A Longish Intro on How I Came Across this Book
Danzy Senna reviewed a book in the New Yorker in May 2015, a work she refers to as that hilarious, badass novel Oreo* by Fran Ross, an overlooked classic, a satire about race, originally published in 1974 without a stir, the novel everyone remembers from that time published two years later, had the title Roots.
Senna read Oreo in the late 1990’s, when she was living in a neighbourhood of what she called ‘Brooklyn’s dreadlocked élite‘ talented, up and coming, young black musicians, film-makers, artists said to be backed by the likes of Tracy Chapman and Alice Walker.
Though it had been written 20 years before, the book seemed to speak of their present and in her article she reflects on the narratives that had tended to gain traction and audience, those like Roots that looked back at slavery and oppression and then those that had been ignored, like Oreo, narratives that looked forward, that addressed modern issues, where no one is immune to criticism.
Sadly, Fran Ross died at a young age of cancer, little known in the literary world, this her only published work. It was republished in July 2015.
*To much of the public, an oreo is a black biscuit with white cream filling, in the African-American community however, it is a racial slur used to insult a black person who appears to act white.
You can read the article linked below, I hope to read the book soon, and all this to say how I came across the author Danzy Senna, who wrote From Caucasia, With Love, a novel about a mixed race family and the effect on their two daughters, when they separate, on account of the differing colour of their skin.
Review of From Caucasia, With Love
Birdie and Cole are two sisters, so close, they have their own made up language they speak fluently, that no one else can understand. The rest of society judges them on appearance, for Birdie appears white and her older sister Cole appears to be black.
While their parents are together it is less of an issue, but when they separate and move away from each other, each daughter departing with one parent, they will discover how much their colour dictates other people’s perceptions of them. Cole leaves for Brazil with her father and Birdie is on the run with her white activist mother fleeing the authorities.
The story is narrated from the point of view of Birdie and although she feels just like her sister, there were already signs of their differences in the behaviour of those closest to them. Her white grandmothers favouritism, and her father’s new girlfriend who won’t look her in the eye, favoured by one, rejected by the other.
Birdie travels with her mother, losing all contact with her sister and father and integrates into a new life and school as someone she is not, she accepts it, but the truth seethes beneath the surface of all her interactions, she becomes numb to the misconceptions about who she is, until she has had enough and decides to go looking for Cole and her father.
“Strange as it may sound, there was safety in this pantomime. The less I behaved like myself, the more I could believe that this was still a game. That my real self – Birdie Lee – was safely hidden beneath my beige flesh, and that when the right moment came, I would reveal her, preserved, frozen solid in the moment in which I had left her.”
It is a gripping coming of age story of a girl who must deal with so much more than growing up, being forced to subsume another identity, neither one thing nor the other, without a role model to guide her.
It is a courageous effort to place the reader in the mind of a character who is like a changeling, crossing racial and geographic boundaries, making choices that will ensure not just her survival, but that she gets the answers she is looking for.
New Yorker Article – An Overlooked Classic About the Comedy of Race by Danzy Senna
Reading your review made me think of a book that I picked up in South Africa. I was looking for black female writers and I picked this up on a whim though it did look familiar (it should be available and I noticed it has also been translated into French). It is called Coconut by Kopano Matlwa. It follows two black young women who meet in Johannesburg. One is privileged and grew up in a white suburb, the other grew up poor in a township. I have not read it yet but it really sounds interesting. It came out in 2007 and has won a number of awards.
your reviews are so tantalising …. every time I go to my local bookshop, and she looks up the title I’ve read about here,, It’s not available in NZ.. I can see I shall have to bite the bullet an learn about on-line and kindle and amazon !!!
I enjoyed your review, Claire. And it’s interesting to hear how you came across this author – she’s completely new to me.
Great review, as ever, Claire. I remember reading this shortly after it was published and being very impressed with it but I’ve not seen anything else by Senna since. Interesting introduction – I’ll keep my eye out for Oreo.
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I’ve seen that she’s written a couple of collections of short stories and one other novel, and its a good sign if she’s writing reviews in the New Yorker. I’m looking forward to Oreo.
How awful that the sisters had to be separated! I’m assuming it was a necessary thing for reasons which would be explained in the book?
The fact that the sisters get different reactions from people, etc. is so interesting to me. Three of my siblings are adopted, and I am always wondering about things like this. How does looking different in the world change you, even though you come from the same starting place? (Not explaining myself very well, but you probably know what I’m getting at.)
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I think its one of those things that children see differently from adults and as the story is narrated from Birdie’s point of view, we see it more from her point of view, but whether it was necessary or not is something that is left to the reader, and makes for an interesting discussion!
I totally get what you mean about how we are perceived, we all know that the visual look of someone does account for a significant proportion of first impressions and judgements. I also wonder not just about the physical appearance but the other aspects that make up character, that connect a child to a parent, that allow a child to understand themselves and their inclinations, interests etc.
I think that looking different to one’s parents is an issue and that one’s origins can’t be or shouldn’t be ignored, as they are a part of that person, whether they have been assimilated into another reality or not.
I think in this book, it is a challenge because the child is something entirely different to the parent, so the experience of the child is unknown to the parent, it’s such a complicated subject, identity! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts Naomi.
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Brillant minds think alike! I already have Caucasia on my TBR for this year and I have already pre-ordered Oreo. Both sound like stunning stories that everybody should pick up. Can’t wait to hear what you have to say about Victoire. I read one book by her ages ago I think it was Traversée de la Mangrove. I really need to re-read it. I just remember liking it a lot.
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