In one scene in The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennett’s bestselling novel on the American history of passing, one of the main characters receives a job offer because she is mistakenly taken for a white woman. She accepts both the job and the lie that undergirds it.
And that absurdity, the fiction of race and the reality of racism, Bennett told attendees recently as this year’s guest author at Thayer’s annual Bailey-King Author Series, is a major thread running throughout her second novel.
“We live in a country where you can enter a building as a black woman and leave it as a white woman,” said Bennett.
Held virtually this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent need for physical distancing, “An Evening with Brit Bennett” featured a conversation with the author led by Upper School English Faculty Clarque Brown and former English Faculty Jim King P ‘01, ‘04, ‘06. Discussion topics included race and identity as constructs, the need to reconsider what has been a default white perspective in fiction, and the dynamic created when ideas and places become almost inseparable.
“I wanted to give backstory to the town (Mallard), which almost becomes a character in the novel,” explained Bennett at one point, describing Mallard as “a failed utopia” with its own established hierarchies and assumptions.
A question-and-answer session followed the conversation. Bennett fielded several questions, but her response to a question soliciting writing advice was worth the price of admission (had there been one): “Always start with questions and not answers,” she told the more than 120 participants of the webinar. “It makes your writing so much more expansive and interesting. It’s an exploration and not an explanation.”
Bennett’s April 8 talk served as the capstone of a week of BKAS activities which included students from OMEGA, Isokan, Spectrum, and the Creative Writing Club. On April 6, Sidra Eschauzier ‘21 and Zac Gondelman ‘22 led students in a discussion of the novel and some of its more important elements. On April 8, Jovanna Walker ‘21, Marvin Musiime-Kamali ‘22, and Oliver Vonnegut ‘21 joined Eschauzier in leading a meeting and discussion with Bennett herself.
“It was exciting to see these students lead meaningful discussions with students and faculty on (April 6) and ask thought-provoking questions of Brit on (April 8)” said Benelli Writing Center Director and US History Faculty Karen Jersild, who also serves as BKAS director. “They guided their peers and adults toward more nuanced understandings of identity, race, and gender.”
The Vanishing Half is being adapted by HBO into a limited series.
Established in 2016 through the generous support of Todd Slawsby ‘88 and his wife Amelia, the Bailey-King Author Series honors longtime English faculty members Betty Bailey ‘63 and Jim King P ‘01, ‘04, ‘06 as it aims to inspire future writers.
Brit Bennett was this year’s visiting author for the fifth annual Bailey-King Author Series. The Vanishing Half, her second novel, is being adapted by HBO into a limited series.