort of well-meaning person who speaks in broken English when talking to someone with a foreign accent. And she is the adopted daughter of a Cambridge, Massachusetts, woman who—like a poet Maria has recently become infatuated with—was “old-school” black, with dark skin rather than the “octoroon-gray eyes or butterscotch skin” of New People.
The poet, a “shaved-head black man,” and Maria’s infatuation with him are the sparks for much of the novel’s drama. Her obsession is so intense that she tracks down the poet at his apartment building. But before Maria can knock on his door, his confused white neighbor mistakes her for her Spanish nanny. Maria’s willingness to go along with the charade of being the baby’s nurse, even to the point of adopting a Spanish accent, is one of many ways Senna dramatizes Maria’s uncertainty and despair over the direction of her life.
Expertly plotted and full of dark humor, New People is a thoughtful and unforgettable look at race and class at the dawn of the 21st century.