New People is not a book about Jonestown. While the publicity about the novel, Danzy Senna’s fifth book, mentions the subject – because the protagonist is writing a dissertation on the ethnomusicology of Jonestown – it is tangential to the plot.
Maria, a mixed race twenty-something living in Brooklyn, suffers from identity issues and a host of other problems, particularly her ambivalence about her fiancé, also mixed race, a Stanford grad like her.
Jonestown bookends the present-tense narrative, with a smattering of Jonestown lore at the beginning and end of the novel. Maria could have been researching anything, and the basic story would have been the same: a light-skinned woman wrestling with the role of race in her own identity and that of her fiancé, as well as a black poet with whom she becomes infatuated.
Humor redeems what could have been a dull pass through Maria’s daily life. A mocking and self-mocking tone leavens the portrayal of these groovy Brooklyn Buppies, eating their Moroccan tangine and risotto with asparagus.
The little information about Jonestown that makes its way into the novel will be familiar to anyone who has read even one book about Peoples Temple. The details Senna uses are poignant, but Maria’s study of the Peoples Temple musicians and the end of Jonestown do not enlighten her or the reader with any new understanding. Maria is rightfully cynical about Jones and his treatment of blacks in Peoples Temple. Of Jonestown, she writes, “It was like a giant black nursing home. And how much Jim Jones loved black people before he killed them. What a warrior against racism.”
Her portrait of Peoples Temple singer Deanna Wilkinson has the pathos that Maria’s own life lacks: Deanna had been removed from her parents’ custody – a white mother and a black father – after she was injured during a fight between them, burned by oil.
While one side of her face was scarred from the burn, the other side remained smooth and untouched. She roamed from one temporary shelter to another until she found Jim Jones. He saved her life…. She never gave up on Jim Jones and she never stopped being ashamed of the scars on one side of her face.
Deanna Wilkinson, as we know, died at Jonestown with the others.
In the tradition of her first book, Caucasia, Senna explores the life of a mixed race woman with humor and depth. For those interested in questions of racial identity among mixed race Americans, read the ironically titled New People. For interesting fiction about Jonestown, look elsewhere.
(Other reviews of New People appeared in The Boston Globe, The Vineyard Gazette (Martha’s Vineyard, MA), The Seattle Times, and Vogue Magazine. An interview with the author was aired on National Public Radio on August 5, 2017.)
(Annie Dawid is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her two literary works in this edition are Long Before Jonestown: Indianapolis, 1956 and Jonestown, Japantown. Her other book review is New Materials Worth Reading in New Jones Biography. Her complete collection of articles for this site may be found here. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)