Brit Bennett knows the benefits of listening to her elders.
She never forgot stories she heard from her mother about Louisiana towns where the locals were focused on people’s skin color. Those stories served as the inspiration for her novel "The Vanishing Half," this year’s Long Island Reads selection. It’s a poignant tale of identical twins who leave their small Southern hometown, populated entirely by light-skinned African Americans. Stella chooses to pass for white; Desiree eventually returns home with her dark-skinned daughter, Jude.
Back home in California after the pandemic ended her stint teaching creative writing at Stony Brook University, Bennett will make a virtual visit to Long Island on April 11 for a virtual talk presented via Crowdcast and hosted by the Plainview-Old Bethpage Library.
Bennett recently spoke with Newsday by phone about the novel’s origins and how the themes of community and identity inform her writing.
How deeply were you interested in exploring the topics of passing and of color prejudice among Blacks?
A lot of the book for me was about transformation. Some people decide to transform by deciding to live their life in a different way, and Stella’s a great example of that. But then there are characters whose arcs felt to me more like acceptance. Jude doesn’t change her skin color or the things she’s bullied about, but she learns to accept herself. For me, the book is pulled between those poles of change and acceptance.
Towards the end of the book, Jude thinks, "People lived in bodies that were largely unknowable." Do you believe that?
One of the things that’s compelling to me about fiction is just the inherent mystery about everybody. The people you are closest to in the world, there’s so much about them you will never know. That is something fascinating about being human to me, and it’s also what drives me to write fiction: wanting to spend time with these characters who can be knowable to me as an author in a way that real people are not!
In your first novel, "The Mothers," as well as this one, you get inside the heads of many different characters. What appeals to you about exploring multiple points of view?
That’s how I’m oriented as a reader. I love the novel as a form that’s about community, about lots of different people in the world. I’m the type of novelist who wants to dive into random side characters: What’s their story? What’s their deal? We all think of ourselves as the main character, but we are all side characters in someone else’s story. I’m always interested in following these random characters, however tangential they might seem, and I love that the novel gives you space to consider briefly that this side character is the main character in her own story.
Both novels portray tightly knit communities? What interests you about that?
Communities can be a source of comfort, safety, and protection, but they can also be oppressive and judgmental. I’m always writing about characters who are on the run from something, running to something different. I’m always thinking about what that new thing affords them and what it doesn’t, about the ways these characters are caught between the poles of feeling comforted by their community and feeling trapped.
How has it been to do all the events for "The Vanishing Half" online?
It’s harder. You feel like you’re putting out energy but you’re not receiving it back, because you’re talking at your computer screen. Part of the joy of publishing a book is being able to talk to readers and meet booksellers and travel; I definitely miss all that. But I can’t say I’m upset by the convenience of being able to talk from my living room and sleep in my own bed. I didn’t know what to expect, being published in the middle of the pandemic, and I’m proud of the ways the literary world has found to connect, to do virtual book groups and festivals and all these things that none of us anticipated a year ago.
WHAT Long Island Reads virtual talk with Brit Bennett, author of "The Vanishing Half"
WHEN 2 p.m. April 11, presented by Plainview-Old Bethpage Library
INFO Free; sign up at longislandreads.wordpress.com
NATIONAL LIBRARY WEEK EVENTS FOR LI READS
April 4-10 is National Library Week and several local libraries have virtual discussions planned on this year's LI Reads pick "The Vanishing Half" by Brit Bennett. Check the library websites to register and receive the Zoom link for the event.
Franklin Square Public Library
WHEN 10:30 a.m. April 6
WHEN 3 p.m. April 6
Lindenhurst Memorial Library
WHEN 2 and 7 p.m., April 7
Brentwood Public Library
WHEN 7 p.m. April 7
John Jermain Memorial Library in Sag Harbor
WHEN 5 p.m. April 8
Hauppauge Public Library
WHEN 7 p.m. April 8