Brit Bennett's debut novel The Mothers—about motherhood, female friendship, and finding love with a broken heart—was one of the most talked-about books of 2016. Four years later, Bennett introduces a new cast of characters, and like her debut, The Vanishing Half examines sisterhood, black identity, and parenthood with compassion and conviction. We loved it and named it our Spotlight Pick for the Best Books of June.
The Vignes twins grew up inseparable in the ’60s in Mallard, Louisiana, a small town reserved for black residents with light skin. Stella and Desiree Vignes are tall and beautiful, and they dream of lives beyond the difficult ones they have known. When they flee to New Orleans as teenagers, Stella discovers that she can pass as white, and so begins the fracture that will forever separate the twins. Stella disappears in California and continues to play the part of a white woman, keeping her past a secret from her husband and daughter. After leaving her abusive marriage, Desiree returns to Mallard with her daughter, Jude, who is “black as tar.” Jude, desperate to find a place where she fits in, goes to college in California and discovers she was searching not just for herself but for her mother’s sister. Told in flashbacks and alternating points of view, this novel asks, What is personal identity, if not your past?
We had the opportunity to chat with Bennett about the inspiration for her novel, identity, sisters, and the book that made her want to be a writer.
Al Woodworth, Amazon Book Review: Your debut novel, The Mothers, was one of the literary darlings of 2016, and The Vanishing Half seems to be enjoying the same success. Was the approach you took to writing your second book different than your debut?
Brit Bennett: Second novels are tough! I first started The Mothers when I was seventeen and I worked on the book alone for seven or eight years. I never imagined that the novel might be published someday or that anyone who didn’t know me might read it. So in a lot of ways, I felt completely free writing my first book. There was no outside pressure, only my own desire to get the story right. But with my second novel, I knew that there were expectations. I didn’t want to disappoint the readers who’d loved my first book but at the same time, I wanted to write something very different. So eventually, I had to pretend that there would be no reader and focus on writing the book that I wanted to read. Otherwise, I think I would have been crippled by self-consciousness.
What inspired you to write about two estranged sisters—one that leads her adult life pretending she’s white, and the other who returns to her childhood home as she is?
Although I’m not a twin, I do have two older sisters and I’ve always been interested in writing about sisterhood, whether chosen or biological. My first book is about friends who become sisters, and my second is about sisters who become strangers. I think I find sisterhood a fun way to explore identity. How is it possible that we can share an upbringing and genetics but turn out to be completely different women? The novel is also informed by the close relationship I have with my sisters. Stella’s decision to pass for white requires that she leave her entire past behind, including her twin sister. The thought of choosing to never speak to my own sisters again is so unthinkably devastating, so that gave Stella’s decision real emotional stakes for me as a writer.
Can you tell us about Stella and Desiree’s hometown, Mallard, Louisiana. Why did you make it a fictional place?
The idea for The Vanishing Half actually came from a conversation with my mother, who told me once about a town she remembered from her Louisiana childhood where “everyone intermarried so that their children would get lighter and lighter.” I became fascinated in the idea of an insular town driven by this harmful ideology that light skin is superior. What would it be like to live in a place like this? How would you continue to wrestle with this harmful belief system even after you’ve left this place behind? It can be difficult to take on a complicated topic like colorism, but by focusing on a specific town in a specific time, I was able to ground the book and focus on the experience of living in a place governed by a harmful ideology.
The concept of identity is something that you’ve written about before—how characters run away from their home and past, or in Stella’s case, how she hides her race. What makes people who they are?
I think that’s the question at the very center of the book. What makes me who I am? Is it how I describe myself? How a stranger might describe me? How my family would? This is a book full of characters who are constantly reinventing themselves and breaking away from their own pasts. The process of reinvention can be liberating but also quite painful. What do we gain and what we do lose in deciding to become someone new?
Your book takes place in the 1960s through the 1990s. Did you do a lot of research? How do you hope the lives of your characters impact readers today?
I drew on a combination of nonfiction, fiction, and family accounts from the time period to think about how my characters might engage in that historical moment. I was less interested in writing about history itself and more interested in the idea of history as a backdrop for revealing character. What does it mean for Stella to pass as white in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement? How does her experience of personal reinvention coincide with this moment of national change?
Was there a book that turned you into a reader? Was there a book or author that made you want to become a writer?
I don’t remember the book that turned me into a reader but the book that made me want to become a writer was S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. I read that book in the third grade after a teacher gave me a copy. It was one of the first novels I ever read, and I was so completely swept up in the story. I also felt inspired by the fact that Hinton wrote the novel when she herself was a teenager. I never imagined such a thing might be possible. So when I was in high school, I set out to write novels of my own, one of which eventually became The Mothers.
Thank you again for taking the time to share your work and thoughts with us.
Thanks! Hope everyone enjoys The Vanishing Half!
We talk to Brit Bennett about the inspiration for her novel, identity, sisters, the book that made her want to be a writer, and more.