Quicksand and Passing – Nella Larsen

Quicksand and Passing – Nella Larsen

The Writes of Woman: Reviews of books by female writers

Naomi Frisby

Quicksand and Passing are two novellas packaged together and reissued by Serpent’s Tale in the UK. They both share the key theme of being a woman of colour in America early in the twentieth century but the two pieces explore ideas around this in different ways.

Helga Crane is twenty-three and a teacher at Naxos, ‘the finest school for Negroes anywhere in the country’. Helga’s out of favour at the school and urgently wishes to leave despite her engagement to a colleague. Her fiancé has ‘naturalized’, fitting into the school and its values. Helga, however, ‘…could neither conform, nor be happy in her unconformity’. She’s failed to impress his family too:

Negro society, she had learned, was as complicated and as rigid in its ramifications as the highest strata of white society. If you couldn’t prove your ancestry and connections, you were tolerated, but you didn’t “belong”. You could be queer, or even attractive, or bad, or brilliant, or even love beauty and such nonsense if you were a Rankin, or a Leslie, or a Scoville; in other words, if you had a family. But if you were just plain Helga Crane, of whom nobody has ever heard, it was presumptuous of you to be anything but inconspicuous and conformable…

Read the entire review here.

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