Danzy Senna on Her Favorite California Books

The California Book Club panelist admires the works of Joan Didion, Dana Johnson, and Octavia E. Butler.

danzy senna
Mara Casey

Danzy Senna grew up as the daughter of a white poet (Fanny Howe) and a Black editor (Carl Senna), and her novels—Caucasia, Symptomatic, and New People—are populated with characters who are conflicted about their race and their creative aspirations. Rather than approach her themes with earnestness, however, Senna opts for satire. “Thrillingly, blackness is not hallowed in Senna’s work, nor is it impervious to pathologies of ego,” Doreen St. Félix writes in the New Yorker. “Senna particularly enjoys lampooning the search for racial authenticity. Her characters, and the clannish worlds they are often trying to escape, teeter on the brink of ruin and absurdity.” Senna lives in Los Angeles, where she teaches creative writing at the University of Southern California. She’s also on the selection panel of Alta’s California Book Club. The club asked her about California books via email.

What’s your most treasured book about California—or that’s set in the state?
It’s a tie: The Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West, and Play It As It Lays, by Joan Didion.

What are some of the best overlooked books that take place in the Golden State?
I don’t know if these are overlooked, but they are wonderful, fresh depictions of the Golden State: Elsewhere, California, by Dana Johnson; Drift, by Victoria Patterson; The White Boy Shuffle, by Paul Beatty; Southland, by Nina Revoyr; The Gangster We Are All Looking For, by Le Thi Diem Thuy; The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender.

Who are some new California authors you’re most excited about?
These are not new authors, but they do have excellent new books! Héctor Tobar’s The Barbarian Nurseries; Vendela Vida’s We Run the Tides, a beautiful portrait of girlhood in the Bay Area of the ’80s; and Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s exquisite new collection, Likes, in which several stories are set in her city, Los Angeles.

What’s a California story that deserves to be told in a book?
The Bay Area student activists of the late 1980s and early ’90s—a story I lived and am trying to write—a story that is both extremely funny and an interesting historical backdrop to the present. We were the grittier, pre-Twitter origins of wokeness, intersectionality, identity politics.

What’s the one California book that people need to read right now?
Because we now live in the dystopian science-fiction universe of our imaginings, read Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower.

John McMurtrie edits for McSweeney’s Publishing and the literary travel magazine Stranger’s Guide.
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