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Where Did You Sleep Last Night?: A Personal History Hardcover – May 12, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this wistful yet bitter-toned memoir, Senna (Symptomatic) relates her search for answers about her family and racial heritage, a complicated background that most surely informed first novel, Caucasia. In her 30s, despite having launched a successful writing career and built a life of her own, Senna was curious about her black father's family history (her mother descended from Boston Brahmins). Senna travels South to trace her father's roots, particularly the mystery of his paternity; along the way she meets potential relatives, searches through records and photos and soaks in the atmosphere he knew as a child. Most of her efforts bear little direct fruit (though in the end some answers turn up thanks to DNA testing), but gradually they do help her to better understand her father—a writer and professor, and later a drunk and deadbeat who left Senna's mother and their children. Senna switches narrative vantage points frequently, offering fragments of the past and glimpses of the present. The result is a haunting, introspective meditation on race and family ties that tackles the tricky questions involved in constructing identity. (May)
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From Booklist

*Starred Review* When her parents married in 1968, they merged two complicated strains of American heritage: Boston blue blood traceable to the Mayflower and Southern African American with a cross strain of Mexican–Native American. Senna recalls growing up in a violent home until her parents divorced and she and her siblings were jockied between households, listening to complaints about the worst in each parent. She sided with her mother and found severe fault in her father’s alcoholism and neglect, while listening to his diatribes about race. As an adult, looking more white than black, she wrestled with her own complex feelings about race until she felt the need to critically examine the histories of both sides of her family. Traveling south with her father, Senna untangles long-held secrets—the brief orphanage of her father and his siblings, the complicated compromises made by her black grandmother, an accomplished musician forced to live a humble life. On her mother’s side, she found old wealth, some of it secured from slave trading, whittled down to more modest gentility but continued privilege. Starting her own family, Senna tackled the challenge of overcoming hatred of her father and an acceptance and appreciation of what he had given her. Senna, author of Caucasia and Symptomatic, offers a stunningly rendered personal heritage that mirrors the complexities of race, class, and ethnicity in the U.S. --Vanessa Bush

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition edition (May 12, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374289158
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374289157
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 0.7 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (54 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,880,699 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

29 of 31 people found the following review helpful By E. A. Montgomery on May 22, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
From the descriptions and the cover, I expected "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" to be a book about finding a multi-racial identity and the problems resulting from being a mixed race family in the 1960's. This is not that book. Early in WDYSLN, the author asks her mother if her mother had loved her father and after some thought the answer comes that it wasn't love, it was something else. I am of an age with the author. I am (as far as I know) white. Yet this book could easily have been about my relationship with my father, it tracks so closely to my own life. The heart of this tale is not really racism. Like everything else in America racism colors and informs other aspects of this story, but the true heart is about being a child of a divorce where one parent is so obviously wrong. How do you reconcile the mistreatment of someone you love, yourself, your siblings, your mother, with the fact of your father?

In Danzy Senna's case, her father is well respected in some circles. Her mother is from a long line of socially prominent people but her father's origins are shrouded in conflicting oral histories and unanswered questions. Laying out her paternal history is as complicated as explaining her father. The author has a perfect understanding of white privilege. She applies this to her father, seeing how identity privilege (or the lack of identity) shaped his views. His choices are his own, but informed not only by racism, but also by the complicated vagabond nature of his early existence. The things he has done right, the obstacles he overcame, the heights he achieved, begin to stand as tall as the actions he is completely in the wrong about, the failures he repeatedly has.

How we view ourselves is the second center of WDYSLN.
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Dr. Philip J. Kinsler VINE VOICE on June 5, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
One hesitates to judge a memoir harshly. People pull together the shards of their lives the best way they can, and it is a mark of courage to go public with the struggle to make sense of a life. That said, I did not love this book, and I am a memoir fan. There are two reasons. The first was the way perhaps the first half of the book was written. It was written as if the author was not inhabiting the things that happened to her, but was standing at a distance describing someone else. There was a distanced quality, a lack of immediacy. To say "my father punched my mother" is a description. To bring us into the scene where father bursts up the stairs, howls, throws things etc. is to make the scene alive. I do not think Ms. Senna created this sense of immediacy; at least not for me. It got better in the second half of the book.

My second reason for a somewhat tepid review was that the author felt to me still primarily captured by the struggles she was describing. Disliking the WASP side of her family constantly talking about their Mayflower heritage and Boston Brahmin roots, she cannot help but display these roots too many times. Her search for her black father's roots was more compelling, but here, she became trapped in the very labels and racist perceptions she struggled with. Everyone is described by a label. The Ukranian Jew. The Pakistani Muslim. I did not feel Ms. Senna was far away enough from the judging everyone by their label that her father taught her. It felt like she was still continually struggling with it and captured by it without real self-perception. It felt that I was hearing from a person still struggling with and in trouble from her experiences, rather than someone who had primarily resolved them.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Sam I Am TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 19, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Author Danzy Senna writes a compelling autobiography about what it means to be the grown child of an interracial couple, who were married in Boston in 1968.

This book was personally meaningful for me, as I have only half of my own family's history, and the other half remains shrouded in complex secrecy. I envy her ability to have found answers to some of the questions about her family's past.

Senna writes about the complicated place that our generation occupies. On the one hand, technology offers access to sources of information not available to earlier generations of adoptees and adult children searching for answers about murky family histories. The lives of the affluent are well-documented in newspapers. Births, deaths, criminal arrests, even their comings and goings in society pages provide a clear path that can be followed by a determined researcher.

Yet the paths of ethnic and impoverished sides of a family are far more difficult to track down, because their lives weren't considered valuable enough to be written about or even mentioned in books and newspapers. Discovering family secrets rests in large part on the willingness of these family members to talk about what they know, and Senna put in a great deal of work tracking people down, meeting them in person, contacting them through the mail. Even after all of this effort, she was still never fully able to find answers to all of her questions.

I highly recommend this book for anyone dealing with these kinds of family and personal issues, those in search of answers to family secrets and histories.
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