Not Oprah’s Book Club: Where Did You Sleep Last Night?

It would be hard growing up with two writers as parents, much less two writers from vastly different race and class backgrounds, both of whom are volatile. Welcome to Danzy Senna‘s life. Senna, daughter of African American poet and political commentator Carl Senna and Irish-American poet and novelist Fanny Howe, writes of the twisted roots from which she is wrought in her powerful memoir, Where Did You Sleep Last Night? Her parents married, with high and explicitly political hopes, in 1968; just about everything that came after was a form of disappointment.

I found this “personal history”–as she dubs it–slow going at first, but it really picked up steam as Senna and her father traveled around the South looking for long lost relatives and/or guardians. Carl Senna was orphaned many times over as a young kid, his mother determined to get an education of her own and prone to wandering off; as a result, he spent time in brutal church homes, sprawling and loving, albeit limiting, family homes, and just about everything in between. This zig-zagging, smoke-and-mirrors history contrasts sharply to the Howe side of Danzy Senna’s family, which has a long, documented, wealthy history.

Senna is a sparse writer, avoiding the traps that so many well-intentioned memoirists fall into of overwriting and/or over-dramatizing. Instead, Senna earns her moments. Like this one, near the end, when she sums up the journey she has been on:

My brother, sister, and I were formed out of the biggest mistake of our parents’ lives. For us, there is no before–no nostalgic moment of purity to harken back to, no motherland in Africa and Europe to shift our gaze away. There is only, always and already, the failure of this nation and of their union, from which we three emerge, bruised and battered but still breathing. The is our only homeland.

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