Recently published in a single volume, Quicksand and Passing are the only two novels – well novellas, really – written by Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen. They each deserve to be treated separately so I’ll start with Quicksand and save Passing for later. Written in 1928, it’s widely considered to be an autobiographical novel – like the book’s main protagonist, Larsen was the daughter of a Danish mother and a West Indian father – knowledge that makes reading it all the more chilling.
It opens with a young woman in a gorgeously decorated room contemplating her future. She’s a teacher at Naxos, an all-black school in the American South. Tired of what she considers to be its smug superiority and emphasis on conformity, she decides to leave despite her engagement, her precarious financial position and any idea of what she might do with her life, impulsively heading for the principal’s study to tell him her decision before boarding the next train for Chicago. Helga rattles straight from her teaching job into a naïve and frantic search for work eventually landing an assignment with a Chicago politician’s widow leading to a job with a New York insurance company. Tiring of that and suddenly in possession of a small inheritance, she travels to Denmark and stays with her aunt who tricks her out in colourful clothing, offering her to Danish society as an exotic curiosity. Returning to New York ostensibly for her friend’s wedding she finds herself immersed in Harlem society despite her initial distaste for it. She’s a woman who finds it impossible to settle. Each decision results in excitement, happiness then disillusion. Eventually, Helga stumbles into a situation which seems so out of character as to be contrived. Without the knowledge of its autobiographical element, Helga’s constant restlessness would seem like a very effective literary device to convey the uncomfortable dislocation of belonging to neither one race nor another at a time when the black intelligentsia seemed to want to distance itself from white society, and I think we know what they felt about it all. It’s a sobering book, and felt even more so in the light of events playing out in Ferguson, Missouri as I read it. It seems that the ‘race question’ that so bedevils Helga has far from gone away.
There were a few sober moments at the Carolina Chocolate Drops gig I went to last week – stories of newly freed slaves cast adrift ill-prepared for freedom – but that didn’t stop us all having a thoroughly enjoyable time. They play American old-time music – folk and blues – with a few songs of their own drawing heavily on the history of the South written by Rhiannon Giddens who is not only a powerfully gutsy singer but dances a fine jig, too. They were an absolute joy, practically raising the roof of St Georges in Bristol, the last venue of their UK tour. They’re regular visitors here and should you ever spot their name in listings get yourself to where ever they’re playing. You won’t regret it. I’m off to join their mailing list now.