For my American Literature module this semester, I had to read ‘Quicksand’ by Nella Larsen.
The story details the life of Helga Crane, a mixed race woman born of a white mother and African-American father. The reader joins Helga as she struggles to find her place among blacks and whites alike, and her continuous duplicity regarding her heritage. Beginning as a school teacher in a black school, we see her travel to the boisterous and alluring Harlem, further on to her life in Denmark, as she searches to mould a life for herself.
I quite enjoyed reading about about the topic of mix race identity. It is something that I, as a white female, have never took much into consideration. The reader cannot help but sympathise with Helga as she repeatedly battles with concealing a part of her identity. I enjoyed reading about Helga’s family relationships. Although they are not very loving relationships, the sections of the books where we encounter them work towards the reader’s understanding and sympathy towards Helga’s plight.
“Worst of all was the fact that she understood and sympathised with Mrs. Nilssen’s point of view, as she always had been able to understand her mother’s, her stepfather’s, and his children’s points of view. She saw herself for an obscene sore in all their lives, at all costs to be hidden. She understood, even while she resented. It would have been easier if she had not.” – Quicksand
The disconnect Helga feels from her family, and those she encounters, is a sometimes untaught aspect of race. When we study African-American lives during this period it is sometimes overlooked in our enquiries. I found it very intriguing when learning about the author Nella Larsen’s life, as it seemed to have a lot of similarities to the protagonist, Helga. Of course Larsen, a person of mixed race, would understand deeply the realities facing such people, and be adept at highlighting it to those ignorant of such issues. Larsen’s own experiences are effectively utilised to seep a grain of reality through the text. The reader can empathise only because the author so cleverly conveys the emotions. The book has made me interesting in exploring other works by Nella Larsen.
Have you read Quicksand before? Did you enjoy it?
LibriVox offers free audio files of the novel here