Quicksand- Nella Larsen

I read this book with a couple of close friends in mind, good friends from high school with mixed parentage who felt confused about, but have now resolved, their place in society. Protagonist Helga Crane is a similar such person, with a now-deceased immigrant Danish mother and an absent black father. Being both black and white Helga, “She, Helga Crane, who had no home” is trying to find her place in 1920s New York, where miscegenation is a taboo topic. She is an outcast but she’s so ideally positioned to see racial issues and perspectives, perhaps in ways that others cannot.She is constantly searching in a world where colour is so important. And the theme of colour is very evident throughout the book. At a party when she observes the crowd, this is what she sees:

“For the hundredth time she marveled at the gradations within this oppressed race of hers. A dozen shades slid by. There was sooty black, shiny black, taupe, mahogany, bronze, copper, gold, orange, yellow, peach, ivory, pinky white, pastry white. There was yellow hair, brown hair, black hair; straight hair, straightened hair, curly hair, crinkly hair, woolly hair…” She calls this throng a “moving mosaic” which I found lovely, a celebration of the diversity found among black people.

I don’t think Helga is a very likeable character but I can’t say I blame her behaviour. Totally misunderstood by those around her, mistreated and disowned by her white family,abandoned by her father, with nobody really to help her, it’s no wonder she built up walls… I looked at Helga’s internal and external struggles during the first part of the book and wondered how on earth anybody could live like that, with that sort of ambiguity, so I was glad when she decided to visit her Aunt Katrina in Denmark:

“Leaning against the railing, Helga stared into the approaching night, glad to be at last alone, free of that great superfluity of human beings, yellow, brown, and black, which, as the torrid summer burnt to its close, had so oppressed her.”

I liked how Larsen juxtaposed the Danish culture of Helga’s mother and the Black culture of her father. It was very interesting to see how Helga was perceived by people in Denmark. I found myself relating to this exotification aspect as I’d experienced it too. I shudder when people use the word “exotic” to describe those with darker skin because now I understand that that’s a form of othering. Being seen as “A decoration. A curio. A peacock” may have been flattering at first, but it got old pretty quickly to Helga. And I think for those of us who’ve been in similar positions to Helga, the realization of being used or exotified comes eventually and becomes easy to spot:

“To them this girl, this Helga Crane, this mysterious niece of the Dahls, was not to be reckoned seriously in their scheme of things. True, she was attractive, unusual, in an exotic, almost savage way, but she wasn’t one of them. She didn’t at all count.”

Helga’s experiences in Denmark were interesting especially in her reaction to living in a country where, although she is othered, she doesn’t have to deal with poverty or racism, and she’s welcome in society. But her feelings about the America she seemed to have detested speak to how we perceive home differently when we are no longer there:

“Strange that she had never truly valued this kinship until distance had shown her its worth. How absurd she had been to think that another country, other people, could liberate her from the ties which bound her forever to these mysterious, these terrible, these fascinating, these lovable, dark hordes. Ties that were of the spirit. Ties not only superficially entangled with mere outline of features or color of kin. Deeper. Much deeper than either of these.”

There is a great literary criticism essay on this book in “Women of the Harlem Renaissance” by Cheryl A. Wall. I may have to re-read it now I’ve read this book. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/7…

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7 thoughts on “Quicksand- Nella Larsen

  1. Nice review! I’ve heard so many mixed reviews of this book but you broke it down really well and have convinced me to make an effort and to read it. Colorism is still a difficult subject in the black community and a book like this could help people to understand better what it is to come from a black and white parent and how difficult it is to fit in both communities. Thanks!

    1. Thaks, Didi! I think a lot of people don’t like Helga but I can understand where she’s coming from. She’s such a tragic figure. And yes, I really had no idea how prevalent colourism was in other places, it’s so sad. Thank you!

      1. Since my daughters are half black and half white I can somehow relate to the difficulty of fitting in through them. This hasn’t been a problem living here in France but every time we go to the States someone is always asking them are they black or white. So annoying! If they say they’re one they are ignoring the other. It’s very complex and the beliefs from slavery one drop of black blood rule still reigns heavily in the US. In my opinion, no one can tell another person what they are and how they feel. That makes some black people angry. The color struggle is real! Thanks again for your insightful post!

      2. I can’t even begin to imagine the stress mixed race kids go through due to society’s ignorance. My friend has had people, supposedly educated people, going up to her and asking “What are you?” I know with all your reading and thoughtful comments your daughters must be well-rounded girls who acknowledge both of their cultures:))

      3. They are and I’m very proud of them but I know it rubs them the wrong way when people ask them that question, which is primarily in the US. Here in France there is a word for half black and half white people. The French say métisse. In spite of everything they are very open to differnet cultures and that’s great. 🙂

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