Yesterday afternoon, after reading several chapters of Nella Larsen’s novel, Quicksand, I had put the book aside to rest my eyes when a question came to mind: how long, I wondered, has it been since I would rather be doing something else? As I thought about this, the days, weeks, and months of my strange quiet life quickly gave way to years — so it is, at least, that long.
After the devastation, displacement, and loss of life caused by Oregon’s fires, will enjoying the smoke from neighborhood chimneys now be considered a guilty pleasure? That was the question I asked myself later, while walking in the evening. The smell of smoke strikes deep to memory, personal, ancestral. But for many the familiar joy might be overcome by recent events.
In terms of the writing itself, Quicksand is nothing like the two novels that precede it in the Library of America’s two-volume collection representing the Harlem Renaissance. A conventional, third-person narrative, the story thus far is one I would call quietly compelling, because it, too, though plain in its structure and approach, is very hard to put down. At the same time, like Cane and Home to Harlem, it shares the complex elements and concerns of race and identity in America from a contemporary black perspective, with the added benefit of having been written by a thoughtful, sensitive, long suffering woman. And as with all good writing, the life and humanity of every reader, regardless of race, sex, or so-called station in life, is called up for fresh examination. In the case of Quicksand, this comes with the added bonus of a semi-autobiographical heroine one is immediately drawn to, and whose trials demand sympathy and concern. In a word, one cares what happens to the Danish, black West Indian Helga Crane. And one wonders about the life of Nella Larsen — not in the ordinary biographical sense, but in the private, unrecorded moments of her seventy-two years.
October 27, 2020
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Categories: New Poems & Pieces
Tags: Cane, Diaries, Fire, Forest Fires, Helga Crane, Home to Harlem, Journals, Library of America, Memory, Nella Larsen, Oregon, Quicksand, Reading, Smoke, The American Civil War, The Harlem Renaissance, Walking, Wildfires, Writing