June 2020

Brit Bennett

From the acclaimed author of ‘The Mothers,’ a story of twin sisters on dramatically different paths
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The Vanishing Half is a dazzling examination of how history affects personal decisions, and vice versa.
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Brit Bennett announced herself to the literary world in 2016 with her bestselling first novel, The Mothers. She now offers her second, a remarkable multigenerational saga called The Vanishing Half. Her storytelling savvy is evident from the opening hook: One of the “lost twins” of Mallard, Louisiana, has returned.

The lost twins are Stella and Desiree Vignes, who ran away at age 16 in 1954. Fourteen years later, Desiree is back, walking down the road with her “black as tar” daughter, Jude, beside her. Such a detail is of particular interest in Mallard, which was established by its late founder as a place for people “who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated as Negroes.” He hoped to create a “more perfect Negro,” with each “generation lighter than the one before.”

While Desiree’s return causes quite a stir, no one has yet heard from Stella, who turned her back on not only her twin but also the rest of her family and is now passing for white. She married her white boss and lives in California, but neither her husband nor their daughter, Kennedy, has any inkling of Stella’s big secret.

“I wanted to write about passing in a way that wasn’t judgmental. What is it that leads somebody to make this big, dramatic choice?” 

Although this is not an autobiographical story, the invention of Mallard is inspired by anecdotes from Bennett’s mother, who grew up in Jim Crow Louisiana and spoke of a town whose inhabitants placed extreme importance on skin tones. “I was very curious about what it would be like to grow up in a place that is so insular and also very obsessed with this idea of skin color,” Bennett says, speaking from her home in Brooklyn. She read academic articles about similar towns, but she could never locate the exact place her mother remembered—which intrigued her all the more. “It took on a more mythological feel,” she says. 

Bennett’s mother inspired The Vanishing Half in other ways as well. Like Desiree, Bennett’s mother worked as an FBI fingerprint examiner in Washington, D.C. And like Stella, she left Louisiana for California, which is where Bennett grew up. But what would her mother’s life have been like if she’d stayed in the South? “Being able to explore both versions of [her] timeline was part of my own kind of selfish curiosity,” Bennett says.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Vanishing Half.


The 1959 movie Imitation of Life was Bennett’s introduction to the idea of passing, which she calls “an interesting and inherently contradictory topic. . . . I remember being so confused as I was watching [the film], like why would somebody do this?” Later, Bennett read Nella Larsen’s powerful 1929 novel, Passing. “I wanted to write about passing in a way that wasn’t judgmental,” she recalls. “What is it that leads somebody to make this big, dramatic choice?” 

Another influence was Elizabeth Greenwood’s book Playing Dead, an entertaining investigation into people who fake their deaths, disappear from their lives or otherwise hit the restart button. “I often fantasize about going somewhere no one knows you,” Bennett admits. “I started to think of Stella’s passing as that type of thing—a kind of psychological death that she initiates in order to divorce herself from this really painful path and to have a chance to create a new life for herself. The idea of death-faking allowed me to think about her emotional state in a way that was a little bit removed from the historical legacy of passing.”

The Vanishing HalfAs the narrative moves from the 1950s to the ’90s, Bennett dissects not only the concept of sisterhood but also the notion of “the sister as a kind of alternate self.” Despite their estrangement, Stella and Desiree share a traumatic memory of their father being lynched by white men, which they witnessed as children through a crack in their closet door. Bennett masterfully explores the idea of inherited trauma and how it might affect the next generation, especially Kennedy, who “has no way to understand or even know what she has inherited.” 

The Vanishing Half is a dazzling examination of how history affects personal decisions, and vice versa. In Bennett’s own life, she says that graduating from college during a recession “allowed me to take this big risk and go to Michigan for my MFA.” When The Mothers was released, she learned an important lesson—that “so much about publishing a book is out of your control.” Of course, such knowledge could hardly prepare her for the fact that The Vanishing Half would be released in the midst of a global pandemic. 

But as a helpful writer friend suggested, “Focus on the things you can control, and the rest, you have to kind of let go.” So that’s what Bennett’s doing: sharing the good news on her poignant new novel. “I just like big stories,” she says. “I like stories that announce themselves as stories.”

 

Author photo by Emma Trim

Get the Book

The Vanishing Half

The Vanishing Half

By Brit Bennett
Riverhead
ISBN 9780525536291

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