New People is a subversive and engrossing novel of race, class and manners in contemporary America. Maria is at the start of a life she never thought possible. She and Khalil, her college sweetheart, are planning their wedding. They are the perfect couple, “King and Queen of the Racially Nebulous Prom.” They’ve even landed a starring role in a documentary about “new people” like them, who are blurring the old boundaries as a brave new era dawns. But everything isn’t perfect. Heartbreaking and darkly comic, New People challenges our every assumption about how we define one another, and ourselves.By Danzy Senna
A filmmaker arrives at their apartment that weekend to interview them at home. She’s making a documentary about “new people.” That is actually the working title of her film: New People. Her name is Elsa. She has frizzy blond hair and golden brown skin and green eyes. She stands in the foyer, glittering with snowdrops. In her strong teeth Maria can see the Scandinavian half of her heritage. She introduces the others she has brought with her – an Asian-American cameraman named Ansel with hair down to his waist and a white woman with a buzz cut named Heidi. They crowd in the hallway, damp and smiling.
Elsa is older than Maria and Khalil. She is well into her forties. Maria does the math. This means she would have been born in the 1950s, the Era of Mulatto Martyrs – which Maria knows from the history books was a whole other scene. Maria and Khalil were each born in 1970, the beginning of the Common Era.
Elsa says that when she met Khalil at a party uptown, she knew he was perfect for the film. He wanted Maria to meet Elsa before they committed themselves to it.
Khalil and Maria sit on the couch now while Elsa’s crew hovers in the background, filming their conversation. Elsa wants them to talk naturally, to be spontaneous. They tell jokes and share stories they have told before, stories that already feel like lore. His parents met at Freedom Summer and Maria’s mother was once a member of SNCC.
Khalil says: Sometimes she teases me about acting Jewish. You know, like my rabbinical hand gestures. Sometimes I tease her about acting WASPy. The way she says “duvet” instead of comforter. We’re like a Woody Allen movie, with melanin.
Elsa scribbles notes. After the interview she and her crew film Maria and Khalil walking hand in hand through Prospect Park. It is only late afternoon, the snow has melted, and it is nearly dark. The longer Elsa films, the more Maria and Khalil have to pretend they’re having a conversation. Her mind is elsewhere. She is tired of being on camera already. She wants to be back in the library under the artificial lights with her papers spread out around her, the headphones playing the children’s voices in Guyana, singing, Jonestown, a mystery about to be solved.
But back at the apartment, Elsa and her crew stick around. They film Maria and Khalil chopping vegetables in their kitchenette, making a Moroccan tagine while Ornette Coleman plays on the stereo. Afterward, the couple signs forms agreeing to be in the movie. Khalil seems happy about it and Elsa, grinning, tells them how thrilled she is to have them on board. She says they are exactly the subjects she has been looking for. Maria goes through the motions, smiles along, but she is aware of a pain in her chest, a tightness to her breathing.
Reprinted with permission. Excerpted from New People, by Danzy Senna (Riverhead Books, expected publication in August 2017).
Danzy Senna, M.F.A. ’96, is the Los Angeles-based author of five works of fiction and nonfiction. Her first novel, Caucasia, which she wrote while at UCI, was a national best-seller and a finalist for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Her other books include the novel Symptomatic, the memoir Where Did You Sleep Last Night? A Personal History and the short-story collection You Are Free. A recipient of the 2002 Whiting Award and the 2017 John Dos Passos Prize for Literature, Senna has had her work published in Vogue, The New Yorker and The New York Times.