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272: Nella Larsen's PASSING - April 2024 Book Club

Have you read Nella Larsen's Passing ( |, a brilliant classic written in 1929? If you haven't read this stellar (short!) book, take time to do that and then join us for the discussion.

We share our pairing recommendations as well, including Toni Morrison’s Sula ( | and Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half ( |

We are continuing our Patreon drive and appreciate the support on there so much. Also, if you are participating in our challenge this year, this book is perfect for a pre-1950 classic! If you haven't joined us for the challenge yet, there is still time to participate this year. Check out the Reading Challenge page where you can see all of the categories and can download printables and images for social media.  

Bookish Check-in

Ashley - Jess Zimmerman’s Women and Other Monsters ( |

Jen - Ashley Schumacher’s In the Orbit of You (

Our Book Club Pick

Nella Larsen's Passing ( |

Our Pairings

Ashley - Toni Morrison’s Sula ( |

Jen - Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half ( |

Flashback - 1 Year Ago: April 2023

(A note to our readers: click on the hashtags above to see our other blog posts with the same hashtag.)

Interested in what else we're reading? Check out our Featured Books page.

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[00:00:33] Ashley: Hi, and welcome to Unabridged. This is episode 272. Today we are discussing Nella Larsen's Passing as our April book club pick. Before we get started, I just want to remind you that we are continuing our Patreon efforts. We appreciate your support so much. We are working to cover the costs of the podcast, and so our Patreon supporters help us do that, and we are really grateful.

[00:00:55] If you haven't checked us out over there, it's It's also in the show notes if you want to click through the link. Before we get into discussing Passing today, let's talk about our Bookish Check In. Jen, what are you reading?

[00:01:10] Jen: I just started an e-galley. This is Ashley Schumacher's In the Orbit of You and Schumacher is a YA author who I have thoroughly enjoyed in the past. She often writes very sad YA, so I feel like if what I'm about to say is tempting to you at all, just know that I'm prepared to ugly cry at some point during reading this book.

[00:01:34] Schumacher is also the author of Amelia Unabridged, Full Flight, and The Renaissance of Gwen Hathaway, all of which I really loved. This one focuses on Nova Evans and Sam Jordan. And when they were kids, they were neighbors and just had this amazing friendship.

[00:01:55] So Sam was the victim of abuse and Nova was really a safe space for him and she knew what was going on. But of course as a kid, I think she was like eight or nine, and didn't have the capacity to make a difference in his life. So instead she just listened and cared for him and tried to make him happy when she saw him.

[00:02:20] At some point, and she's never sure exactly what happens, but something happens, and he's taken out of the home and goes to live with his uncle. And as they're saying goodbye, he promises that when they're older, he will find her again. And she says, when? And he says, maybe when we're 18, which, of course, to kids that age seems very far off.

[00:02:40] Flash forward, and Nova is 17, Sam is 18, and so Nova and her mom have moved around a lot. She has been to six different high schools, I think, and she's 17 years old. And she's just gotten used to being the new girl, and she has made a habit of figuring out the vibe of a school very quickly, and going along

[00:03:05] with whatever the best vibe is that she can fit in. When she enters this new school, she knows that she and her mom are only going to be there for about two months. And she decides that instead of taking on the vibe that she finds there, she wants to figure out who she is because she feels like she has become so good at being a chameleon that she doesn't actually know who she is beneath all of that. So she goes in, she's not really trying to make an impression. Lunch, as always, is fraught. She sits down at lunch, and who should sit down next to her but Sam? And she recognizes him almost immediately, but is pretty sure that he doesn't recognize her. He does turn to her at one point, and she thinks he's going to say something to her, and he asks her to move down so his girlfriend can sit beside him.

[00:03:51] So she's like, well, this is not happening the way I thought it might. And, but later he does recognize her and it turns out that they are backdoor neighbors again.Sam has lived with his aunt and uncle ever since he left Nova. They are wonderful people to him. He has a girlfriend. He's a football star, but it turns out that he doesn't really love any of it.

[00:04:16] He is still, of course, dealing with the trauma of his childhood, and he has become so conflict averse that... like he does football because he's good at it, not because he loves it, but somehow his whole life and future have come to revolve around football. His girlfriend is really sweet. He started dating her because another guy was a jerk to her and cheated on her.

[00:04:39] And so he just is in protective mode and doesn't... So yeah, he's living this life to avoid conflict and to make other people happy, essentially. So of course, and I'm at the point now where they're becoming friends again, There's definitely attraction there, maybe more, but Nova knows she's leaving in two months.

[00:04:56] Sam doesn't want to hurt anybody in the world. And what's going to happen? So I have thoughts about what's going to happen. We'll see. Schumacher just has this ability to build beautiful characters, to have these compelling premises, to work through really difficult situations. And I just did not want to stop reading.

[00:05:15] So it's really great. So that is Ashley Schumacher's In the Orbit of You. And by the time this episode releases, this one will be out in the world. So you can go pick it up right now. 

[00:05:26] Ashley: That sounds great, Jen. And I, every time you talk about Ashley Schumacher, I'm like, Oh, I should try her books. But then I know they're really sad. So, you know, I always wind up pushing those off. 

[00:05:37] Jen: Yeah. We're just not always in the headspace to have snot and tears going everywhere.

[00:05:41] Ashley: Or maybe never. Maybe I'm never in the headspace have the snot and tears. And not that I don't do it with books, but it's hard for me, especially if I know going in. So even though it is nice to have the warning, it makes it where then I'm really reticent to actually pick up the book. But anyway, that sounds great.

[00:05:56] Jen: It's good so far. So we'll see. All right. Ashley, what are you reading?

[00:06:01] Ashley: So one of the books that I am reading is Jess Zimmerman's Women and Other Monsters: Building a New Mythology. And I'm listening to this one thanks to Libro FM. It was released in 2021, so I've had it a while to listen to it, and I just hadn't gotten to it. Did you listen to this, Jen?

[00:06:19] Jen: No, I was going to say I have it in my Libro fm list as well, but have not gotten to it.

[00:06:23] Ashley: So this is... I am loving it. It is an exploration... Zimmerman goes and looks, takes a critical look at female monsters throughout history. And she really explores the mythology that surrounds female monsters and the way that they are depicted throughout human history and what that means for women today.

[00:06:50] And I have found it to be really fascinating because I think that even though I certainly consider myself a feminist and am always trying to look at things with a critical eye of why do we think what we think, and what does it mean that we think it, I still hadn't considered a lot of these monsters in light of the way that she explores them.

[00:07:14] So, you know, she really focused on, like, Medusa, the Sphinx. there's a bunch in there. It's just ones that we all have commonly kind of... I mean, the Harpies, the Furies, the Sirens. I mean, oh, so just kind of this idea of like, what does it mean to really explore the depiction of these mythological creatures, both their limitations, but also their strengths.

[00:07:38] And so a lot of what she's looking at is the ways that they are cast as being unfeminine or otherwise horrific. I mean, in the way that monsters are depicted as grotesque, horrific, and then if women are often trying to conform to ideals of beauty, then these are often kind of the contrast that women are working against.

[00:08:03] And so she's kind of exploring what does this mean for women and our understanding of ourselves and how. So, while monstrosity could also be confining, it could be very freeing in some ways... that kind of the typical female characters who are like the damsel in distress type, that's really restrictive in a way that this, these monstrosities have power, they have agency, they often are

[00:08:35] larger than life, like they can do more than any of the heroes in the stories. And so, I mean, all of that has been really interesting to explore. So I'm really enjoying it. The audio has been great because I think it's something that it moves really well in audio. I'm not sure that I would be getting through it nearly as quickly if I were reading the print.

[00:08:53] But yeah, I'm, I'm really interested in it. And, you know, she talks a lot about, you know, these stories that are written by men that have become the myths that are really the basis of a lot of our society. And like, what does that all mean? And so yeah, I've, I've been really interested in it. And also it's been interesting to hear, for example, Medusa, I didn't even remember some of the, you know, prior to her becoming a Gorgon, I didn't remember, you know, she was desired for her beauty.

[00:09:20] And like, it was because of all the toying of the gods that she wound up in this situation. You know, so it also is like this idea of even the monsters have become monsters because of things that often had to do with their beauty or their, you know, whatever, their really appealing qualities that somebody was so jealous of that, you know, fill in the blank, but whichever God or goddess like imposes this horrific punishment on them, or they take advantage of them and then it results in these things.

[00:09:47] So I think all of that's just really interesting to explore in light of our modern world and just thinking about. What do those cultural touch points mean for how we define ourselves and what could they mean if we kind of looked at them in a different way? So, again, that is Jess Zimmerman'sWomen and Other Monsters: Building a New Mythology.

[00:10:09] And I'm really enjoying it.

[00:10:10] Jen: I made a mistake because as you were talking, I was like that sounds really familiar. And I looked, and I did read it. And I rated it five stars. So usually I'm great at having that instant recall, but yes, I did read that and loved it. I also listened to it on Libro FM and did love the audio book.

[00:10:29] Ashley: So, it's inviting to hear, but like I said, I do think I'm doing really well with the audio. And maybe it'd be great on print, too, I don't know, but it does seem like the kind that, I mean, I just generally don't do as well with nonfiction that's not narrative nonfiction if I'm reading the print, whereas this is great.

[00:10:47] The audio is super engaging, so. Well, there you go. So, today we're going to be discussing Nella Larsen's Passing. And this was written in 1929. And if you are not familiar, of course, this is a classic. And if you're looking for a pre 1950 classic to read for the 2024 Unabridged Reading Challenge, this is, of course, a great pick.

[00:11:16] It's one of the reasons we are visiting it today, but it also is that I had read this a long time ago and thought it was phenomenal, but had not revisited it in a long time, and Jen, this is your first reading?

[00:11:27] Jen: My first time.

[00:11:28] Ashley: Awesome. So yeah, so we were excited to visit it for that reason, too. Before we get into our discussion, I'm going to share the publisher's synopsis. "Irene Redfield is a black woman living in an affluent, comfortable life with her husband and children in a thriving neighborhood of Harlem in the 1920s. When she reconnects with her childhood friend, Clare Kendry, who is similarly light skinned,

[00:11:49] Irene discovers that Clare has been passing for a white woman after severing ties to her past, even hiding the truth from her racist husband. Clare finds herself drawn to Irene's sense of ease and security with her black identity, and longs for the community, and increasingly, the woman she lost. Irene is both riveted and repulsed by Clare and her dangerous secret, as Clare begins to insert herself and her deception into every part of Irene's stable existence.

[00:12:17] First published in 1929, Larsen's brilliant examination of the various ways in which we all seek to pass is as timely as ever." Let's talk first about overall impressions. Jen, what was your overall impression?

[00:12:29] Jen: Oh, I was blown away. I love this so much, and I was pretty sure from the beginning that I would, but... And it's a very short text, so you know, I knew it would move fast but I just think the speed with which Larsen develops these incredibly complex characters and relationships just was captivating. I was completely drawn into Irene's life and to the ways that she both understands herself and really does not understand herself, and then you see that reflected in Clare.

[00:13:02] I just, yeah, this... I have a collection of all of Larsen's work and it made me very eager to read her others because I just think it is... It makes sense why people are still reading it. It is perfection. There's such a tight arc, and yet there's such a journey within it in the mind of Irene in particular and in the way she understands her world and her life.

[00:13:21] And like I said, and who she is. I really loved it. What about you, Ashley?

[00:13:27] Ashley: Yes, I loved it when I first read it, but it's been 20 years since I first visited it, and I think I was reading it as a very young adult at that time, and to look at it now I have reconnected with people who I knew a long time ago, and it is interesting to see the ways that people sometimes are exactly the same and sometimes are completely different.

[00:13:50] And I think here we also see an exploration of how far people are willing to go to choose what they feel is a better life. What they're willing to risk. And I think we see both the benefits that Clare thinks that she's getting from deciding to pass as white, but we also, of course, see the cost. And then we also are seeing all of Irene's consideration, and the ways she both does and doesn't understand herself, as you were saying, Jen, about her, her part of the story.

[00:14:30] And I mean, absolutely, I think that it's phenomenal that it moves the way that it does. I mean, it's such a short text, and it is so complex. And there's so much that we can infer from each scene that happens, and I think that's really amazing, that Larsen has a real gift with that. So, yeah, I mean, I think it's a fantastic book and really gets at the heart of some very interesting social issues.

[00:14:56] Jen: It felt so relevant and, and it's been around for over a hundred years. No, just almost at a hundred years. Sorry, math here. But yeah, so many of the questions that Larsen is inserting into the text are incredibly relevant right now and have never really stopped being relevant despite progress that has been made.

[00:15:19] I just, yeah. It's amazing. I just think authors like that can so clearly get at the heart of human questions. It's so impressive. Yeah.

[00:15:32] Ashley: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. So what was something specific that worked for you, Jen?

[00:15:38] Jen: This is going to seem like cheating.

[00:15:39] So this is not the quotation I'm going to share later, but there was a quote where Clare says, "Of course, that's what everybody wants. Just a little more money, even the people who have it.

[00:15:48] And I must say, I don't blame them. Money is awfully nice to have. In fact, all things considered, I think, Rene, that it's even worth the price." And I think that consideration of what things are worth the price that you're paying was a fascinating question to watch as the book progressed. Because both Irene and Clare are masking themselves in ways that they are constantly having to answer that question for themselves. Like for Irene, she has this marriage where she is constantly covering up who she is and what she wants, and just desperately trying to hold on to you that stability really for her children And yet she is never able to show Brian who she is or what she really wants because there's that fear that it will cause him to leave her.

[00:16:47] And then when you see the way that things develop with him and with Clare, it's like, well, was all of that worth it? Because you've done all of this to subsume who you are and he still is not choosing you. Even though you think that you are giving him exactly what he wanted. And money certainly enters into it.

[00:17:08] Of course, race. I mean, we'll have to talk about that. Race is definitely a big part of it, but as the publisher synopsis, and as you said, Ashley, people are passing in different ways. So race, passing as a white woman for Clare, is certainly one way that she is passing, but everyone is masking themselves and is passing in some way.

[00:17:28] And I just thought that was so brilliant. And to consider the worth. Like to say that the money is worth it is... like I paused on that one. My mind... I found that to be such a twisty statement because how often do we consider if what we're doing for the money is worth the money that we're getting? And I think those questions just proliferate through this short novel of all of the choices we're making and how many of them are really worth what we're having to do to get that thing that we think we want.

[00:17:58] Yeah, just brilliant. I mean, I felt like I could have turned around and started on page one and read it immediately because it was so powerful, and I knew there were things I missed and there were these deep, deep questions that really made me reflect as well. I, yeah, I just think it's brilliant. That was not a concise answer to what worked for us, but all of that worked for me.

[00:18:20] Ashley: I think that you're so right that part of what is so interesting is the way that we can see both the surface and the interior of everything for each person and how trivial that surface seems and yet how much everyone, each of the characters that we see, is paying for this seemingly very trivial or kind of banal existence.

[00:18:49] And yeah, I think it really calls into question some things about what we value in society and how, like what social interactions are like. And some of it is, you know, it, it really is hard to look at in some ways because you do start thinking like, well, what's the point? And I think that that's... Irene does not want to look at that.

[00:19:12] She does not want to look at the face of that. And that's part of what is preventing her from living fully. And probably what is preventing her and her relationship. And like you said, she's trying to do everything to make everything exactly right for Brian.

[00:19:28] Ashley: And yet nothing she's doing is actually accomplishing that goal.

[00:19:32] And meanwhile, she is making herself, you know, she's like cutting herself down to try to fit into this mold that she thinks will work for him. And yeah, I mean, that's a hard truth to start to see.

[00:19:45] Jen: Yeah. I mean, it was 1929, so divorce was obviously not common, but I just kept thinking, you are making yourself miserable to keep this man who, do you really even love him? Does he make you happy? And does he make your children happy? And, and the more he is getting in this relationship with Clare,

[00:20:06] of course, the worse he is when he's at home, and yet she was just desperate to keep that sense of stability. Yeah, it's,

[00:20:13] Ashley: Yeah. But I think some of it is about the lack of agency.

[00:20:16] Jen: Yes.

[00:20:17] Ashley: And that for sure for Clare and Irene, both of them are making these choices seemingly to try to have a bit more

[00:20:26] agency, but a lot of the things that they're doing have these unintended consequences that don't help them get the agency that I think they both desperately want.

[00:20:36] Jen: Absolutely. Yes. Yeah. What about you, Ashley? What's something that worked for you?

[00:20:40] Ashley: I think something I really enjoy is just exploring Irene and Clare's relationship and the way that Irene's feelings toward Clare are so complicated.

[00:20:53] Jen: Hmm.

[00:20:54] Ashley: And I think that that is often true in relationships that we have. You know,

we have a friendship. I mean, in this case, like it's a friendship that she's kind of reluctantly tolerating, that she wishes she could just turn back off. But then she's also completely enchanted by her. I mean, I think there's actually like some chemistry there between the two of them that is unexplored or unpursued, but present. And, you know, so then I mean, it goes back to, like you said, the time period. I mean, you think certainly for them to pursue anything as women would have also been outside of conventional norms, but there is this underlying. tension between the two of them even that I think is really interesting. And then we see Clare who has made this extreme decision that she has built her whole life around. And then her desire to essentially extract herself from that decision.

[00:21:57] Jen: Mm hmm.

[00:21:58] Ashley: But then again at what cost? And like how? I mean how do you even begin to do it?

[00:22:03] As a woman at that time, what does she even… what does that even look like for her to do it? And so I think absolutely, there's just so much that's interesting. I guess one of the things that really worked for me was like looking at the two women as individuals but also as the core of what all is happening in this story.

[00:22:21] And then, I mean, of course, we get into what does happen, which again, very, very short novel, very impactful ending, and, you know, then we're like, whoa, you know, how far, how far will someone go? Well, pretty far.

[00:22:34] Jen: Yeah. Yeah. I thought I was so shocked when I got to that conclusion. and I…

[00:22:41] Ashley: It is a shocking ending!

[00:22:42] Jen: Yeah, there were something, I mean, I could see Clare and Brian coming, you know, that was, that was telegraphed pretty, I mean, Larsen wanted us to know. But yeah, that...

[00:22:54] Ashley: There was foreshadowing, whereas I think we're supposed to, I think that, the thing with Irene and why I think it's such a powerful ending, is I think we're supposed to see her as so controlled. She's spent her whole life, she's built everything to have absolute control. She's so, I mean that's part of what Clare, I think, both admires but also, is repulsed by with Irene is that she's amazed her life is the way that it is..

[00:23:19] So she both envies it but also, you know, in some ways does not want that. That's the opposite of what she is like as a person. And so we watch that and see that all unfurl. And I think it's all really powerful.,

[00:23:36] Jen: Yeah. It's interesting when you were just talking, I thought of Irene. Was it Irene's mother who said that Clare was a "having" kind of person? And you know, you have all these verbs applied to Clare there's having, and there's passing. And Irene is just… It's all nouns, right? It's all yes. And I think that's really their personalities are just so opposed.

[00:24:00] And yet in that moment for Irene, it is acting and, and it's a horrible action and she's certainly in some sort of denial about it with herself. But yeah, I did not see that coming at all. I gasped when I read that. Yeah, it was really impactful.

[00:24:22] Ashley: Yes. Yeah, I thought so, too. Well, let's talk about a quote. Jen, what did you choose? I think there are many, many, many to choose from this book, but what did you pick?

[00:24:30] Jen: For such a short book, I used a lot of book darts.

[00:24:32] This is Clare talking to Irene and she says, she's basically talking about... that Irene can't realize everything this decision had cost Clare. And then Clare says, "How could you know? How could you, you're free.

[00:24:50] You're happy and safe." And I thought each of those words has to be interrogated in this book so rigorously, just what does it mean to be free? What does it mean to be happy? What does it mean to be safe? So Clare made this decision to pass thinking that being a white woman. would make her more free, and yet it put up more walls around her; that it would make her more happy.

[00:25:18] And yet she's clearly not happy with her horrible husband. She's not safe. And Irene in contrast seems like she has those things, but of course she doesn't have them either because again, she is living with all of these walls, with all of these expectations, with all of this desperation to keep Brian there and happy.

[00:25:36] And I just thought each of those words is present. Like these are things these characters are striving for, and who has them? Does anybody in this book have freedom or happiness or safety? Maybe some of the men? Maybe? Certainly not these women whose inner lives we see so deeply. So I just thought that was such a great focus statement for things that seem simple when we throw out around those words and of course are anything but.

[00:26:04] Ashley: Mm hmm. Yes, absolutely. I mean, again, that idea of, like, we neither understand ourselves nor each other. Yeah.

[00:26:14] Jen: What's a quote you want to discuss?

[00:26:16] Ashley: I chose one that is from Irene's perspective and she's thinking about Clare and Brian. And she, the quote says, "But she did not look the future in the face. She wanted to feel nothing, to think nothing, simply to believe that it was all silly invention on her part.

[00:26:37] Yet she could not. Not quite." And I think part of what I like so much about that particular quote is just that what we see with Irene over and over again is her desire to make everything simple and easy and stable, and yet how that is not life. And that certainly is not her life in the larger social context and yet she's trying to minimize, downplay, avoid any deeper thoughts that are going to force her to confront any of these ugly truths.

[00:27:15] And again, I mean, we see all that, like you said, Jen, about even at the end, it's like this denial of her own action and what it costs Clare and, you know, her inability to process that. Even going back to the, I... apparently I have some things to work out about the ending here. I mean, going back to the ending though, it's also like no one, no one thought Irene might have murdered Clare.

[00:27:38] I mean, there's like, nobody sees Irene in any real light. And so it's just this idea that like, of course, nobody's going to even consider that she could actually do something like that because no one sees her as a person who does things. I mean, it goes back to what you were saying, Jen, about there's all these verbs applied to Clare, but there's no verbs applied to Irene.

[00:28:02] I mean, she is just this static presence. And yet, you know, again, here we see that in that quote, we see like the inner turmoil that she's trying so hard to ignore. So that she can continue to maintain this semblance of a life, you know, of a meaningful life or a happy life. I mean, again, I think it has to do with, like, she's trying to say she cares about it for the children.

[00:28:27] She cares about it for their family stability. But, you know, we wonder whether any of that is true.

[00:28:32] Jen: Yeah. We haven't even gotten into socioeconomics. I mean, and the whole fact that this is, yeah, just Irene and Brian have a servant who is Black and Yeah, this striving to be part of the upper echelon of that community. Yeah. It's I feel like we could go on and on...

[00:28:55] Ashley: What Clare starts to envy is that I, I think... I mean, we don't see the time that she chooses to pass for white, like we don't really see exactly what led to that, but certainly what, what seems to be happening is that she's like, oh, I could have been my full self. And also had all these things. And that's why suddenly, you know, Brian is so desirable to her. She has this desire to connect. And there's so much commentary in the book about, I mean, Irene is like, There, there's so many great quotes about race and both her, like how she's tied to it, but also wants to be a person that is separate from a whole, she doesn't want to speak for like the whole race. Somehow Clare is using her as this doorway into a whole, you know, the entire Black race... Yet both are light-skinned.

[00:29:53] There's just so much in here about like colorism and about, I mean, a society that is entirely built upon white supremacy. And then like what that means in each individual relationship that we see played out here, we could really dig into what are the ramifications of that for each of these couples that we see in the book.

[00:30:08] Jen: Yeah. I mean, there was a quote: "Clare Kendry cared nothing for the race. She only belonged to it." And that, oh, that's another one that I just had to stop and process what that meant. But she does care, right? She wants to get back there. And just Jack and Brian are their own complex characters. Right. And I think, you know, when Irene concludes that she doesn't have to tell Jack that Clare is passing, all she has to do is let him know that she's hanging out with Black people.

[00:30:40] And that is enough for him to yank her out of that society. And Irene's life supposedly can go back to normal. I mean, that is so damning in and of itself that it doesn't even have to go to the full truth. Oh my gosh. And when he comes in and calls her that nickname,

[00:30:59] Jen: I, that's another place I gasped. I just thought, and then Clare, of course, has worked through her feelings about that and has just made it part of their schtick.

[00:31:07] But Oh, it's horrifying.

[00:31:09] Ashley: Yes. Right. Well, and again, I mean, it's both where, I mean, he's such a

wretched person, and yet the nickname is for fun, because again, he can't fathom the truth, which is like so ridiculous, but consistent with what a wretched person he is that like, he thinks he knows everything about this, the world and who's on the top of it.

[00:31:32] And it would never occur to him that this other thing could be true.

[00:31:39] Ashley: That of course could be true, you know, and his inability to even begin to see that. I mean, there's so much in the book with a lot of the characters about like what they can't even begin to see.

[00:31:48] Jen: Mm hmm. Yeah. I mean, when they have that conversation about how much work you have to do to pass, and Clare's like, you don't have to do that much, because it's not like they are interrogating each other's references. It's just assumed that if you're there, you're white. And, she has the additional coverage of being biracial.

[00:32:07] And so she has these white aunts who are able to build into that story. But But yeah, it's just assumed that if you're there, you, you should be there. And if you're not there, then, then you're potentially a danger. but that everybody you're, unless you know, otherwise everyone you're dealing with is white.

[00:32:28] Ashley: like so many entrenched assumptions happening.

[00:32:33] Jen: I was, yeah, I will. And I loved, sorry, I promise I'll stop saying things I love, but I love that conversation. The way that Irene says it would be harder for a white person to pass as Black than the other way around. And I thought that whole conversation was... just all of these conversations there.

[00:32:58] They don't seem like, Hey, we need to deliver some information now, so Nella Larsen's just going to info dump, but there is so much commentary in every single one of those conversations about just how the standards of society are set and just what people know about each other and think they know about each other.

[00:33:16] Ashley: Yes.

[00:33:18] Jen: Sorry, I'll just keep going. Oh, because it's just so brilliant!

[00:33:22] Ashley: Absolutely. I mean, that moment where Jack sees them... I mean, it's just a passing, it's a passing moment, but that's all it took for that light bulb. Because again, everything is just below the surface and all these assumptions are being made, you know, kind of in the lowest part of our brain the second you see someone.

[00:33:46] And so like, all it took was him seeing her with a darker skinned woman, but it's like, And then that all connecting these dots that he was completely clueless to prior, and all, it's so fascinating, and I think she does such a good job of showing how entrenched all of that is in, again, a purposefully, racially divided society.

[00:34:10] And that all of those constructs are both arbitrary and fragile, and just how easy it is to manipulate them, but also the cost of that.

[00:34:21] Jen: And how white centered. So Black people have had to study white people in order to get through life and white people have not had to study Black people. you just see how systemic it all is and how that awareness is built into making it through the world for Black people and a way that white people just do not have to deal with.

[00:34:41] Ashley: Yes, absolutely. And like you said in the beginning, I think what's so powerful is that, and I mean, sad is how it's both because she wrote something that in some ways is timeless, but it's also that we continue to have profound, deeply entrenched problems in American society. And so, even though it was almost 100 years ago that she wrote this, we're still seeing a lot of those same lines being drawn, circles being created, and we see the cost on individuals of what that means.

[00:35:13] Jen: Absolutely.

[00:35:15] Ashley: Well, I feel like we could dig into this for a long time.

[00:35:18] Jen: Yes.

[00:35:19] Ashley: And as things come to us, we may have to insert a few more comments, but let's go ahead and talk about our pairings. Jen... and Jen, when I went into the doc, I was like, Oh, dang it. Cause I was, I wanted to do that one too, but I actually really like mine.

[00:35:30] So I'm happy with what I landed on. But anyway, please share about your pairing, which I think is an excellent choice.

[00:35:36] Jen: Yeah, this is the first book that popped into my head for somewhat obvious reasons, but I chose Britt Bennett's The Vanishing Half. If you have not read Britt Bennett, she is amazing. She's published two books, and I cannot wait for the third, because both of them are are amazing in very different ways.

[00:35:52] They're quite different. So the first one was The Mothers. The Vanishing Half focuses on twins who grow up in a town, Mallard, Louisiana, whose citizens are color struck. And it was founded by a man in the mid 1800s with the goal of creating a town where people can deliberately become more white. And so they basically are breeding themselves to become whiter. And Desiree and Stella, the twins, are therefore quite light skinned and Despite that a horrible act of racism hits their family resulting in them making very different decisions about the ways they want to live their lives.

[00:36:37] So Desiree is just, she has typically been the bolder twin, and yet it is Stella who makes the decision to pass and Desiree does not, which, you know, creates a division in their relationship. And so you see the ways that when they leave Mallard, their lives play out. so that Stella is passing and fully enters a white community.

[00:37:05] And Desiree ends up returning eventually to Mallard to care for her mother. And they also make different decisions about who their partners are. And so Stella ends up with a white man and Desiree ends up with a man who was much blacker than she is and ends up having a child who was very dark skinned in this town that is, again, color struck and just really focusing on.

[00:37:29] making every descendant lighter than the last generation. And so you see the effects of these decisions, not only on Desiree and Stella, but also on their children. And I really loved the way that complicated our understanding of how decisions like this can affect generations, and the decisions that then our children or their children have to make.

[00:37:53] And we also see, in Desiree's daughter. because of who she chooses as her partner, it also considers some LGBTQ issues, and passing in different ways and trying to get in touch with our own identities and who we truly are, and how much of ourselves we can show to the world. So I felt like on the most obvious level, there are clear parallels here, but also on that deeper level and all the implications of that word passing,

[00:38:22] we see that applied throughout The Vanishing Half to a multitude of characters. The Vanishing Half is a much broader book just because it does cover multiple generations. It has multiple protagonists who sort of shift, we shift between their points of view. And yet I think a lot of the central questions are the same.

[00:38:39] So that is Brit Bennett's The Vanishing Half, which I highly recommend.

[00:38:47] Ashley: That was one that came to my mind immediately also and like you said Jen, I mean The Mothers is also a very different book but I mean, man, Britt Bennett is a brilliant writer who I think people will be reading in a hundred years. So,

[00:39:02] Jen: Absolutely. What's, what's your pick Ashley? 

[00:39:21] Ashley: I did think through a lot of different ones after The Vanishing Half, but in the end I wanted to share Toni Morrison's Sula. The reason I'm picking that is because -- there are things about it that are very different -- but it also focuses on a profound and complex friendship between two women.

[00:39:28] And Sula and Nell are the two in that book. And they are childhood friends who have a lot of history together, including something horrific happens that they both know and don't tell people about. And so like, it's also that idea of like, the secrets that we carry and how those secrets can bind us. So I think with Irene and Clare, even though Irene is so angry at Clare, she carries this secret.

[00:39:56] And you know, exactly as you said, Jen, she finally is like, Oh, I don't have to like, tell him the whole truth. I could just let this one little part go and that would be enough. That would be enough to disrupt her life and save my life. Broken marriage and all those things. So anyway, but you know, so I think we see with Sula and Nell, they have this secret that is really important, and Sula leaves town.

[00:40:20] The town is a hard place. There's a lot of complexity there, but Sula leaves, and then she comes back a long time later, so again, that part is similar in my mind of just like, she goes away, she kind of does what she wants to do, whereas like Nell stays, she Is stays part of the community all that stuff. And then Sula is like i'm going to do what I want, basically. And so there's definitely this element of she is outside of social norms And so she comes back and then she's wanting to like reconnect with now and All of that it winds up being pretty complicated And there are some other similarities that I don't want to share because I think they're very relevant as far as the similarities, but they would be spoilers.

[00:41:02] But, you know, basically, she comes back, lots of complexities as far as that friendship and what it costs. And then, there is a look over the span of their life and kind of like what that relationship means. And so I, that's why I wanted to share it because it is a brilliant book. And while there are parts that are different, I think when you're looking at that core friendship and just how complex relationships can be, I think you really get into that here.

[00:41:29] So again, that is Toni Morrison's Sula.

[00:41:32] Jen: I haven't read that for a long time, and you just made me want to revisit it. Yeah. I remember really loving it, but I'd forgotten a lot of the details. I

[00:41:45] Ashley: Well, let's share our bookish hearts.

[00:41:48] Jen: I bet everybody can guess my five..., five, easy five plus, whatever. Yeah. No,

[00:41:55] Ashley: Same for me. Absolutely. Yeah. I loved it. I think it's fantastic.And then finally, we want to wrap up our episode today with sharing a flashback. We're just looking back one year ago to April of 2023. Jen, what were you all up to?

[00:42:11] Jen: April is always a big month for us because both of my boys' birthdays are in April. So last April, my older son got his learner's permit. That was... he could have gotten a little earlier, but yeah, he's, he's been like on a little bit of a delay, but he got his learner's, and my younger son turned 13 and boy, he is very 13 right now.

[00:42:30] And I'm like, well, things change when he turns 14 anyway.

[00:42:34] Ashley: I always think that 13, that was my worst self. That is, when I look back at my life, it is always that year. So I'm not saying that for your child, I'm just saying that my own, my own assessment of my childhood. Definitely my hardest and worst self that particular

[00:42:49] Jen: Yeah. My uncle taught eighth grade, which is the grade my son is in. And he said kids maybe should just be put somewhere else after seventh grade and let back out when they're freshmen. Cause he felt like it is its own. I mean it's a quirky year, a lot of transitions happening anyway.

[00:43:04] And you know, we had Easter. So when I went back in my Google photos, there were lots of celebration with family. We always get together for that. My kids still do Easter egg hunts because their grandparents insist, and they are kind enough to go along. I'm not sure how much they're digging the Easter egg hunts anymore, but they do it happily.

[00:43:22] And yeah, well, well, that's a fun month. How about you? What about... what do you want to remember about April 2023?

[00:43:31] Ashley: Just thinking about our family, we were actually in our house by that point, which we are now in. So that is exciting. So we had moved to Greenville, South Carolina and we are now, we were by that time in our current home. And so, you know, that probably was like pretty close to the marker of like things were stabilizing a little bit for us.

[00:43:50] So that's nice. but just looking back at that. But on the podcast...

[00:43:54] On Patreon, we talked about Daisy Jones and the Six. So it's fun to think about how that series, which was, of course, highly anticipated, had come out just shortly before then, which, you know, we'd, many people had been counting down for. And then, we also talked about historical fiction recs, which historical fiction is definitely a genre for me that I still am very new to and haven't read that many books that qualify as historical fiction, but I'm coming to really love that. So that was fun.

[00:44:25] Then we talked about Ruth Reichl's Save Me the Plums. And so that was like our food book, I think, for our reading challenge that year. And, that was a lot of fun. I certainly didn't know much about what she talked about in the book, so I learned a lot. And yeah, so we were reading some good

[00:44:41] Jen: Yeah. Yeah.

[00:44:44] Ashley: Well, thank you all so much for listening today. I just want to say again that if you have not read Nella Larsen's Passing, but you are looking for a pre 1950s classic, it's a great fit for that, for the Unabridged Reading Challenge. And if you did read along, we'd be so interested to hear what you thought.

[00:45:00] Jen: Oh, we should say we're watching the film for Patreon for next month.

[00:45:04] Ashley: Yeah, yeah, so join us on Patreon if you want to hear about that. And I, I, have you

[00:45:07] Jen: No, I have not.

[00:45:09] Ashley: Okay, so it'll be the first time for both of us, so we're excited about that. Thanks for listening.


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