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When I opened up Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half for the first time, I couldn’t stop thinking about Toni Morrison.
Specifically, I couldn’t stop thinking about the opening of Beloved (“124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.”), and how even though it will be hundreds of pages before the ghost of Beloved shows up, everything in that opening paragraph tells the reader that the book takes place in a grim and vengeful fairy tale world.
The Vanishing Half doesn’t have any full-fledged supernatural elements. But like Beloved, it takes place in a world that is not quite straightforwardly real: a world in which every character is the most whatever they are that the world has ever seen; a world in which fates are intertangled in ways that cannot be fought; a world in which the narrator’s voice is elevated rather than conversational, and has the cadence of a storyteller sitting by a fire. It opens with Lou LeBon telling his waiting customers the story of the Vignes twins — complete with pauses at the dramatic points, as Lou is “a bit of a showman” — and that sense of being verbally told a story continues all the way through the novel. The Vanishing Half takes place within the world of folklore, of oral tradition.
As part of the Vox Book Club’s month-long discussion of The Vanishing Half, I wanted to find out more about how this narrative technique works. So I called up Judylyn Ryan, a professor of African American literature at Ohio Wesleyan University, and I asked her to tell me all about the place of the oral tradition within the Black literary canon. Together, we talked through the way oral traditions work as call and response stories, what that means for us as readers, and how Toni Morrison changed the way America reads. Our full conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, is below.
So, when I read The Vanishing Half, I think, “This is not a book that’s trying to be a realist novel.” It’s a book where everyone is defined by their epithets — the two beautiful sisters, the darkest girl, the lightest girl — and their narrative trajectories are intertwined in ways that feel fated. It reads in many ways like a fairy tale or a folk story. And there’s a similar effect in Bennett’s first book The Mothers, which is narrated by a Greek chorus of church ladies. What can you tell me about how African American novels in the past have tended to work with oral traditions?
The oral traditions are foundational.
Let me start with a good landmark for most readers: Toni Morrison. In the mid-’80s, she wrote an essay titled “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation” that laid out why and how the oral tradition is important to her and to any number of other Black writers. She says in that essay that her goal is “to have at my disposal only the letters of the alphabet and some punctuation. I have to provide the places and spaces so that the reader can participate.”
This notion of the reader as not just participant, which is in itself progressive, but the more revolutionary concept of the reader as a co-creator of the text, is a principle that is borrowed from the oral tradition. And it becomes an informing philosophy for many African American writers.
If you think about it in terms of the larger expanse of the novel as a genre, the traditional positioning of the reader has been as an observer, right? The writer buries or hides certain meanings in the text, and the task of the reader is to find those meanings and then say, “I’ve done a good job! I’ve found all of the buried treasures!” That’s not the viewpoint they [Morrison and others writing in her tradition] bring to the work of literary artistry. They see it as the reader is a co-creator of the text, much in the tradition of call and response.
It’s an essential dynamic of the oral tradition that the listener will eventually become the caller in the next generation. What you have in call and response is a structure, a performance dynamic, that anticipates and requires that the listener provide a response that may expand, challenge, revise, clarify, transform, whatever, the previous utterance. And they themselves eventually become the new caller.
If you take that principle and apply it to literature, then you have this vision of the reader as the future caller, the co-creator of the meanings possible from the text. The finished novel is itself just a starting point. It’s incomplete. It is a work waiting to be completed by the reader’s engagement.
You have a number of literary techniques that can be used to make that participation possible within the work. But that’s what Morrison says in this mid-’80s essay: that her goal is to take this sensibility, this opportunity that attends the oral tradition, and to make it available in literature.
One of the more prominent authors to work with this tradition recently was Marlon James, who wrote Black Leopard Red Wolf. He is very committed to the idea that pulling from an oral tradition is part of a rejection of the idea of a coherent, stable reality. He said something like, “The African folktale is not your refuge from skepticism.” Is that sense of multiple realities and instability traditionally part of how this technique is understood?
Multiple possibilities, I would say. And once you say possibilities you imply freedoms, but also responsibilities.
To be in a community means to have the responsibility of expanding the growth and future survival of that community. Which requires creative commitment, creative competencies. And those competencies have to be instilled. They have to be taught, they have to be developed, and you have to make room to practice those competencies. The notion is that artistic expressions in their variety — not just the novel but also the poetry, the sermon, the dance, and so forth — must have this as a primary commitment: authorizing the creative competency of all participants. Not just the main performer.
A lot of the canonical African American literature that makes it onto school syllabi, and I’m thinking of books by Richard Wright especially here, exists in a space more of social realism. What does the conversation between these two literary projects look like?
Once you talk about Richard Wright, you bring us back to a moment before what I see as the healing of a bifurcation in the artistic tradition. For some obvious reasons, oral traditions were not given the kinds of respect, the kinds of valuation by the mainstream literary establishment [that the realist novel was]. So you see a break in the tradition between the writers who were very comfortable, were very confident of the value of those aesthetics — people like Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes — and people who on the other hand had a much different orientation. Richard Wright was the most renowned, the most credentialed, the most authoritative of those writers.
That bifurcation has now healed itself with the career and the achievements of Toni Morrison. As a matter of fact, I think that American readers would not accept, or would not have accepted as wholeheartedly, the kind of narrative choices that you see in Bennett’s work without Morrison’s career.
Is there anything else that you think is really essential to this tradition that you think people should know about?
I think Bennett is doing something really interesting in the way in which she builds her discursive authority. I hesitate to use some of the terms we scholars use, because I know everyday readers of literature don’t want to be bothered about it, but I think it’s helpful here!
What she uses is what I would call an ideal narrative audience. That becomes important for Black writers in particular, because of the history of discursive authority attaching itself most frequently to writers who are white and male. So Black women writers end up in an impoverished position in that economy and having to use different techniques to accrue authority. One of those techniques is the positioning within the text of an ideal narrative audience: an audience that accepts the writer’s intellectual judgment, the writer’s aesthetic value, the writer’s credibility.
It’s interesting, the idea of the writer creating or positioning this ideal narrative audience at the same that they’re asking the audience to help co-create the text. It’s like each participant is creating the next.
It might seem at first contradictory, but really it’s not. What the ideal narrative audience does is, it clears ideological space. It relocates both the reader and writer beyond the racialized positionings assigned by society. Because according to those positionings, a Black woman’s voice carries very little authority. But in the experience of Black women, there are spaces where a Black woman’s authority is paramount. So for the artist to bring those spaces within the text, is for the artist to clear a space and then map out a space for their own performance. And then they relocate the reader within that space.
I love the idea that Bennett is relocating us, taking us out of the world and into the one she’s built, and then inviting us to co-create her book with her.
And so now I am turning things over to you, book clubbers. If The Vanishing Half is a novel of call and response, then you are the ones responding. You’re the vanished half!
How do you feel about the idea of a collaborative reading of this book? How did you respond to the fairy tale structure? Do you see shades of Toni Morrison in Bennett’s work?
Talk among yourselves, either down below in our comments section or in your own communities, and meet us back here next Thursday to see me talk with Brit Bennett herself live on Zoom. Plus, sign up for the Vox Book Club newsletter to be sure you don’t miss a thing.