I was fortunate to begin 2022 with the wonderful The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. This is a beautiful multi-generational drama focusing on race, family, and identity. Bennett is a skilled storyteller. I was fully immersed in her prose and found myself absorbed in the story. This is one of those rare stories that has universal appeal.
The story centers on the Vignes twins Stella and Desiree. The twins are from Mallard, Louisiana a town where many light-skinned Black people reside. The twins have a traumatic childhood after seeing their father get horrifically lynched by White men. At the age of 16 the two sisters run away from their mother’s home to start new lives in New Orleans. However, Stella soon makes a dangerous and shocking decision to leave her sister to go live as a White woman. The book is written from multiple perspectives and takes place from the 1940s to the 1990s. The daughters of the twins are also featured main characters.
While The Vanishing Half is arguably a slow burn the writing is so good that it reads quickly. The major characters are well developed. No perspectives felt weaker than the others. I really enjoyed how the story was told out of order. In the end a complete story of the family was revealed. There is a character that suffers from Alzheimer’s. I found these scenes to be well written, but tough to read as they reminded me of my grandma who suffered from the same disease.
The major theme of the novel is choosing one’s identity. Desiree and Stella who are physically identical, decide to live under different racial identities. Desiree’s trans boyfriend, Reese, struggles feeling comfort with his body that opposes his male identity. The difference is Reese’s gender expression is authentic while Stella’s racial expression is based on a lie. I was deeply saddened that Stella had to deny her Blackness and family in exchange for the privilege and security of life as a White woman. The vastly differing experiences of Desiree and Stella show that racial identity is more than just the color of one’s skin. Unfortunately, one’s presenting racial identity results in vastly differing levels of privilege and wealth in the United States.
The Vanishing Half is worthy of becoming a modern classic. Between the gorgeous writing and complex themes of family, identity, and race there are a lot of discussions to be had surrounding the book. And above all Brit Bennett is a skilled storyteller.
The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris is a workplace thriller that centers on challenges Black women face in the office. The story’s protagonist works in a major publishing house as an assistant editor, the same job Zakiya had before quitting to write this novel. Thus, the novel offers commentary on the publishing industry. I had the pleasure of seeing Zakiya speak about her bestselling novel at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, CT, one town over from where she grew up. While I enjoyed the majority of The Other Black Girl, I feel like Zakiya tried combining too many genres in one novel, resulting in a confusing ending.
Nella is the only Black assistant editor at Wagner Publishing. She is thrilled when a new Black female employee is hired. Nella hopes this new employee, Hazel, will be a much-needed friend that she can confide in at the predominantly white office. However, after Hazel takes some questionable actions, Nella becomes unsure whether Hazel is an ally or a rival. When Nella finds a sinister note telling her to leave her job at Wagner, she questions whether Hazel might be responsible. The story transitions into a thriller with multiple twists and secrets, originating back decades at Wagner. I wish that Zakiya had simplified the conspiracy elements, as they were confusing and not well explained. She either needed more pages or an additional book to explore these ideas. Though I will say I loved the mechanism of the major twist!
The novel does an excellent job of featuring examples of microaggressions that Black employees face in a white dominated office. Additionally, there is commentary on the publishing industry. The wealthy, white heads of publishing are gate keepers that determine what books and types of characters will be sold to consumers. This book helped me learn how much power editors have with altering author’s manuscripts and deciding which books will become mainstream. Not only are more writers of color needed, but we need editors of color too!
Zakiya’s event at Southern Connecticut State University was a fantastic event. In a cute moment her father, who is a journalism professor at the university, introduced her to the audience. Zakiya did a reading from the novel and then answered questions from the moderator and audience about the story and the writing process. In one interesting moment Zakiya mentioned how typically Black writers feel pressure or are encouraged to only write two types of Black characters. Either flawless characters that other Black readers will be proud of or Black characters that endure horrible hardships. Zakiya hopes that there will be more space in the future for loveable yet flawed Black characters. She cited Raven Leilani’s fantastic Luster as a recent novel with a complex, likeable Black female protagonist. One sweet moment was when Zakiya mentioned her first Black teacher who taught what has become one of her favorite books, Kindred by Octavia Butler (which has been sitting in my TBR for far too long).
The Other Black Girl, while not perfectly plotted, is an important read with great characters. This book will spark many important conversations about BIPOC experiences in the workplace and the flaws in the publishing system. I am looking forward to the Hulu adaptation being produced by Zakiya and Rashida Jones!