The Daring Bestsellers of Brit Bennett

Her blockbuster novels started with a secret.

May 2023

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Photo: Bill Wadman

To many of her dormmates at Ujamaa House in 2008, Brit Bennett was a quiet, self-possessed first-year student who was always up early, working on a mystery project. 

“They were like, ‘Oh, she’s always in her room doing something,’” Bennett, ’12, says. “I was writing. But I didn’t really show it to anyone.” 

“It” was the earliest draft of a novel. Eight years later, The Mothers made its debut, becoming a New York Times bestseller.

But in those early days, with Bennett typing away on her MacBook at dawn, the manuscript felt like her secret. Her parents wanted her to be a lawyer, so she was charting a path to law school. Stanford and Palo Alto were the nexus of the tech boom, and nearly all her friends wanted to be engineers or doctors. 

“Everyone was working on an app,” she recalls. “And a novel is kind of the opposite of an app.” 

How Bennett, 32, chose to embrace her passion and her identity as a writer is a story that begins at Stanford and leads her to a career not only as a bestselling novelist, but also as an incisive cultural commentator and, most recently, a screenwriter and producer of forthcoming television and film adaptations of her novels. 

Not coincidentally, choice and identity stand out as key themes in both The Mothers and Bennett’s wildly successful 2020 novel, The Vanishing Half. “I’m interested in how some people are denied the agency of making their own choices,” she says. Bennett’s stories explore what happens when historically marginalized people, particularly Black women, lose, fight for, and reclaim their autonomy. 

The Mothers, set in her hometown of Oceanside, Calif., depicts a Black teenager who becomes pregnant before she heads to college across the country, hides her dilemma and decision from everyone she’s close to, and then grapples with the ripple effects and long-lasting consequences when she returns home as an adult. The Vanishing Half is set in fictional Mallard, La., a town of light-skinned Black people who, generation after generation, marry with the intention of creating paler progeny. The story centers on Desiree and Stella Vignes, twin sisters who leave Mallard together but whose paths diverge: One leans into her identity as a Black woman, while the other chooses to live as white and disappears into a life dependent on her concealing the truth. 

‘They worked so hard to send me to Stanford, and I’m going to sit here and write a book?’

The inspiration for Bennett’s story lines came, in part, from her parents. Her mother, who worked as a fingerprint expert for law enforcement, grew up in Louisiana as the daughter of sharecroppers and told her daughter about real-life towns like Mallard. Bennett’s father, a deputy district attorney and city attorney, grew up in South Central Los Angeles.  

“My parents both came from these really impoverished backgrounds, and both worked really hard to achieve their college degrees,” Bennett says. “I grew up in a very middle-class life and felt pressure not to set the family back.

“They wanted me to go to law school because they wanted me to have a career that was a lot more secure,” she says. “They worked so hard to send me to Stanford, and I’m going to sit here and write a book?” 

‘Permission to Be Yourself’

By sophomore year, Bennett was starting to feel “slightly stressed” about the disparity between her parents’ wishes and the tug of her novel-in-the-making.

She made an appointment for an academic advising session with Jan Barker Alexander, then director of the Black Community Services Center, associate dean of students, and resident fellow at Ujamaa. Barker Alexander recognized Bennett’s name on her calendar. 

“Brit had a quiet confidence,” says Barker Alexander, who retired from Stanford as assistant vice provost for inclusion and community in 2022. “She was introverted but social. She had something to say.” 

Bennett sat in Barker Alexander’s office, a little nervous, and began a rehearsed rundown of her classes, her LSAT study plans, and her law school aspirations. 

“Is this what you want to do or what your parents want you to do?” Barker Alexander asked.

A long pause followed. Bennett’s bind was a familiar one to first- and second-generation students of color as well as to immigrants, says Barker Alexander, now executive associate vice president of diversity and inclusion at Louisiana State University. 

“Doctor, engineer, lawyer, business mogul,” Barker Alexander rattled off, like a mantra. “That’s what they told you, right?” Bennett nodded. 

“Your family and educational structures have told you that your choice of career is a ‘make it or break it’ proposition. It’s between success and poverty,” Barker Alexander said. “I’m telling you it’s your choice. What do you want to be?”

“I want to be a writer,” Bennett finally answered. 

That was the first time Bennett had said those words out loud. “It was a very transformational moment for me,” she says. “Jan was one of those people who gave you permission to be yourself.” 

As Barker Alexander began to list the classes in English and creative writing she could take and the faculty she could seek out, Bennett was surprised at the relief that washed over her. “I had been afraid to admit it, because doing so felt like I was squandering my parents’ sacrifices. But at the end of the day, I knew writing was the only thing I wanted to do.” 

A Sense of Place 

As an English major, Bennett often sought out Stegner fellows and Jones lecturers for classes or manuscript consultations. Stegner fellows, who spend two years at Stanford working among their peers and faculty to advance their writing, often offer tutorials and teach independent studies to under-graduates. Some then spend additional time on campus as Jones lecturers, teaching and continuing to work on their manuscripts.  

Justin St. Germain was a Jones lecturer teaching an introductory fiction class when he first read Bennett’s writing. He recognized her talent right away, he says, and he encouraged her to apply to MFA programs. Bennett set her sights on the University of Michigan, which granted its students a tuition waiver, an annual stipend, and additional summer funding.  

“I wrote in the letter of recommendation that she was the best young writer I’ve ever seen,” says St. Germain, now an assistant professor at Oregon State University. “I’ve been teaching for almost 20 years now, and that’s still true. She was a fiction prodigy.” 

Bennett says she had gravitated toward Stanford because, at 18, she wasn’t ready to move out of California. “But it was far enough away where my parents couldn’t just show up on a weekend to visit,” she says. Michigan, with its snowy weather and Midwestern vibe, was a shock to Bennett’s system. But the distance from California helped her see that the novel she was working on was about place. Oceanside came alive in her prose once she was far away from it, surrounded by people who found the town’s climate, location, and racial diversity—due in part to its proximity to Camp Pendleton—remarkable. 

“That time at Michigan was really important to me. I had felt isolated working on the book by myself, showing it to a professor once in a while,” she says. “And now I was surrounded by writers and had friends who were writers. I was workshopping the novel and writing other things.”  

In 2014, Bennett published an essay on Jezebel.com titled “I Don’t Know What to Do with Good White People,” which she wrote after juries declined to indict the police officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner. In the essay, Bennett expresses her conflicted feelings about well-intentioned white people’s responses to the non-indictment and to the Black Lives Matter movement.  

“Over the past two weeks, I have fluctuated between anger and grief. I feel surrounded by Black death,” Bennett wrote. “What a privilege, to concern yourself with seeming good while the rest of us want to seem worthy of life.”

The Jezebel essay garnered more than a million hits in three days and caught the attention of literary agent Julia Kardon, who reached out to Bennett. As Bennett was finishing her program at Michigan, Kardon began shopping The Mothers to publishers. 

One day, while Bennett’s friend and former dormmate Ashley Buckner, ’12, was visiting her in Ann Arbor, the two spent time at the Motown Museum in Detroit. As they sat down to lunch on an outdoor patio, Bennett told her, “I have this thing going down, and I might have to step away for a phone call.” 

The phone call came, and “this thing” was that Riverhead Books had acquired The Mothers, which would debut in fall 2016 with a 108,000-copy initial printing. Buckner remembers watching Bennett pacing across the lawn, looking happy and shocked. 

“Brit isn’t one to necessarily show enthusiasm by jumping up and down,” Buckner says. “She always approaches everything in a down-to-earth way, like this could happen to anyone.” 

‘A 352-Page Cultural Phenomenon’

Now living in Brooklyn, Bennett is coming off a whirlwind few years as a writer. The Mothers was followed four years later by The Vanishing Half, which became an instant New York Times bestseller. 

In many ways, The Vanishing Half was the book of summer 2020, freeing readers’ attention from lockdown and sweeping them into its multigenerational narratives. It also provoked new discussions about race, white privilege, and identity during the racial reckoning that arose after the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. 

The Vanishing Half was longlisted for a National Book Award, cited by former president Barack Obama as one of his favorite books of 2020, and named a best book of the year by NPR, Vanity Fair, and People, among others. The Wall Street Journal called it “a 352-page cultural phenomenon.” 

Describing the novel for the entry on Bennett in Time magazine’s “The Next 100 Most Influential People” in 2021, author Tayari Jones compares the American racial-passing narrative to an old jazz standard and Bennett to an artist who can “revoice the classics.” 

“Bennett is informed and inspired by the intensities and complexities of our present moment,” Jones wrote. “If race is a construct, what about gender? What are the limits of self-definition? How can one delineate its wages and costs?”

Other than the central narrative, the subplot that captured the attention of Jones and other literary scholars was that of Reese, a transgender white man with whom Desiree’s daughter, Jude, falls in love. “I knew that this was a story about race and identity,” Bennett says, “but I also wanted to think about gender and other forms of identity, like class and other categories that characters are moving between and among.”

Passing narratives come out of periods of flux and movement, like the Great Migration, says Danielle Evans, an associate professor of writing at Johns Hopkins University and the author of two short story collections. She and Bennett share a publisher and an editor. “I loved the way the book framed the question of passing,” says Evans, who teaches The Vanishing Half  to undergraduates. “It adapted the trope and did something new with it. It’s one of the smartest treatments of the subject I’ve ever seen.” 

Claudie American Girl doll with Meet Claudie bookPhoto: American Girl

With publication came a bigger platform and a range of opportunities outside novel writing. Bennett’s already robust body of essays and commentaries in outlets like the New York Times and Vogue grew, as did her social media profile. In 2016, Bennett tweeted in jest about how much she’d like to write an American Girl doll’s story. She had been a big fan of Addy Walker, the first Black American Girl doll, who escapes slavery with her mother during the Civil War. 

‘It’s been amazing to see how much this character means to the young readers.’

In September 2020, after American Girl announced its plans for a 1990s-era doll, Bennett tweeted, “Give us a black American Girl doll set in the 90s and please let me write it.” American Girl tweeted back that they were “fangirling” Bennett, complete with heart-eyed emojis. Bennett ended up co-creating—and writing a book for—American Girl’s Claudie Wells, who grows up in New York City in the 1920s, during the Harlem Renaissance, and who debuted last August. 

“Writing for young readers was a lot more challenging than I expected. I had to rethink my impulses about how I tell stories and strip my own style to its most essential form,” Bennett says. “But it’s been amazing to see how much this character means to the young readers.”

Films and the Future

The success of Bennett’s novels piqued the interest of production companies. The Mothers was picked up by Simpson Street, with Warner Brothers, for a film adaptation; Bennett wrote the screenplay. After The Vanishing Half  was released, HBO acquired the rights in a bidding war. Issa Rae, ’07, and Bennett are among the executive producers of what will be a series. 

The film version of The Mothers is in “Hollywood limbo,” Bennett says, and The Vanishing Half  is in development. Bennett says she’s interested in how the showrunners deal with the challenge of casting the twin sisters. “It matters very precisely what people look like, for the sake of the story,” she says. “I’m excited to see if they might be young actors who haven’t been discovered yet.” 

The on-screen retelling of these two stories will occur during a time when the issues they spotlight—racism, abortion, transgender health care, and others—are at the heart of major U.S. policy battles. 

“I couldn’t have foreseen that when I was writing,” Bennett says. “I was really writing into the past, and thinking about how Reese might have encountered barriers to health care in the 1980s, or asking myself if a teenager seeking an abortion in Southern California would encounter protesters.”

All those story lines—and the contemporary legislative battles that they echo—are about people “being denied agency over their own bodies,” says Bennett. 

“I didn’t think I was writing a period piece when I wrote either of these books,” she says. “It is like capturing a bygone era in a strange way.”

Bennett is “a few drafts deep” into her third novel, which focuses on R&B music and musicians. “It’s been fun to write about something I love,” she says. 

Like many writers, she’s reluctant to reveal too much. She does say that although she’s writing about singers, she can’t sing. “I’m writing about something I simply love as a fan and could never do myself,” she says. “I don’t think I would have fun writing about a writer—I’ve never wanted to do that.” She only—and only ever—wanted to become one.

Angie Chuang, ’95, MA ’96, is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. Email her at stanford.magazine@stanford.edu.

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