Single tickets for Brit Bennett’s event on February 17th are now available! Click here for more information.
On February 17, Literary Arts will host Brit Bennett as the third event of our 2021-22 season of Portland Arts & Lectures.
Brit Bennett is the author of New York Times bestselling novels The Mothers and The Vanishing Half. A story of once-inseparable twins now living radically different lives, Time Magazine praised The Vanishing Half as “an eloquent new entry to literature on that most vital of subjects, identity.” Bennett is a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree and in 2021, she was chosen as one of Time’s Next 100 Influential People.
The Vanishing Half is primarily set fifty years in the past, but has been described as “timely” and necessary reading for a modern audience.
Listen to Bennett explain why those labels surprised her, and what she hopes readers might take from the book, in this interview with All Things Considered on NPR.
Want to read like Brit Bennett?
In this article for Elle, Bennett shares some of her favorite books, including those that have shaped her worldview, make her laugh out loud, and inspire her as a writer.
How do I learn to write without being self conscious?
Bennett tackles this question, and talks more in-depth about her writing practice, in this interview for Shondaland.
In addition to writing novels, Bennett is a celebrated essayist and social commentator.
Her 2014 essay “I Don’t Know What to Do With White People” was shared over one million times. It was released on Jezebel.com following the social justice protests in Ferguson, Missouri.
Interested in more? Below is a bio of Brit Bennett’s life and writing career thus far.
Brit Bennett was born and raised in the Southern California town of Oceanside, where both of her parents worked in law. Her mother was born in rural Louisiana, and her father grew up in Los Angeles. Influenced by stories from her parents’ childhood and upbringings, Bennett’s writing is interested in class, race, and the intersections between.
Bennett was drawn to writing from a young age, and began developing the ideas for her future novels while still in high school. She studied English at Stanford, where she won the Bocock/Guerard and Robert M. Golden Thesis prizes for her fiction. Bennett went on to earn her MFA in Fiction at the University of Michigan, where she was awarded a Hopwood Award in Graduate Short Fiction as well as the 2014 Hurston/Wright Award in College Writing.
Bennett began work on her debut novel, The Mothers, while at Stanford, and continued to rework it while at University of Michigan. The book was published in 2016, when Bennett was 26 years old. The Mothers is a story about young love, ambition, and a big secret in a small community. It’s set within a close-knit, Black church community in Southern California, not dissimilar to the Oceanside community in which Bennett was raised. Bennett has said, “For The Mothers, I was writing about the place that I came from, Oceanside, which is to be fair, a larger town than it feels, but that to me is what it felt like. It felt small and claustrophobic and very local.”
The Mothers received instant, widespread praise and became a New York Times bestseller. Novelist Yaa Gyasi described the book as, “Wonderful—warm and tender and necessary,” and National Book Award-winning writer Jacqueline Woodson called it, “A stellar novel—moving, thoughtful. Stunning.” Bennett was named a 5 Under 35 honoree by the National Book Foundation and the book was longlisted for the NBCC John Leonard First Novel Prize and the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction.
In 2020, on the eve of her thirtieth birthday, Bennett released her second novel, The Vanishing Half. The story follows the lives of twin sisters, inseparable as children, who ultimately choose to live in two very different worlds, one as a Black woman and one passing as white. The novel is sprawling in scope, opening in a small town in Louisiana in 1954 and moving toward almost the present day. Bennett was inspired in part by stories her mother shared with her about growing up in the South.
Entertainment Weekly described The Vanishing Half as “A story of absolute, universal timelessness — a story of what it means to simply be, to grow up and define oneself and reinvent, to negotiate a place in the world. It’s also a deeply American story, rigorously engaged with a country’s racist past and present, while interrogative of its foundational values, like choice and legacy.”
The Vanishing Half became a #1 New York Times bestseller; was longlisted for the National Book Award; was a 2021 Women’s Prize Finalist and a Good Morning America Book Club pick; and was named a Best Book of 2020 by numerous publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and NPR. Soon after its release, a bidding war erupted over the rights to adapt the novel for television, with HBO eventually securing the rights. Bennett is signed on to executive produce the limited series.
In addition to writing novels, Bennett is a celebrated essayist and social commentator. She says she tries to “approach both mediums with big questions and expanding empathy.” In 2014, Bennett released an essay titled “I Don’t Know What to Do With Good White People” on Jezebel.com following the protests in Ferguson, Missouri; it was shared over a million times. She has written several Op-Eds for The New York Times, and her work has also appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and The Paris Review.
In 2021, Bennett was included in the TIME100 Next list, in which novelist Tayari Jones praised her imaginative writing, noting that “in literature only the most gifted can revoice the classics, rendering them recognizable yet, well, novel.” Bennett currently lives in New York, where she is working on her third novel, which will explore glamour and fame through the lens of singers and music.