And So Our Trails Continue

Copyright © 2011 by Alice Walker

 

 

 

Nella Larsen

On the boat to Gaza – as we waited day after day to sail – I met a doctor from Scandinavia who was going with us, to take care of us if we were harmed.  The very thought drew me to her.  I liked her calm, competent, unassuming manner, as well as her gentle smile.  We talked.

I asked if she knew of the writer, Nella Larsen.

No.

I said she’d written elegant novels in the late Twenties and early Thirties then gave up writing to become a nurse.  She’d been unjustly accused of plagiarism, also, which undermined her confidence in her craft and deeply wounded her, but I did not mention this.

Her mother was a Dane, I said.  Her father, a West Indian.

A really interesting novelist, I said.  Comparable to, or perhaps compatible with, Kate Chopin and Jean Rhys, I always thought, though I did not bring up these admirable novelists, either.

You might want to read her novels, Quicksand (my favorite) and Passing, I said.  Both are fascinating.  There’s an edge to them that’s unusual in novels written by American women of that period.

Our doctor seemed interested and took down her name.

But as we talked I was reminded of something else:  that Sue Bailey Thurman, the social activist and scholar, also wife of theologian Howard Thurman, gave me, toward the end of her life, in a box containing several purple wine goblets, a small silver candlestick, that leaned like a tiny tower of Pisa.  She said it had belonged to Nella Larsen.  I still have it.

Not long ago, in a biography of Larsen that made her seem unconvincingly shallow, I learned her Danish grandmother had given two silver candlesticks to Nella when she visited her mother’s country as a young woman.

The Danes had been curious about the “exotic” Larsen and had wined and dined her, if we are to believe that her fictional character in Quicksand, Helga Crane, is based on Larsen’s real life experience in Denmark.

Where is the other candlestick, I now wondered?  And how tiny the candle would have to be to fit.  A birthday cake candle, maybe.  And was she given the candlesticks partly because one of them (the one I now had) was defective?  How would Nella have felt about this?

It seemed worthwhile to urge the doctor to look Larsen up on the Internet and to read her novels.

She presents an experience of Danes, of Denmark, and of course of the American South that I’m sure most Danes can’t imagine.  Though by now there must be many bi-racial Danish children who are not considered “exotic.”

Oh, yes, the doctor laughed. One of them is in a boat in the flotilla.  Among the Danish contingent, she added.

Sure enough, leaving the press conference in Athens, where we Americans affirmed our presence in the international flotilla to break the illegal Israeli siege of Gaza, I was warmly embraced by a handsome, golden brown young man, whose goodness of heart and purpose of spirit shone in his bright, dark eyes.

I did not have time (we embraced in a crowded doorway) to ask if he knew of his bi-racial ancestor, Nella Larsen, but I imagined him discovering her one day; a previously unknown, but perhaps now a useful and illuminating, even companionable, mentor and friend.

And so our trails continue.  With or without us.

 

Published on: Aug 30, 2011

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