'The Vanishing Half' Author Brit Bennett Unpacks Novel's Take on Race: "Identity Is Complicated"

Brit Bennett-Book cover -Publicity - Split - H 2020
Emma Trim; Riverhead Books

The New York Times bestseller (whose latest book will be adapted into an HBO series) reveals her story inspirations and how "categories of race are not as clear and stable as we often believe them to be."

Author Brit Bennett has had quite the whirlwind summer.

Though her novel, The Vanishing Half (Riverhead Books), arrived while the country was in the midst of a pandemic, the author's new release became an instant sensation. Following its publication on June 2, Bennett's story became Good Morning America and Barnes and Noble book club picks and a New York Times bestseller (it has topped the hardcover fiction bestsellers list for nine weeks). Hollywood took notice: The Vanishing Half is currently set to be adapted into an HBO limited series. The novel was so sought after that the network reportedly won the book in a heated auction with 17 bidders. Bennett will executive produce.

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Bennett reacted to the adaptation news, shared her story inspirations and the book's coincidental timeliness.

Bennett calls the period when she learned her book would be adapted by HBO "the most surreal week of my life." "I was really humbled and just overwhelmed by how many people were interested in the TV possibilities of this book," Bennett tells THR. "Everyone read the book and had intense emotional reactions to the characters and to the story."

It's not surprising why Bennett's 343-page novel has caught readers' attention. Apart from its moving storytelling, the novel takes place in the late 1960s and early '70s, reimagining the civil rights movement era. The story centers on twin sisters from a Louisiana town called Mallard, which is inhabited by Black residents who purposely intermarry so their children will be lighter-skinned. As teenagers, Desiree and Stella Vignes leave Mallard in pursuit of a different life. Desiree lives as a Black woman and later returns to Mallard with her darker-skinned daughter Jude (who faces discrimination and feelings of being "ostracized," Bennett notes), whereas Stella undergoes a metamorphosis to live a life passing as a white woman with her husband and daughter. The twins embark on separate paths, but the novel connects their stories and their daughters' stories while shedding light on how people of color must find their identity and place in an unaccepting world.

The Vanishing Half grew out of a conversation Bennett had about Mallard with her mother. Though utilizing her imagination, Bennett also referenced "research of similar Creole communities in Louisiana" to help describe this mythical town. "I found writing towards the myth to be a lot more interesting than sort of writing towards any history," she says. Bennett also found inspiration from the 1959 melodrama Imitation of Life and a novel called Playing Dead, centered on those who fake their deaths, to examine the trope of passing that she would further explore with her character Stella.

"She [Stella] grows up in the rural South and she experiences whiteness in one way. And then she marries and moves to L.A. and experiences this very different culture of white wealth, status and privilege that she had not previously experienced," Bennett says. "I wanted to get away from this idea that there's something uniquely sinister about race in the South or about racism in the South because obviously racism is an issue that is so pervasive and it's everywhere in this country." Rather than escape, Stella is forced to endure racism that is "transformed into a different form," Bennett explains. "It's a form that's so unfamiliar to her that she has to learn it on the fly while also performing whiteness in the same way. She has to learn how to be a white person in this context that's very different."

Stella may live as a wealthy, "white" woman but, as Bennett notes, her perceived better life is really life “locked away” in a "suburban prison" she created for herself out of fear of embracing who she is. "She is so committed to this new life she's created for herself that there's really no turning back," she adds. Because of Stella's secret, her own daughter fails to know her true identity as a biracial woman and she maintains her lie even after befriending her new Black neighbor. "She's just completely alone because she doesn't have any sense of community. She doesn't have a family beyond her husband and her child. She doesn't have a relationship with her mother and sister anymore…. She can't make friends with any Black people because she's afraid that they're going to see through her and expose her."

Bennett says she started writing The Vanishing Half in 2014; she never envisioned the book would be released at a time when conversations about race have proliferated following the killing of George Floyd and subsequent protests.

"It's been honestly quite strange to see the book read in such a contemporary light," Bennett says. The author admits she was initially hesitant setting her book in a time that could seem like she was ignoring the present moment. "I thought at the time, 'Well, I'm a young writer. I should be writing about what it is to be young right now, instead of writing about some distant time.' There was a part of me that felt I should be trying to make meaning of this moment instead of thinking about the past."

However, Bennett says some similarities between past and present are uncanny: "It's strange to see how strongly the past is echoing in the current moment." Though never intending to frame her book as timely, Bennett is glad that her story is offering perspective for readers, in which they can "think about identity in a new way," "the history of race in this country" and "the idea that these categories of race are not as clear and stable as we often believe them to be."

The Vanishing Half isn't the first project through which Bennett has tackled themes of race, class, and identity. One particular work of Bennett that has recirculated amid Floyd's death is her Jezebel essay "I Don't Know What to Do With Good White People" in which she describes encountering white people who claim they are empathetic and willing to join in the fight for racial equality, but persist in "self-aggrandizement" and expect to be "rewarded for their decency." Meanwhile, in her 2016 novel The Mothers, Bennett tells the story of a religious Black community in Southern California centered on a young Black woman who has an abortion. The novel is in development as a feature film by Kerry Washington.

Navigating complex concepts of race, identity and transformation in a fiction story can be "thorny or abstract," she notes. Bennett's storytelling derives from the need to depict "stories of community" and what it means to be in and outside a group. She shares that she's heard her fair share of "emotional reactions" from readers to her book, whether it be sharing their "very complicated family history" or their feelings on race and racial identity.

"I hope that all people take away is that identity is complicated," Bennett says of The Vanishing Half. "When I was writing, I just kept thinking, 'How do we become where we are?' These characters are navigating that question as they move through the world in all of their various complicated identities."

As she steps into a new role for the small screen, Bennett is excited to see how the to-be-determined writer of the show translates her book with their own creative vision. Though Bennett says she doesn't have a dream cast in mind, she admits her readers have provided a surplus of options. "Lots of readers have tagged me and emailed me their suggestions and I'm like, 'I have no say over this but thank you for letting me know,'" she says, laughing.

Though still busy promoting her second novel, Bennett is already hard at work on book three, which she teases as being "pretty long," gleaned from ideas she brainstormed in 2018. "I am fortunate that I started the third book before the pandemic hit. I think if you sat me down right now and you're like, 'come up with a new idea for a book,' I do not think I could do it," she says laughing. "I've just been trying to use my time in lockdown to work on the book because I think that truly makes me happy to write," she says.

As for readers who have found comfort in The Vanishing Half amid lockdown, Bennett is happy it has offered a sense of escapism. "I'm glad that people have loved this book and it gives a good distraction during quarantine," she says. "I'm really happy to be that to anybody who needs that right now."