2020 Classics Challenge, Fiction, What Shannon Read

2020 Classics Challenge: Passing

349929Well, I don’t know how any of the classics I read next can possibly measure up the 1929 Harlem Renaissance-era novel Passing by Nella Larsen.

It’s a quick read, clocking in at around 122 pages. And those pages are packed with tightly focused prose which, along with the set-up of the book, felt very much like a play.

The book is divided into three parts, like acts in a play: Encounter, Re-encounter, and Finale.

Throughout each, protagonist Irene Redfield encounters and re-encounters former schoolmate Clare Kendry Bellew in both Chicago (their hometown) and New York.

Both women are black, specifically African American. Both are light-skinned. The book examines the consequences of the various ways in which the women have chosen to “pass” or not pass as white in society.

Irene married a black man, Brian, after school and they have a family. She passes when it’s convenient to do so. For example, in the first scene, she’s actually passing when she stops at a fancy hotel to have some iced tea and recover from the summer heat. That’s where she runs into Clare, also passing.

But Clare’s situation is different. She is living a secret life, totally passing as a white woman. In fact, she has married a white man who doesn’t know she’s not white. And—dramatic pause—that man is a terrible racist.

The re-encounter actually takes place at Clare’s home in New York City, where Clare’s husband comes home and, not knowing that Irene, along with another school friend who passes, are black, spouts off with a number of racists slurs, even jokingly greeting his wife with one.

Author Nella Larsen 1928 via Wikipedia

Author Nella Larsen in 1928, via Wikipedia

The irony is incredible. The language and outright racism are shocking to me. But, I’m not on the receiving end of any racism, so I’m guessing the disgusting jokes are all things many black Americans have heard before, in general if not directed at them.

The relationship between Irene and Clare is at the center of this book. It’s the lens through which race and the idea of passing are examined. Their interactions reveal their emotions and motivations around passing, as well as what leads each to the final action of the novel.

There are moments of incredible irony and even moments of humor. Larsen manages to elegantly pack in a wealth of themes in addition to that of race, from women’s friendship to marriage and adultery. The writing is lovely. The setting, against the backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance, gives one a real sense of the era.

I’m off to read more about Nella Larsen’s life. I know she has a couple of other books, most notably the novel Quicksand, which I will also be reading.


Back to the Classics 2020

This is my selection for category 5. Classic by a Person of Color for the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen of Books and Chocolate.

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2020 When Are You Reading? Challenge, What Shannon Read

When Are You Reading? Challenge: The Shadow King

This year, I’m participating in the When Are You Reading? Challenge hosted by Sam of Taking on a World of Words.

This book is my selection for the years 1920-1939.

FYI: There are more spoilers in this review than I might usually include. I found the details so fascinating that it was hard to stay general.


TheShadowKing

Did you know about Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia?

I think I was vaguely aware of it before coming upon Maaza Mengiste’s novel The Shadow King on the new fiction shelf at the library.

Normally, I refuse to read books about or related to World War II. I spent a good deal of my school years learning about WWII and, because I feel it was pounded into us in public school, I’ve grown weary of reading about it over the years.

I realize I’m missing out on some literature in this category but, trust me, I’ve already read quite a few of the classic books on WWII and I feel I have to qualify that I do not take any part of the war lightly. I just exhausted my ability to read about it before I even got to college.

However. Whe I came upon The Shadow King, I was immediately interested in the lesser known story of Mussolini’s campaign to colonize Ethiopia. I was further interested when I learned the story is told from the perspective of Hirut, a young maid in the household of Kidane, an officer in Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie’s army.

Finally a WWII story I hadn’t heard before. And, one that wasn’t just a, American wartime nostalgia piece (the library shelves are rife with those, as you may know). And one that was told from the perspective of black people in a colonized country. Plus, one told from the perspective of a “lowly” maid! That’s just my game.

The format of the novel is interesting. When I say “perspective,” what I really mean is that the narration is third-person omniscient and the focus switches from character to character. We get the thoughts and emotions of all the main characters, including Hirut, Kidane, and Kidane’s wife Aster, as well as other, more minor characters.

Interspersed with the regular chapters are interludes titled “Chorus.” They seem to serve exactly the purpose a “chorus” would serve in a pre-modern play or even a contemporary musical. The Chorus speaks about characters, about events, about situations, and speaks directly to the charachters at times. I quite liked that as a device.

There are also interludes to describe photos taken by Ettore Navarra, a Jewish photographer with an Italian military unit (also a character in the novel). And there are actual sections titled “Interlude” that focus on Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, who escapes into exile.

As Kidane leads his army toward war, “their” women follow. At their helm is Kidane’s wife Aster, who, hoping to take on the role of warrior herself, drills her women with the intent of fighting alongside the men. Kidane won’t allow this and relegates them to caring for the wounded and cooking the food.

Meanwhile, Kidane begins raping Hirut regularly, in addition to using her as his emotional confidant. These scenes are utterly heartbreaking. The hopelessness is palpable, even as the Chorus encourages Hirut to stand up to Kidane.

Kidane promises Hirut that, as payment, she’ll be released from his services after the war and will be given the hut where she lived with her parents before they died. Wife Aster, angry and domineering, blames Hirut for her husband’s infidelity (he’s a longtime adulterer in addition to being a rapist).

There is a rape scene midway through the novel in which Hirut has a small victory and begins to turn the tide against Kidane. It is hopeful and touching.

Meanwhile, Kidane’s army has suffered several losses and Kidane concocts a plan to turn the tide of the war. It involves promoting a peasant to pose as a “shadow king,” meaning he impersonates the exiled king and acts to motivate and inspire the people and control the narrative being presented to the Ethiopian people. Italy would have them believe their exiled emperor has run away and left them in the hands of the invaders.

Hirut becomes this shadow king’s attendant and she and Aster are posed as female guards in military uniform. This leads to a lot of action for both characters.

I’ll leave it there to avoid plot-related spoilers; though, of course, you can read about the history of the war online. I highly recommend this book. Mengiste is a lyrical writer with a knack for description. At times, I found some of the zoomed-in description a little tedious, but there’s no doubt that she’s talented in that regard. Here’s a good interview with her via BookPage.

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