Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 24, 2021

The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett

The Vanishing Half is an unsettling book, but in a good way. Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize and featured in last year’s online Melbourne Writers’ FestivalThe Vanishing Half is a story that explores race and identity to expose in all its stupidity the corrupting consequences of racism.  This is the blurb:

The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Ten years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ storylines intersect?

Weaving together multiple strands and generations of this family, from the deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Brit Bennett produces a story that is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of the American history of passingLooking well beyond issues of race, The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.

When I shared my thoughts about the MWF session I wrote that I felt that framing the book as a distinctively American phenomenon was misleading:

This session would have benefitted from including an Australian context.  Indigenous people in Australia, if they were ‘white enough’ could ‘pass’, but if they did, they had to renounce their Aboriginality and avoid all contact with family.  I don’t know much about this but I know that (at least until the threat from Japan in the Pacific War) in both World  Wars Indigenous people were not supposed to enlist but some did if they could ‘pass’.  And during the assimilationist phase of our history, there was also an official system of enabling Indigenous people to ‘pass’ which isolated them from their communities.  I think that some Indigenous people in contemporary Australia often experience a questioning of their identity and this is very hurtful.  But the session was framed entirely from an American context.  Brit Bennett actually said that the situation of ‘passing’ was distinctively American, and I know that this isn’t true, because it also occurred in South Africa too, during the Apartheid regime.

Shamefully, there was also an official form of ‘passing’ imposed by the government, when light-skinned Aboriginal babies and children were taken from their parents and brought up in institutions and foster homes, where their identity was suppressed, with the intention of ‘breeding out the colour’.

So I preface my thoughts by admitting that I read The Vanishing Half framed by what I know about the circumstances in which Indigenous people ‘passed’ in Australia and also by what I know about the importance of family and community to Indigenous people and how the exemption system was intended to destroy these relationships.  There were many scenes in the novel that replicated the Australian context: the angry white child using a racist epithet against her black friend; people of colour being hounded out of white areas; routine discrimination in employment and so on.  One of the most unsettling aspects was the way that the light-skinned African Americans of Mallard had come through bitter experience to accept the violence against them.  The twins witness the murder of their father twice — at home when white vigilantes burst into their home, and again in the hospital when the men come back to finish off their crime.

Willie Lee heard that the white men were angry that Leon stole their business by underbidding them.  But how could you shoot a man for accepting less than what you asked for?

‘White folks kill you if you want too much, kill you if you want too little.’ Willie Lee shook his head, packing tobacco into his pipe. ‘You gotta follow they rules but they change ’em when they feel.  Devilish, you ask me.’

In the bedroom, the twins sat, swinging over the mattress edge, and pinched at a piece of pound cake.

‘But what did Daddy do?’ Stella kept asking.

Desiree sighed, for the first time feeling the burden of having to supply answers.  Oldest was oldest, even if by only seven minutes.

‘Like Willie Lee say.  He do his job too good.’

‘But that don’t make sense.’

‘Don’t have to.  It’s white folks.’  (p.35)

That devastating last line contains a whole world of cruel history for people of colour all over the world.

The context reinforces it.  The (fictional) town where these twins live is Mallard, where people of colour respond to racism by exercising their own version of it.  For generations, they have bred themselves progressively whiter by excluding darker-skinned African Americans.  Adele, the mother of the twins, tries to prevent Desiree’s relationship with a black man; later, she rejects the very dark-skinned child of Desiree’s marriage.  Yet even these people, the light-skinned people of Mallard who are indistinguishable from white people, are excluded, discriminated against, and subjected to vigilante violence.  It exposes in a visceral way just how irrational racism is.  It shows how even when people of colour try to take control of it by obliterating themselves, fear and hatred still thrives, even on what is merely an obscene idea.  As Desiree recognises: her Daddy had skin so light that, on a cold morning, she could turn over his arm to see the blue of his veins. But none of that mattered when the white men came for him.

In Stella, we see how ‘passing’ can be a response to racism, but it’s a decision that can blight an entire life.  Stella, desperate for a job, ‘passes’ almost by accident, and then has to maintain it to keep not only the job but the freedoms that go with a white identity.  As exemptions did in Australia, this invidious choice means she has to break with her family and vanish into another life, inflicting profound grief on her family who don’t know where she is or why she has disappeared.  She also has to suppress her own grief and maintain an elaborate façade of lies so that her husband and daughter never find out.  Her loneliness, her stress and her guilt is overwhelming and as the novel progresses the trap in which she has enmeshed herself becomes so tangled that there is no going back.

What kind of world do we live in that this kind of barbarity takes place?

This one: the world we’re in…

Author: Brit Bennett
Title: The Vanishing Half
Cover concept by Mike McQuade
Publisher: Dialogue Books, 2020
ISBN: 9780349701455, pbk., 343 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books, $32.99


Responses

  1. I have heard good things about Brit Bennet – this book and The mothers was it? I like how you’ve see the universality in this one, Lisa.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks:)
      I haven’t read The Mothers, but I’m going to be looking for it at the library now:)

      Liked by 2 people

      • I’ve only read The Mothers (there are hundreds of people on the library hold list for TVH and I’m content to wait) but I enjoyed the multiple points-of-view and have heard from those who’ve read both that the newer one is more tightly constructed. It’s interesting to see that she’s so well-known overseas too!

        Like

        • That’s the power of the Women’s Prize!

          Like

  2. I have heard so much about this book and listened to several podcasts about it. It is on my list of WTR…..want to read. 🐧🌷

    Like

    • It’s one of those books where what it’s ‘about’ is less significant than the way it makes you feel. A good choice for book groups.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have it on my kindle I think. Didn’t want to spend full price on it but did want to read it.

        Like

  3. This book has been on my radar since it’s publication . . . but remains unread. I have to admit that I’d thought of the “passing” phenomenon as distinctively U.S., so I found that aspect of your excellent review (i.e., that it’s universal) particularly interesting. Once I thought about it, it’s logical if tragic, that any culture with a majority/minority racial structure would have some version of passing.
    Have you read anything by Nella Larsen? She’s a fascinating U.S. writer whose work seems to be undergoing a rediscovery these days. Larsen, who was biracial (mother was Danish; father African-American), wrote two very good, semi-autobiographical novels involving themes of racial identity, “Passing” and “Quicksand.” Larsen (1891-1964) produced her novels in the 1920s-1930s; it would be interesting to compare them with a contemporary treatment of the same theme.

    Like

    • I could be wrong but although it certainly happened here, I don’t think it’s widely known, or if it is, it isn’t talked about.
      I’d like to read Nella Larsen, but I’d like to read about the Australian situation first. I might ask one of my Indigenous contacts if they know of any research that’s happening…

      Like

  4. I’ve seen this book around, in bookstores and library, thanks for such a detailed review. I’ve read Passing by Nella Larsen. So this is an updated and definitely much more relevant version for our time.

    Like

    • I think you’d find it fascinating to compare the two…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. It is indeed a dreadful world we live in, and it seems though any advances we think we have made are soon eaten away by stupidity. I’ve heard good things about the book, but hadn’t made the connection with Australian indigenous populations. I suspect it may have wider resonances than the author first thought.

    Like

    • I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened in the UK in the postwar era…

      Liked by 1 person

      • The only thing is that we do need to remember that big difference, which is that our First Nations peoples are our original people, as against the African-Americans and African people in the UK. We need always to remember that First Nations Australians equate most closely to First Nations/Native Americans. Many of the issues re racism apply to both groups but there is a big historical difference that has to be recognised, and often isn’t.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Of course, yes. But I think most people know, even if just from popular culture films and TV, that African-Americans are descended from slaves, whereas Australians are taught the history of Indigenous dispossession from the time they’re in primary school.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. Hello Lisa and blog enthusiasts,

    Author Brit Bennett has received critical acclaim for her novels in the United States and abroad. The Vanishing Half aroused my interest due to its central theme of racial passing. I was interested in exploring how the author would tackle this theme as a contemporary writer engaging historical fiction. Although I’m not finished with reading the novel, I find Bennett’s use of omniscient narration and attention to detail sharp. The sisters and mother in the story are interesting characters who navigate life in peculiar ways.

    Bennett’s African American literary predacessors- Charles Chesnutt, Nella Larsen, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, and George Schulller- explored the complexities of race and racial passing in their fiction. Nella Larsen’s novels struck my mind as I reflected on reading The Vanishing Half. Particularly with the novel Passing (soon to be released as a film on Netflix later this year), interrogated the personal costs to a young Black woman passing for white as well as its strain on the fabric of democracy and freedom for Black people living in the U.S. What is worth bringing to this book review and dialogue is the nuanced and complex works of fiction that Bennett’s contemporaries- Walter Mosley, Percival Everett, Mat Johnson, and Helen Oyeyemi- have released to the world.

    I would like to recommend the following nonfiction book and novels for readers who want to further explore the complexities racial identity and passing from modern and contemporary periods:

    The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois (nonfiction), 1903
    The House Behind the Cedars by Charles Chesnutt (1900)
    Quicksand & Passing by Nella Larsen (1929)
    The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson
    The Blacker the Berry by Wallace Thurman (1929)
    Black No More by George S. Schuyler (science fiction), 1931
    Oreo by Fran Ross (1974)
    Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley (1990)
    Erasure by Percival Everett (2001)
    Incognegro by Mat Johnson (graphic novel), 2008
    Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi (2014)

    Wishing you all good reading.
    Sonia

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a great list, Sonia. I’ve read Helen Oyeyemi though not that book, but I haven’t read the others. So much to read!!

      Like

  7. I was sent a copy of this for review and I really must prioritise it. Thanks for the reminder.

    Like

    • I look forward to seeing what you think of it.
      There are twenty different ways I could have written this review, there’s so much to discuss!

      Liked by 1 person


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Categories

%d bloggers like this: