“Binaries are boring. ‘Is this character good or are they bad?’ or ‘Was this choice right or was it wrong?’ — those are uninteresting questions, because they’re simple questions, and that’s not the ways in which any of us move through the world.” Brit Bennett talks to NPT host Mary Laura Philpott about THE VANISHING HALF on A Word on Words.
An Interview with Brit Bennett, Author of The Vanishing Half
Brett Bennett has written two novels, both of which feature characters who make bold, fate-altering decisions, then live out the consequences of those decisions for the rest of their lives. Her first book, The Mothers, earned Bennett a “5 Under 35” award from the National Book Foundation. Her latest, The Vanishing Half, is about a pair of mixed-race twin sisters whose paths diverge after childhood when each sister moves far away from home and one makes the choice to pass as white. It hit the number-one spot on the New York Times bestseller list the day before Bennett recorded this conversation with Nashville Public Television’s A Word on Words host, Mary Laura Philpott.
Mary Laura Philpott: Welcome, Britt.
Brit Bennett: Hi, thanks for having me.
Philpott: Absolutely. Thank you so much for being so flexible and being part of this remote episode thing we’re doing. Can I ask where you’re joining us from?
Bennett: Yeah, I’m in Brooklyn right now.
Philpott: Okay. I’d like to start by having you talk a little bit about your reading habits. I’m wondering what your reading life is like when you’re writing a book. Is it different when you’re writing versus when you’re not writing?
Bennett: That’s a good question. I definitely like to be reading different things while I’m writing a book. I find that even when you’re reading something that’s completely different from what you’re writing, that it’s not related to thematically or stylistically, you’re still learning something from it. And also, there’s a background part of your brain that’s working out problems in your novel while you’re reading something completely unrelated. So I find that really useful. But at the same time, if I’m not working on a project, I find it also really generative and fun just to read completely widely. I’m glad I’ve been able to do some of that while I will have been in quarantine.
Philpott: So do you read within the type of book that you’re writing while you’re writing? I have friends who are like, “I can’t read anything even remotely like what I’m writing while I’m writing. That has to be for another time.”
Bennett: I don’t think I really differentiate. Sometimes it is fun to read something completely apart. So, you know, I’ve been reading a couple of science fiction type of books during this time period, which — I do not nearly have the imagination to write something like that. So that’s been a fun departure from the type of work I normally write. But sometimes it can be really interesting to see somebody who does something similar to what you want to do or similar to what you do. There’s a way in which that’s also instructive — seeing things in their work that you admire or seeing things in your work that you would do differently.
Philpott: We’ll get back to more general writing and reading conversation in a bit, but for now let’s talk about The Vanishing Half. Will you introduce these sisters for us? Tell us who’s who, and in broad terms, what’s going on here.
Bennett: Sure. The Vanishing Half is about Desiree and Stella. Desiree is the more outgoing twin. She’s very willful and sort of stubborn. At the beginning of the novel, you meet her when she has returned to their hometown after being gone for years. And she returns with her child.
Stella is the sister who was way more introverted, brainy. She is very guarded and sort of emotionally walled off. And she is the sister who has disappeared and has passed for white. When we enter the story, nobody really knows where she is.
Philpott: Okay. The town where these twins grow up — Mallard, Louisiana — is this based on a real place?
Bennett: It’s based on a place that my mom remembers hearing about when she was a child in Louisiana — a town that always was filtered down to me almost as a sort of mythical place. That was the way in which I received the story and the way in which I approached it. I was able to draw on some similar Creole communities that I actually found literature on. I found some communities similar to this, very insular Creole communities that were invested in propagating light skin as a value.
Philpott: Can you talk a little bit more about that? In Mallard, the town in your book, there’s a very strongly held community viewpoint on skin color.
Bennett: Right. So it’s a Black community, but it’s a community of people who are invested in light skin and invested in their children being lighter than they are. When my mom told me the story, I became really interested in it, because not only is it very striking and disturbing, but just thinking about the idea of not only privileging light-skin, but genetically engineering it within your population was so spooky to think about. That was one entry point to the story that really fascinated me.
Philpott: You made these characters not just sisters, but identical twins, which strikes me as such a fruitful way to explore the what-if idea of alternative existences. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Bennett: Yeah. I mean, I think I’m always interested in sisterhood in general. I have two older sisters, so I’m always constantly thinking about how we’re similar, how we’re radically different from each other, and how we each turned out to be the women that we are. Even more than that, with the idea of identical twins, you have these women who are sharing DNA and genetics and have so much in common. I loved the idea of twins as a way to explore identity in this book. But also thinking about the complexity of that bond, because it’s both claustrophobically close — and they are constantly sort of wanting to pull away from each other — but at the same time, they’re both afraid to be apart from each other because they’ve never had to be on their own. So I think it gave me a lot of ways to explore some of those larger thematics and also the kind of personal intimate thematics within those characters’ lives.
Philpott: I was thinking about how for Stella in particular, her personal reinvention first required sort of a personal destruction — an erasing of that first self she was. Making her a twin seems so brilliant, because what better foil could you have to that reinvented person than their un-reinvented twin?
Bennett: Right! That’s kind of how I thought about it. The idea of passing for white as something that is destructive, as you said, but also something that is creative in a way… like she’s not only destroying her past life, but she’s also creating a new one for herself. She’s sort of fashioning this new world for herself that nobody in her family has ever had access to.
Philpott: In order for Stella, who is passing as white, to pull off the identity that she has constructed for herself, she has to think constantly about who her audience is and whether she’s maintaining that constant agreement and buy-in from the people around her. Is she white enough? Is she white in the right way? Is she white in a way that matches what her neighbors are doing? You show us so well how she’s constantly on edge, because of that world.
Philpott: It made me wonder about the idea of audience for you as a writer. Are you, when you’re writing, ever thinking about who the audience for the book is — like, “Am I creating something that fits into the acceptable categories that people are ready to read?”
Bennett: I mean, I try not to. I think it’s impossible never to think about it, particularly for a second book, because you know that you had people who enjoyed your first book and they’re expecting certain things from you. I knew that I wanted to write a very different book than The Mothers. You know, The Mothers was an intimate, contemporary story. I wanted to write a more epic sort of historical, multigenerational family story. I knew I wanted to do something different.
I was constantly thinking about, and trying not to think about, the idea of audience expectations. I think it can sort of trap you as a writer if you get too consumed with that. But at the same time, it is hard to avoid when you’re working on something, if you know that there are people who might react to it a certain way or might read it in a certain way.
Philpott: It’s the curse of the wildly successful first book — now you know everyone’s watching when you write that second book.
Bennett: I know, I know. [laughs] I’m so grateful for everything that happened with The Mothers. But yeah, it was a very different experience writing the second book when I thought, okay, I don’t want to let anybody down who actually liked what I did before.
Philpott: You can’t do that thing where you tell yourself, well, maybe no one will even know I wrote it.
Philpott: Switching from Stella to Desiree for a minute, the other twin sister: Desiree gets a job as a fingerprint analyst for the FBI. That was such an interesting occupation. Why that job?
Bennett: So the very short answer is that’s a job that my mother did when she left home in Louisiana. She arrived in DC the week that Dr. King was assassinated. She’d never been anywhere, she was about 19 years old, and suddenly she’s in the big city at this tumultuous moment of American history. So that was a family story that I always knew. I always thought it was really interesting and I wanted to integrate into something. But when I started thinking about this book and I thought about fingerprints and I thought about identity, I realized that there were some thematics there that worked in the book.
So some of it was just stealing from my mother’s life, I have to say. But I loved the idea of Desiree developing this skill set that’s so particular and unique and technical and returning to her hometown and not being able to use it, you know? That being a consequence of her racial identity, that she is not able to use this unique skill set she has acquired.
Philpott: There’s so much of your mother in this book. This is the second time you’ve mentioned her.
Bennett: There is. My mom was one of nine siblings, and she and one sister left Louisiana together and moved to California, and everybody else stayed in Louisiana. So I think there’s always been a part of me that kind of wondered what my mom’s life would’ve been like had she stayed in Louisiana. I wouldn’t be here, because she met my dad in California! I think a part of me has always been interested in those parallel tracks. And I think in a way, this book also allowed me to explore that with one sister who moves West and one sister who stays in Louisiana
Philpott: There are moments in this book that seemed to pay tribute to some books and even movies from the past. I wondered if you could tell us about some of the cultural touchpoints here, either allusions that you intentionally made in the book, or just some of the work by other creators that was with you in an inspirational way.
Bennett: There are a lot of texts that were really foundational for me. Nella Larsen’s Passing is a book that I encountered when I was in college that has been really memorable. It’s such a complicated story of this friendship between these two women, one of whom passes and one who doesn’t.
Also, Imitation of Life was a movie I watched as a child. My mom showed it to me. It was maybe the first thing I ever encountered about racial passing. It struck me as so strange. I really had a hard time wrapping my mind around how and why this person would want to do this. And you know, I think part of that was being young. And also, I think in a good way, I was growing up in an environment where I was taught to love myself; so I found it hard to imagine that somebody would go to such lengths not wanting to be Black. That has been a foundational text that I started to think about a lot more as I was working on this book — the ways in which that movie, and the questions it poses, really struck me as a young girl.
Philpott: You had a scene where Desiree is standing out on the porch by a railing and she tucks one leg up behind her and kind of props her foot on her calf. I gasped when I read it because it made me think of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.
Bennett: Oh, wow. Yeah. I wasn’t even trying to do that. That wasn’t even intentional, but I’ve had people asking me about The Bluest Eye, and I’m like, it’s so hard for me to explain the way in which that book inspired me. Because again, it’s such a foundational book, you know. You have those types of texts that kind of speak to the core of who you are as writer. That was the first Toni Morrison novel I ever read. There’s so many ways in which I’m certain that just sort of subliminally that book is seeping through everything I write. I think all of Toni Morrison’s work is seeping through everything that I write.
Philpott: We were talking earlier about the town of Mallard where Stella and Desiree come from. You give that town such a distinct collective identity, and it’s different from The Mothers, but it made me think about what you did in The Mothers, where the women of the town take on sort of a Greek chorus-like personality. Why do you think you’re drawn to that, that concept of townspeople as a collective voice?
Bennett: Yeah. I see the similarities that you’re pointing out. I think I was interested in there being a voice of the town that’s kind of telling the story, even though it’s not located in the way that the voice of The Mothers is located in these characters. I grew up in Oceanside, which is where The Mothers is set. It is a larger place in real life than it is in the book, I have to say, but it felt very small and local and sort of communal. I think that I’m always interested in those types of places, even though I’ve lived in some cities and I’m living in a city right now. I’m often just drawn to these small communities and the ways in which they have values that are passed on. And sometimes those values are really good, and sometimes those values are very harmful.
So I like the idea of novels as stories of community. I’m very rarely interested in having one single character who is the only point of view throughout the story. I don’t know that I’ve ever written anything like that. I’m just always drawn to these really sort of kaleidoscopic stories of communities and the idea that any minor person in the town could be as interesting as your protagonist. I think that’s a way that I think about the world — and the way that I like to think about fiction.
Philpott: That makes sense. When the characters in your books — and, again, I’m thinking of both The Mothers and also The Vanishing Half — when they make decisions that could be seen as controversial, you tend to focus on the outcomes of decisions without getting into, “Was this the right thing or not the right thing?” and analyzing whether they should have made those decisions. And I’m wondering what makes that a more interesting kind of story for you to tell as a writer?
Bennett: I think, in general, binaries are boring. I talk to my writing students about always looking for the third option. I think, “Is this character good or are they bad?” or “Was this choice right or was it wrong?” — those are uninteresting questions, because they’re simple questions, and that’s not the ways in which any of us move through the world. Our lives are so complex.
So I always am trying to think about that third option or another way of thinking about the choices that the character has made. I think particularly for The Vanishing Half often stories about passing are often quite moralizing. And I think that’s true of Imitation of Life, you know? There’s a character who passes for white and she gets punished as a result of it. The story punishes her. I was not interested in punishing Stella. Really what I found most interesting is: What are the implications of this on her life once she’s made this choice? How does that shape her life and also shape the life of her child and sort of this family line as it’s moving in this different direction?
Philpott: Well, it certainly makes for an interesting experience for the reader.
Bennett: Thank you, I hope so.
Philpott: This isn’t the first time you’ve been out on the book tour circuit and in the public eye while racism and race relations are in the news and demonstrations are happening all over America. And I want you to know this next question, if you’re not in the mood to talk about it, just say skip it and it’ll go right off the transcript. But I’m wondering when you’re on the speaking circuit for your book, and all this stuff is happening in the country, do you feel pressure from people to act as kind of a spokesperson? Like you’re not just having to talk about your book, but you’re having to somehow speak for Black women as a whole or Black artists as a whole or Black people as a whole?
Bennett: I don’t feel that way. I think the strange thing right now is that there’s a way in which it feels so deeply, deeply uncomfortable to be promoting something. I think that’s true of the pandemic, and I think that’s also true of this moment right now of civil unrest. To be out there in public, asking people to buy something, it feels really uncomfortable. That is a strange moment. I think that there are some readers that want answers from me, but I always tell people I don’t have answers. I’m a novelist because I’m interested in asking questions. I don’t have answers for how we can end systemic racism in America. I wish I did. I don’t. There are plenty of people out there that you can read who have ideas for this; I’m just not one of them. So I don’t feel that pressure.
I think I’m first and foremost just interested in telling stories. Right now, with The Vanishing Half, it happens to be a story that’s dovetailing with a lot of the conversations we’re having right now about race and racial identity and systemic racism. It happens to have emerged in this moment where people are hungry to talk about those topics, but it’s not something that I ever foresaw when I was writing the book. It’s still very surreal to me that this book is considered timely. I hope that it allows people to engage with these questions in a new way — in the way that fiction allows us to engage, which is leading us towards questions and not answers.
Philpott: Thank you. 2020 is definitely a weird year to be promoting anything, which for an artist or an author is already uncomfortable. I’ve talked to so many people in so many different creative careers this year, who are saying, “How am I supposed to insert my art into the national dialogue that is so life-and-death right now?”
Bennett: Yes, yes. I agree. At the same time, I’ve been really encouraged by people rallying around me and this book. A lot of people have told me, people need art right now. As gross as it feels to ask people to buy something or to ask them to read something, I do think that people are looking for stories, and they’re looking for art, and they want to engage with something that is not necessarily life-and-death in the way that life has been this entire year. I think it’s important for artists to keep going and to give us something to feel hopeful about.
Philpott: I agree one hundred percent. Before we start to wrap up, I’m curious: You have a master’s degree in fiction writing. People are always debating the value of MFA programs. Where do you come down on it? Was it important and helpful to you as a writer?
Bennett: It was very helpful to me. That was where I finished The Mothers. It gave me the time and space to finish writing that book. And I met so many of my best friends in workshop, writers whom I love, like Chris McCormick, Jia Tolentino, Derrick Austin, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo — so many of my writing friends who still read drafts for me and give me feedback. It introduced me to people, gave me that creative gift. Professionally it’s been helpful to me. But that being said, I also went to a program that was fully funded. That’s an important sticking point: I did not go into debt to get my MFA. It’s hard to tell people whether it’s worth it or not, thinking about how expensive these programs can be. But if you can get into a place that’s funded, I think it’s totally worth it. You learn how to read and write a different way, and you meet writers who, hopefully, will be friends and colleagues for life.
Philpott: On that note, any advice for aspiring writers just starting out — or advice you wish you had received back then?
Bennett: Ooh, that’s a good question. I always tell people just to read widely. I think reading everything — reading things that are bad or good or interesting or boring — you learn from anything that you read. Even if you hate the book, you are still learning something from it. Reading widely is really important. So is learning how to trust yourself, learning how to forgive yourself. Learning how to stick with something, even when it’s bad, because it’s going to be bad way longer than it is ever going to be good. I think that’s where a lot of people drop off, struggling through the project while it’s bad, because it gets so soul crushing when you look at your book every day and it’s terrible. But that’s part of the process. You have to like learn how to stick with it when it’s terrible, because it’ll be terrible 99 percent of the time. And then hopefully one percent of the time, you’ll be happy with what you did.
Philpott: So well put. I love it. Brit, thank you so much for joining us.
Bennett: Thanks for having me.
Brit Bennett Recommends
The Dragons, The Giant, The Women, by Wayétu Moore
The Gimmicks, by Chris McCormick
Children of the Land, by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo
Actress, by Anne Enright