Bibliophiles: Brit Bennett on bookstores, book clubs, and reading for beauty

In Brit Bennett’s new novel, “The Vanishing Half,” identical twin sisters run away at 16 to two very different lives and racial identities.
In Brit Bennett’s new novel, “The Vanishing Half,” identical twin sisters run away at 16 to two very different lives and racial identities.Emma Trim

In Brit Bennett’s new novel, “The Vanishing Half,” identical twin sisters run away at 16 to two very different lives and racial identities. That book, like her debut, “The Mothers,” has quickly become a bestseller. Born and raised in Southern California, Bennett earned her MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan and is a National Book Foundation “5 under 35” honoree. She lives in Brooklyn.

BOOKS: When did you last get to go to a bookstore?

BENNETT: It was one of my last fun days in civilization. I went with a friend to see the movie “Portrait of Lady on Fire,” and then we went to the McNally Jackson bookstore that had just opened not far from me. It was completely packed. I was very excited about that prospect of going regularly but I haven’t been back since.


BOOKS: What are you reading currently?

BENNETT: I kind of have a book club with some of my friends. This was a pandemic idea. We read Emily St. John Mandel’s “The Glass Hotel,” which everyone loved. On my own I read “The Memory Police” by Yoko Ogawa. I have no interest in reading any pandemic dystopia books but reading about a different type of dystopian world was fine. I also read a friend of mine’s memoir, Wayetu Moore’s “The Dragons, the Giant, the Women,” which is about her experience surviving the Liberian Civil War, and Anne Enright’s “Actress.” I loved that novel. It’s about complicated mother-daughter relationships.

BOOKS: How would you describe yourself as a reader?

BENNETT: I read a good amount of contemporary fiction. I’m working on a new book that is about music so I’ve also been reading a lot of celebrity biographies. It’s a weird genre to take a deep dive in because most celebrity biographies are not known for their quality. The one I liked the most was about the singer Dusty Springfield, “Dancing With Demons” by Penny Valentine and Vicki Wickham, who knew her.


BOOKS: Who are some of your favorite novelists?

BENNETT: I love Ann Patchett. “Bel Canto” is the book I recommend the most. I love Jesmyn Ward. I love Dorothy Allison’s “Bastard Out of Carolina.” There’s a lot of brutality and beauty in her writing, which work together in a weird way.

BOOKS: What kind of reader were you growing up?

BENNETT: I read pretty widely. My older sister worked at the public library. She would grab things for me and then endlessly renew them. My parents didn’t like us listening to music that was profane but let us read what we wanted, so I read books beyond my age range. I read Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” at a young age. I remember not really understanding it but still being disturbed by it. We had this big bookshelf that was in the hall with a lot of books by Black authors. I remember reading James Baldwin’s “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and Richard Wright’s “Native Son.” That was important because it was not the type of education I got in school.

BOOKS: How do you feel about white readers clamoring to buy books on racism recently?

BENNETT: It’s great if you want to read books by Black authors or about race but it’s not going to fix you. It’s not going to do the work that is required of learning to be critical about identity in a way a lot of white readers have never had to before. White readers have never had to think about being white, and are now scrambling to do so. Turning to books can be helpful but don’t purchase the same 10. There are a lot of books that have been around for a long time that would also be illuminating.


BOOKS: What books would you recommend people read?

BENNETT: I honestly don’t know. As a novelist I hope people are turning to fiction too as a way to think about the world in a more nuanced way. But I hope they don’t expect that fiction will fix them, and that they read these books for their beauty. To read Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” as some kind of manual of how not to be a racist, that’s such a depressing thought to me.

Follow us on Facebook or Twitter @GlobeBiblio. Amy Sutherland, author, most recently, of “Rescuing Penny Jane,‘' can be reached at amysutherland@mac.com.