Brit Bennett's novel 'The Vanishing Half' explores themes of identity, colorism, and class

brit bennett
Brit Bennett is the author of the 2020 novel "The Vanishing Half." (Photo courtesy of Emma Trim)

When Brit Bennett’s novel “The Vanishing Half” was published two years ago, it became an immediate bestseller and was included in the New York Times’ “Best Books of 2020.” The story of twin sisters from a small Louisiana town explores themes of identity, colorism and class. The novel is available in paperback now, and its author joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom to share a glimpse into her novel’s world of ever-shifting structures of selfhood.

Interview highlights:

How colorism brings turbulence to a small town:

“The twins come from a town called Mallard, Louisiana, which is a very small farm town that is oriented around the idea of colorism. So they come from a town that is occupied by light-skinned Black people who believe that it’s superior to be light-skinned, and they both have some very different reactions to coming from a place like that.”

“This is a community that pursues lightness for its own sake; it doesn’t yield any actual, tangible or material benefits for this community,” said Bennett. “They still experience racial violence. They still experience discrimination. It’s not like being light spares them from any of those consequences … To me, there was always something really absurd about the idea of this type of community, because it’s pursuing lightness just for its own sake, and … about the implications that that causes on those who live there, and also those who leave.”

The unique poignancy of twin sisterhood:

“I’m always very interested in sisterhood as a person who has two sisters and is generally just interested in writing about the relationships between and among women,” said Bennett. “But I think twins were particularly interesting to me because of that tightness of that bond, because of the way that, for these twins, they love each other, and they feel also like they are trapped in this claustrophobic relationship at the same time.” 

“I think Stella’s decision to pass [as white] is more striking because they are twins and because her decision requires her to leave her sister behind. So for her, it is a decision that she’s making about identity and race, but it’s also a decision that she is making to forge her own life without her sister, and she feels like it’s only possible to forge her own life if she leaves her sister behind.” 

A cross-generational struggle to accept oneself:

“I knew from the beginning that I wanted to introduce Jude, Desirée’s daughter, and … what it would be like for her to grow up in this place, and it was something that I began to … think of as a type of violence, what she suffers,” said Bennett. “Once she eventually is able to escape this town as she grows up, how she still carries the town with her, and how she still carries the ideology of the town with her; it’s not something that she can just easily shake. This is a town that tried to teach her to hate herself. So I started to think, okay, once she eventually leaves this place, how is it that she can try to unlearn that hatred?”

“Jude meets Reese, and they fall for each other, and he tells her that he’s trans. And I love the idea of his story of being a counter to Stella because he is somebody who experiences a physical transformation but remains himself because his transformation brings them closer to himself; versus Stella, who doesn’t really change physically but becomes somebody else psychologically and emotionally … So much of the tension, I think, in that relationship is, both of these people who grew up under circumstances where they were made to feel unlovable, trying to learn how to love each other and allow themselves to be loved.”

“The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett is out now on paperback and can be ordered through