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Brit Bennett Set Her Novel 50 Years Ago — She Didn't Expect It To Be 'Timely'

Jun 5, 2020
Originally published on June 5, 2020 5:54 pm

Brit Bennett's latest novel is set in the late 1960s and '70s and — in the five years she was working on it — she never anticipated that when it came out it would be framed as "timely."

The Vanishing Half is about identical, African American, twins. One sister lives as a black woman, while the other passes as white. Both are haunted by personal and collective traumas of the past, and the book explores whether it's possible to erase the past, in the name of a better future.

For protesters in cities across the country, the past is the present. Racism, brutality and inequality still infect America, 400 years after the first enslaved Africans were brought here.

"1968 is a year that's on everybody's mind right now," Bennett says, because of parallels between the 1968 protests, and the protests happening today.

Bennett says that narratives of "passing" often include a lot of moralizing, but she wasn't interested in telling that sort of story. Passing is "both an act of self-creation and also an act of self-destruction," she explains. There's something "deeply American" about defining your identity, and yet the twin who decides to live as a white woman loses her connection to her past and her family.

"I found that complexity a lot more interesting than the possibility of condemning her for this choice," Bennett says.


Interview Highlights

On the fictional Louisiana town where her story is set during the Jim Crow era

I got the idea for the book from a conversation I had with my mother, who told me very offhandedly one day about a town she remembered from her Louisiana childhood, where everyone sort of intermarried so that their children would get lighter with each generation. I wanted to kind of explore the idea of a place like this. And I was able to draw on some research from similar Creole communities that were similarly sort of insular and organized around people having light skin. ...

That was a time in which it was a binary. There were white spaces and there were colored spaces. And you had to kind of shoehorn yourself into one of those spaces. So what does it mean to not exist in either?

On race as a construct

I was interested in ... the idea of race as something that is both fictional and also something that is real. ... The idea that these twins are identical and one essentially becomes white because she declares herself to be white and one is black because she does not do that. There is an aspect of that that reveals how flimsy those categories are. If you can transgress them through performance, if you can perform whiteness and become white through that performance, then what does it actually mean to be white or black or anything?

But at the same time, these decisions that they make and how they identify themselves materially affect their lives — whether it's the job that they have, or who they marry, or what happens to their kids and the opportunities their kids are afforded. It really affects so much of their material lives, even though the idea of race and these categories are so flimsy.

On how Stella, the twin who lives as a white woman, must keep changing her performance of whiteness

In that post-civil rights movement era, Stella is learning how to perform whiteness at a time in which whiteness itself is also changing. And the scripts that she has learned within her Jim Crow upbringing in Louisiana are not applicable to when she becomes this sort of wealthy white woman in California. And she has to perform whiteness in a different way. So, you know, I think for Stella, I was interested in the way that she is constantly running from her past and also the way in which she is constantly having to learn how to perform race in a different way — in a way that is often unacceptable to the other white people around her.

On people making discoveries about their own ancestry

You can read stories now about people who have had ... [DNA] tests and they've discovered that, you know, their racial breakdown is different than what they always thought it to be. ... Does that cause some type of crisis of identity in you?... Does it change you dramatically, or is it something that you just kind of can push past and continue thinking of yourself in the same way that you have always thought of yourself?

On resisting the question of "is it good or bad to pass?"

Stories of passing are often these moralizing stories. And I didn't want to do that. I was not interested in punishing Stella, I was not interested in condemning her. To me, it was not interesting to think like: Is it good or bad to pass? I was really more interested in the implications of passing on this woman's life. You know, how she comes to think of herself, how this changes her relationships and her family, the choices that she's making, how they affect her marriage. I was far more interested in that than in the idea of punishing her.

Elena Burnett and Jolie Myers produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

For protesters in cities across the country, the past is the present. Racism, brutality and inequality still infect America 400 years after the first enslaved Africans were brought here. And it is questions about the past and how it informs the present that Brit Bennett takes on in her new novel, "The Vanishing Half." Our co-host Mary Louise Kelly spoke with her about it.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: The book is about twin sisters - identical twins, African American, skin so light that while one sister lives as a black woman, the other passes as white. Both sisters are haunted by personal and collective traumas of the past and whether it is possible to erase that past in the name of a better future. Brit Bennett, welcome.

BRIT BENNETT: Hi. Thanks for having me.

KELLY: Glad to have you with us. And if I may just start with the current moment, you, as a writer who has thought deeply about race in this country, I have to ask what's on your mind as you look at this country today in 2020.

BENNETT: Yeah, it's been a very surreal week to be releasing this book in particular. It begins in 1968 during this period of civil unrest. And I think 1968 is a year that's on everybody's mind right now because of the protests happening. And I think also, the book is concerned in race and how we form racial identities and racial injustice, and that's obviously something that's resonating with people right now, too.

KELLY: Yeah. There was a page that I was underlining and starred - this is Page 158 - because there is a scene where it's set in the summer of 1968, and one of your characters is watching the news and describes sitting on the arm of a chair and watching cities across the country lit up in flames and neighborhoods being destroyed. And I wrote wow under it, just thinking it's - you could have written that about a novel set in 2020. And that feels both, you know, like so much has changed, but not - clearly way too much has not changed.

BENNETT: Exactly. And I think that's also a moment where you see characters reacting to these images so differently based on their racial background and where they come from and whether they understand and empathize with the pain and the anger, whether they don't. And I think that that's also something that you're seeing around as everybody is trying to process this moment.

KELLY: All right, so to the where they come from point, let's dive into the novel. And I want you to tell us about Mallard, La. This is the town where your characters, the twins Stella and Desiree, grow up, which is - it's a fictional town, right?

BENNETT: Yeah. I got the idea for the book from a conversation I had with my mother who told me very offhandedly one day about a town she remembered from her Louisiana childhood where everyone sort of intermarried so that their children would get lighter with each generation. So I wanted to kind of explore the idea of a place like this. And I was able to draw on some research from similar Creole communities that were similarly insular and organized around people having light skin and kind of aspiring to have light skin in different generations.

KELLY: So I've heard you use the term a racial third space talking about this town. Explain.

BENNETT: Yeah. So I found it really interesting, the idea that this is a black community that feels that they are separate from darker-skinned black people. And at the same time, they know that they are not treated in the way that white people are treated. So what does it mean to kind of exist in that third space particularly in that time and place, which is a rural Louisiana town during the age of Jim Crow? It was a binary. There were white spaces, and there were colored spaces, so what does it mean to not exist in either and to exist in that liminal place?

KELLY: The twins are inseparable as girls, and then one of them decides to pass as white to take a job that was only open to a white woman. Her twin, Desiree, is left behind and lives her life as a black woman. Why was that something that you wanted to explore?

BENNETT: Well, I think I was interested in this book of the idea of race is something that is both fictional and also something that is real. So I think when we talk about race being a social construct, yeah, the idea that these twins are identical and one essentially becomes white because she declares herself to be white and one is black because she does not do that, there is an aspect of that that reveals how flimsy, you know, those categories are if you can transgress them through performance. But at the same time, these decisions that they make and how they identify themselves materially affect their lives, whether it's the jobs that they have or who they marry or what happens to their kids and the opportunities their kids are afforded. It really affects so much of their material lives even though the idea of race and these categories are so flimsy in and of themselves.

KELLY: So flimsy and yet, Stella, the one who lives her life as a white woman, finds she cannot escape her identity. She can't escape her past. It keeps tracking her down, which seems to suggest it's - you know, it's like Faulkner wrote, the past isn't dead. It's not even past. That's a very different argument, that race is a more fixed thing.

BENNETT: I mean, I think it's both, and it's all of them. I mean, I'm not trying to punt on this question, but I think that it really is all of those things. So for Stella, she's constantly performing. And that performance is also constantly changing. So I think that that was one of the things I found interesting about setting the book when I did, which is later than a lot of stories about passing are set historically. To set it within the civil rights movement in that post-civil rights movement era, Stella is learning how to perform whiteness at a time in which whiteness itself is also changing. And the scripts that she has learned within her Jim Crow upbringing in Louisiana are not applicable to when she becomes this sort of wealthy white woman in California. And she has to perform whiteness in a different way, in a way that is often unacceptable to the other white people around her.

KELLY: There have been quite a few novels written about passing, and there's often this big reveal at the end. The person who was trying to pass for white, it turns out everybody learns they're not who they said they were. You in this book seem less focused on that and more focused on, you know, what if a person who's passing for white is never found out? What does that look like? How does that play out?

BENNETT: Yeah. I mean, I think, you know, some of the earlier narratives of passing that I was exposed to, one is the movie "Imitation Of Life," which is, you know, adapted from an earlier book. And, you know, in that movie, there's, like, that big, climatic scene at the end where the white passing character flings her body in the casket of her dark-skinned mother who's just died. And she's sort of punished by the fact that her long-suffering mother has died without her. And she realizes that, you know, she was a terrible daughter for disowning her mother. So I think a lot of these stories of passing are often these moralizing stories. To me, it was not interesting to think, like, is it good or bad to pass. I was really more interested in the implications of passing on this woman's life than in the idea of punishing her for deciding to pass.

KELLY: It would be awfully easy to pass judgment on Stella, the twin who decides to pass and live life as a white woman and condemn her as being less authentic than her twin. You didn't land that way, it didn't seem like. You didn't pass that judgment.

BENNETT: No. I mean, I don't think I ever really want to moralize in fiction. I just find that boring as a writer. So yeah, I was really thinking about the idea of passing as both an act of self-creation and also an act of self-destruction. I think there's something so deeply American of the idea that you can be who you want to be. You can create yourself. You can build yourself. It's sort of Gatsby, you know, that kind of ideology of being able to reinvent yourself in whatever way that you choose. But at the same time, you know, Stella loses a great deal by doing this. She loses her connection to her past and her family, her community. She's a woman who is very alone in this new world that she's chosen to join.

KELLY: That's Brit Bennett talking about her new novel "The Vanishing Half." Brit Bennett, this has been a real pleasure. Thank you so much.

BENNETT: Thank you.

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