In an outstanding second novel, author Brit Bennett tackles the topic of identity, showing that who we are on the outside is only a part of us. The Vanishing Half is the story of African American identical twins in the 1950s who become separated when one makes a whimsical choice that drastically impacts their lives and the lives of their family, community and generations to come.
The Vignes sisters, Stella and Desiree, lived with their mother in Mallard, Louisiana, a small southern town made up of light skinned people of color, and were joined at the hip. When they were younger, the girls lost their father to horrible violence that they witnessed. Once they were sixteen, their mother pulled them out of school in order to work, and the teenage girls, wanting better for themselves, ran away together. They moved to New Orleans to make a fresh start, and when Stella is mistaken as white while interviewing for a job, she decides to keep quiet and not reveal her true identity as a black woman. Finding it easy to fool people, she decides to keep her secret, skip town with a white boyfriend, abruptly leaving Desiree behind, and start a new life as a white woman.
Meanwhile, years later, Desiree has never heard from her beloved sister, Stella. She made a life with Sam, a black man, in Washington D.C. and has a job at the Bureau learning to reading fingerprints. They have a dark skinned daughter, Jade; but when Sam becomes violent and starts beating on Desiree, she leaves him and takes Jade back to Mallard. The dark child causes a stir in the racially sensitive environment, and the return of Desiree to her hometown precipitates questions about Stella’s disappearance.
Desiree settles where she was raised and Brit Bennett’s brilliant storytelling takes us from Mallard to the east coast and then California where we follow Jade as she grows up, attends college and lives her life in the 1990s. She has a meaningful and romantic relationship with Reese, and a friendship with Kennedy that ultimately leads her to the truth about her family.
The Vanishing Half is about identity, transformations, choices and acceptance. Brit Bennett has created deep, complex characters that transform as they grow; what is presented to the world, and what people see on the outside is not exclusively who they are. Racial, sexual, and cultural identity, family and sisterhood, as well as how we choose to present our public and private selves are explored in this deeply affecting novel that should not be missed.
“You did all this for a man?“ “Not for him,” she said. “I just liked who I was with him.” “White.” “No,” Stella said. “Free.” Desiree laughed. “Same thing baby.”
I was fortunate to attend an author talk with Brit Bennett that was shared on social media and learned a bit about The Vanishing Half, the author and her process. She began with the big news that The Vanishing Half is becoming an HBO limited series! Screen writers and actors are not confirmed yet, but it is sure to be a success.
The story takes place in Mallard, Louisiana, where the African American people have intermarried with the intention of creating new generations with lighter skin. The idea for this town came from a conversation Brit had with her mother about a town similar to Mallard and the idea stuck with her. Brit worked on this book for 4-5 years and she felt more pressure than when she was writing her debut, The Mothers, but also felt more confident, knowing she had done this before.
The characters in her book mostly came from her imagination, but the fingerprint analyst job was something her mother did and so she used it in the book, as it fit in nicely with the “identity” theme.
The character, Reese, is a fan favorite and Brit is excited to see how he is portrayed on screen.
Brit said her character, Jude, is different than she is but has fragments of herself; they both are introverted, pragmatic, guarded and ambitious.
The book is about choices, and small ones can have larger ramifications. In a fleeting moment, Desiree decides to live as a white woman, and it effects her family and future generations. Identity is complicated and she hopes her story gets readers to think and feel and enjoy.
Brit indicated that although she was encouraged that people were responding to the current events of today by reading about race, it was an overwhelming tragedy to witness George Floyd’s murder for close to 10 minutes, and she hopes the momentum of speaking out will be converted to real actions and not just symbolic change. She felt that since 2014 and Michael Brown’s death, public opinion has been shifting, Black Lives Matter is more universally agreed upon (signs appeared on basketball courts during the televised NBA games), and there seems to be a shift today where police budgets are being reallocated for education and homelessness.
Brit wrote many versions of The Vanishing Half and only showed her family members once it was in galley form, which is toward the end of the development. She did research about the racial history of Louisiana and about Creole towns that had pale people who valued lightness and saw themselves as separate from white and black communities, but Mallard was a made up town. (The Mothers was set in her hometown.)
She has been influenced by Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Jesmyn Ward, Maggie Nelson and others. During the pandemic she has finished her third draft of her new novel, which is about music and nothing like the previous two. Brit feels capable of adapting in this difficult situation of social distancing, but misses her family.
All information from the author event is in my own words as I understood it from the interview.
About the Author:
Born and raised in Southern California, Brit Bennett graduated from Stanford University and later earned her MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan, where she won a Hopwood Award in Graduate Short Fiction as well as the 2014 Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers. She is a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 awardee, and her debut novel The Mothers was a New York Times bestseller. Her second novel The Vanishing Half was an instant #1 New York Times bestseller. Her essays are featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review, and Jezebel.