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You Are Free: Stories Paperback – May 3, 2011

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Four girls on a trip to Paris suddenly find themselves in a high-stakes game of Truth or Dare that spirals out of control. Learn More
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Author Q&A with Danzy Senna

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


"Danzy Senna trains her gimlet eye on the intersection of race and family life, and the result is a richly nuanced, often funny, always provocative work of art."
-Jennifer Egan
"Danzy Senna's probing and marvelous stories delve into the deepest layers of the human heart and psyche, all while showing us a multi-colored, multi- flavored, and most importantly multi-layered world to which we all--lovers, mothers, nomads, strangers--could easily belong."
-Edwidge Danticat
"Danzy Senna's stories are beautiful examples of deceptive simplicity, which of course isn't simplicity at all. The tales are seductive, lucid dispatches from contemporary life, but the undercurrents are electric and strange, and go on working changes on you after the book is closed."
-Jonathan Lethem
"Searingly smart and profoundly satisfying ... These women and men are palpable and so well wrought that one loses the sense that one is reading a book."
-Richard Bausch

"There's not much I can think of that would make me want to extend my hour-long commute ... but that's what Danzy Senna's new book "You are Free" did. ... Maybe it's the humanity that Senna infuses into each of her characters. Whatever "it" is would be a great topic for any book club discussion."
-"Ladies' Home Journal"
"Skillfully exposes the cracks in her characters' domestic lives...Though Senna's stories address race, class, and gender, they never devolve into simple case studies. Rather, her collection offers nuanced portraits of characters confronting anxieties and prejudices leaving them not as free as they would like to be."
-"The New York Times Book Review"
"Crisply written stories [that] take place in a middle-class world we thought we knew, while revealing the strangeness, distress, and sorrow under its blank surfaces. As with Senna's novels, racial issues crop up, but here they dodge and feint through women's lives that are never as well-tended a

The latest book club pick from Oprah
"The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead is a magnificent novel chronicling a young slave's adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South. See more

Product Details

  • Paperback: 219 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books; 1 edition (May 3, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594485070
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594485077
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 2.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #289,356 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Jill I. Shtulman TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 3, 2011
Format: Paperback
What does it mean to be biracial and free in postmillennial America? The writer James Baldwin is quoted as saying, "Freedom is something that people take and people are as free as they want to be."

By that definition, do the young interracial women that inhabit Danzy Senna's first collection of short stories want to be free? Or do they want to belong to a collective... something, larger than themselves? The answer, as one might suspect, is complicated.

Danzy Senna - author of Caucasia, daughter of the African-Mexican poet Carl Senna and Fanny Howe, a white American of Irish descent - explores this question from her unique vantage point. Each of her characters is struggling for self-identity; each is hopeful and yet yearning for more. The short story collection is populated with ambivalent women, detached husbands, troubled girlfriends, and young babies and toddlers.

In the eponymous title story, Lara, a New Yorker who is anticipating her first byline from an obscure magazine tries hard to love her fate as a childless woman. Still, when she receives a mistaken call from a young girl who believes Lara is her mother, she goes into self-denial: "She had a family - a child - and the knowledge of this made her feel complete, though she knew she was not supposed to buy into such retrograde logic." Yet still she does, with nebulous "what-ifs."

Then there's Livy, a Brooklyn-born artist and new mother who has found happiness with a Santa Fe gallery owner. When Livy hosts an old and spurned friend, she discovers that the connection between them has disintegrated: "She felt the daughter-self, young and vain, dying, and the mother-self, huge and sad, rising up in its wake, linking her to nothing less than history.
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Format: Paperback
The short story genre is, I believe, overlooked and underrated, and this fine collection proves that. These eight stories, though different from each other, are all fun to read.

I'm not a writer, but I would imagine writing a short story is in some ways more of a challenge than writing a novel, because of the "space limitations," making character development difficult. This does not seem to be the case for this author, however. Her characters are vivid and so well drawn that I could picture them with ease and lose myself completely in their stories. The author's gift for crisp dialogue also keeps the stories moving and interesting.

I don't want to really review the individual stories, instead leaving it up to each reader to decide what they think, but there are a few specific comments I will make.

There is only one story here that I didn't like (The Land of Beulah), but not because it wasn't interesting or well written; I just didn't care for the subject matter and, in fact, hated the main character ... maybe that's exactly what the author wanted.

The story There, There seemed a bit unfinished; the ending had me wanting more. I really enjoyed the story The Care of the Self; it's a great little "girlfriends" tale. Finally, I found the unusual story Triptych to be weird and fascinating.

All in all, this is a great collection of stories, well worth reading by anyone who likes this genre. In fact, I will probably read them again.

(FTC disclaimer: I reviewed an advance reader copy of this book that I obtained free of charge, by winning it in the Goodreads.com Firstreads Giveaway.)
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Years ago I fell in love with Danzy Senna's first book, Caucasia. Her talent for storytelling continues in this new collection of short stories called, You are Free: Stories. This collection contains seven short stories, all centered around biracial characters who are trying to figure out what it means to be free in a perhaps, post-racial world. Judging by the characters' actions and behavior, the jury still might be out on if the that world has come into being yet.

While this unique vantage point was fascinating in and of itself, I found that the way these women dealt with the universal themes in life (i.e., marriage, divorce, child rearing, rejection, etc.) far more interesting. I connected with several of the stories; maybe because I could relate to them in some way very personally.

In "The Admission," upwardly mobile couple, Cassie and Duncan, struggle with the decision of enrolling their young pre-school-aged son in an exclusive and expensive prep school. In "The Care of Self," two friends originally from New York meet up in New Mexico after many years of separation. It's a wonderful story that examines just how much a woman can change from her years of being single to becoming a wife and mother, and also coming to terms with what one gains and loses in the process. There's also the pain in knowing that it is quite possible to outgrow people who once played a significant role in your life. In "What's the Matter with Helga and Dave," two women (one white and one thought to be white) often mistaken for one another must deal with others' perception of race when it comes to the physical attribute of their children.

Sometimes in raising biracial or even bi-cultural children there is desire to form a community of sameness.
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