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Quicksand and Passing
by Nella Larsen
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Quicksand and Passing (American Women Writers Series) by Nella Larsen (1986)
The edition I had is actually 2 novellas, both dealing with issues of being a mixed race woman in the 1920s. They are short, hard-hitting books with no happy endings, no simple answers, and with complex characters. The structural racism (and sexism) that traps the characters is reinforced by their own actions within that system.
It has taken me a while to read this book. To be honest, if soffitta1 hadn't requested it, it would probably still linger on my TBR shelf.
What great books they are. Passing, the sevond novel in this book I read in one day. I was completely taken by the book, finding out this meaning of passing. Had no idea, really. It was a very interesting read, both because of the information, sphere of America in the 1920. A place and time completely foreign to me. And yet I felt strangely at home both with Passing, as well as with Quicksand. The emotions described seem to be universal, transgressing physical borders, time differences as well as racial lines.
Despite I liked Quicksand a lot, I didn't really sympathize with Helga a lot. I guess that's because of the narrative, 3rd person. I followed her search, her longing with interest, but didn't feel outrage or real sympathy for her at all when she, finally settling down, finds out how hard a woman's life may be.
Review of Quicksand:
Quicksand is a semi-autobiographical novel by Harlem Renaissance author Nella Larsen. It follows the main character, Helga Crane, for several years during early womanhood. Helga lost both parents at an early age (her father left the family when she was very young and her mother died when she was a teenager), and she spent much of her teenage years in the household of her mother’s second husband, a cruel white man, who always resented her. Helga’s mixed-race heritage (Danish mother and African American father) informs most aspects of her life in early twentieth century America. Helga feels as though she does not fit in anywhere and she is desperately trying to find peace and contentment, but it seems to be always out of her grasp. In addition, the novel expresses Helga’s severe preoccupation with shades of skin color. Nearly every chapter makes some reference to the different skin shades of the African American characters – black, brown, amber, yellow, etc. and what they signify.
The novel begins with Helga teaching at Naxos, a southern school for black children (presumably modeled after the Tuskegee Institute.) She decides to leave because she can no longer stand the conservative philosophy of the school’s administration and how it affects the children (presumably a - much deserved, in my opinion - dig on Booker T. Washington’s philosophy.) Throughout the novel, Helga constantly escapes to new places (first Chicago, then Harlem, then Copenhagen, then the South). She desperately tries to convince herself that this time she is happy and that this is what she is meant to do, but soon, loneliness, depression, and that feeling of not belonging creeps in and she flees.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this novel (and also Passing) is that it works on two levels. Most importantly, it deals with the oppression and injustice experienced by African Americans in the United States. However, it is also an interesting study of depression and (while I’m no psychologist) possibly something like borderline personality disorder. Helga is clearly dealing with quite severe mental illness and the novel gives us access to her tragically flawed thought processes.
I highly recommend this and Larsen’s other novel, Passing, which deals with somewhat similar themes and with a similar main character. It is unfortunate that this incredibly talented author wrote only two short novels and a few short stories.
Two short novels from an African-American woman writer of the 1920s and 30s. Well written stories that i enjoyed more than expected. 'Passing' is mainly the story of a mixed race woman who spent a lot of her life 'passing' as a white person in a time when it mattered.
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Wikipedia in English (1)
Quicksand (1928) is the first novel to give a voice to the sexual desires of a black woman. Helga Crane, the book?s protagonist, is trapped in the conflict between an active and a passive sexual behaviour, between sexual fufilment and middle-class respectability. Conflicts of race and sex even a religious conversion cannot resolve. Passing, written a year later, is overtly about black people who ?pass? for white, but in a veiled way it also is the desire of one woman for another - a new and daring theme for the writing of the time. The eroticism and sexuality that Nella Larsen was only able to whisper has in recent times been spoken loud and clear by Gayl Jones, Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange and many other black women writers who recognize Nella Larsen as a pioneer and inspiration.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)813.52Literature English (North America) American fiction 20th Century 1900-1944
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