This month’s Nerdette Book Club selection is Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, which just climbed to the top of The New York Times bestselling fiction list amid nationwide conversations around racial inequality.
The Vanishing Half tells the story of two light-skinned black sisters whose lives take very different directions: Desiree moves back home after escaping an abusive relationship with her dark-skinned husband while Stella chooses to pass as a white woman.
“That presented itself to me early as a possible way to enter the story and to think about these questions I was interested in,” Bennett told Nerdette host Greta Johnsen, “about identity and transformation and how we all become who we eventually become.”
Below are highlights from our conversation with Bennett. Press play to hear the whole episode, and come back later this month for our Nerdette Book Club panel discussion on The Vanishing Half.
On Stella’s decision to “pass” as white
Bennett: We will never actually know the true number of people who have passed, because if they did it successfully, then that means you won’t ever know. So to me that became something also really interesting, the kind of unknowability of this and the idea of transgressing these racial categories that we are taught to believe are stable and static. What does it mean to be able to move between these categories? And if you can move between them, then what do those categories even mean in and of themselves?
Johnsen: Right. If you can shift between these categories, are they real? And yet obviously they are so real because so much of our society is built on that at least theoretical dichotomy, right?
Bennett: Exactly, but that’s also a choice, you know? I think sometimes when you say something is like a social construct, people assume that that means that it’s fake or it’s not real. And no, the idea of it being a social construct just means that there’s nothing inherent or natural about it. We don’t have to live in a world in which it is better to be white than it is to be black. That’s not just the natural state of things and the natural state of being alive. That’s something that we have, historically, that has been established. And historically people have agreed and supported these systems, so to me the idea of passing is transgressive in a way, because you have this person who is moving between these categories and destabilizing the categories by doing that, when at the same time they kind of reaffirm those categories.
So the idea of Stella deciding to become white, it’s not that she’s actually helping black people by doing this. She’s helping herself get ahead by aligning herself with whiteness, which kind of supports the idea of whiteness being the top of the power pyramid, so I think there is something inherently contradictory about these stories of passing, because they transgress these categories but they also uphold them at the same time.
On Desiree’s decision to move back home with her daughter
Bennett: When I started thinking about the book and I thought about these twins going in these very different directions, I became really interested in the idea of Desiree returning with a child, and a child who has to live in this place. Because as soon as you’re introduced to the town [of Mallard, where light skin is highly valued], these gossipy neighbors are wondering, “Who’s the child that she’s with?” and “What’s happened to her?” Nobody has seen her in years and they don’t really know what’s come of her. And she arrives very suddenly one day with this child that they are not expecting to see.
Johnsen: And that they are kind of ashamed to see too.
Bennett: They are, they are. To go back to this idea of transgressing, there’s the idea that she has done this thing which nobody in the community does or is allowed to do, which is marry a dark man. So because she’s married and had a child with a dark man she’s transgressed the values of the community in that way, but not only that but she has brought that child back into this community. And now everyone is forced to confront — I hate to use that word, confront, but that’s how they feel. This idea that this child who is antithetical to their values of what is valuable and what is beautiful now is among them, they feel personally affronted that they are now having to deal with a dark child living there.
On the pressure of writing a sophomore novel after her 2016 debut success
Bennett: When I was writing The Mothers I hadn’t sold it until towards the very end of that process. So I wrote the majority of the book with no agent, no editor, no expectation anybody would see it, no expectation that anybody who did not know me personally would buy it. I was truly just writing by myself in a room.
But for The Vanishing Half it was a book that I was working on in the wake of the craziness that became The Mothers. And yeah, it was something that I thought about, because I didn’t want to disappoint people who loved The Mothers because I knew that they had certain expectations for this book. But at the same time I knew that I wanted to write a very different book than The Mothers. I wanted to write a story that was set in the past. I wanted to write a story that was kind of multi-generational and that was larger in scale and scope.
The conversation was lightly edited for clarity and brevity. Press the ‘play’ button to hear the full episode.