The Next Chapter·Dog-Eared Reads

Jeffrey Colvin loves to re-read this classic 1920s novel about race, privilege and identity

The New York-based author and critic is a fan of Passing by Nella Larsen.
Jeffrey Colvin is a New York-based writer and critic. His debut novel is titled Africville. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC, Signet)

Jeffrey Colvin is a New York-based writer and critic. Africville is his first novel; it tells the story of three generations of a family as they drift away from their roots in Nova Scotia.

Structured as a triptych, the book begins with Kath Ella during the Great Depression, who struggles to raise her family amid suspicious stares from white-skinned neighbours. 

Colvin spoke with The Next Chapter about the book he loves to re-read.

"One of the books that I returned to from time to time, as I was writing Africville, is a book called Passing by American author Nella Larsen. Larsen was a member of a group called The Harlem Renaissance Writers, who grew up in 1920s Harlem. 

"Her novel is about two friends who meet as adults. They were childhood friends but parted and reunited in Harlem. Both of the friends are Black, but are light-skinned enough to pass for white — and one of them decides to pass and the other decides not to.

"The novel chronicles the ways in which both characters make a decision, and how that decision is manifested in their lives. And the novel really looks at some of the benefits of passing in the 1920s United States and also some of the downsides and also some of the ways in which the characters struggle with these decisions to pass. And so it was a very interesting and compelling way that people lived during those times.

Both of the friends are Black, but are light-skinned enough to pass for white — and one of them decides to pass and the other decides not to.

"And so I thought that was an interesting thing for fiction to do — to look at how a person's life unfolds when they decide to do something like this."

Jeffrey Colvin's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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