Brit Bennett's Sophomore Novel Explores Identity and Family Secrets

Posted by Cybil on June 1, 2020
Bestselling author Brit Bennett’s sophomore novel, The Vanishing Half, is the story of Stella and Desiree Vignes, identical twins from the small Louisiana town of Mallard, founded by and for light-skinned African Americans. Mallard is a place where roles and reputations are tightly controlled and the Vignes girls, forever traumatized by the lynching of their father, have few options beyond marriage and domestic work.
Like The Mothers, Bennett's bestselling debut, The Vanishing Half revolves around a secret with far-reaching implications. After the twins leave their stifling hometown for New Orleans, Stella, reserved and quiet, disappears without a trace. From that moment on, the sisters' lives take dramatically different paths. Desiree returns to Mallard years later, while Stella lives as a wealthy white woman in California, her true identity kept from everyone she knows. This multigenerational story—spanning three decades and four states—is an exploration of race, identity, secrets, and how we define ourselves in a world that wants to categorize and separate us.

Bennett talked via phone from her home in Brooklyn, New York, about sheltering in place, her favorite books, and her latest novel with Goodreads contributor Samantha Schoech. Their conversation has been edited.

Goodreads: Where are you right now and how is
quarantine going for you?

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Brit Bennett: I'm in Brooklyn right now and it's going all right. I'm by myself, so that is an experience. I'm very fortunate that I can work from home. My biggest problem is boredom and getting a little stir crazy. But it's amazing what you can adapt to. When the lockdown first started, I thought I would go crazy, but I've been able to create some new routines and find my way through it, the way everybody else has.

GR: Do you find it conducive for writing? I know a lot of people talk about how their concentration isn't what it was pre-quarantine. 

BB: You know, I have been able to write a lot and be productive. I don't know if I would say the quarantine is conducive to writing, but for me it was a necessity because I'm truly and completely by myself and I have nobody to talk to. I had to keep myself busy. There's something so nice about being able to kind of disappear for a little bit into your imagination and away from everything happening around you. But I am finding it hard to concentrate while reading right now, so I definitely relate to that feeling.

GR: Let’s talk about The Vanishing Half. This is my favorite kind of book: a fascinating and compelling story with a mystery at its center that also has so much going on thematically. The Vanishing Half is about family, identity, race, truth, gender identity, obligation. What was the first idea that pulled you into the story?

BB: It really started for me maybe four years ago and it came from a conversation with my mom in which she offhandedly mentioned a town she remembered from her childhood in Louisiana where, as she put it, everyone married so their children would get lighter and lighter.

You know how your parents say things that are matter-of-fact to them but are shocking to you? She mentioned it quite casually and I was like, "Wait, wait go back to that." It was so striking to me. The idea of a whole community being structured around skin color. It was such an interesting concept, but a concept is not the same as a novel, of course.  

So, I started thinking beyond that. What would it be like to leave this place and then return? I started thinking about these twins whose lives take them in very different directions, but who both originate from this type of community. I think twins are kind of a natural way to write about identity because they're so relevant to the question of what makes me me and what makes you you.
GR: So there really were towns like Mallard that focused on creating generations of lighter-skinned people?

BB: I found information about similar towns in academic papers and sociological studies from the 1930s in Louisiana. It was not uncommon for such a thing to have existed. It was so shocking to me because I grew up in California in the '90s.

What was especially interesting was the intentionality of this community. It wasn't just that everyone looked alike, people were actively invested in maintaining this community, almost like genetic engineering. That intentionality made it interesting because then you're asking, "Well, how'd people maintain it? How do people keep this up?" And obviously that comes down to who you can fall in love with, who you can marry and have children with. The idea of the community directing these deeply intimate decisions people make about their lives is fascinating to me.

GR: And it brings up so many interesting ideas about what race means and how people identify themselves. This book asks its reader to see and think about race in an entirely different way than Americans are used to. Was there a takeaway that you wanted for your readers?
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BB: As a writer, I'm way more interested in asking questions than answering them. And certainly, people far more intelligent than I tackle these questions of race as a function of politics and history and not science.
There is so much that is complicated about race. It's far more complex than our binary way of thinking about it. What makes somebody black and what makes somebody white is not necessarily the way people look. It's not really the way they are brought up or where they grew up. But I think sometimes when people hear that something is a "construct," they assume it's fake and maybe that's true as far as race not being biological, but however we determine these categories, they have real effects on people's lives.

So, there's something haunting about these categories that we organize our society around. The categories themselves are unstable but they can determine the course that our lives take, at least partially.

GR: Who do you think is doing the best writing on these issues of race and identity?

BB: I love Jesmyn Ward. She is one of our greatest living writers. She writes about black Southern communities in a way that is loving but also not sentimental. I really admire that.

I'm rereading Passing by Nella Larsen now. It is a book that was so far ahead of its time in acknowledging the inherent instability of racial categories and what it means to move between them. It acknowledges the idea that whatever we think of as racial authenticity, it's not real. 

GR: There are a lot of complicated female relationships that steer this story—sister to sister, daughter to mother, cousins, friends. Why was it important to explore those bonds and relationships in the novel?

BB: Those are my favorite types of stories. I love stories about women taking care of each other or women failing to take care of each other. I love the complexity of those relationships. I think it's because I grew up with two sisters and it was me, my sisters, my mom, and my dad as the only guy in the house. I kind of grew up in this world of women.

My most important friendships have been with my girlfriends. I'm always interested in how these relationships between women and among women can be so complicated and intense. I wrote my first book about the intensity of these friendships. It's about a chosen sisterhood in a way. And this book is about a biological sisterhood and the strains of that relationship. I've come to see these patterns in my work, and I've started to embrace it. That is what I'm interested in as a writer.

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GR: Are there characters in The Vanishing Half that you identify with or feel the most empathy for?

BB: That's a good question. I think the characters I enjoy writing the most are the people I identify with the least. The character I probably identify with most strongly is Jude, who's more introverted and a bit guarded and ambitious. But I also loved writing Kennedy, who is nothing like me. I love those characters where I'm like, 'What is it like for you to move around in the world?' With Kennedy I got to engage with this character who is really extroverted and charming and funny, who has this kind of larger-than-life personality. There's something fun about imagining that.

GR: Can you talk about some of your favorite contemporary writers?

BB: I already mentioned Jesmyn Ward. I don't have a list off the top of my head, but I also really love Angela Flournoy and Tayari Jones. It's an exciting moment for black women writers right now. I just read this book Luster by Raven Leilani that's coming out in July that I completely loved. She's definitely someone to watch.

GR: And what was the last novel you read that you were blown away by?

BB: When you say "blown away by" the first book that comes to mind is The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai because it was such an emotional experience that I just ended up putting the book down and sobbing. I don't remember the last time I had that experience reading anything. I knew I was reading a book about the AIDS crisis and I expected it to be sad, but there's something in the way that story lands that I found devastating. I've seen a lot of people are reading it now because it's a book about a plague, but I don't know if I could have experienced it in this moment.
As far as reading during the pandemic, I really loved The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel, which was a book that shook me out of my reading rut. It's sort of a work of historical fiction because it's set during the recession, and there's something really fun about seeing recent history unfold. You get to see all the different people who were involved in the scam, the people who were taken advantage of, the people who created it—the ways these people are interconnected as the country and the world careen toward this crisis nobody can see. That was the first book I read during the quarantine and I felt revitalized because I enjoyed it so much. It's propulsive. You can't put it down. 

GR: What about writers you've been most influenced by? Or maybe the better way of asking is, if you could write like anyone who would it be?

BB: Oh, that's actually an interesting and different way of thinking about it. I mean, if I could write like anyone it would be a mash-up of all these different people. Toni Morrison for the beauty of her language and the inherent strangeness in her work. There's always something off-kilter about the characters she writes. James Baldwin. He's also beautiful at the sentence level and I love his fiction, but I really admire his ability to write everything: short stories, novels, nonfiction, screenplays. I love the scope of his work and his ability to move between and among different forms. I also really admire Maggie Nelson for her razor-thin balance between funny and sad. It can often be easier to write sad things than to write funny things. But to do both, to make you laugh and then just kind of punch you in the gut, that's something I really admire and something that I wish I could do.

GR: Finally, can you talk a little bit about your journey to becoming a writer?

BB: I think I always wanted to write but I didn't grow up knowing any writers, so I didn't think about there being living writers. When I was a kid, I thought people who wrote books were dead. That was all I knew about the literary world, so it wasn't a future I saw for myself.

Then, when I went to college, I got to know contemporary writers and got to go to readings. I sort of saw the literary world happening. I graduated from college at the tail end of the recession, so I was like, "Well, let me just go to grad school. I'm not going to get a job doing anything else." I was fortunate. I only applied to one grad program and I got in. I ended up going to [the University of Michigan] and that's where I was able to finish the novel I had been working on for a few years, which eventually became The Mothers.

GR: You were working on a novel during college?

BB: I started The Mothers when I was 17 or 18. It was something I'd been working on in the background. I never talked to anybody about it. I never imagined it was going to become a book someday or that people would read it. Going to grad school gave me time to actually make it a priority. I was fortunate for the opportunity to keep working on it, to find a way to transform it from this very shabby draft hanging out on my computer into something that people could one day read.


Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half will be available in the U.S. on June 2. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-10 of 10 (10 new)

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message 1: by Elina (new)

Elina It's amazing story. Thank you. Now I know about Brit Bennett and I like her

message 2: by Aimee (new)

Aimee I’m so excited to read The Vanishing Half! I loved The Mothers.

message 3: by MA Architetto (new)

MA Architetto I heard a review of this book on NPR. Sounds awesome. On my List to read..

message 4: by Brynann (new)

Brynann Dallefeld It sounds like a good book

message 5: by Sandra (new)

Sandra I'm looking forward to reading it in my book club.

message 6: by Saumya (new)

Saumya Dave I can't get enough of Brit Bennett's words. She is amazing and I'm so grateful for her talent.

message 7: by Beth (new)

Beth Wonderful interview. I loved The Mothers and was delighted to find out that I loved The Vanishing Half even more!

Erin *Proud Book Hoarder* The Mothers was excellent. Will be getting this one

message 9: by Sandy (new)

Sandy Brusin Thanks for the interview. When I read Mothers, I suggested the book for my book club because I thought it was soooo excellent. I was sure she'd win a prize for it! I think the Vanishing Half is at least as excellent, if not more excellent, and I'm telling everyone I know to read it. I hope she wins another prize for this one -- and I can't wait to read her next novel. By the way, like her, I think Jesmyn Ward is one of the best writers writing today. Bennett belongs in that category also: one of the best writers writing today.

message 10: by Audrey (new)

Audrey Have read both Vanishing Half and An American Marriage . Would
love to discuss either one with this group

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