By Olivia Moody
It seemed slightly invasive to be listening in on the conversation between authors Brit Bennett and Sara Collins as they discussed Bennett’s second novel, The Vanishing Half, from their living rooms for the Durham Book Festival. Released in June of this year, The Vanishing Half went straight to the top of the New York Times bestsellers list, and has since been optioned for adaptation by HBO.
The novel tells of Desiree and Stella Vignes, light-skinned twins living in a black southern community as they grapple with racial identity: Desiree lives as a black woman, whilst Stella passes for white. Racial passing isn’t new to American literature – it was explored by authors of the Harlem Renaissance, notably including Nella Larsen. Bennett, however, is an author writing in the 21st century, giving the concept an unmistakable modernity.
Bennett begins by reading an excerpt from the novel’s opening: she introduces the setting of Mallard, a town “obsessed with light and dark skin”, directing the discussion towards matters of community and colourism. She establishes Mallard’s construction of “the perfect Negro” by marrying lighter across generations, proposing a fear of dark skin within this African American community.
Collins notes that Bennett’s novel has been labelled “timely” by critical audiences: it was published just weeks after the re-emergence of Black Lives Matter protests. Bennett refutes this description, arguing that timeliness “exists outside of the novel, [is] something applied… from the outside.” She continues that her novel’s acclaim was received in the light of international Black pain and a reignited interest in the Black experience, and reflects that had it been released under different contexts, responses would likely have been contrasting.
The so-called timeliness of Bennett’s novel goes beyond its surrounding social contexts, though: temporally, the period of American history it spans heightens the pertinence of Bennett’s exploration of racial passing. It opens 1968, overlapping with the end of the Civil Rights Movement, and closes in 1986 amidst the Black Power movement. Desegregation had begun, this explored through Jude, Desiree’s “blueblack” daughter, as she studies on scholarship at UCLA but is still bound by restrictions of colour.
Though Jude’s education arguably presents racial progress, Bennett uses Stella’s passing to convey how these developments are anything but linear. Stella’s racial anxieties are internal: she adopts racist attitudes towards a Black family moving into her all-white LA neighbourhood, though her white husband can’t understand why. Bennett comments that Stella “overcorrects” her whiteness, protecting her truth to the point that tensions arise.
It is the timespan of The Vanishing Half that sets Bennett’s writing apart from that of Larsen. Stella’s urgency to pass doesn’t at any point diminish: despite some progress with America’s race problems, she still can’t reconcile herself to the truth. Having lived as white over half her life, Stella’s identity, so intimately bound with Desiree’s in childhood, has been warped, with Bennett suggesting that Stella is “so committed to performance” that it “surpasses all that is ‘real’” for her. This allows for an exploration of what is lost by crossing racial barriers, an element of passing absent from Larsen’s writing.
The modernity of Bennett’s passing tale is exhibited through the peripheral character of Reese. As a trans man, with Reese – as with Stella and her “whiteness” – Bennett can explore identity as a social construct. His gender is of little relevance to his purpose in the text; as Jude’s boyfriend, he represents the financial struggles that set young Black Americans apart from their white equivalents. This ties into the “timeliness” of the novel: his intersectionality and the struggles he and Jude face reflect an America saturated with prejudice and race problems, pulling a literary trope of the 1920s into the modern day.
As the conversation between Bennett and Collins closes, I’m reminded that I wasn’t physically present for their discussion. In just thirty minutes, so much has been addressed, contextualised and explained. The Vanishing Half probes themes and realities that are undoubtedly relevant to current social discourses, but it adheres to the historical moment in which Bennett places the novel and America’s literary legacy of racial passing. Her writing is skilful and purposeful, exploring an important element of American history that many writers do, in fact, pass over.
Image: Anna Kuptsova