Everybody Go Buy Nella Larsen’s Passing Right Now -The Toast

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Hello. So the last time we talked about a book I’m crazy about, half the fun was missing because none of you got fair warning. Most of the comments were “I really want to read this book now,” not “Here is a nineteen-page essay I wrote about Obinze,” which is what I really wanted from you. I will not make that mistake again.

Currently Nellallitea “Nella” Larsen’s Passing is available for the Kindle for a mere 99 cents. (Larsen only wrote two novels in her lifetime, so you can actually buy both for a still-mere $1.99, but we’re only going to talk about Passing this time; you can also buy a paperback version if you don’t have a Kindle; here is an Indiebound link should you find shopping with Amazon morally troublesome.)

Have you heard of Nella? She’s not as well-known as Zora Neale Hurston, her more famous Harlem Renaissance contemporary, but she’s in the middle of a cultural reevaluation and utterly fascinating. She won a Guggenheim Fellowship for writing in 1930, and spent the last thirty years of her life working as a nurse after she failed to find a publisher for her third novel. According to Marianna Davis, Larsen was “a lonely child…an avid reader of novels and travelogues and a keen observer of life,” which makes her exactly our type of person. Her mother was Danish and her father was West Indian, although she was raised by her Danish stepfather. She did everything. From Wikipedia:

In 1914, Larsen enrolled in the nursing school at New York City’s Lincoln Hospital and Nursing Home. Founded in the nineteenth century in Manhattan as a nursing home to serve blacks, the hospital elements had grown in importance. The total operation had been relocated to a newly constructed campus in the South Bronx. At the time, the nursing home patients were primarily black; the hospital patients were primarily white; the doctors were male and white; and the nurses and nursing students were female and black. As Pinckney writes, “No matter what situation Larsen found herself in, racial irony of one kind or another invariably wrapped itself around her.”

Upon graduating in 1915, Larsen went South to work at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, where she became head nurse at its hospital and training school. While in Tuskegee, she came in contact with Booker T. Washington’s model of education and became disillusioned with it. Added to the poor working conditions for nurses at Tuskegee, Larsen put up with the situation only until 1916.

So Nella moves to New York, graduates from library school, and starts her career as a writer. And she writes Passing. And it’s…intense. It’s about two childhood friends who are both biracial; one of them, Clare, goes on to “pass” as white and marries a racist white man. She later reconnects with Irene, who lives in Harlem and identifies as black, and then everything happens. Race and class and gender and infidelity and identity and female friendships and the subversion of the “tragic mulatto” trope. And you had better believe there is some lesbian subtext. This book is a whole lot of something.

How much time do you charming darlings need to give this book the old once-through with the oculars? Is one week enough time? (It’s not that long.) How long does it take to read a book? Two weeks? You tell me. I am yours to command.

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