Book of the Month Discussion: Quicksand by Nella Larsen.


During dinner a friend of a friend foolishly told me he didn’t read. My confusion at the notion turned to heartbreak, then I tried to reserve my judgment. He couldn’t have possibly known he was having dinner with a girl who goes to bookstores for fun. Seeing the disappointment on my face, he quickly added that he has read one book he loved, Fortunate Son by Walter Mosley.

“That’s a real black man’s story,” he said.

“And a great read,” I replied.

I then inundated him with books and authors similar to Mosley and assured him that he didn’t have to relive his high school English syllabus to enjoy reading. My sister gently saved him from my soap box. “Don’t worry,” she said. “She’s a writer.”

In the essay “Dear Ms. Larsen, There’s a Mirror Looking Back,” Heidi W. Durrow writes that Nella Larsen’s writing gave her “the permission…to write the only stories [she] knew how to tell: of being black and Danish, and of being a white women’s child.” The need to establish your own personhood is imperative, but we all need permission to do so. If others are unwilling to grant it, I think literature can.

While rereading Quicksand, I was struck by the way space and experience change the perception of a book and why it’s so important to revisit the novels, poems, essays and articles which have, at one time, moved us.

  • be

    This is the second time my own reading list has coincided with yours! I’ll make sure I comment after I’m finished.

  • Steven Harris

    I enjoyed Quicksand when I read it but my copy came with her other short novel ‘Passing’ which I thought was the better of the two.

  • I love your writing, it’s so earthy sounding. For some reason, it’s really comforting.

    I’m a writer, and as juvenile as it sounds, the Twilight series has really changed what I thought of writing in first person. Most other writers that I had talked to always discouraged writing in first person, but this author proves (to me) that it’s possible to do it and to still write well.

    I’d love to take a peek at Quicksand, it sounds like an interesting book. And if you’ve read it more than once, it has to be good!

  • Quid Pro Gnome

    In the class that read this book, the consensus was the book was simply depressing. So depressing, supposedly, that it couldn’t even be analyzed beyond reducing the narrative to the psyche of the author. That was before the recession. Now that most of those students have graduated into the worst job market in decades, I kind of wonder how their perceptions might have changed.

  • I actually prefer Passing to Quicksand, it’s a little less depressing; but they make a really good duo.

  • What story have you revisited lately?

    I haven’t revisited any lately (i’m on a mission to read new books) but in future I plan to read Paradise Lost, Lolita, The Once And Future King, and Nineteen-Eighty-Four again. I think about them quite a lot and that usually leads me back to reading them.

  • I recently re-read “The History of Love” by Nicole Krauss. I love the book and read it a few times a year.

  • Sounds quirky, but I’m a sucker for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I revisit it all the time and find that it’s better read underneath the covers with a flashlight.

  • I loved both Quicksand and Passing, but the book I’ve reread several times is Push by Sapphire. The voice is so commanding that I feel compelled to listen read every word the narrator, Precious Jones says and have a hard time putting it down until she’s through. I also reread Alice Elliott Dark’s short story, “In the Gloaming” and Loorie Moore’s “People Like that Are the Only People Here,” from time to time because they are such moving and well told works of art.

  • ourgenius

    I read “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin first in middle school. I’ve re-read it about every 3-5 years since then. I think I always knew it was saying something, but it was always outside my grasp. Now in my mid-thirties, I get it more. But I also now really dislike the ending.

  • I read both in college as part of a Black Literature to 1940 class, and they stuck with me more than anything else in the class.

    I think the women in Passing had more agency. Clare was desperately screwed up, and Irene wasn’t much better, but I love the way they mirror each other and how the choices each of them makes drives the story forward.

    Don’t get me wrong, I really really enjoy Quicksand; but reading it is kind of like stepping into the stuff. Helga is intensely frustrating on a lot of levels. What’s weird is that I tend to like strong, unlikeable female leads, but her impotent rage and inability to do anything that she wants to do is disappointing. (I find Helga very analogous to Sinclair Lewis’s “Main Street” lead Carol Kennicott, but Helga makes me angry, lol.)

  • Steven Harris

    I took a class which skimmed across the surface of Black Literature (mostly Harlem Renaissance) and came away with an absolute love of James Baldwin and Richard Wright as novelists. But also of poets like Langston Hughes and Claude McKay.

  • I think my favorite poet of that era was Countee Cullen, but Langston is a close second.

  • belleisa

    The element of suspense in PASSING makes it a much more suspenseful read. People generally tend to be more engaged with the idea that there’s a legitimate history of black people passing for white. The popularity of PASSING is why highlighting QUICKSAND, a much more powerful novel, I believe, is important. They deal essentially with women who feel severely isolated both because of their own doing and their skin tone.

    An important theme is those who feel loved and connected in childhood and those who do not. I think Nella Larsen was severely conscious of the ways in which people who have felt love as children connect to the world, and the ways in which people who have not had those things float about. Often it takes someone who is from the latter group to express that type of angst honestly.

    QUICKSAND is also, as someone pointed out, incredibly depressing–an in your face type of way. A woman rejected constantly from childhood, unable to sustain long lasting connecting with people, attempting to navigate a world where her lack of family connections essentially makes her unable to connect to other people. She lacks the sense of community, is constantly restless, lacks confidence, and exists in a shell meant to protect her, but ends up propelling people away.

    As I’m typing this Helga reminds me of Don Draper. While Don is able to fake the funk, so to speak, he essentially doesn’t feel connected to anyone. The depictions of his childhood account for that, as do Helga’s in the novel.

  • belleisa

    Also, it’s as if Helga knows that she’s stepping into shit storms…and she can’t make herself stop.

    Is it a lack of agency, or manic depression? I grew up around a very depressed person, it’s difficult to watch and hard to empathize with someone who is consistent about orchestrating their own ruin.

    No one wants to believe that they could ever be so out of control, and some people can’t even fathom it.

    Knowing, feeling what was going to happen, I wanted Helga to stay happy stay content, but her penchant towards misery is a hard habit to break.

  • Tracey

    I love Nella Larsen’s ‘Quicksand’! I was an English major in college and, consequently, but cheerfully, read more pieces of fiction and non-fiction than i can count. ‘Quicksand’ stood out to me and i wrote my thesis on its principles, so i was glad to stumble upon this discussion. Thanks!

  • “Don’t get me wrong, I really really enjoy Quicksand; but reading it is kind of like stepping into the stuff.”

    I think that’s why I’ve always liked Quicksand a little better. I get caught up in Helga’s world. She can’t win for losing, and she can’t get out of her own way. Clare and Irene? I just want to punch them chicks.