July 20, 2010

Passing

I think I’ll talk about two things today, as they relate to one book: How the first line or paragraph of a novel presages the whole and also about the writer’s passing.

Have you ever read Nella Larsen’s Passing? A classic. If you haven’t, you really should. Nella Larsen wrote during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. She was born in Chicago in 1891, and her mother was Danish and her father was black from Saint Croix. She’s a wonderful writer but also a tragic figure ~ despite critical acclaim and even a Guggenheim, she quit writing halfway through her life and shunned her writer friends.

Her book Passing is about childhood friends Irene and Clare. They are both grown up at the beginning of the novel but they’ve lost touch. Irene lives comfortably in a black community, but light-skinned Clare has chosen to pass for white. However, Clare is attracted to danger, and she starts spending more time with Irene and the black community, despite having married a rich white racist. She is in danger of being found out.

Here’s how it begins:

It was the last letter in Irene Redfield’s little pile of morning mail. After her other ordinary and clearly directed letters the long envelope of thin Italian paper with its almost illegible scrawl seemed out of place and alien. And there was, too, something mysterious and slightly furtive about it. A thing sly thing which bore no return address to betray the sender. Not that she hadn’t immediately known who its sender was. Some two years ago she had one very like it in outward appearance. Furtive, but yet in some peculiar, determined way a little flaunting. Purple ink. Foreign paper of extraordinary size.


In addition to being one of the loveliest paragraphs ever written, this paragraph does something that I think a lot of great novels do ~ it presages the whole. A first line and paragraph has to do so much. It has to grab the reader by the throat and pull her into into it immediately. It has to be interesting and perhaps the most well-written of the whole book. It certainly takes the most work. But also, a great first line and first paragraph hints at what’s to come. It can be a metaphor for character or a hint at the ending.

In this paragraph from Passing, Nella so skillfully encapsulates the character of Clare in the guise of an envelope. Clare is not ordinary. She’s exotic but illegible. She’s long and thin, mysterious and furtive. And then those last lines, that home run ~ peculiar, determined, flaunting, purple ink, foreign paper of extraordinary size. That’s Clare. And it also gives hints of the tragic ending. Oooooh. Just gives me chills, the exquisite craft of it.

Not that we don’t have enough to worry about in our first line and first paragraph!

So, to my second thing, which is that writers pass. Passing is a term for light-skinned black people who try to pass for white, but of course it’s much more complicated than that. Though a person may be called black, some of his or her parents or grandparents may be caucasian. So even the term black or African-American is misleading ~ in the case of racism, criminally misleading.

But I’m getting off topic. What I mean to say is that, as a writer, you have to fake it all the time. You have to pass for someone you aren’t. You have to convincingly walk the walk and talk the talk. You may not be a dentist, but you have to sound like one. You may be a man, but you have to convincingly write from a woman’s point of view. You may be caucasian, but you have to people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds than yourself. Heck, writing a murderer is probably a huge stretch for most people.

So, we’re all passing ~ and hopefully doing a good job of it.

What I’m Reading Today: Been skimming some writing craft and advice books.

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