diverse december: poc on book cover

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.

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It is a fantastic photo, don’t you think?!

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12 thoughts on “diverse december: poc on book cover

    • whatthelog says:

      IKR! I’ve studied quite a lot of Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, but never any of the novels that came out of it!
      This required reading isn’t too bad – my north american women writers class is pretty great, actually 😀

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  1. Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku says:

    I adore the Harlem Renaissance, but I haven’t read many books (of any genre) set in this era. I think both books sound really interesting. What did you do with these books for class? I’m curious to hear about what sort of discussions you ended up having!

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    • whatthelog says:

      I’m actually getting ahead of the game, and they’re for next term! They’re under the general heading ‘urban space’ so I imagine we’ll be talking about the differences in black female sexualities in an urban setting versus a domestic/plantation setting. I imagine we’ll also be talking about the ‘tragic mulatto’ trope too, which is super interesting.

      Liked by 1 person

      • whatthelog says:

        I might do! Depends on how the discussion goes – sometimes they’re amazing, and sometimes no one says anything. :/

        Yes! It is North American Women Writers, so the books we’ve already read include: Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
        Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea
        Toni Morrison, Beloved
        Octavia Butler, Kindred
        Jamaica Kincaid, Lucy
        Alison Bechdel, Fun Home
        Eden Robinson, Monkey Beach

        Next term will be:
        Nella Larsen, Quicksand
        Loraine Hansbury, A Raisin in the Sun
        Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street
        Suzan Lori Parks, Topdog/Underdog
        Cynthia Kadohata, In the Heart of the Valley of Love
        Assata Shakur, Assata
        Chris Krauss, Summer of Hate
        Larissa Lai, Salt Fish Girl
        Alicia Gaspar De Alba, Desert Blood: The Juarez Murders

        It is such a great reading list for the blog, as you can tell!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku says:

        That is a fantastic list. I’ve only read a few of these, but I will certainly add them to my TBR. I will also be stalking your blog for reviews– I’m certain you’ll have lots of interesting insights, particularly as you will be dissecting these in class.
        Good luck with your coursework!

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  2. Grab the Lapels says:

    I absolutely love Quicksand. It moves through distinct periods, like an epic. She tries out all the identities available to a black woman who can pass. I once read a book for a class, African and African American film, the title of which was a huge list of tropes for black characters, and I think of that title when I read Quicksand. In the end, her shifting identities destroy her.

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    • whatthelog says:

      You’ve made me like it a lot more, just from that! I think if I hadn’t followed it by Passing (which I enjoyed much more), I would have made myself think about it a bit more.
      Ooh, do you remember the name of the book? That sounds fascinating!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Grab the Lapels says:

        It’s a long title–Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Film. Now, when you read A Raisin in the Sun this coming semester, look for the multiple identities in that story, too. The mother, brother, wife, sister, and boy all represent different aspects of human and civil rights and black identity (what it means to be a man, looking back to Africa, surviving a period during which lynchings we celebrated, etc). Read it all using Hughes’s poem as a lens.

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