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Places to Go: Quicksand by Nella Larsen

Written by Rachael Norris, 30th October 2020

In this week's Places to Go feature, we're looking at Quicksand by Nella Larsen with The Reader's Communications Coordinator, Rachael Norris. For the whole month of October our Daily Readings are based around Black History Month download the calendar here.

As our daily readings for Black History Month draw to a close, I'm so glad to have the opportunity to share one of my favourite stories for this week's places to go feature: Quicksand by Nella Larsen.

Nella Larsen was an American novelist in the Harlem Renaissance and Quicksand is a novella that I found within the Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen.

My old man died in a fine big house.
My ma died in a shack.
I wonder where I’m gonna die,
Being neither white nor black?
Nella Larsen uses these lines from the poem 'Cross' by Langston Hughes to open Quicksand.

Larsen's protagonist, Helga Crane, is an attractive young black woman making her living as a teacher at a prestigious school for black children. Born to a white mother and a black father in 1920's America, we see Helga straddle both her black and white identities as she trapses through various social circles and settings on her long search for a place where she feel like she belongs.

The fashions, colours and glamour of Harlem in the 1920s are deflty contrasted by the everyday annoyances, depression and embarrassment of true experience that make the story so relatable. Helga is restless and unhappy and every time we think a change in circumstances might be the answer we are left disappointed. Desperately groping for happiness, the flashes of distraction for Helga that come in the form of the excitement of love, the warmth of family and the fulfilment of work are suffocated over and over again by what is referred to in the book as "the race problem".

I can't recommend the other stories in the book enough either, Passing, Sanctuary and Freedom all paint such vivid, exciting pictures in so few pages.

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