Believe it or not, I had my November book review all planned out in advance! I was going to write about Nella Larsen's Passing and Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer, and even gave myself deadlines for finishing those books! (The Netflix release date for Rebecca Hall's film adaptation of Passing was set for November 10th, and my local Phi Beta Kappa chapter had a virtual book club discussion scheduled for The Sympathizer on November 17th.) And did I finish either of those books by those deadlines, or even before the month of November ended? Nope! Hence, no November book review.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. But when I got on Thriftbooks back then, I didn't just order a copy of Passing by itself. No, I ordered The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen: Passing, Quicksand, and the Stories (edited by Charles R. Larson, no relation), which includes three short stories, Quicksand, and then Passing at the very end. And since the residual straight-A student in me felt obligated to read the entire collection, it took me a while to finally reach the work that Larsen is most known for. Today I'm reviewing both novels, which were each set, written, and published in the latter half of the 1920s, during the Harlem Renaissance.
Quick note about the short stories, though. "The Wrong Man" is about a fancy Long Island wife who worries about her past as a kept woman being exposed when her ex shows up at an elite party that she and her husband are both attending. "Freedom" is about a man who uses a business trip to NYC as an excuse to permanently escape the girlfriend he wishes to be rid of, only to be overcome with guilt and grief when he learns that she has died giving birth to their baby (who also died). And "Sanctuary" is about a young man somewhere in the South who convinces his friend's mother to hide him from the police, but he might not be safe with her either once she learns what crime he committed. If those sound interesting to you, then feel free to read the collection that I got. Otherwise, I'm sure Passing is available on its own, or there are editions out there that just have Passing and Quicksand together and nothing else.
Quicksand by Nella Larsen
Helga is a chronically dissatisfied woman (likely dealing with depression), and no matter where she goes, her misery sets in at some point. As the daughter of a Danish immigrant mother and a Black absentee father, she grew up in Chicago among her white stepdad's relatives, and as the only Black (biracial) person in her family, she always felt out of place. But that sense of feeling out of place endured as she got older, even at the Black boarding school that her uncle sent her to after her mother's death; Helga found comfort in being among kids who looked like her, but also felt alienated by not having a loving family to go home to like her peers did. In the present, Quicksand opens with Helga working as a teacher at a boarding school for Black girls in the Southern town of Naxos. She's frustrated with the school's restrictive codes of dress and conduct, and disgusted by the fact that the school is clearly a project for white Southerners to make a show of being charitable to the Black students and staff; the school can cultivate a new generation of good Negroes who will stay in their place and entertain no lofty ambitions that might threaten the white Southerners' sense of social and financial superiority. Helga is fed up with the school and never fit into Naxos anyway, so she quits her job, boarding a train back to Chicago that same day. Thus commences a cycle of Helga fleeing from location to location, believing upon arrival that she's finally found the happiness she's been searching for and an environment that suits her, only to feel the urge to escape to greener pastures again once she gets tired of the place or it somehow doesn't meet her expectations.
She nearly goes broke in Chicago (without references, she can't even get hired to do domestic work, which seems to be the only thing people are hiring Black women for at the time), until the YWCA hooks her up with a gig as an assistant to a Black woman who gives lectures on "the race issue". This gig takes Helga to New York, specifically Harlem, where she finds a circle of educated Black friends who enjoy the finer things in life just like she does. But then she comes to resent being sequestered with so many Black people all the time, and being confined to a lesser life in America simply because she's Black. Then one day she unexpectedly receives some "I don't want to be associated with you anymore because you're Black, so never contact me again" money (that's me paraphrasing) from her Chicago uncle to the tune of $5,000, which would equate to approximately $80,000 in 2021. This windfall has Helga feeling like, "I'm not like the rest of these Negroes!" (I'm paraphrasing again but that's essentially her sentiment when she realizes she has the money to escape America now), and she dips off to Copehnagen, Denmark where her mother's rich sister and said sister's husband welcome her with open arms. Remembering a childhood trip visiting family in Denmark, Helga naively believes that there are "no Negroes, no problems, no prejudice" in Copenhagen, and that she'll find people who appreciate and understand her there. People, I would argue, that she already has in Harlem, until she decides that being just another Black person isn't good enough for her. But I digress.
Helga lives the life of luxury that she feels she's always deserved, only to realize that although her aunt and uncle do seem to genuinely care for her as a person, they also want to use her as a show pony for their wealthy associates. More specifically, they hope that Helga's exotic qualities as a Black woman will appeal to a famously arrogant painter that they want her to marry, enabling Auntie and Unc to enter an even higher social echelon. Unfortunately for them, Helga refuses that dude's proposal, and after two years in Denmark she decides that she misses "her people" and wants to be around Black folks again, so she returns to Harlem. But in Harlem, her former roommate and best friend is now married to Dr. Anderson, the man who was the principal of the Naxos school, the man that Nella has been reluctantly in love with, and the only man who ever saw through her and could tell she was searching for something missing in her life. After being kissed and then rejected by Dr. Anderson, Helga drunkenly stumbles into a church on a rainy night and gets "saved". (It's pretty clear that she's just hungover and needs a place to dry off and cry, but she's so in need of relief that she gets swept up in the fervor of the church service and considers herself "saved"). She then immediately latches onto the first man who expresses interest in her, seducing a visiting reverend who walks her back to her hotel that night. Seeing in him a chance for stability and happiness (any man with means will do at this point if it means escaping the dead end she's once again reached in New York), she convinces him to marry her soon after their tryst and lands right back in the South. Helga's living as the reverend's wife in a small Alabama town, shunned by the largely female congregation and encumbered with too many babies born in quick succession. Now with her own children involved, once she inevitably gets tired of her life this time, it's much harder for her to get up and flee again.
I genuinely believe that most of Helga's trouble and isolation are due to the fact that for so long, she craves social status and upward mobility more than anything else. From her perspective, Black people are just as unwelcoming to her and rigid about social hierarchy as white people because she doesn't have a family (no recognizable name or connections), but as I understand it that's because she focuses on ingratiating herself with only bougie Black people. If she spent time with more Black folks who weren't so well off or at least weren't so snobbish about wealth and ancestry, I highly doubt that she would've had such a hard time finding people who welcomed her, without judgment or ulterior motive, regardless of her mixedness or lack of family. But she's an educated woman who likes nice things, who's described as having a "craving for smartness, for enjoyment," and for her I guess that's something only high society Black people can give her. Speaking of which, I didn't realize that elite Black people might look down on someone like Helga. With the colorism that often accompanies bougie Blackness to this day, no less back then, I'd figured that our light-skinned protagonist could easily claim a place among the elite. And yes, Helga does have privileges due to being half-white, light-skinned, and college-educated. But she neither comes from a well-established family nor subscribes to elite Black people's ideas of what will uplift the race (rigid standards for ladylike-ness, etc.), nor is she involved with the movement for racial equality, all of which makes her a target of ire or complete disregard.
Reading Helga frequently made me feel like I need to check myself, because I too have dealt with the loneliness, crushed idealism, and resentment that she feels as a new working person struggling to adjust to the so-called "real world". Perhaps, like Helga, I'm always looking elsewhere, for somewhere grander, for a place and people who will make me feel like "The king undisputed, respected, saluted, and seen for the wonder I am" (word to Scar from Disney's 'The Lion King', whom I kept thinking about when reading this novel). And if that's the case, and like Helga I never seem to be truly and lastingly happy in any situation, then maybe my expectations are too rigid? Maybe the world hasn't caught up to my wants yet, or maybe I have an over-inflated sense of who I am and what I deserve. It's definitely something to think about. And if I may get a bit philosophical, lately I find myself questioning more and more whether the pain and suffering of this life are actually worth it, and I wonder if it might be more benevolent to not force new people to join us in the turmoil we're already facing on this side (since children don't ask to be born). Helga, however, takes this idea to an extreme and asserts on more than one occasion that Black children in particular are better off not being born, since life in America is so unrelentingly wretched for Black people and there is no escape. These thoughts come up in Helga's bitterest moments, so maybe she doesn't even truly believe what she's saying. But to think that I would have any ideas remotely in common with someone who dares to imply that Black Americans should just die out? That's terrifying! Black people are historically known for making our own self-hood, our own fun, our own art, our own culture, our own wonder to balance out the strife of being in this country, and I could never imagine wishing our stuff away like that. (And that's silly anyway, because in the most generalized terms, if Black people cease to exist then racist white people get what they want. And we can't have that! Think about what you're saying, Helga!) So yeah, maybe the strife hasn't been worth it and still isn't, but we're here now. What I'm finna erase myself for?
Remember that the novel is titled Quicksand, as in sinking into something inescapable, so suffice it to say that Helga doesn't get a happy ending. The final sentence of the novel is bone-chilling! Especially considering that it follows multiple paragraphs of Helga on post-partum bed rest, formulating plans to escape and reclaim her life once more, plans that are doomed to never come true. The ending is so incredibly dark and despairing when you think about how limited Black women's options are in late 1920s America, even if they are educated, have mixed/light-skinned privilege, have wealthy relatives, and were once able to flit off to a foreign country when the going got rough. As someone who's not light-skinned I found myself still relating so much to Helga's search for meaning, belonging, and happiness, even in those moments when I didn't want to relate to her at all. And given how men are both the key to Helga's survival as well as the reason why she's trapped in the end, I think it's such a supreme, applause-worthy show of pettiness that Larsen dedicated this novel to her cheating husband (E.S.I., or physicist Elmer Samuel Imes). I don't know for sure that she meant it in a petty way at the time, but that's how I'm taking it now! If you've ever struggled with adulting or are interested in the Harlem Renaissance, the racial politics of the 1920s, how confusing it is to be a Black person living with internalized anti-Blackness, and how an independent woman might fare in this time period, then read this book!
"These were her people. Nothing, she had come to understand now, could ever change that... How absurd she had been to think that another country, other people, could liberate her from the ties which bound her forever... Ties that were of the spirit. Ties not only superficially entangled with mere outline of features or color of skin... Thankful for the appeasement of that loneliness which had again tormented her like a fury, she gave herself up to the miraculous joyousness of Harlem. The easement which its heedless abandon brought her was a real, a very definite thing" (125)."Not that she intended to remain... No. She couldn't stay. Nor, she saw now, could she remain away. Leaving, she would have to come back.This knowledge, this certainty of the division of her life into two parts in two lands, into physical freedom in Europe and spiritual freedom in America, was unfortunate, inconvenient, expensive... mentally she caricatured herself moving shuttlelike from continent to continent. From the prejudiced restrictions of the New World to the easy formality of the Old, from the pale calm of Copenhagen to the colorful lure of Harlem" (125)."They say [that] if one stands on the corner of 135th Street and Seventh Avenue long enough one will eventually see all the people one has ever known or met. It's pretty true, I guess. Not literally of course... It's only another way of saying that everybody, almost, sometime sooner or later comes to Harlem, even you" (129).
Passing by Nella Larsen
Irene and Clare are both light-skinned Black women who grew up together in the South Side of Chicago; Irene had a loving family with middle-class means, whereas Clare lived with her alcoholic father and often had to rely on the generosity of their neighborhood. Between the two, only Clare was light enough to "pass" for white. After her alcoholic father died when she was fifteen, Clare was taken in by her white great-aunts (who treated her like a maid) in another part of town, and after a certain point she stopped visiting the South Side altogether. Twelve years later in 1925, Irene and Clare run into each other in the rooftop restaurant of a fancy hotel. Both are married and are only visiting Chicago for the summer; Irene lives with her doctor husband named Brian and their two sons in Harlem, whereas Clare (who lives as a white woman now) spends most of her time in Europe with her white banker husband named Jack and their daughter. Clare claims that she's been trying to reconnect with folks from their old neighborhood, and insists that Irene and another light-skinned female acquaintance of theirs come to Clare's house for tea. The gathering is at best weird and at worst downright dangerous, as Clare introduces her guests to her virulently racist husband. Jack proudly hates Black people—Clare lets the man call her "Nig" as some twisted inside joke!—but apparently has had so few interactions with them that he has no idea that he's in the presence of three Black women at that very moment. Irene receives a letter from Clare before departing Chicago, but vows to never again have anything to do with Clare because she's still angry about Clare selfishly prioritizing her own loneliness over her former friends' comfort and safety.
That is, until 1927 (where the novel opens), when Irene receives another letter from Clare, announcing her arrival in New York and requesting to see Irene again. Irene refuses to respond and destroys the letter, but an obstinate Clare shows up at Irene's house, invites herself to the charity dance that Irene is organizing, and keeps showing up at Irene's house and events over the following months, insisting on their friendship and using Harlem as an escape from her white life. While she cares nothing about Blackness and feels no kinship with Black people as a whole, and while she used to firmly believe that immense wealth made passing worth the cost, now Clare misses elements of Black life and dips her toes back into it when she can, sneaking over to Harlem whenever Jack's out of town on business. And at first Irene, who is often swayed by Clare despite her best efforts to the contrary, warms up to the new friendship that forms between them. Eventually, however, she tires of her friend's near-incessant presence, and she even becomes convinced that Clare and Brian are having an affair. With Clare and Jack's move to Switzerland approaching, Irene plans to inform Jack about Clare's trips to Harlem in order to get Clare whisked out of town and out of her life faster. But when Irene realizes that Clare's no longer afraid of being exposed, she catastrophizes that the freedom of divorce will make Clare's behavior more unpredictable than ever (like moving to Harlem forever or skipping off to Brazil with Brian), and she flips her strategy. Now she's dogged about preserving Clare's secret so as not to jeopardize her own marriage and lifestyle. But then Irene, Brian, and Clare attend a house party together one night, and the proverbial ish hits the fan. Irene is determined to not let Clare be free. And she means that.
I knew going into this that most of discussion about "passing" would center around Clare, so color me shocked to realize that Irene is technically passing as well when they meet on that hotel roof in Chicago. They've both been allowed entry because of their perceived whiteness (white people can't detect that they're Black), but Clare is the only one who lives as a white woman all the time, and Clare is the only one described as "passing" in that scene. Later in the novel Irene uses the phrase "going native" to describe her own occasional form of passing, which is temporarily blending in with whiter surroundings for the sake of convenience. I'm pretty sure I learned previously that there are varying approaches and gradations to passing, but for some reason the way it's framed in this novel felt like brand new information that I'd never considered before. I'd always assumed passing to be final; once people pass, they're gone forever, striving to never see or be seen by the Black people who knew them, and to never interact with another Black person as if they're fellows. But over breakfast one morning, Irene and Brian discuss the phenomenon of people who pass eventually becoming dissatisfied and risking exposure to return to their old haunts, because all that they've gained from passing somehow isn't enough. That's exactly the predicament that Clare is in.
I've been careful not to look too much into the book or film versions of this story so as not to spoil anything for myself (and so I can formulate my own thoughts), so perhaps this is old news... but I definitely sensed some queer subtext between Irene and Clare. Irene repeatedly analyzes Clare's physical appearance and marvels at Clare's beauty in her mind, and it's just about the only thing she verbally compliments Clare on. She feels caressed or even "seduced" by Clare's smile and voice (attributes that Irene fixates on the most, in addition to Clare's eyes), and she also frequently describes Clare's laugh as musical. In fact, that laugh is what she finally recognizes her old friend by when Clare re-introduces herself in Chicago. Furthermore, as previously mentioned, Irene is repeatedly persuaded by Clare to do things she doesn't want to do, especially when it comes to meeting up with Clare and allowing Clare to join her activities. And sure, being easily swayed by a friend's prodding and convincing doesn't necessarily mean you're attracted to or in love with them. Some people are simply skilled manipulators, adept at getting their way. But it sure did make me wonder.
On the other side of this relationship, Clare (and by extension other deserters who try to dip their toe back into the Black life they left behind) reads like an ex who wants that old thang back. Except rather than a lover, that old thang is the feeling of being around other Black people. But perhaps that old thang she wants back is also Irene? In all honesty, it's still not clear to me why she's so stuck on Irene of all people. Yes, Irene has the sense of community that Clare lost, and Irene's family looked out for Clare when they were children, but it's implied that other people on the South Side helped Clare as well. So why Irene? Was it just her misfortune to cross paths with Clare when she did, and get trapped in Clare's web? Irene doesn't dwell on the "why her" of it all, but she does try her darnedest to impress upon Clare that she should stop coming around or at the very least be more careful given her dangerous situation (as a supposedly "white" woman who doesn't want to be discovered hanging around Black people). And those conversations read to me like arguments between forbidden lovers, where one tries to break it off gently while the other refuses to stay away, preferring to forsake the risks, insert herself into the other's presence, and demand answers for why she's being ignored and rejected. So like I said... queer subtext, yeah?
On the second page of the novel Irene describes Clare as selfish, having nothing sacrificial about her and "no allegiance beyond her own desire", and I really should've taken that as the warning that it is, because that description is NOT an understatement. Lord have mercy! Clare has no consideration or sympathy for anyone but herself—it's like her brain literally can't fathom that her actions have consequences or that other people have both feelings and the wherewithal to tell her no—and when her actions inconvenience others or even put them in danger, she simply expects them to understand her motivations and forgive her. Not that she truly cares about forgiveness anyway, so much as she cares about getting her way. To put it plainly, Clare shows up at Irene's house one October, and proceeds to turn Irene's life upside down within the span of a few months. Blows it up. And while Irene takes it upon herself to match Clare's ruthlessness and is eager to spill the beans to Jack at one point, she still can't bring herself to out Clare as Black. As a fellow Black person, Irene still feels a duty (more to their race than to Clare specifically) to not put Clare in danger by exposing her truth. And it's a duty that Irene resents, but no matter how frustrated she gets, she just can't shake it. Obviously she winds up keeping the secret for more vindictive reasons by the end, but I couldn't help but be struck by the way loyalty to the race manifests within this toxic friendship.
Don't be mistaken, though. Passing has some fun bits in it too! During their encounter in Chicago, Irene tells Clare about an upcoming vacation to Idlewild, Michigan (which was a resort town for Black people in the first half of the 20th century), and as a lifelong Michigander that was a pleasant surprise to me. I just learned about Idlewild within the past couple years, so I was glad to see its significance confirmed in this novel. On another note, it made me chuckle to later read Irene's anecdote about belatedly realizing that a woman she'd met multiple times was "fay", as in "ofay", as in white. Even though it's not a word I've ever used—some might call it a slur but in my opinion it's a word that doesn't really have teeth, much like "cracker"—for some reason it amuses me to know that Black people have been calling white people "ofays" for so long, even all the way back in 1927 and probably before then too. If I were to compare the two novels, although both address the dilemmas of being a light-skinned and/or biracial Black woman in America in the 1920s, Passing is shorter, more tightly-written, faster-paced, and has more interpersonal drama, whereas Quicksand is more introspective and covers more ground both emotionally and geographically. I was thoroughly impressed by both, and continue to marvel at how Nella Larsen was able to write works which, even through linguistic changes that have happened over the decades, are still so easily readable nearly 100 years later. With that said, I feel drawn to Quicksand more because of how much I related to Helga's lows. But as for Passing, if you're like me and must read the book before watching the movie, or you're interested in frenemy situations, strained marriages, colorism and social mobility, the intellectual milieu of the Harlem Renaissance, and the potential regrets of passing, then read this book!
"White people were so stupid about such things for all that they usually asserted that they were able to tell; and by the most ridiculous means: fingernails, palms of hands, shapes of ears, teeth, and other equally silly rot. They always took her for an Italian, a Spaniard, a Mexican, or a Gypsy. Never, when she was alone, had they even remotely seemed to suspect that she was a Negro" (178)."If, at the time of choosing, Clare hadn't precisely reckoned the cost, she had, nevertheless, no right to expect others to help make up the reckoning. The trouble with Clare was not only that she wanted to have her cake and eat it too but that she wanted to nibble at the cakes of other folk as well" (212)."She paused in her dressing, seeing with perfect clearness that dark truth which she had from that first October afternoon felt about Clare Kendry and of which Clare herself had once warned her—that she got the things she wanted because she met the great condition of conquest, sacrifice" (268).