Mai Sennaar Promises Gold This Summer

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It would be an understatement to say that Mai Sennaar is busy. Rather than referring to herself as just a novelist, or just a playwright, or just a filmmaker, she calls herself a creative. On June 9 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Sennaar and her mother, composer and founding member of the Grammy-nominated vocal ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, Diana Wharton Sennaar, are premiering Carry On!, a musical showcase about the pandemic. With the musical written by Wharton Sennaar and the book (script) written by Sennaar, Carry On! features interactive technology as it revisits the early days of COVID-19 for the essential workers and elderly residents in a care facility.

As a Baltimore native and graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Sennaar has developed a voice that is as distinct as it is clever. Her nuanced perspective on the so-called Black experience is honest and humorous. Forthcoming in July 2024 from SJP Lit, an emerging imprint headed by Sarah Jessica Parker, her debut novel, They Dream in Gold, spans decades and countries. Sennaar, who splits her time between Baltimore and Dakar, weaves cultural and musical references to Senegal into what begins as a love story but extends as a tribute to both the resilience of Black women and the enduring presence of the Black diaspora. 

Mai Sennaar in Senegal, photo by Toi Patterson
My mother and I joke that we are both dancers who had to find another way to do it because we were too shy to be on the stage. For me, that became writing.
Mai Sennaar

Sennaar and I recently met and spoke about everything from her early features at BmoreArt to these exciting new works. 

Can you speak a little bit to your writing practices and if you have any habitual things you do to get in the writing groove? How do you work your process?

This book really came to be when I got into this 3-7 a.m. writing routine. The consistency gave me the ability to be gentler with myself and to be like, “Hey, if it’s not going to happen today, then you’ll be back tomorrow.” This allowed me to have more freedom with the book and to try things. It gave me more confidence and more compassion for my own instrument as a writer. 

Sometimes, when we have writer’s block, we’re resisting our own voice. The other thing that happened with the consistency was me beginning to embrace what I sounded like on the page and just letting it be what it is and trusting it. That got it done.

Which authors influence or inspire you? Is there anyone you’d like to model your career after?

I don’t know that I have a career model, but artistically, Zora Neale Huston is my number one. There were some years where Their Eyes Were Watching God was out of print in the US. My dad fielded a copy from London. It had really brown pages. It was old, an early edition. It was on our living room shelf and one day I just opened it to the middle and the language and vernacular, the intelligence, the sensuality, the emotion… I was like “who is this person and what has she done?” And that was it. She pulled me in first. I read that book once a year. It’s always like the first time. 

I love Jhumpa Lahiri, Kiese Laymon. Marlon James. There’s so much good writing out there.

I know you come from an artistic family, can you talk about how that sparked your own personal creativity? How do you nurture that spark?

My dad was a booking agent for musical artists, singers, and musicians. My mother is a composer. Our home was full of amazing historic Black artists who really influenced culture. My brother is also a visual artist… Every single way creativity could manifest, I grew up around it. My brother introduced me to some of the music that would stay with me for years, like D’Angelo, Prince… My father [introduced me to] The Temptations, Jon Lucien. My mother with Laura Nyro, Sweet Honey in the Rock (of which she was an early member). It was a very musical home.

It encouraged me to be free spirited and to try things. My mother and I joke that we are both dancers who had to find another way to do it because we were too shy to be on the stage. For me, that became writing, but I still love dancing. We had a real respect for art and home was a real safe zone for anything you wanted to try.

You collaborated with your mother on Carry On!, a new theatrical production. What was that process like and what is this piece about?

Carry On! is about the COVID-19 pandemic and the experiences of those who were most affected: the elderly and essential workers. Many years ago, my mother taught music writing workshops in assisted living facilities in New York City. When COVID happened, she dusted off the story and wanted to see how it looked in a contemporary context. My mother is a genius. Anytime I’m working with her, I’m learning from her. Collaborations always give me a new way of seeing. I am a fan of hers. I feel like I have a little bit of talent and my mom’s talent is [the size of] the whole room. I’m always in learning mode. 

We’ve been working together for years. She’s scored my short films and plays. Getting to be the book writer for her musical is just wonderful and awesome.

It’s also cathartic. Even though it’s about the pandemic, it’s not a sad, dreary thing. It’s hilarious and full of life. This musical is extremely exciting. Supported by a Rubys Grant, it was also an Eugene O’Neill Musical Theatre Conference Semi-finalist.  

Diana Wharton Sennaar, photo by Rob Clatterbuck
Being Black is so much fun. There’s no one way to do it or one way to live our identities. I wanted to honor that diversity. We’re not a monolith. 
Mai Sennaar

I’m seeing more and more art being produced about COVID and the pandemic, and I feel like there’s enough distance where we’re working through it without being retraumatized.

I think with this show, the question we’re trying to answer really is the question that COVID posed: now that we’re all more aware of our mortality, what do we want to leave behind? I’m thirty-two and I don’t think, necessarily, about mortality. My mom’s point was that when you get older you start to consider everyday: “Did I do what I wanted with my day? Am I impacting the world the way that I want?” The musical interrogates that for all of us. 

Is writing a novel different from writing for the stage or screen? How do you silo different types of creative writing?

They’re drastically different. The thing about a novel is that it’s all in your head. It’s just you. You can have anything happen. You can say, “A plane lands.” If you want that in a film, where’s the budget? Where’s the pilot? What airline will rent you a plane? 

Early on, I learned that you have the responsibility to create everything physically with playwriting and film. There are monetary implications. Actors need you to guide them to create what you’re asking. In a novel, you have all this control to create the world however you see it. It’s a different kind of responsibility. I like that autonomy. You can be wackier and crazier.

When you’re writing, do you find yourself revisiting the same themes? 

I think that there are two answers to that. I do have certain preoccupations as a person. I am preoccupied with identity. I’m preoccupied with the nuances of diaspora and culture. 

At the same time, I have to keep myself interested. I’m always talking about artists. I’m writing art about artists which is risky. People who aren’t artists don’t care about those things. It’s a question of writing artists as people and making them interesting and universal. That’s been a fun challenge to conquer in my work.

I’m always finding ways to make it different for myself. Some things I write are really historical. Some things are experimental. I had a dream the other day that was giving sci-fi vibes, so you never know.

How does the diaspora tie into your novel, They Dream in Gold?

I think it’s two ways. The first one is that I talk about African-American identity. It’s treated as if it’s this very simple thing, and it’s probably one of the most complicated and nuanced identities on the planet. 

The hyphen joining these two things is really weighted and heavy and complicated. Should it be a question mark? Should it be a colon? Should it be an arrow? What should that be to join these two identities that for many of us don’t really meet. Interrogating that term and that identity has been helpful in my own journey. I think there’s a way in which a lot of life is spent navigating domestic racial pressures. Stuff we reckon with externally, but I was interested in interrogating the internal aspects of these pressures—the ways they influence identity.

The book does this with humor. With a sense of play, of joy. Because being Black is so much fun. There’s no one way to do it or one way to live our identities. I wanted to honor that diversity. We’re not a monolith. 

Atlantic Coast in Senegal, photo by Mai Sennaar

You split your time between Baltimore and Dakar. Two different worlds. How do these two cultures inform your writing?

My experiences in Dakar were seminal to the development of They Dream in Gold. But for me, it’s broader. There are just certain environments I enjoy, and I keep coming back to them. There’s not always a reason. I don’t want to say I love Dakar because it’s in Africa… I just do. 

It does inform my worldview. It’s lovely to experience the diversity of who we are. 

Baltimore is a city of creatives. We have a lot of notable literary figures. Do you have any favorite local places? What inspires you about Baltimore?

I love the neighborhoods. I live thirty-five minutes from where I grew up. In the summer you can smell the earth and grass, and you can hear the birds and the breeze. There’s something so perfect about Baltimore neighborhoods.

People who aren’t from here don’t really understand how peaceful many of our neighborhoods are. There’s a feeling about it that’s very nourishing and calming. I can find inspiration everywhere, but I’m a nature girl. We have so many parks in Maryland. There’s always a good place to write. I love our museums. The BMA. The Walters. When I was deep in the process of finding my way with the book, I spent a lot of time in museums, just checking things out. There’s a lot of good art in our city. You don’t have to run to DC or NY for theater. There’s great stuff here.

They Dream in Gold is available for preorder through our local indie bookstores as well as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Release events in Baltimore are scheduled at the Barnes & Noble at JHU on August 3 and Greedy Reads on August 8.

Tickets for Carry On! (at the BMA on June 9th) are available here.

Header photo of Mai Sennaar by Ibra Khalil Traoré.

All images courtesy of Mai Sennaar

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