Hello hello! This is yet another book that I hadn’t actually planned on reading for Diverse December, but I had to read it for university, and it fit quite well. The book I’m talking about today? Nella Larsen’s Quicksand and Passing.
Nella Larsen’s novels Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929) document the historical realities of Harlem in the 1920s and shed a bright light on the social world of the black bourgeoisie. The novels’ greatest appeal and achievement, however, is not sociological, but psychological. As noted in the editor’s comprehensive introduction, Larsen takes the theme of psychic dualism, so popular in Harlem Renaissance fiction, to a higher and more complex level, displaying a sophisticated understanding and penetrating analysis of black female psychology.
This blurb from goodreads makes these novels sound quite dry – but they’re really not. Both are somewhat autobiographical, as Larsen herself was deeply interested in the Harlem Renaissance, and the idea that she could pass as a white woman – a theme that both novels deal with.
I’ll be honest, Passing interested me far more than Quicksand did. The protagonist in Quicksand, Helga Crane, is a mixed-race woman who flits between black and white cultures as she tries to find her place within the respectable middle class. I just couldn’t warm to her. Not that there’s anything wrong with unlikeable protagonists – but her character and the story itself felt like they kept going in circles. I realise that’s probably the point of the novel, but it annoyed me too much for me to appreciate it.
Passing, on the other hand, is about two women who went to school together. One has decided to ‘pass’ as a white woman, and has married a white (and extremely racist) man. The other has embraced black culture, and is an important member of her local societies. The novel notes the extreme differences between the two women – and implies that there may be deadly consequences for those who cannot bring themselves to embrace their culture. While it is a little didactic towards the end, I found the swirling themes of sexuality, motherhood, and culture extremely interesting – if Larsen’s other works are more like Passing, I would be extremely interested to read them.
An interesting note: the photograph used on the cover of Quicksand and Passing is by famous Harlem photographer James VanDerZee, whose work came to define the Harlem Renaissance. This photo is known as Couple in Raccoon Coats.
It is a fantastic photo, don’t you think?!