THere is a rule Brit Bennett adhered to when writing her novel Half gone. It’s a sprawling blockbuster that opens in a small town in Louisiana in 1954 and runs almost to the present day. It takes twins, Desiree and Stella, and through their differing fortunes, tells a story of race and class in America, in which the story seems much closer than you might think. Bennett’s rule of composition was this: In a tale steeped in sadness and disappointment, whenever the writing began to drag on like homework, it paused, only to resume when it had regained joy. “Just write down the parts that interest you,” she thought, “and figure out later how you’re going to tie them together.”
The smart premise of Half gone helped propel it to the top of bestseller lists in the United States, where it appeared as one of the New York Times’ best books of 2020 and was shortlisted for the National Book Award. Twins born and raised in the fictional town of Mallard, Desiree and Stella, make a surprising decision after running away as a teenager. The mallard, which “had always been more of an idea than a place,” Bennett writes, is populated exclusively by fair-skinned African Americans, “blond and blond and red, darker not darker than a Greek. “. After arriving in New Orleans, a twin decides to “pass” as white; the other remains black. Through this device, Bennett is able to explore not only the “shadowing” and arbitrary demarcations between racial groups, but also other social boundaries. “A lot of death stories talk about these multiple forms of death,” she says. When Stella marries a rich white man, she is faced with the task of not only making it white (“there was nothing to be white but daring,” Bennett writes), but also making wealth. .
Half gone is Bennett’s second novel. His first, The mothers, in which she told the story of a 17-year-old girl recovering from the grief of her mother’s suicide, was successfully published in 2016. But it is an essay written by Bennett to Jezebel two years earlier who first made it public. Warning. Under the headline “I don’t know what to do with the good whites”, the 24-year-old described her reaction to what she called the “self-glorification” of the “good whites”, self-flagellating in the day after the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager shot dead by a police officer exonerated by a grand jury. She told the story of her father, a lawyer, who when he was young was arrested by the LAPD, handcuffed and thrown on the sidewalk and had guns pointed at his head. They had mistaken him for someone else. “Sorry, mate,” they said, dusting him off after realizing their mistake. They had just made a mistake; it was fiction told and maintained and then interrogated by Bennett. As Bennett’s mother, who came from a tenant farmer family in rural Louisiana, said, “It was much easier in the rural south. White people let you know right away where you stand.
Family stories shed light on the theme of intergenerational trauma going through Half gone. At the beginning of the novel, the twins see their father being dragged out of the house, then found dead after a lynching. When the twins grow up and have daughters of their own – Kennedy, wealthy and white, living in an affluent neighborhood of Los Angeles; Jude, stuck in Mallard, where she is considered “too black” for the city – neither of them mentions this terrible story of violence to their child. But the children feel it nonetheless.
“Kennedy has no idea what happened,” Bennett says. “She does not understand why her mother is so distant from her, or why she is so nervous; does not understand these very basic things because she has no information about the past. And yet she herself is that person always restless, always running. One of the pressing ideas [of the novel] What does it mean to inherit so many from our parents? Bennett considers herself lucky: “Both of my parents are still living and I have a great relationship with them – we talk a lot. But there is, I’m sure, so much about their life that they haven’t told me, won’t tell me. Sometimes they tell me a painful memory that comes out of nowhere, and you think, ‘Oh, you suddenly mean more to me.’
The question of trauma and how it is communicated across generations was at the heart of Bennett’s motivation for writing the novel, which was published while Donald Trump was still in office. Much has been written in the United States about black Americans “passing” for white, but these stories tend to be placed earlier than Bennett’s novel, beyond living memory where they are more easily dismissed as not. relevant today. That was not Bennett’s goal. “My mother went to separate schools. For me, there is no way to eliminate this kind of problem. The idea that it’s ancient history – it never seemed old to me. I am a generation. This is something I’ve always been aware of and it’s one of the reasons I wanted to write a story about the passage that was a bit more contemporary than the traditional stories, which usually date from the beginning of the century. 20th century. I wanted a story that takes you to the late ’80s and’ 90s, thinking that there hasn’t been a lot of time that has passed at all.
There was a very good reason for nailing the book to this timeline. “I was aware that I was writing a book in the past at this time of really intense national nostalgia,” she says, “and that was something I was very suspicious of. The nostalgia for Make America Great Again was like that of television: people are nostalgic for Leave it to the beaver, not at a time that has never really existed. They wanted to go back to that childhood they saw on TV – that gross nostalgia. It made me realize that I wanted to write about the past in a way that felt honest and real to me. This period to which Trump and his constituents yearned, she said, was “this fictionalized and false view of the past.”
Bennett, who studied English at Stanford before earning a master’s degree at the University of Michigan, grew up in Oceanside, California, where both his parents worked in law. They were both also just a generation out of poverty. Bennett is as interested in class as is race. In Half gone, Stella’s coverage as a rich white woman is almost blown away when she displays the wrong kind of racism, attacking a new black family in the neighborhood with a vigor her white neighbors consider unseemly. “I loved the idea that she always performs poorly in these categories and always does her best; but even her husband thinks the way she behaves towards blacks is clingy. It’s not that he supports civil rights. That’s it [her version of racism] is trash. ”
While Stella struggles to pass herself off as a white housewife in California, her twin sister, Desiree, works as a fingerprint analyst in Washington DC, a job Bennett’s mother held. He offers an almost too perfect route in discussions of immutable identity, although it took some time for Bennett to realize the gift his mother gave him. “These were just stories she told me,” she said. “She arrived in Washington a week before Dr. King’s assassination, and coming from a small town, she found herself in the middle of this really intense time, working for the FBI. His mother entertained Bennett with stories about “how severed fingers would happen to his fingerprint, and I always thought that was fascinating, and I wanted to write about it at one point.” And when I started writing about it in this book, I was like, ‘OK, thematically, this is very relevant.’ “
Although their lives take such different paths, none of Bennett’s heroines transcend the misfortune of her origins in this cruel little town. But their children, in different ways, claim a future for themselves that no woman could have foreseen or believed possible. This, Bennett said, was the wave of joy she felt prompting her to expand the story away from Mallard. Originally, this was not going to be a multigenerational saga; but the prospect of spending more time in this town depressed Bennett as much as his characters, especially Jude, the too dark girl the whole town hated. “It was wrong for the minds of these characters to go, here are 100 pages of this person’s suffering. I think it would have been horrible to read. For me, what gets interesting about this character is how does she try to move on? Showing her that she was pummeled over and over in this town, by these awful people, was a miserable thing for me to write emotionally and psychologically. And then I thought, ‘What if I take it just to get out of this place?’ ”
Jude escapes Mallard on a bus to Los Angeles, and the reader’s heart flies with her. It’s a gesture of hope, but of course her childhood demons run away with her. Does Bennett see the United States, following Trump, as a country indeed still reeling from the recent past? “I feel like we’ve been in a time of deep trauma for the past four years,” she says, “that we haven’t been able to collectively deal with. The strange thing with Trump is the fact that he’s gone; a complete disappearance of his departure from Twitter. His absence, she said, was in the first place almost as striking as his previous omnipresence. “This is a person who colonized our brains for years. I don’t think there has been a day in the past four years that we haven’t constantly reacted, commented, or read the things he said and did, or weren’t viscerally affected by his actions and whims, moods and emotions. And suddenly they just left? It sounds very surreal.
Likewise, she said, the volume of news in recent months. “Every now and then I talk to friends and I’m like, remember when there was a failed coup?” As Bennett’s novel suggests, this will all have to be resolved at some point. And for pragmatic political reasons, she said, she would be happier if Trump were more visible. “I want my eyes on him!” Because there is a very real fear that this man will reappear in four years – Trumpism has gone nowhere. And yet, there are days, she says, when the deafening silence of this neighborhood is almost akin to peace, or at least the illusion of a brief break with history. “I saw an article today: ‘Where’s Trump? Bennett laughs. “And part of me was like, ‘Do we need to know?’ “