As a child, it seemed as though ‘growing up’ were a linear journey with a stable destination in adulthood; for many, getting older only makes it increasingly less clear whether we’ve arrived at that final destination. Brit Bennett’s second novel takes growth as its central theme, grappling with what it means to change yourself in search of a fixed identity. Centring on identical twins Stella and Desiree Vignes, who come to pursue radically different racial identities, Bennett’s timely The Vanishing Half (2020) asks not only how much we know about others, but how consistently we really know ourselves. Abandoning her family in ‘Mallard’—an unmapped town in the 1950s Jim Crow South—and suppressing her black origins, Stella utterly reimagines her own life. What follows is an elegantly realised Sliding Doors storyline, where the identical twins—one ‘black’, one ‘white’—exemplify the troubled natures of common and individual identity.
Leaving Mallard, Stella Vignes flies the nest, uprooting her life and casting off former ties as she ‘passes’ as white. In fleshing out Stella, Bennett uses the notion of ‘passing’ as a rich symbolic terrain. To pass is to change hands, to exceed a limit, to get through an exam, or to approve. Possessing an affinity for learning and an aptitude for maths, Stella achieves better grades at school than her sister. Her love for maths persists into her new life, providing both a common thread linking her back to the skin she shed in Mallard, and an explanation for the cold rationality of her highly calculated adoption of a white persona. Stella’s deep-seated desire for white privilege is rooted in a childhood trauma: the memory of her father’s lynching at the mercy of a white mob. To pass is the stamp of success, denoting a kind of legitimacy: to be white is to exert control over life, and when Stella becomes a white woman, the black life she ends is her own. But in a touching testament to her family’s sense of abandonment, Stella’s chosen path is also frequently described as ‘passing over’, an ambiguous loss her family never cease to mourn.
By Bennett’s reckoning, the many and various meanings of ‘passing’ are far from confined to racial limits: the sophistication of Bennett’s novel lies in her location of Stella’s alter ego among other renovations of self. Reese, a trans man besotted with Desiree’s daughter, Jude, also works to shake off his former self; Stella observes that ‘youth is the thrill that you could be anyone’. Passing disrupts not only racial labels, but any notion of true identity.
A complexly layered coming-of-age story, The Vanishing Half asks whether we are identical even to ourselves. I think of Maggie Nelson’s recent The Argonauts, in which the ship of Theseus—the thought experiment which queries whether objects survive change—provides the extended metaphor for ageing, pregnancy, and transition. When Stella’s ‘white’ daughter, Kennedy, struggles to understand her racial identity, she insists that ‘Swapping out one brick wouldn’t change a house into a fire station. She was still herself. Nothing had changed.’ But racial classifications in the U.S. are, of course, not bricks but fundamental building blocks.
We might recall Stella, and her love of maths. If Stella is the ‘vanishing half’, we might question: half of what? Are there mathematical terms that could describe how we identify? Numerically speaking, am I one, whole, complete? In Bennett’s lucid prose, identity comes with overlapping parts, self and other intermixed. Barry, a minor character connected to Reese in LA, conceives of his drag alter ego like a lover, thinking about her endlessly and buying her trinkets. Stella and Desiree are each not quite half, not quite whole. As ‘identical’ loses all meaning, identity also falls apart. How can we pin down identity, after all, if we aren’t identical even to ourselves?
Bennett uses her fiction to point to a whole realm of others. What is race, gender, and identity, if not legal, social, and individual fiction? Appropriately, Stella hails from a place which is not quite real; her hometown, Mallard, stages this sense of indeterminate origins and unclear boundaries from the outset, ‘A town that, like any other, was more idea than place.’ In one sense, the town seems to lie off the radar because of its radical initiative for black government. ‘White people couldn’t believe it even existed.’ The town was founded by a former slave, whose own father was once his master, and who sought to carve out a space for people like him. In this, Mallard, ‘named after the ring-necked duck’ presents an agitated community, a place for those victimised by white supremacy: sitting ducks with necks lassoed. There is something similar in Moby Dick, where the Polynesian Queequeg’s homeland is unimaginable to white society because ‘It is not down in any map.’
On the other hand, colourist hierarchies remain very much in effect in Mallard—the mulatto town founder prized light skin, intending that each generation be lighter than the last. This place so unimaginable for its African American self-sufficiency is not beyond the grasp of white nationalism. But Bennett’s Mallard allows us to think on all places as fictions, all societal norms as made-up. Neither black nor white, Stella’s origin can’t quite be mapped because it goes against America’s dominant story of race. Racial identity, Bennett seems to say, is a fabrication, and an important one at that.
The key strength of Bennett’s writing is its rich use of colour imagery, through which the complexities of identity are carefully rendered. Stella’s whiteness becomes shorthand for all kinds of erasures; wiping the slate clean and capitalising on the invisibility of whiteness as a racial category. African American characters find they can best express themselves during a blackout, away, perhaps, from the imposition of whiteness. Photography, art, and theatre dominate large portions of the novel, signposting the performance of identity. Stella’s first foray into the world of racial passing comes when she visits the local gallery, flouting segregationist restrictions. There, she studies the ‘fuzzy Impressionists’, those paintings so deceptive in their colouring. From afar, the daubs blurs into recognisable forms; up close they separate into many and varied pigments. Their colouring, like Stella’s, depends on who is looking, from what angle, and how closely they scrutinise the detail. The only dark child in her class, Jude thinks of herself as a black speck on a photograph: an error. Later, Reese obsessively photographs dying things, preserving their state of flux, suspending them in transition. Bennett conjures up characters who construct themselves, who endlessly and artfully reimagine who they are.
Deeply personal and loosely metaphysical questions weave through Bennett’s effortlessly rich prose. Tender and thought-provoking, The Vanishing Half offers a reflection on whether a person can choose who they are. In a world where Stella and Desiree represent black and white, Bennett embraces the grey area of personal, racial, and gendered identity.