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Quicksand by Nella Larsen  

The American writer Nella Larsen was born in Chicago in the 1890s, the daughter of a Danish mother and a West Indian father. Her 1928 novella, Quicksand – inspired by Larsen’s own background and life – features a young mixed-race woman searching for her place in society, lacking a sense of identity in a highly segregated world.

As the novella opens, Larsen’s protagonist, Helga Crane, is teaching at Naxos, a boarding school for black girls in the South. Helga has no real family to speak of, her Danish mother having died when she was a teenager, while her West Indian father is no longer on the scene. Right from the very start, it’s clear that Helga feels out of place in her surroundings, ill at ease in her own skin and with her position in society. Part white and part black, Helga is not entirely comfortable in either of these two racial groups, a situation that leaves her feeling stranded in a kind of hinterland or liminal space.

She could neither conform, nor be happy in her unconformity. (p. 7)

Her engagement to James Vayle, a fellow teacher at Naxos, is also a source of tension, especially for James’ family, who view Helga’s background and uncertain ancestry as undesirable complications.

Early in the book, Helga decides to leave Naxos (and James) because she feels uncomfortable with the institution’s ‘uplift’ philosophy which she views as hypocritical. Essentially the school’s belief that black people should try to fit into society by mirroring their white counterparts imposes limits on diversity and individuality – difficulties that Helga can see even if others around her cannot. As a consequence of her fundamental discomfort at Naxos, Helga quits her job at the school and travels to Chicago, where she hopes to find another role.

In Chicago, a long and fruitless search for a job ensues, hampered by Helga’s lack of references or personal sponsors. Nevertheless, just when things are looking particularly desperate, Helga manages to secure a temporary job as an assistant to a travelling female lecturer. It’s a role that opens doors for Helga, bringing her to New York, where she is introduced to Anne Grey, a well-connected, financially independent black woman who offers her a home.

For a while at least, Helga feels settled in Harlem. Her days are occupied by a secretarial role at an insurance company, while her nights are spent at parties and the theatre, activities that appear to blot out the isolation of her previous existence.

For her this Harlem was enough. Of that white world, so distant, so near, she asked only indifference. No, not at all did she crave, from those pale and powerful people, awareness. Sinister folk, she considered them, who had stolen her birthright. Their past contribution to her life, which had been but shame and grief, she had hidden away from brown folk in a locked closet, “never,” she told herself, “to be reopened.” (p. 45)

Larsen, however, remains alert to the hypocrisies that exist in this sector of society, primarily through the character of Anne Grey. While Anne models her life on the refined culture of white society and campaigns for racial equality, she also believes that integration between the two races is indecent – something to be discouraged for its transgressive associations.

After a year or so in Harlem, the glow begins to fade. Restlessness sets in, leaving Helga feeling isolated and estranged from those around her, particularly Anne with her inherent inconsistencies. As a consequence, Helga decides to travels to Denmark in the hope of reconnecting with her Aunt Katerina, whom she recalls fondly from her childhood.

I found this section of the book particularly distressing to read because of the way Helga is treated by Katerina and her husband, Herr Dahl. While Katerina seems welcoming and well-meaning on the surface, in truth she is intent on parading Helga around as if she is some kind of pet – an exotic curiosity to be stared at and admired for her distinctive appearance and otherness.

Helga herself felt like nothing so much as some new and strange species of pet dog being proudly exhibited. Everyone was very polite and very friendly, but she felt the massed curiosity and interest, so discreetly hidden under the polite greetings. The very atmosphere was tense with it. (p. 70)

She liked the compliments in the men’s eyes as they bent over her hand. She liked the subtle half-understood flattery of her dinner partners. The women too were kind, feeling no need for jealousy. To them this girl, this Helga Crane, this mysterious niece of the Dahls, was not to be reckoned seriously in their scheme of things. True, she was attractive, unusual, in an exotic, almost savage way, but she wasn’t one of them. She didn’t at all count. (p. 70)

This fetishisation of black culture and individuals remains a problem in modern-day society, so it’s fascinating to read a novel from the 1920s that highlights these issues so clearly. Nevertheless, while it’s refreshing to see these subjects being explored by Larsen with insight and humanity, the novel also indicates how little has really changed. (I couldn’t help but be reminded of Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s 2013 novel, Americanah, in which a white woman’s well-meaning attempts to establish a connection with a young black woman – a potential employee named Ifemelu – come across as misguided and patronising.)

The Dahls persist in dressing Helga in glamorous, eye-catching clothes, clearly designed to attract attention – a practice that Larsen uses to highlight issues of objectification and the white male gaze. Interestingly (and somewhat disturbingly), the previous quote also makes it clear that Danish women do not consider Helga a personal threat despite her natural beauty. To them, she is an outsider with limited status or agency, easily dismissed as an exotic curio or ‘peacock’ without being allowed to enter their society.  

In the final section of the narrative, Helga changes direction again, which chimes with Larsen’s use of ‘Quicksand’ as the novella’s title. It’s a powerful ending that feels somewhat surprising yet also sadly inevitable in a tragic kind of way.

Larsen manages to pack quite a lot into this slim novella. Alongside the central themes relating to race and segregation in society, the author touches on identity, female desire, religion, poverty, objectification and self-loathing. Ultimately though, there is an air of tragedy surrounding Helga as she struggles to find a sense of belonging in this highly segregated society, where her mixed-race ancestry creates barriers to self-expression and emotional fulfilment. She is a complicated character who frequently adopts a self-sufficient, standoffish manner to repel those around her. In essence, this is a protective mask, something she learned to embrace from a young age as a way of guarding her inherently sensitive nature.

There is a richness to Larsen’s prose at times, drawing on the use of colour and evocative descriptions to help bring Helga’s story to life. As a result, there are some wonderful descriptive passages in this striking, thought-provoking book – a text that remains highly relevant today. (I’ve yet to read Passing, Larsen’s companion novel, but hope to do so before Rebecca Hall’s film adaptation is released.)

Quicksand and Passing are published by Serpent’s Tail; my thanks to the publishers and Independent Alliance for a reading copy.