Quicksand by Nella Larsen (1928)

As I read the last sentence, I shouldn’t have been surprised, because the end was coming, there was no time for another escape, for the pattern of Helga’s life to continue. “Oh, my” I uttered, as understanding of the meaning of the title, “Quicksand” sunk in. It had claimed her.

Quicksand Nella Larsen Identity Race BelongingVoice is Everything

What a unique voice and depiction of a rootless young woman searching for her place in the world, bereft, not finding a sense of belonging within family, when the world around her judged the two sides of her family as if they are different peoples because of the colour of their skin.

If you couldn’t prove your ancestry and connections, you were tolerated, but you didn’t belong.

Helga’s mother was a Danish immigrant, her father an African-Caribbean man of whom she had little or no memory or connection to his family. After her mother dies Helga (15) is sent to a boarding school, where life is a little easier for her, except for the growing awareness, like a hole inside her, that unlike her peers, she has no siblings, no family, no roots, no longing for home, no real happiness.

They had mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, of whom they spoke frequently, and who sometimes visited them.

Her life becomes a search to fill the void, an attempt to purge herself from a self-loathing of having been exposed to both sides of her heritage and their disdain for each other, unable to fully embrace either one, as she is both. And from the opening pages you know you are in the presence of a woman who is on a quest to discover if this is all there is, this half life she’s been living until now.

In one sense, her ability to get up and change her circumstances is admirable, empowering even, her refusal to accept the status quo and take action, her departing words carry unexpected strength. When she resigns from her teaching job mid-term, she doesn’t hold back in telling the principal how much she hates the school and his misguided perception of who he thinks she is, with her conflicted feelings of her biracial and non-Southern lineage.

In the girl blazed a desire to wound. There he sat, staring dreamily out of the window, blatantly unconcerned with her or her answer. Well, she’d tell him. She pronounced each word with deliberate slowness.
“Well for one thing, I hate hypocrisy. I hate cruelty to students, and to teachers who can’t fight back. I hate backbiting, and sneaking, and petty jealousy.”

Revenge Against Rejection

When she encounters those who see her, like Dr Anderson, she feels the urge to abandon her selfish need to flee, responding to a mystifying yearning to serve, until he too says the words that will inflame her ego, pushing reason away, refusing it a place in her thought process.

“Someday you’ll learn that lies, injustice and hypocrisy are a part of every community. Most people achieve a sort of protective immunity, a kind of callousness, toward them. If they didn’t, they couldn’t endure. I think there’s less of these evils here than in most places, but because we’re trying to do such a big thing, to aim so high, they irk some of us more.”

Her loss and lack of rootedness creates an incessant restlessness, her education, beauty and even her bigoted relative provide her the means to be independent. But that which she wishes to escape from, continuously pursues her, seeking solace in the outer world, she avoids the one path that might bring her serenity, to look within.

Nella Larsen Quicksand Passing Harlem Renaissance

Nella Larsen

She leaves Nashville for Chicago, where she discovers the need for connections and references and is brutally rejected by her Uncle’s new wife, who can’t bear to harbour the thought they might be related.

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.

She finds her way to New York and finds solace there, until the restlessness returns. The descriptions of her encroaching discontent are vivid, realistic, perhaps even a real memory, being the more “obviously autobiographical” of Larsen’s two novels.

A windfall from her Uncle provokes an impulse to seek out her family in Denmark, whom she has dim but fond memories of from a childhood visit. Again she begins life anew and initially revels in it, and enjoys being the object of attention, until the vague discontent returns.

She desired ardently to combat this wearing down of her satisfaction with her life, with herself. But she didn’t know how.

A Sign of Healing

We are lured into the belief she may have found the right path, as leaving Denmark signifies a return after hearing the wailing undertones of songs remembered in her youth strike her longing heart, remove her defenses, making her homesick for more than just the land of her birth.

For the first time Helga Crane felt sympathy rather than contempt and hatred for that father, whom so often and so angrily she had blamed for his desertion of her mother. She understood, now, his rejection, his repudiation, of the formal calm her mother had represented. She understood his yearning, his intolerable need for the inexhaustible humor and the incessant hope of his own kind, his need for those things, not material, indigenous to all his peoples’ environments.

Nella Larsen Passing Quicksand BiRacial Identity Belonging

Photo by Josh Sorenson on Pexels.com

A Surprise Twist

The plot then takes a significant and surprising turn and the ending too, contributing to what no doubt makes this an interesting novella for discussion, as to the origins and perpetuation of Helga’s difficulties, separation from the mother, from one’s lineage and family, identity, race, cross-cultural societal differences, what it means to belong and the expectations of being a woman.

I loved it. Even if it felt unfinished, like a young woman’s coming-of-age as she learns who she is, first from the outside, in terms of how others perceive her and also how she perceives the outside world, initially with each move, falling into the same trap of finding solace in that which is external to her. She is ripe for an inner journey of transformation, that which follows the realisation that who ones parents and family are, isn’t who “I am”. Instead she finds something else, a fork in the road and it is as if the author can not take us further.

Nella Larsen

Nella Larsen (1891-1964), an acclaimed novelist of the Harlem Renaissance, became the first African American woman to win a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship and won the Harmon Foundation Bronze Medal for Literature, celebrated as one of the bright stars of the Harlem Renaissance.

Famous for her two books Quicksand and Passing, she was the daughter of immigrant parents. Her father, Peter Walker, was a black cook from the West Indies, and her mother, Mary Hanson, was a Danish seamstress. Soon after Larsen was born, her father disappeared. Her mother remarried a white Danish man named Peter Larsen and they had a daughter. She spent four years living in Denmark before returning to the US where she worked as a nurse and a librarian.