A Word on Words | NPT

S5 E16 | FULL EPISODE

The Vanishing Half | Brit Bennett | A Word on Words | NPT

"Binaries are boring. 'Is this character good or are they bad?' or 'Was this choice right or was it wrong?' — those are uninteresting questions, because they’re simple questions, and that’s not the ways in which any of us move through the world." Brit Bennett talks to NPT host Mary Laura Philpott about THE VANISHING HALF.

AIRED: July 29, 2020 | 0:03:11
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TRANSCRIPT

(typewriter clicks)

(typewriter dings)

- [Bennett] Hi, this is Brit Bennett,

and this is "The Vanishing Half".

"The Vanishing Half" is a story about Desiree and Stella,

who are identical twin sisters who grew up

inseparably as children,

but decide to live their lives as adults

on opposite sides of the color line.

- [Philpott] The town where these twins grow up,

Mallard, Louisiana, is this based on a real place?

- [Bennett] It's based on a place

that my mom remembers hearing about

when she was a child in Louisiana.

When my mom told me the story,

I became really interested in it

because not only is it very striking and disturbing,

but just thinking about the idea of not only privileging

light-skin, but like instituting it almost,

or sort of genetically engineering it

within your population.

That was so spooky to kind of think about.

And I think that that was one entry point

into the story that really fascinated me.

(calming music)

- Why do you think you're drawn to that,

that concept of townspeople as a collective voice?

- [Bennett] I'm often just drawn to

these small communities and the ways

in which they have values that are passed on.

And sometimes those values are really good

and sometimes those values are very harmful.

So I like the idea of novels, as stories of community.

The idea that any minor person in the town

could be as interesting as your protagonist,

I think that that's a way that I think about the world

and a way that I like to think about fiction.

(bright music)

- [Philpott] You tend to focus on

the outcomes of decisions without getting into

was this the right thing or not the right thing?

And I'm wondering what makes that a more interesting

kind of story for you to tell as a writer?

- I think in general binaries are boring,

and I think, you know, is this character good

or are they bad or was this choice right or was it wrong?

Those are uninteresting questions just because

they're simple questions, and that's not the ways

in which any of us move through the world.

Our lives are so complex.

So I always am trying to think about that third option

or another way of thinking about the choices

that the character has made.

I think particularly for "The Vanishing Half,"

often stories about passing are often quite moralizing,

and I was not interested in punishing Stella.

I, really what I found most interesting is

what are the implications of this on her life?

Once she's made this choice,

how does that shape her life and also

shape the life of her child,

and sort of this family line as it's moving

in this different direction?

(acoustic music)

- [Philpott] You made these characters not just sisters,

but identical twins.

- I loved the idea of twins as a way to explore identity

in this book, but also thinking

about the complexity of that bond,

because it's both claustrophobically close,

and they are constantly sort of wanting

to pull away from each other.

But at the same time,

they're both afraid to be apart from each other

because they've never had to be on their own.

- [Philpott] Brit, thank you so much for joining us.

- Thanks for having me.

- And thank you for joining us for "A Word on Words".

I'm Mary Laura Philpott.

Keep reading. (typewriter dings)

- [Bennett] I think reading everything,

reading things that are bad or good or interesting or

boring, I think you learn from anything that you read,

even if you hate the book,

you are still learning something from it.

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