Authors: Pandora Sykes
The first time I read
by Nella Larsen, I didn't love it. I didn't even particularly like it. I felt a bit
, in truth. Twelve years later, at the age of 40, I read it again and I thought, Oh my God! This is incredible! I had a completely different response to it the second time round. I was shocked by how many parallels existed between me and the protagonist. And that fascinated me. That a book I could feel so ambivalent about could touch me so personally a decade later. It showed me the importance of rereading. I now teach it, as an example of the Harlem Renaissance.
The book is about Helga Crane, a Black American 18-year-old living in segregated America in the 1920s. Helga has a white Danish mother and a Black Caribbean father and when her father dies, she is sent away to a historically Black university in the South. It's the beginning of her journey through various different cities in
the world, trying to find where she belongs, never being fully permitted a place of her own. As a result of the trauma of not being allowed to live with her family and being sent away when her father dies, Helga is a prickly, brittle character. She travels through all these different spaces, desperate to be loved, making decisions that only alienate people, while acting imperiously and defensively.
is not straightforwardly autobiographical, but it is drawn from Nella Larsen's life. She also had a white mother and a Black father and was sent away to university. She was very critical of what she considered the hypocrisies and contradictions of the Black American elite, and in the book she makes very thinly veiled references to people and places who were prominent in Black society at that time. The university that Helga attends is thought to be based on Tuskegee University in Alabama, a historic Black university that Larsen was sent to. Ostensibly a place for Black advancement, Helga finds this institution to be full of snobbery that mimics white upper-class values. After she graduates, Helga moves to Harlem and initially, she thinks that she has found her people in this bohemian scene of Black writers and artists and poets. But soon she starts to see the same
tendencies and hypocrisies â and so she flees to her distant relatives in Copenhagen.
Denmark is entirely white as a place, but it has no racial segregation and initially, Helga finds relief. But then she realises that she is being exoticised by her aunt and uncle, who are dressing her up and parading her round the city, using her as a tool to increase their social standing. She yearns for America and so she returns and â in a slightly bonkers twist â marries a rural pastor and relocates to the South. She has loads of children and â¦ still doesn't feel like she fits in. You sense the pattern, here.
The book does not offer Helga a resolution. It's actually pretty depressing. But it's also iconic â a slim modernist classic that condenses so much complexity about race and class and gender into such an economy of words. When my students were reading this recently, they were really shocked that it was written 100 years ago. It feels so ânow'. It's incredible that it was Larsen's first book â the writing is sublime.
Sadly, after just two books, and a failed third attempt, Larsen stopped writing. She became a nurse and died in obscurity. Both
, her second book, which has recently been made into a film, had a good critical reception when they came out, but were then lost until the
1980s, when they were rediscovered and crowned canonical texts, thanks to the efforts of Black American scholars. They are now better known than they ever were in Larsen's lifetime.
That early experience of being from a place but not being able to claim it is something I felt strongly. I wasn't born in the 1920s and I wasn't rejected by my family, but I lived in Ireland where there was this constant refrain of being told that I didn't belong, that I was not Irish. I had spent the first four years of my life in Atlanta, which I saw as this distant, Black utopia and the first chance I had to go back, as a teenager, I did. It was my first time in predominantly Black spaces since I was very young and I had expected to feel this sense of belonging, but it didn't happen. This time, I
like the people around me, but culturally I was so different. I was so Irish!
That sense of searching for a place that is mine, where I feel like I belong, has followed me until quite recently. I'm currently writing the proposal for my third book in New York City, and this space feels like mine. I moved to Margate with my family recently and I feel like it's where I'm meant to be now. But maybe it's because I haven't been there for that long. Maybe, like Helga, I'll feel the pull in a little while. Maybe this is how it goes.
Emma Dabiri is an Irish journalist, broadcaster and academic. The author of two works of non-fiction,
Don't Touch My Hair
What White People Can Do Next
, she is currently the Heimbold Chair of Irish Studies, a researcher at Goldsmiths, University of London and an associate at SOAS. She has presented numerous series across television and radio for the BBC.
The act of reading is a sacrament. A holy practice. But like all sacred things, it is easy to lose sight of the wonder. I remember the first moment that I knew I was a reader â the first time that I lost myself in a book. It was during school; I was in third or fourth grade at the time and we had been given quiet time to read at our desks. One moment there was time and the next it had vanished. Nothing existed between me and the pages of the story â no worries, no fears, no needs or longings. I was never the same again. But to choose a single book as a gateway into this extraordinary world of timelessness, no pain and pure being â the only nirvana any of us can possibly hope to achieve â would be impossible. It can't be done. One has to see books as portals, as offerings sent to us exactly when we need them the most.
When I first learnt how to read, I read everything: street signs, food packets, the slender
writing on my father's cigarette packs â they had no health warnings in the 1980s and so narratively didn't offer much. I graduated to Nancy Drew, the R. L. Stine horror books and the innocent fantasies of the girls at Sweet Valley High. But as I got older and life turned more fraught, more dangerous and more lonely, that's when I began to receive the offerings.
After my father was killed, the elementary school librarian at our school, whose son was the same age as my brother, six years old, gave me
by Judy Blume. It told the story of a 15-year-old girl struggling in the aftermath of her father's unexpected death. I was one year younger than the girl in the book. I read it in my father's bedroom, in the near dark, and cried through the chapters. When I returned to school, an English teacher gave me
by Judith Guest, a novel about a family coping with trauma and loss, better known for having been turned into an Oscar-winning film. I don't remember if we read the novel as a class or if the teacher gave the book only to me. But I remember feeling understood, for the first time, during my loneliest season of grief.
Whenever I weathered a crisis, somehow there was a book to meet me; a story, an author, a writer who managed to soothe and tend to me in quiet
To Kill A Mockingbird
was another English class read that prepared our young, hopeful hearts for the unfairness of the world. Only a book can do that without breaking you. But it wasn't just sadness that books offered shelter from; there were books for those hours where we cannot but be alone:
What You Have Heard is True
by Carolyn ForchÃ©, a stunning memoir about the poet's time in El Salvador before the start of its bloody civil war,
This House of Grief
by Helen Garner, the greatest book about a modern trial that I can think of,
The Shapeless Unease
by Samantha Harvey, a moving and funny book about insomnia. Anyone with a broken heart would thank God for
by Maggie Nelson and just about anything by James Baldwin. When I was writing and stuck, Rachel Kushner's novels breathed life and awe back into me. When I was writing my last novel,
In a Free State
by V. S. Naipaul and a short story by Colm TÃ³ibÃn taught me how to think of it in a radically different way (Cormac McCarthy's
made me want to write it in the first place).
There is no one book that saves a life â the truth is much more profound. We are such fragile, complex things. What are people made of but memories of each other and stories that tether us to the world? Those simple stories â our first kiss, our last kiss, our guilt, our longings, sombre
moments, celebrations, humiliations, illnesses â are the only things that will survive us. âStill, what I want in my life is to be willing to be dazzled,' the poet Mary Oliver wrote, âto cast aside the weight of facts and maybe even to float a little above this difficult world.' It's stories that will remain long after we and our puny troubles are gone, circulating in the ether, passed on to loved ones, told and retold until they crumble, becoming dust, until one day someone notices a grain somewhere and stops to look.
Fatima Bhutto was born in Kabul, Afghanistan and grew up in Syria and Pakistan. She is the author of six books of fiction and non-fiction, including
The Shadow of the Crescent Moon
, which was longlisted in 2014 for the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction. Her most recent books are
, a novel, and
New Kings of the World
, a reportage on globalisation and popular culture.
A huge thank you first and foremost to our contributing authors, who have inspired me and so many others with their work. Thank you to the National Literacy Trust for their tireless work in children's literacy and to Bloomsbury, particularly Alexis Kirschbaum, Stephanie Rathbone, Emilie Chambeyron, Lauren Whybrow and Akua Boateng, for generously supporting this charitable venture. Thank you to Charlie Greig for your help assembling the puzzle pieces, David Mann for the book's beautiful design, and Nelle Andrew, always, for your support. And thank you to my mother, who made me into the bookworm I am today, for the bi-weekly library trips and the stocking full of books. I hope that my children will always feel as supported in their reading, as I did by you.
Pandora Sykes is a journalist and broadcaster. She is the creator of multiple podcasts and audio documentaries including
The High Low,
and is the host of
. Her debut essay collection
How Do We Know We're Doing It Right?
bestseller, and she has written for the
. She lives in London.
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First published in Great Britain 2022
This electronic edition first published in 2022
Introduction Copyright Â© Pandora Sykes, 2022
Various contributions Copyright Â© various contributors 2022
The authors have asserted their rights under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as Authors of this work
Many of these pieces were compiled from the transcripts of interviews conducted by Pandora Sykes
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage or retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publishers
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
ISBN: HB: 978-1-5266-5748-0; TPB: 978-1-5266-6038-1; EBOOK: 978-1-5266-5747-3;
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