MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Author Heidi Durrow grew up in Turkey and Germany, the daughter of an African-American serviceman and a white Danish mother. Her most recent book is "The Girl Who Fell From the Sky."
For our series You Must Read This where authors talk about a book they love, Durrow chooses a book about race, identity, and the labels we're often forced to bear.
Ms. HEIDI DURROW (Author, "The Girl Who Fell From the Sky"): There are novels that are enjoyable to read and others that say something about the world. And sometimes, there are novels that are both.
"Passing" by Nella Larsen is one of those books.
"Passing" is set at the height of the Jazz Age when Harlem was in vogue. It's the story of two light-skinned black women whose comfortable lives unravel when they are reacquainted in a white-only restaurant: Irene, the wife of a prominent African-American doctor and the mother of two boys; and her childhood friend, Clare, who is passing as white.
Clare longs to be among black folks again. And at the risk of her racially intolerant husband discovering her real identity, Clare secretly joins Irene and her husband at the best clubs and parties where the Harlem literati and intelligentsia meet.
Larsen's slim book reads like a literary page turner. Will Clare's secret be exposed? Will she return to Harlem? Will the women's friendship survive Clare's renewed interest in her African-American roots?
Larsen's prose is spare and elegant, and the dialogue is smart: when Irene asks her husband why the folks who cross the color line always yearn to return, he answers, if I knew that, I'd know what race is. Exactly.
Larsen herself one of the most prominent Harlem Renaissance writers for a time, led a glamorous life before she died in obscurity in 1964. Married to a well-known black physicist, Larsen initially enjoyed a front seat to the Harlem Renaissance and then a place on center stage as the author of two highly acclaimed novels and the first woman of African-American descent awarded a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship.
But "Passing" wouldn't still be meaningful if its main theme was the danger of crossing the color line. Not even the tabloids are interested in running alarming headlines like this one, which appeared in a 1928 New York World: "Crossing the Color Line: Social and Economic Ambitions Lead Negroes to Pass at Rate of 5,000 a Year to White Fold."
"Passing" is among my favorite books because it's about being defined by what other people see and the desire to transcend that. You may not identify with being a light-skinned African-American, but you have probably felt at some point that what was most important about you wasn't visible.
I have read and re-read "Passing" more than a dozen times. Each time, I think I can hear Larsen's own voice more clearly, asking, demanding really, that each of us abandon the labels we've been assigned and celebrate the story that we are.
BLOCK: Heidi Durrow is the author of the novel "The Girl Who Fell From the Sky." To comment on this essay and to find more reviews and recommendation, go to our Web site, npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.