A few weeks ago, a friend of mine, we’ll call her Carol because that’s her name, lent me her worn and weathered copy of Nella Larsen’s complete fiction. This book loaning was a long time coming. Seeing that Carol and I both seem to straddle this ambiguous line of culture and race and find the experience too frustrating to put into words, she suggested that I give Nella Larsen another go.
In college, I read her novella “Passing” as part of a post 1800 American Literature course. The moment I finished it, I realized on an emotional level that my family’s experience isn’t a singular one when it comes to our light skinned-ness. Of course I knew the history of passing, of the African-American diaspora, of the Harlem Renaissance, of Langston Hughes, Morrison, Walker and Angelou, but it wasn’t until reading Larsen did this “experience” punch me in the gut and leave me breathless.
In Nella Larsen’s Complete Fiction, the character of Helga Crane in “Quicksand” really troubled me. She was, is, me. While the ending, which I won’t spoil, is a troubling one, I can’t help but believe that I and others in this day in age can “rise above” the social, cultural and racial trappings our American heritage holds so steadfastly to.
However, on that note, reading Larsen’s work opened my eyes to the fact that there aren’t a lot of stories about “us.” About those who are told they are one thing but look into the mirror and see something else. One small relief from this present reality comes in the form of Heidi Durrow’s “The Girl Who Fell From the Sky.” In TGWFFTS, we find a present-day confused and frustrated Rachel who, after surviving a murder-suicide attempt at the hands of her Danish mother, must live with her African-American grandmother on the other side of the country. When reading Durrow’s novel, like when reading “Passing,” I felt this urgent sense of identity and that finally, I could wholly identify with this young woman who must constantly defend her looks and background.
Perhaps one day I too can write about this experience, of rolling my eyes and coming up with witty come backs when even grown folks would ask, “What are you?” “I’m human,” I’d like to say more often than not, “What are you?” I’d counter.
No matter what your race, culture, politics or religion is, I do recommend you reading some or all of Larsen’s work. It is a truth and chapter so often lost in the telling of our American history.
* a version of this post first appeared on Cures for Curiosity