How The Vanishing Half fits into our cultural fixation with racial passing stories

Posted in Articles, Identity Development/Psychology, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2020-09-19 20:36Z by Steven

How The Vanishing Half fits into our cultural fixation with racial passing stories

Vox
2020-08-14

Constance Grady


Zac Freeland/Vox

The Vox Book Club is linking to Bookshop.org to support local and independent booksellers.

Passing for white never left.”

In Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, the character of Stella haunts the narrative like a ghost. Stella is the half who vanished: half of her family, half of her sister’s heart. And she vanished by excising half of her own identity.

Stella is a light-skinned Black woman, and when she is 16, she decides to start passing for white. Her identical twin sister Desiree, meanwhile, grows up to marry the darkest-skinned man she can find. Stella breaks away from her family, and we don’t get a chance to meet her on the pages of the novel until nearly halfway through the book when at last her niece, Desiree’s dark-skinned daughter, tracks her down. It’s only in that last section that we finally learn exactly what happened to Stella.

Stella’s fate haunts the novel, and so does the genre her story belongs to. There’s a long history of narratives of racial passing in the American novel, and The Vanishing Half plays with the genre in new and interesting ways. So as the Vox Book Club spends the month talking about The Vanishing Half, I wanted to put it in the context of the passing novel more broadly.

To get an expert view, I called up Alisha Gaines, an English professor at Florida State University and the author of Black for a Day: White Fantasies of Race and Empathy. Together, we talked through the history of the African American passing novel, what passing looks like after Jim Crow (sorry, Ben Shapiro), and how passing novels can show us how race is produced and reproduced. Below is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.

The first African American stories of racial passing are slave narratives

Constance Grady

Do we know when the first of these narratives emerged? How old are stories about racial passing?

Alisha Gaines

It’s an old story. In literature and in life, America has a fascination with impersonation, which includes blackface minstrelsy. And passing narratives, if you want to be technical about it, in African American literature, they start with the slave narrative…

Read the entire interview here.

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Dark secrets: The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett, reviewed

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Louisiana, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2020-07-27 00:46Z by Steven

Dark secrets: The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett, reviewed

The Spectator
2020-07-18

Rabeea Saleem


Brit Bennett. Credit: Getty Images

Brit Bennett, The Vanishing Half, A Novel (New York: Riverhead Books, 2020)

Bennett’s compelling novel explores the fraught subject of what it means to ‘pass for white’ in a black community

Passé Blanc is the Creole expression — widely used in the US — for black people ‘passing for white’ to seek social and economic privileges otherwise denied them. Brit Bennett has a panoptic approach to racial passing in this intergenerational family saga, which takes us on a 20-year journey into the lives of twin sisters Desiree and Stella Vignes.

We meet them in the 1950s as children living in Mallard, a small town in the Deep South known for its light-skinned negroes. For Desiree, the local obsession with skin colour makes little sense, since being light-skinned didn’t save her father from being lynched by white men. In their teens, the twins run away to New Orleans, but their paths soon diverge: ‘Stella became white and Desiree married the darkest man she could find.’

Fourteen years later Desiree is spotted back in Mallard with a ‘blueblack’ child in tow called Jude. She is an anomaly in a town where ‘nobody married dark’, adhering to the strict colour code of its mixed-race founder, who was determined that the town would see ‘each generation lighter than the one before’. Stella, meanwhile, remains estranged from her family and now lives a life of luxury with her white husband and their daughter Kennedy in an affluent, all-white neighbourhood in LA. She has kept her past a secret from them, with her daughter realising how Stella would cite lack of money as an excuse not to discuss her background — ‘as if poverty were so unthinkable to Kennedy that it could explain everything’. Eventually, Jude’s and Kennedy’s paths cross, dismantling Stella’s carefully constructed façade…

Read the entire review here.

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Brit Bennett: ‘Last week was truly the wildest week of my life’

Posted in Articles, Arts, Interviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States, Women on 2020-07-06 16:06Z by Steven

Brit Bennett: ‘Last week was truly the wildest week of my life’

The Guardian
2020-07-05

Simran Hans


‘I’m Californian, so nobody really reads me as anxious’: Brit Bennett. Photograph: Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images

The US author on topping the bestseller charts with her new novel, why being right is overrated, and the TV show bringing her joy in lockdown

Brit Bennett, 30, was born and raised in southern California. She attended Stanford University and earned an MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan. Her acclaimed first novel, The Mothers, was published in 2016, when she was 26. Her follow-up, The Vanishing Half, has spent the past three weeks in the top five of the New York Times bestseller list and the screen rights have been optioned by HBO in a seven-figure deal.

HBO had to outbid 17 rival TV companies in the race to adapt your book for the screen. How does that feel?
Last week was truly the wildest week of my life. It was my birthday week, so I’ve never been sent so many bottles of champagne or bouquets of flowers in my life, and probably never will be again.

And that was on top of your book debuting at No 1 in the NYT bestseller list. What were you doing when you heard the news?
It was maybe 5 o’clock in the evening and I was just sitting on my couch, and my editor called out of nowhere. We were optimistic, but I never imagined that. The people who are No 1 are household names, like Stephen King!

Describe The Vanishing Half.
It’s a story about twin sisters, Desiree and Stella, who decide to live their lives on opposite sides of the colour line – one as a white woman and one as a black woman…

Read the entire interview here.

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HBO Wins ‘The Vanishing Half’ Auction In 7-Figure Deal; 17 Bidders Pursued Brit Bennett Bestseller

Posted in Articles, Arts, Media Archive, Passing, United States, Women on 2020-07-06 15:48Z by Steven

HBO Wins ‘The Vanishing Half’ Auction In 7-Figure Deal; 17 Bidders Pursued Brit Bennett Bestseller

Deadline
2020-06-29

Mike Fleming Jr


HBO

EXCLUSIVE: HBO won a wild auction that sources said saw 17 bidders vying for The Vanishing Half, the novel by Brit Bennett that is currently atop The New York Times bestseller list. Sources said HBO will pay low seven-figures for the book and the author will be executive producer of what HBO will develop as a limited series.

The novel focuses on the Vignes sisters, identical twins who, after growing up together in a small, southern black community, run 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 passes for white, hiding her identity from her husband, who knows nothing of her past. 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?…

Read the entire article here.

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Brit Bennett on her New Novel ‘The Vanishing Half” and the History of Racial Passing

Posted in Audio, Interviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States, Women on 2020-06-30 14:45Z by Steven

Brit Bennett on her New Novel ‘The Vanishing Half” and the History of Racial Passing

CBS This Morning
2020-06-26

Best-selling author Brit Bennett is following the success of her critically-acclaimed debut, “The Mothers,” with a “The Vanishing Half,” a novel exploring the American history of racial passing. She joins CBS News’ Errol Barnett to discuss how the story, which opens in 1968, is particularly timely today. Bennett also shares her reaction to J.K. Rowling’s controversial statements on transgender women and how the trending #PublishingPaidMe has uncovered inequities within the publishing industry.

Listen to the episode (00:26:00) here. Download the episode here.

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Brit Bennett’s New Novel Explores the Power and Performance of Race

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Louisiana, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2020-06-26 03:17Z by Steven

Brit Bennett’s New Novel Explores the Power and Performance of Race

The New York Times
2020-05-26

Parul Sehgal, Book Critic

Brit Bennett, The Vanishing Half, A Novel (New York: Riverhead Books, 2020)

No nation can lay lasting claim to a genre, save perhaps one. The story of racial passing is a uniquely and intensely American form. From its earliest avatars, the 19th-century novel “Clotel,” for example, to Langston Hughes’s short stories and Nella Larsen’s 1929 masterpiece, “Passing,” to the melodrama films of the 1950s, like “Pinky” and “Imitation of Life,” it is a story central to the American imagination, re-examined and retold so regularly it seems to enjoy a perpetual heyday.

In recent years, passing narratives have shed their sentimentality and turned surreal (Boots Riley’s film “Sorry to Bother You”), comic (Spike Lee’sBlacKkKlansman”) and playful (Mat Johnson’s novel “Loving Day”). Others have flipped the formula so that it is black identity that is coveted by characters who are racially ambiguous (in the fiction of Danzy Senna, for example) or plainly white (as in Nell Zink’s novel “Mislaid”).

Through all the ways the genre has been rewritten, its potency has remained — its singular ability to enact the notion of race as arbitrary, as a performance, as something seen through, all the while inscribing its power as a source of kinship, pain and pride. Certainly few transgressions are punished so severely in literature. To pass is to court moral ruin; it is an elective orphanhood (in “Imitation of Life,” passing results in actual matricide), depicted as a kind of amputation or suicide.

In her new novel, “The Vanishing Half,” Brit Bennett brings to the form a new set of provocative questions: What if passing goes unpunished? What if the character is never truly found out? What if she doesn’t die or repent? What then?…

Read the entire book review here.

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Brit Bennett Reimagines the Literature of Passing

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Louisiana, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2020-06-23 19:49Z by Steven

Brit Bennett Reimagines the Literature of Passing

The New Yorker
2020-06-15

Sarah Resnick


Photograph by Miranda Barnes for The New Yorker

In her second novel, the author uses a familiar genre to explore startling visions of selfhood.

In “The Vanishing Half,” the story of two sisters divided by the color line yields new models of identity and authenticity.

In 1954, a pair of identical twins—creamy skin, hazel eyes, wavy hair—flee a small town in Louisiana and the narrow future it affords: nothing but more of the same. Desiree and Stella Vignes are sixteen and headed to New Orleans. They scrape by for a while, and eventually Stella applies for a position as a secretary at a fancy department store, a job only white girls get. She doesn’t mention she’s black, and no one asks. She’s apprehensive—has she done something wrong?—but her sister is adamant: why should the two of them starve “when Stella, perfectly capable of typing, became unfit as soon as anyone learned that she was colored?” Stella gets the job. Every morning, on the ride to the office, she transforms into her double, Miss Vignes—“White Stella,” as Desiree calls her—and every night she undergoes the process in reverse. It’s “a performance where there could be no audience. Only a person who knew her real identity would appreciate her acting, and nobody at work could ever know.” For a while, the twins are brought together by the joint pleasure of pulling off the performance. But gradually the gap between them widens: “Desiree could never meet Miss Vignes. Stella could only be her when Desiree was not around.” One day, Stella disappears, leaving her sister a note: “Sorry honey, but I’ve got to go my own way.”

The Vanishing Half” (Riverhead), the second novel by Brit Bennett, tells the story of the Vignes sisters’ diverging paths. In doing so, it belongs to a long tradition of literature about racial passing. From the antebellum period until the end of Jim Crow, countless black Americans crossed the color line to pass as white—to escape slavery or threats of racial violence, or to gain access to the social, political, and economic benefits conferred by whiteness. Narratives that dramatized this passage became a fixture of popular fiction, written by black and white, male and female authors alike. Charles W. Chesnutt, James Weldon Johnson, and Nella Larsen wrote about it, as did William Dean Howells and Kate Chopin. “Imitation of Life,” the 1933 novel by Fannie Hurst, was twice made into a movie (in 1934, by John M. Stahl, and in 1959, by Douglas Sirk). These stories repeat some version of a generic arc: the “tragic mulatto,” often a woman, chooses to leave home and pass for white; in time, anguished by the betrayal of her black identity, she returns to her family, only to be met with a harsh fate—sometimes death…

Read the entire article here.

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The Vanishing Half, A Novel

Posted in Books, Louisiana, Media Archive, Novels, Passing, United States, Women on 2020-06-14 00:55Z by Steven

The Vanishing Half, A Novel

Riverhead Books (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
2020-06-02
352 Pages
6 x 9
Hardcover ISBN: 9780525536291
Paperback ISBN: 9780593286104
Ebook ISBN: 9780525536970

Brit Bennett

From The New York Times-bestselling author of The Mothers, a stunning new novel about twin sisters, inseparable as children, who ultimately choose to live in two very different worlds, one black and one white.

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. Many 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 passing. Looking 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.

As with her New York Times-bestselling debut The Mothers, Brit Bennett offers an engrossing page-turner about family and relationships that is immersive and provocative, compassionate and wise.

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