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A Mixed Race Take On What It Means To Be 'Free'

A lonely young New Yorker finds a puppy while jogging. A middle class couple tries navigating the treacherous waters of admission to a sought-after preschool. A new mother grows jealous of the chic and thin mom living across the hall.

It's all stuff you may have seen before — but not quite. At least not if Danzy Senna has anything to say about it.

These are all characters in Senna's new collection of short fiction, titled You Are Free. The stories start with the familiar, but soon take subtle turns to reveal racial and other tensions lurking not too far below the surface.

Senna herself is mixed race. Her father is half African-American and half Mexican, while her mother is Irish and English. Growing up in Boston, Senna was raised to self-identify as black.

"I think growing up black or growing up biracial is something that's part of your daily language and your daily awareness of the world you're living in," she tells NPR's Michel Martin.

But she doesn't see her work being about race or mixed race. Instead, Senna uses race as the background of her fiction, as a way to understand the culture and characters.

The stories in You Are Free center around everyday events that could happen to any one of us — but the plots often take disturbing turns.

"I like stories that frighten me, that take me to a place that I'm uncomfortable with, but that leave me with some greater understanding of human nature," Senna says.

In one story, "The Land of Beulah," a young woman goes through a breakup and brings home a puppy. As the story unfolds, she takes her suppressed anger out on the dog.

A main theme in Senna's work is the issue of identity and appearance, especially with women. In "What's the Matter With Helga and Dave?" the narrator is a biracial woman who appears white, but sees herself as black. Her husband is also biracial, but passes as black.

"That leads to all sorts of strange circumstances in their marriage," Senna observes.

She says the story shows that identities are formed by how we see ourselves, but also by how the world sees us.

Senna came up with the title You Are Free from the idea that the only character in her stories who is truly free is an unborn child.

"To be born is to be encumbered by identity and by projections and by a body," Senna says. "Are we really free at this point in history as women? And what is freedom?"

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NPR Staff