The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

I think this is one of the most popular reads of 2020, it’s also on the Dublin Literary Award longlist 2021 a recognition of the votes of libraries and readers from around the world.

Passing

I thought initially it was a novel about ‘passing’, similar to Nella Larsen’s novel Passing (1929) that I read last year, a subject that at the time of Larsen’s book, literally hundreds of books were being written about, however it is so much more.

I knew that I was writing into this long, storied history of passing literature, but I was also writing into it as a writer in the 21st century. And I wanted to look at that genre from my perspective as a young person alive now. And some of that meant trying to skirt some of those tropes in the genre. And some of that meant just trying to reimagine what a passing story looks like in a world where we think of these categories as being inherently fluid. Brit Bennett

Passing Twins Class RaceBrit Bennett’s novel features identical African American twins who leave home suddenly to make their way in the world, and looks at all the ways people survive and hide things about themselves, keep secrets and the impact that has not just on themselves but on others around them. And the many ways one can lose oneself.

It is also a reflection on the conditional aspirations of the white middle class, once you’ve entered this milieu, there are certain expectations, invisible rules, codes of conduct, and when children dare to want to be someone that doesn’t fit into a conventional perception of success, many parents will attempt to manipulate, entice or bribe them into fulfilling their expectations.

“Why can’t you just be yourself?” Stella asked once.
“Maybe I don’t know who that is,” her daughter shot back. And Stella understood, she did. That was the thrill of youth, the idea that you could be anyone. That was what had captured her in the charm shop, all those years ago. Then adulthood came, your choices solidifying, and you realise that everything you are had been set in motion years before. The rest was aftermath. So she understood why her daughter was searching for a self, and she even blamed herself for it.

From the Deep South to California, 1950’s to 1990’s

Each of the four main characters, twin sisters Desiree and Stella, and their children Jude and Kennedy, are given significant space to explore worlds as they each venture out from home, we observe their encounters and the repercussions of decisions either they make or that are made for them.

The Vanishing Half Runaway America South

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And there is Early, a wonderful character when we first meet him bringing his gifts of fruit to a teenage Desiree, then later his unique job, hunting people who have run, a byproduct of his own story of having been abandoned by his parents and his ability to be the carer, to be present in an unconventional way, despite his never quite feeling at home anywhere.

The key to staying lost was to never love anything. Time and time again, Early was amazed by what a running man came back for. Women, mostly.

On their journeys, the narrative and characters touch on a range of societal issues such as sexual abuse, racism, poverty, abandonment, domestic violence, sexism, gender fluidity, identity, silencing, dementia. It’s never too much, it’s patient, adept storytelling that doesn’t set out to solve problems, but shines a light on them and offers an inside view. Camille Okhiow

It is Bennett’s refusal to pass judgement on her characters that allows the reader to actively engage.

The Omniscient Narrator

Structured in parts, it moves back and forth in time, using a 3rd person omniscient all-knowing narrator, enabling a slow reveal of questions that build up in the reader’s mind.  A dialogue between characters will open into a stream of consciousness narrative and circle back to the close of the dialogue, accessing the thoughts and imagination of the characters and the narrator.

The Vanishing Half Brit Bennett twins passing identity

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Beautifully executed and paced, it is also very rooted in the town of Mallard, the home of the twins and their mother and the point of departure for most of the characters.

Ironically, it too will disappear, initially in being too small to appear on any map and ultimately amalgamated into a nearby town. Fluid identities come in all shapes and forms.

It’s a book you can’t wait to get back to and can in no way predict the outcome, except that they represent aspects of the many different types of people in societies today.

There were many ways to be alienated from someone, few to actually belong.

I loved it and can’t wait to read her debut novel and see what she comes up with next.

How do we all become who we are?

I wanted to write toward that and think about these characters who are all performing in a way, who are transforming in a way, who are making these choices that are big and small but shape them in some way. I knew that my entry point was going to be these twin sisters who make different choices as far as which race that they want to live and which community they belong to. But I also wanted to explore these other forms of being, other types of identities.

I wanted to think about all the different ways in which we make choices that shape who we are, and [think] about the ways in which making those choices and creating ourselves … can be very liberating, but it can also be very painful. Brit Bennett

Brit Bennett, Author

The Vanishing Half The Mothers Literary InfluencerBorn and raised in Southern California, Brit Bennett graduated from Stanford University and later earned her MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan. Her debut novel The Mothers (2016) was a New York Times bestseller, and her second novel The Vanishing Half (2020) was an instant #1 New York Times bestseller.

She is a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree and in 2021, she was chosen as one of Time’s Next 100 Influential People.

Her essays have been featured in The New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review, and Jezebel.

Playwrights Aziza Barnes (BLKS) and Jeremy O. Harris (Slave Play) have been tapped to write and executive-produce the upcoming HBO series based on Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, after a heated auction involving 17 bidders.

Further Reading

Interview: Brit Bennett on publishing The Vanishing Half during the George Floyd protests by Constance Grady

From Caucasia With Love by Danzy Senna

A Longish Intro on How I Came Across this Book

OreoDanzy Senna reviewed a book in the New Yorker in May 2015, a work she refers to as that hilarious, badass novel Oreo* by Fran Ross, an overlooked classic, a satire about race, originally published in 1974 without a stir, the novel everyone remembers from that time published two years later, had the title Roots.

Senna read Oreo in the late 1990’s, when she was living in a neighbourhood of what she called ‘Brooklyn’s dreadlocked élite‘ talented, up and coming, young black musicians, film-makers, artists said to be backed by the likes of Tracy Chapman and Alice Walker.

Though it had been written 20 years before, the book seemed to speak of their present and in her article she reflects on the narratives that had tended to gain traction and audience, those like Roots that looked back at slavery and oppression and then those that had been ignored, like Oreo, narratives that looked forward, that addressed modern issues, where no one is immune to criticism.

Sadly, Fran Ross died at a young age of cancer, little known in the literary world, this her only published work. It was republished in July 2015.

*To much of the public, an oreo is a black biscuit with white cream filling, in the African-American community however, it is a racial slur used to insult a black person who appears to act white.

You can read the article linked below, I hope to read the book soon, and all this to say how I came across the author Danzy Senna, who wrote From Caucasia, With Love, a novel about a mixed race family and the effect on their two daughters, when they separate, on account of the differing colour of their skin.

Review of From Caucasia, With Love

CaucasiaBirdie and Cole are two sisters, so close, they have their own made up language they speak fluently, that no one else can understand. The rest of society judges them on appearance, for Birdie appears white and her older sister Cole appears to be black.

While their parents are together it is less of an issue, but when they separate and move away from each other, each daughter departing with one parent, they will discover how much their colour dictates other people’s perceptions of them. Cole leaves for Brazil with her father and Birdie is on the run with her white activist mother fleeing the authorities.

The story is narrated from the point of view of Birdie and although she feels just like her sister, there were already signs of their differences in the behaviour of those closest to them. Her white grandmothers favouritism, and her father’s new girlfriend who won’t look her in the eye,  favoured by one, rejected by the other.

Birdie travels with her mother, losing all contact with her sister and father and integrates into a new life and school as someone she is not, she accepts it, but the truth seethes beneath the surface of all her interactions, she becomes numb to the misconceptions about who she is, until she has had enough and decides to go looking for Cole and her father.

“Strange as it may sound, there was safety in this pantomime. The less I behaved like myself, the more I could believe that this was still a game. That my real self – Birdie Lee – was safely hidden beneath my beige flesh, and that when the right moment came, I would reveal her, preserved, frozen solid in the moment in which I had left her.”

Danzy Senna

Danzy Senna

It is a gripping coming of age story of a girl who must deal with so much more than growing up, being forced to subsume another identity, neither one thing nor the other, without a role model to guide her.

It is a courageous effort to place the reader in the mind of a character who is like a changeling, crossing racial and geographic boundaries, making choices that will ensure not just her survival, but that she gets the answers she is looking for.

Further Reading:

New Yorker Article – An Overlooked Classic About the Comedy of Race by Danzy Senna

 

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

My big fat summer read and it was just what I like, to get lost within pages that will attempt to navigate the slightly messy lives of flawed characters that feel like they could be real. And most of them here come close to attaining that reality.

Americanah (2)Ifemula and Obinze are university sweethearts who slip into a relationship that seems to have it all, though they have yet to conquer the career survival path of their simple lives thus they are separated in Nigeria during their studies and then by the continents of  North America and Europe as they try to establish their careers. Hardship is the one thing they seem not able to share and it drives them apart like the distance of the ocean that separates them, spanning a distance they seem unable to traverse.

Just as many young people have been doing so and continue to today, they eventually return to their home country and their roots and will re encounter each other.  Although they find their way home, will  they be able to ignore those untravelled waters they did not share? This is one of the themes the book explores.

“Somewhere in a faraway part of her mind, she wanted to lose weight before she saw Obinze again. She had not called him; she would wait until she was back to her slender self.”

I loved the book for many reasons, firstly because I remember reading and enjoying her first book Purple Hibiscus, enhanced by seeing her speak in person at a Readers Festival in Auckland where she talked about the next book she was planning to write, about a subject few at the time seemed to want to talk about – the Biafran War – that research and effort to understand a chapter in Nigerian history manifested in her Orange prize-winning novel Half of a Yellow Sun, which has since been made into a film (not yet released). Since then I have looked forward to reading her other work and interviews, as she is more than just a writer of stories.

Secondly, having a good friend from Nigeria, who made the move back after a similar number of years living abroad, who did so successfully and visiting there, participating in her marriage ceremony makes me even more curious to read the work of those who have attempted the same. There is something universal about the experience and yet unique at the same time.

Chimamanda Nogozi Adichie easily engages an audience with her observations, insights and view of the world and with Americanah it is as if she sends out another version of herself, Ifemulu, a young woman who grows up in urban Nigeria and through her studies has an opportunity to live, work and study in America.

Ifemulu’s disappointments distance her from her closest relationship because she doesn’t share them. In an effort to be heard she writes an anonymous blog and shares her experiences and observations both in America and again on her initial return to Nigeria.

She tries to remain an impartial observer, though those who know she is the author challenge her and she discovers that life often finds a way to throw at us, that which we condemn in others. But therein the greatest lessons lie and Ifemulu will do much soul-searching on her journey to fulfillment. The blog posts are interesting to read and provocative and it is great to see the form being represented in a novel, and a WordPress blog at that.

In a Lagos cafe

In a Lagos cafe

For me, books whose characters cross cultures are always interesting, just as travelling in another country and witnessing the different ways people live and interact and perceive is interesting. Whilst I could never begin to know what it would be like for a young Nigerian woman to move to live in America, I enjoyed the experience of inhabiting Adichie’s imagination, viewing Ifemulu’s life and how she tries to interpret the foreign culture she and many others have long dreamed of.

My visit to Nigeria was too short to gain any real perspective about what it might be like to live there, but the challenges are undoubtedly equally great, though completely different in nature.

It doesn’t matter which country we grow up in to think of as our own, almost any other country we immigrate to or spend time living in will invoke a feeling of strangeness, of being an outsider.

“The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.”

Twice whilst reading this novel, I felt tears well up, surprising myself at how deeply this character got under my skin, some of the burdens she carries, only gaining full recognition in the moment they are healed and those moments are powerful when they come off the page. Surprising and brilliant.

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