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Q: Motherhood is the prominent theme of most stories in your new collection You Are Free. Whether as a condition or a defining characteristic of identity, most of the characters in your collection are wrestling with motherhood. Did you set out to write about motherhood or did the theme arise organically?
A: It definitely arose organically. I didn’t write these stories during one extended period of time, but they do all grapple with questions maybe not so much of motherhood, but of nurturing – of the self, of a child, of an animal. I think for a woman artist, the worry is often that when you have children, you stop being an artist. But for me, motherhood – hard as it has been to find those hours to write – really gave me a kind of refresher course on humanity. It made me think about all these familiar subjects in fresh ways: identity confusion, grief, jealousy, class anxiety, loneliness – and of course the desire in all of us to be transformed by an experience, whether we succeed or not.
Q: How much does your own life experience determine your writing themes? For example, do you find yourself exploring themes like motherhood more now that you are a mother yourself?
A: Half of the stories were written when I was single and childless, living in New York. Half of them were written during my pregnancies and the births of my two sons in Los Angeles. As a result, perhaps, some of the women characters are single and childless, “free” but longing for something to ground them, and some of the characters are married and in the process of becoming mothers. This split in the book reflects the split in me as I was writing it between the young single self and the older mother self. I was interested in the effect motherhood had on my other identities – as a sister, as a daughter, as a friend – and how the ways I’d thought of myself in terms of race, sex and class were also profoundly affected.
Q: The protagonist in each of the stories in You Are Free is a woman. Was that intentional?
A: No. It wasn’t intentional. But I’ve had an interest for a long time in the state of women of my age group – especially at this moment in history, when we are supposed to be liberated and have all these choices open to us that weren’t open to our mothers. What does that really mean?
Q: The title story, You Are Free, focuses on the central dichotomy running throughout the book: women who are mothers and those who are not. In that story, it seems that both women are free in different ways. Do you think the timing of when the story was written in terms of your own life defines which side of the coin seems most “free” in a given piece or do you still see both sides?
A: I still see both sides. I was single and childless a lot longer than I have been married and a mother, so I definitely feel identified with each of the women in these stories, no matter what their predicament. The meaning of “freedom” in this collection is, I hope, as ambiguous as I intended it to be. Ironically, in the title story, the phrase, “You are free,” is taken from a line spoken by the female protagonist who has just had an abortion. “You are free, you are free, you are free,” she chants in her head on the way home from the abortion clinic. Is she referring to herself or the fetus she has just aborted? And in an odd way, that dead fetus is the only character in this collection that is truly “free.” Once we are born, we are encumbered by “identity” – by the projections of the world. Our bodies – the meanings they speak to the world – will always be encumbered. So then how do we make choices? Where, if anywhere, do we feel free? And free from what?
Q: The cover of You Are Free is very striking. Who is the artist and what is your relationship to her?
A: The image on the cover of this book is by one of my favorite artists, Lorna Simpson. I don’t know Ms. Simpson personally, but have always been a huge admirer of her work. She deals specifically with issues of identity – the issue of the male gaze, the white gaze, and history’s relationship to the present. I especially loved this series of drawings of women – the same woman? – wearing different hair styles. It looks almost like a wig advertisement from the 1950s. I love the way the women are turned away, half-concealed by the wig, half-revealed. It speaks beautifully to the themes in my work of both the permanence and mutability of identity.
Q: You Are Free is your first collection of short stories. After writing two novels and a memoir, why did you decide now was the time to try your hand at the short story form? How was the writing process similar or different from your other books?
A: I have always loved to read the short story form – have admired it from afar – but considered myself primarily a novelist. But slowly, over the years, short stories have come to me – snippets in the life of a character that only required twenty or thirty pages, sometimes less. They are in some ways more like writing poems – every word and line counts, there is a push toward economy. You have to ask yourself why you have entered the character’s life on this particular day and not stray too far from that focus. In a novel, there is more room for messiness and tangents and sprawl. Now that I’ve started writing short stories, I find them so pleasurable that I’m sure I will continue to do so between and through the novel writing process.
Q: Race is a consistent theme in your work, but less directly in You Are Free than in your other books. Is that because you see motherhood as a more universal subject or are there other reasons race was not the focus of this collection?
A: I never consciously think about what issues I’m going to explore in a work of fiction. It just organically develops out of the characters I’m writing. I see race entering these characters lives the way it enters many of our lives right now. It is there, an unspoken presence, but sometimes it seems not to matter at all and sometimes it seems like everything revolves around it. Some of the characters in the stories are not definable racially and others I left their race completely unstated. I liked leaving it a little mysterious and seeing how that affected the way the story could be read. I think in these stories race is just one of many different identities that the women are struggling to understand – but it is certainly not the whole picture. It probably has to do with how race functions in my life at this time – something I think about but don’t feel obsessed by anymore.
Photo of Danzy Senna © Percival Everett
The stories are very short and simple. None of them had very much action, but the subtly is enjoyable.Published 4 months ago by Jan
i guess i dont get it.
i mean... i get it. i get what her somewhat forced point is supposed to be. but i kinda feel like... i just dont get it. Read more
As a big fan of Danzy Senna, I was very dissapointed with this book. It is just a compilation of pointless, uninteresting short stories. Some were even boring to read. Read morePublished on January 30, 2013 by Faymous
Danzy Senna has written a collection of stories that will resonate with those on the outside looking in, or who feel they are. Read morePublished on December 28, 2012 by Angelia Menchan
She had me wanting a little more in the stories, but overall I could have probably spent my time doing something else.Published on November 30, 2012 by Sterling Ashby
I really like Danzy Senna's writing but this book was hollow to me. For one, it made all of the single, childfree women seem sad and pathetic, while holding all of the mothers up... Read morePublished on July 6, 2012 by T. Hudson
I read Caucasia, years ago and although I don't remember the details of that book, remembered that I liked it enough to buy this author's work again. I got this book for $1. Read morePublished on September 18, 2011 by Raquel M. Wallen
I liked the first story but partway through the second, I put down the book and will never read anything by this author again. Her portrayal of animal abuse is unacceptable. Read morePublished on August 27, 2011 by gussie
This in an interim review. I have finished four stories and if the next few stories are like the ones I have read I will not finish this book. I do not read short stories often. Read morePublished on July 4, 2011 by Richard C. Anderson