Skip to Content

Search: {{$root.lsaSearchQuery.q}}, Page {{$root.page}}

 

 

When Brit Bennett (M.F.A. ’14) wrote “I Don’t Know What to Do With Good White People” for Jezebel in 2014 and it went viral, she was a little stunned. The article landed millions of clicks and sent literary agents into a frenzy. Bennett told Vogue Magazine in 2016: “There’s a sense in which I feel like writing all of this is important, but also a sense in which I sometimes I feel like it does become this distraction from other things that we could be writing.” Her words echoed Toni Morrison’s claim that racism, and the demands of the white reader upon the Black imagination, is a constant distraction.

In the six years since that article, Bennett completed her M.F.A. at University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program, where she won a Hopwood Award in Graduate Short Fiction, received the Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers, and became a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree. Bennett’s essays have been featured in The New YorkerNew York Times MagazineParis Review, and Jezebel, and she has published two bestselling novels: The Mothers in 2016 and, in June 2020, The Vanishing Half.

The Vanishing Half tells the story of identical twin sisters, Desiree and Stella: their desires, their secrets, their struggles, and their legacy. It’s also the story of a community, a subject Bennett explored in her debut novel, The Mothers. In The Vanishing Half, readers become acquainted with the fictional Creole town of Mallard, Louisiana, polyphonically, the townspeople each telling a piece of the story of a place where Black residents sought for generations to dilute the color of their skin by “marrying light."

When Desiree and Stella leave Mallard, Stella crosses the color line entirely, marrying white and stepping into a new life in California as a woman presumed to be white. Desiree, on the other hand, goes to the East Coast, marries a dark-skinned man, and has a child, Jude, described by the residents of Mallard as “blue-black.” The novel begins on the day Desiree and Jude make their prodigal return to Mallard.

Lately, Bennett’s received comparisons to James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. But Bennett is entirely her own writer, an artist dissatisfied with old tropes, pursuing all of the rich complexities of human relationships, history, and our present moment.


When Brit Bennett (M.F.A. ’14) wrote “I Don’t Know What to Do With Good White People” for Jezebel in 2014 and it went viral, she was a little stunned. The article landed millions of clicks and sent literary agents into a frenzy. Bennett told Vogue Magazine in 2016: “There’s a sense in which I feel like writing all of this is important, but also a sense in which I sometimes I feel like it does become this distraction from other things that we could be writing.” Her words echoed Toni Morrison’s claim that racism, and the demands of the white reader upon the Black imagination, is a constant distraction.

In the six years since that article, Bennett completed her M.F.A. at University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program, where she won a Hopwood Award in Graduate Short Fiction, received the Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers, and became a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree. Bennett’s essays have been featured in The New YorkerNew York Times MagazineParis Review, and Jezebel, and she has published two bestselling novels: The Mothers in 2016 and, in June 2020, The Vanishing Half.

The Vanishing Half tells the story of identical twin sisters, Desiree and Stella: their desires, their secrets, their struggles, and their legacy. It’s also the story of a community, a subject Bennett explored in her debut novel, The Mothers. In The Vanishing Half, readers become acquainted with the fictional Creole town of Mallard, Louisiana, polyphonically, the townspeople each telling a piece of the story of a place where Black residents sought for generations to dilute the color of their skin by “marrying light."

When Desiree and Stella leave Mallard, Stella crosses the color line entirely, marrying white and stepping into a new life in California as a woman presumed to be white. Desiree, on the other hand, goes to the East Coast, marries a dark-skinned man, and has a child, Jude, described by the residents of Mallard as “blue-black.” The novel begins on the day Desiree and Jude make their prodigal return to Mallard.

Lately, Bennett has received comparisons to James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. But Bennett is entirely her own writer, an artist dissatisfied with old tropes, pursuing all of the rich complexities of human relationships, history, and our present moment.

 

Your second novel The Vanishing Half debuted at number one on the New York Times bestseller list and held that spot for several weeks. From a craft perspective, what are some of the differences that you discovered between the process of writing your debut and your second novel? What did you discover about yourself as a writer?

Brit Bennett: It was honestly a completely different writing process. I started The Mothers when I was an undergrad, and I wrote the book alone in my dorm room. I had no agent or editor or readers expecting the book, and I also had no expectation the book would ever be read by anyone other than myself. There’s something freeing about that.

I certainly felt more self-conscious writing The Vanishing Half because there was suddenly external pressure. Beyond that, I knew I wanted to challenge myself to write a different book: a book set in a time in which I wasn’t alive, and a story that was much larger in scope, spanning decades. The structure, in particular, was often very frustrating to figure out, so I learned that I am capable of being more patient with myself than I previously thought. I’m grateful that my editor kept pushing me to revise the book until we figured out a structure that made sense.

 

Your second novel The Vanishing Half debuted at number one on the New York Times bestseller list and held that spot for several weeks. From a craft perspective, what are some of the differences that you discovered between the process of writing your debut and your second novel? What did you discover about yourself as a writer?

Brit Bennett: It was honestly a completely different writing process. I started The Mothers when I was an undergrad, and I wrote the book alone in my dorm room. I had no agent or editor or readers expecting the book, and I also had no expectation the book would ever be read by anyone other than myself. There’s something freeing about that.

I certainly felt more self-conscious writing The Vanishing Half because there was suddenly external pressure. Beyond that, I knew I wanted to challenge myself to write a different book: a book set in a time in which I wasn’t alive, and a story that was much larger in scope, spanning decades. The structure, in particular, was often very frustrating to figure out, so I learned that I am capable of being more patient with myself than I previously thought. I’m grateful that my editor kept pushing me to revise the book until we figured out a structure that made sense.


In your words, the setting of The Vanishing Half, Mallard, is “a town more idea than place.” You’ve said in other interviews that this town was inspired by an anecdote your mother told you about a Southern town near where she grew up in Louisiana. Have you spent time in the place where your mother grew up? What is that place like, and how do the real place and the imagined one inform each other?

BB: I’ve never actually been to the town where my mother grew up since it’s far from where my aunts and uncles live now. So, I mostly drew on my mother’s stories about growing up as well as various books. I read a few books about Louisiana history to think about how to craft Mallard, and I also found a sociological study about a similar Creole, color-obsessed town that was published in the 1950s. Because my mother introduced me to the idea of this town as a place she’d only heard about, it always existed in my mind as a sort of myth.

While I drew on some nonfiction texts, I also wanted to give myself the space to engage with the town as a mythical place, a town that both exists and also doesn’t.

The Vanishing Half is being discussed as a new addition to the literary canon of passing narratives, contributing to the lineage of Nella Larsen’s Passing and other texts. Can you talk about how you’ve complicated this narrative and the terms of the world in which your characters, their identities, and secrets collide?

BB: I’d encountered a bunch of these passing narratives before starting The Vanishing Half—like Passing or [the film] Imitation of Life—and I mostly wanted to write about passing from a twenty-first century vantage point.

Passing stories are inherently contradictory. On one hand, passers are transgressive figures because they prove the flimsiness of social categories by their ability to move between them. What does it mean to be white, for example, if Stella becomes white just because someone assumes that she is? On the other hand, passers often end up reaffirming the same hierarchies that they threaten.

After passing, Stella is able to access wealth and status and power, but the fact that she only obtains this through whiteness only further validates the power of whiteness. So, I found that tension interesting, and I also wanted to think about what passing looks like if we begin by assuming fluidity between social categories. What does it even mean to lie about your race if we acknowledge that race itself is a made-up thing?

As in The Mothers, The Vanishing Half seems to be not just the story of individuals, but the story of a community. The voice of The Vanishing Half glides seamlessly, almost cinematically, from the consciousnesses of townspeople to the minds of your protagonists in a delightfully capacious omniscience. What kinds of choices did you make in order to arrive at this voice and point of view?

BB: As a reader, I’m always into stories about communities. Even when I set out to write a story about an individual, I always feel my attention being pulled toward some other minor character I had not previously considered or wondering about someone’s uncle or thinking about a background character’s life.

I remember a professor telling my workshop that many contemporary readers are skeptical about omniscience because they are inclined to disbelieve this all-knowing God voice. But I actually find omniscience quite democratic. An omniscient point of view allows that every character in the story, no matter how minor, is as fully-realized as the protagonist. That’s how I try to think about others as I’m moving through the world, and I try to reflect that in my storytelling.

The Vanishing Half is set to be adapted to the screen for HBO, which you’ll be executive producing. What kinds of joys and challenges are on your mind now as you look towards this adaptation?

BB: I think it can always be difficult imagining your story translated to a completely different medium. It’s particularly difficult as a novelist, who is accustomed to writing as a solitary practice, to imagine translating this story to a collaborative medium like television. But I’m also so excited to think about how this story can be transformed onto the screen.

I’ve already had interesting conversations about how to handle, say, the non-chronological timeline or the multiple points of view. So I’m probably mostly excited to see how this adaptation could make the story feel fresh and different even to me, a person who’s been thinking about these characters for five years.

 

Illustrations by Julia Lubas. Vintage ad images and original handwritten novel notes courtesy of Brit Bennett.


In your words, the setting of The Vanishing Half, Mallard, is “a town more idea than place.” You’ve said in other interviews that this town was inspired by an anecdote your mother told you about a Southern town near where she grew up in Louisiana. Have you spent time in the place where your mother grew up? What is that place like, and how do the real place and the imagined one inform each other?

BB: I’ve never actually been to the town where my mother grew up since it’s far from where my aunts and uncles live now. So, I mostly drew on my mother’s stories about growing up as well as various books. I read a few books about Louisiana history to think about how to craft Mallard, and I also found a sociological study about a similar Creole, color-obsessed town that was published in the 1950s. Because my mother introduced me to the idea of this town as a place she’d only heard about, it always existed in my mind as a sort of myth.

While I drew on some nonfiction texts, I also wanted to give myself the space to engage with the town as a mythical place, a town that both exists and also doesn’t.

The Vanishing Half is being discussed as a new addition to the literary canon of passing narratives, contributing to the lineage of Nella Larsen’s Passing and other texts. Can you talk about how you’ve complicated this narrative and the terms of the world in which your characters, their identities, and secrets collide?

BB: I’d encountered a bunch of these passing narratives before starting The Vanishing Half—like Passing or [the film] Imitation of Life—and I mostly wanted to write about passing from a twenty-first century vantage point.

Passing stories are inherently contradictory. On one hand, passers are transgressive figures because they prove the flimsiness of social categories by their ability to move between them. What does it mean to be white, for example, if Stella becomes white just because someone assumes that she is? On the other hand, passers often end up reaffirming the same hierarchies that they threaten.

After passing, Stella is able to access wealth and status and power, but the fact that she only obtains this through whiteness only further validates the power of whiteness. So, I found that tension interesting, and I also wanted to think about what passing looks like if we begin by assuming fluidity between social categories. What does it even mean to lie about your race if we acknowledge that race itself is a made-up thing?

As in The Mothers, The Vanishing Half seems to be not just the story of individuals, but the story of a community. The voice of The Vanishing Half glides seamlessly, almost cinematically, from the consciousnesses of townspeople to the minds of your protagonists in a delightfully capacious omniscience. What kinds of choices did you make in order to arrive at this voice and point of view?

BB: As a reader, I’m always into stories about communities. Even when I set out to write a story about an individual, I always feel my attention being pulled toward some other minor character I had not previously considered or wondering about someone’s uncle or thinking about a background character’s life.

I remember a professor telling my workshop that many contemporary readers are skeptical about omniscience because they are inclined to disbelieve this all-knowing God voice. But I actually find omniscience quite democratic. An omniscient point of view allows that every character in the story, no matter how minor, is as fully-realized as the protagonist. That’s how I try to think about others as I’m moving through the world, and I try to reflect that in my storytelling.

The Vanishing Half is set to be adapted to the screen for HBO, which you’ll be executive producing. What kinds of joys and challenges are on your mind now as you look towards this adaptation?

BB: I think it can always be difficult imagining your story translated to a completely different medium. It’s particularly difficult as a novelist, who is accustomed to writing as a solitary practice, to imagine translating this story to a collaborative medium like television. But I’m also so excited to think about how this story can be transformed onto the screen.

I’ve already had interesting conversations about how to handle, say, the non-chronological timeline or the multiple points of view. So I’m probably mostly excited to see how this adaptation could make the story feel fresh and different even to me, a person who’s been thinking about these characters for five years.

 

Illustrations by Julia Lubas. Vintage ad images and original handwritten novel notes courtesy of Brit Bennett.

 

 


 

Activism in the Time of Covid-19

COVID-19 has challenged students to engage causes across physical distance, and with new urgency.
 

Here to Help

More stories from the LSA community’s response to COVID-19.
 

No Comparison

A project of unrivaled scope that measures voting attitudes one election at a time.

 

 

 

Starting college looks a lot different this year for first-year students like J.J., with many courses and activities meeting online. The LSA Annual Fund provides support for tuition, room, and board, as well as the technology and tools necessary to connect to classes and campus. Your support means LSA students won’t miss a beat.


 

 

 

Email
Release Date: 10/26/2020
Category: Alumni
Tags: LSA; English; LSA Magazine; Humanities; Helen Zell Writers' Program; Julia Lubas; Gina Balibrera; Brittany Bennett