I was hooked by Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half the moment I read the opening chapter. I churned through the book into the wee hours of the night, finishing the book in one sitting after several hours of continuous reading.
The Vanishing Half is a multi-generational story centered around twin sisters who were born and raised in Mallard, a town, as Bennett puts it, “filled with Black people so obsessed with light skin that they would try to genetically engineer their population in pursuit of it.” The twins, inseparable during childhood, diverge 180 degrees to opposite sides of the color line during adulthood. They lose contact with each other completely: Stella disappears to live as a white woman, giving birth to blonde-haired, blue-eyed Kennedy; Desiree returns to Mallard, the town where she ran away from years ago to raise her daughter Jude, “blueblack” like the night. The novel spans across years and geography, from the Jim Crow era 1950s to the 1990s and from the Deep South to California respectively.
Transformation: Liberating yet Pained
“But for all Desiree knew, Stella had lived white for half her life now, and maybe acting for that long ceased to be acting altogether. Maybe pretending to be white eventually made it so.”
Becoming someone new. Becoming someone else. A person who changes, however gradual or abrupt, ends up simultaneously gaining and giving up something. The idea of racial passing has been a fixture of fiction—for example, Nella Larsen, the first African-American woman to receive a Guggenheim fellowship for creative writing, wrote Passing in 1929. And in The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennett skillfully explores such “passing” and unwraps that such transformative change is “both an act of self-creation and also an act of self-destruction.” Stella, by choosing to become a white woman, gains the privileges of whiteness. But Stella loses both her past and familial connections, becoming a shell of a performer who is constantly relearning how to perform “whiteness.”
“The only difference between lying and acting was whether your audience was in on it, but it was all a performance just the same.”
Because the novel spans across years and geographies, Stella has to relearn what it means to be white, evolving her Jim Crow upbringing in Mallard to portraying a wealthy, white woman lifestyle during the civil rights and post civil-rights movement in Los Angeles, California. And Stella needing to relearn this racial fluency in response to the changing society is akin to an actress constantly learning new scripts. But Stella is just one example character who is continuously portraying a role. The novel is replete with other characters who also wrestle with the roles they have been given, interpreting their roles through the lenses of racism, colorism, classism, and transsexuality.
Identity: Inherited versus Becoming
“You can escape a town, but you cannot escape blood. Somehow, the Vignes twins believed themselves capable of both.”
Nature versus nurture. Predestination and fate versus agency and autonomy. The Vanishing Half pecks at factors that mold the creation of individual identity. Stella and Desiree are identical twins with the same upbringing; they never lived apart from each other when growing up. Even when the twins first run away from Mallard to New Orleans, the twins are still together, until Stella vanishes one day without a trace, leaving Desiree behind. Yet when their paths diverge, they end up with very different lives and raise two very different daughters.
“Being half lost was worse than being fully lost. It was impossible to know which part of you knew the way.”
When constructing a sense of self, how much influence comes from upbringing, geography, race, gender, class, or education? Bennett shows just how flimsy these categories can be. If Stella can become white through a performance of whiteness, what does it actually mean to be white or black or in-between? Moreover, the impact of Stella and Desiree’s choices trickle down to their daughters’ construction of self. The result of Kennedy and Jude’s relative “privileges” influence the opportunities the two cousins have and the people they eventually become. Bennett deftly weaves together a nonlinear narrative to explore themes of identity by utilizing a character’s thought or action in the present to rouse a story from the past because “memory works that way—like seeing forward and backward at the same time.”
Before signing off, I am also happy to inform you all that The Vanishing Half is currently being adapted into a limited TV series by HBO. I look forward to seeing the characters come alive on the screen!