What Can We Steal From Nella Larsen’s Passing?
Title of Work and its Form: Passing, novel
Author: Nella Larsen
Date of Work: 1929
Where the Work Can Be Found: The book is a classic and can be found at secondhand bookstores everywhere, including Half Price Books, a very cool chain that boasts a ton of retail locations.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Epigraphs
Here’s another of my literary confessions: I didn’t read epigraphs until I was well into my twenties. I’m not really sure why; I just skipped ahead to the beginning of the story. After all, that’s what I wanted to read in the first place, right? As with so many other things from my early- to mid-twenties, I was wrong wrong wrong.
Epigraphs are the literary equivalent of the amuse-bouche: a small taste of the greatness that you are about to experience. Sometimes the epigraph will reflect the themes of the larger work, sometimes the epigraph will simply start you on the journey of entering the world the writer has created for you. Each chapter of Stephen King’s The Long Walk, for example, begins with a quote from a different game show; it’s chilling when you think about it. An epigraph can also link you work to one of its spiritual brethren. Quoting Jack Kerouac at the beginning of your book indicates that your work might be a little “Beat” and suggests to the reader that your book probably doesn’t take place in an Edwardian manor house. (Although you never know for sure.)
Passing is one of my favorite books from undergrad. The book is about the relationship between Clare and Irene, two relatively light-skinned African-American women. Although they were very close as children, they drifted apart. Clare ended up living in the “white” world, even marrying a racist white man. Irene, though she could have “passed,” instead married a black man. Irene and Clare have very complicated feelings about each other and their lives. The book is really short and I don’t want to ruin the awesome ending, so just read the book.
The epigraph is taken from “Heritage,” a poem by Countee Cullen:
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?
What does this mean? It seems to me that the poem is from the African-American perspective. Africans were first brought to the West in the early seventeenth century, three hundred years (give or take) before the poem was written. In the very sad centuries in which slavery was legal in the United States, African-American culture evolved in the face of terrible oppression. At what point did “Africans” become “African-Americans?”
The point is one of identity formation. People inherently decide for themselves how they wish to be seen and to be treated. Some folks care very deeply about the heritage of their ancestors and see themselves as an extended part of that lineage; others do not. To a large extent, it’s all up to the individual. If a person with dark skin has an Irish heritage and wants to be considered Irish, most of us would simply shrug our shoulders and say, “Whatever you like, friend. Top of the morning to you.” Still, others would object. This is the dilemma that Clare and Irene are facing in the novel. Clare has said, “What is Africa to me?” She has disavowed her African side and claimed all of the privileges that being white offered at the time. Irene has done the exact opposite. The situation and the epigraph lead to a million questions: Did Clare do the wrong thing? Does Irene resent Clare for the way their lives have diverged? Is Clare any different in the “white” world than in the “black” world? Was Clare’s husband deceived in any way? What does race really mean about us? To what extent can we shape our own lives? What pull does our ancestry have on us? How big a pull should it have?
I could go on. In four short lines, Larsen prepares the reader for the complicated dilemma that follows.
What Should We Steal?
- Manipulate the reader’s expectations with a meaningful epigraph. You prime a lawn mower by shooting a little gasoline into the carburetor (or something). After that, your engine is ready to run. It’s the same thing with an epigraph. You jump-start the reader’s brain and prepare them for what follows.
- Establish tone with your epigraph. The four lines from Countee Cullen’s poem are poetic and playful at the same time, just like Larsen’s book. If you have trouble figuring out the first few lines, the last one is very clear; the same is true with Passing. You may not GET everything the first time, but there will be something that does tickle your intellect.