Writers & Company

Brit Bennett on race, identity and the re-invention of self in her bestselling novel, The Vanishing Half 

The American author spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about writing a novel where the issues of racism and colourism in the 1950s carry through to today's world.
Brit Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer. (Emma Trim)

After her breakout debut The Mothers, Brit Bennett has written another New York Times bestselling novel, The Vanishing Half

Spanning four decades, from the 1950s to the 1980s, it's a multi-generational story that explores race, identity, family and love, revolving around identical twin sisters who flee from their hometown in rural Louisiana when they're 16 years old. As they embark on separate lives, Stella and Desiree, who are light-skinned Black women, choose to live in different worlds: Stella "passes" as white, while Desiree marries "the darkest man she could find." 

The Vanishing Half debuted at number one and spent nine weeks at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. HBO plans to adapt the novel as a limited series, with Bennett as an executive producer. 

A screen adaptation is also in the works for Bennett's debut novel, The Mothers, published when she was 26. Actress Kerry Washington is producing the feature film for Warner Bros. 

Bennett spoke with Eleanor Wachtel from her home in Brooklyn.

Colour conscious

"Colourism feels like something I have always been aware of. I always had conversations within my family about skin colour. It was something that I was always observing around me — who was considered beautiful, who was considered smart, who was considered desirable. Those are things that you pick up on as a kid. 

"I watched the film Imitation of Life with my mom when I was young. I remember her showing it to me. Apart from race, it is also a story about mothers and daughters. I think that was my mother's interest in the film.

Colourism feels like something I have always been aware of. I always had conversations within my family about skin colour.

"But it was very striking to me because I had never heard of racial passing until I saw that movie. That was the first time I'd ever seen a character that passed. I found it difficult to understand why somebody would want to do that."

 

A small town in rural Louisiana

"I remember my mother telling me about a town she heard about when she was a kid. It was a town that was very obsessed with skin colour. 

"I recall her bringing it up and talking about it very offhandedly, as if it were something that was common knowledge — that we had all heard of towns like this before. 

The idea of that town immediately struck me as very strange and very disturbing.

"I'd never heard of something like this: she was talking about a community where everyone would intermarry so the kids would get lighter. The idea of that town immediately struck me as very strange and very disturbing." 

Two sisters of colour

"Stella is an interior character — she's a bit more guarded, she's quieter, she likes math, she cares about school. She has different values and priorities than Desiree. But they end up in New Orleans together. 

"When Stella is presented with a job opportunity that requires her to be white, she ends up jumping at that opportunity, mostly out of necessity as she needs to work.

"But then that choice leads her to make a lot of other choices that have larger ramifications throughout her life — and her sister's life as well."

Writing The Mothers

"The inspiration for The Mothers came from writing toward what gave me anxiety as a teenager. The idea of becoming a mother, before I wanted to, was something that was terrifying. 

"I wanted to think about this girl who has just lost her mother very tragically and then finds herself in the position where she might become somebody else's mother. She has to deal with that problem. 

"When I was writing that book, I heard the voice of a narrator that felt a lot older than the characters themselves. It didn't feel like that voice was coming from within these teenagers. 

The idea of becoming a mother, before I wanted to, was something that was really terrifying.

"I didn't really have a place to locate that voice until I thought, what if this voice was coming from within the novel itself, from these older women who are part of this church community, who are observing the lives of these younger people and commenting on their lives. It became a really fun way to explore that."

The social construction of difference 

"The question of race is at the heart of The Vanishing Half. I don't know that it's a question that I can answer, but it is one that is interesting because it speaks to, to some extent, the flimsiness of racial categories. 

"At the same time, these flimsy categories have real-world implications in the lives of people. This category, that's so flimsy that Stella can transgress it because somebody mistakes her for one identity, has implications on whether she is able to keep a roof over her head, or whether she can feed herself.

"There's something that's just absurd and kind of crazy about that to me." 

The nature of race

"I finished writing The Vanishing Half in 2019. I didn't write anything beyond that date. I think that, at every point in which I was writing this book, there have been Black people killed by police. But I don't know that I was particularly thinking that this book was going to have some type of echo in this moment. 

I think that at every point in which I was writing this book, there have been Black people killed by police.

"But I did find the 1960s, when the book is set, to be really fraught and an interesting time to be thinking about the kind of transformations of identity and what it means to start over — to start a new life from the life that you've been living." 

Brit Bennett's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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