“But just what did she want? Barring a desire for material security, gracious ways of living, a profusion of lovely clothes, and a goodly share of envious admiration, Helga Crane didn’t know, couldn’t tell. But there was, she knew, something else. Happiness, she supposed. Whatever that might be. What, exactly, she wondered, was happiness. Very positively she wanted it. Yet her conception of it had no tangibility. She couldn’t define it, isolate it, and contemplate it as she could some other abstract things. Hatred, for instance. Or kindness.”Quicksand by Nella Larsen
When people ask the question about author’s you’d like to have a conversation with, I’m going to say Nella Larsen. Because with both of her books, I’ve been pulled into what I’m calling the #LarsenLure or maybe, #QuicksandQuagmire. Did the quote not just pull you along, lure you into thinking when you just sit there and ponder it? But imagine pages full of moments like this, sparse but gradually pulling you into the story awaiting the climax and then just like that, you didn’t see that coming.
Helga Crane is of mixed race ancestry which during the time the book was written, that meant she was colored, Negro, black. Helga is wrought with frustration over her life, she’s a teacher at a school in the south called Naxos, resolving to leave because she doesn’t feel she’s accomplishing anything.
As the story progresses, it becomes evident that happiness is fleeting for Helga. She seems frustrated by her lack of belonging and seeks to remedy that by leaving for Copenhagen. But over time, consistent in her feelings of unhappiness, Helga returns to New York for her friend, Anne’s, wedding. Upon her return, she finds that she’s missed her people, something she didn’t realize until now.
“Frankly the question came to this: what was the matter with her? Was there, without her knowing it, some peculiar lack in her? Absurd. But she began to have a feeling of discouragement and hopelessness. Why couldn’t she be happy, content, somewhere? Other people managed, somehow, to be. To put it plainly, didn’t she know how? Was she incapable of it?”
There are many layers and tropes to examine outside of the obvious for Helga and her mixed raced identity. Larsen frames for the reader, the internal essence of a woman, her desires and ambitions, her mental, emotional and physiological states. Helga’s inner dissatisfaction also touches on her feelings of being irresponsible to marry and have black children who would be mistreated because of the color of their skin. No doubt she experienced and remembers her own childhood with frustration and still fractured feelings.
“In forgetting all but love she had forgotten, or perhaps never known, that some things the world never forgives. But as Helga knew, she had remembered, or had learned in suffering and longing all the rest of her life.”
Helga’s migration from Naxos, Chicago, Harlem, Denmark and finally Alabama, touches on the migration of African American people in a way we don’t always give attention to when looking at the past. In some books, we often see a person dealing with the ramifications of a person remaining stationary in a place confronting mistreatment and inequality. But, just like Larsen, we can further our education, and improve ourselves, by reading books that give attention to people in places and their life their in comparison to where they were before. I’m currently reading The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson so there is the intersection of thoughts and activities in my reading.
The introduction to this editon of Quicksand says, “Larsen’s Quicksand is a woman’s version of a similar response (to Toomer’s Cane and Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man) Mapping the body within the spaces though which it moves, Larsen confronts cultural phenomena such as the oppression of women under the institutions of patriarchy…”
Reading women’s literature allows us to examine things in a different context, with a rich perspective. As much as I enjoy reading as much as possible, I also enjoy taking some time to think more about what else lies within the framework of good literature. I think Larsen does us a favor in her sparse, but effective prose. Her second novel Passing feels more seasoned, but Quicksand should not be overlooked or dismissed.