“In Mallard, one did not marry blacker than oneself”

Who decides if you are white or black, male or female? The heroines of Brit Bennett, 16-year-old twins who run away one morning in 1954, choose their fate and disappear. Taking advantage of fair skin, one decides to become a White. The other marries a dark-skinned black man, who forces her, because he beats her, to flee a second time, and to return home. In the next generation, two cousins, one black, the other white, get to know each other. The novel circulates between years, cities, binoculars, and believes in the strength of feelings. Finding one’s place, even at the cost of a lie, is the right, and the duty, of the characters. Cl.D.

The morning one of the missing twins returned to Mallard, Lou LeBon rushed to the diner to announce the news and, even today, years later, everyone remembers the uproar he caused when he walked through the glass doors, swimming, chest throbbing and neck dark with the effort. The poorly awake customers bawled around him – about ten, although later on they would be more likely to claim to have been present, if only to be able to say that they had been, at least once in their life. , witnesses of a truly exciting event. In this small rural community, nothing ever happened that was out of the ordinary. The last notable fact was precisely the disappearance of the Vignes twins, and that went back more than fifteen years. That morning in April 1968, then, on his way to work, Lou saw Desiree Vignes walking along Partridge Road, a small leather suitcase in her hand. She was the same as when she left at sixteen: fair complexion, slightly damp sand color. With her hipless body, she reminded him of a branch beaten by a strong wind. She was hurrying, her head bowed, and — sparing its effect, Lou paused there — she was holding the handcuff of a seven or eight-year-old girl, black as tar.

“Black-blue,” he clarified. It looked like she had come from Africa. ”

L’Egg House, le diner Lou, then split into a multitude of conversations. The cook hinted that maybe it wasn’t Desiree because Lou, who would turn sixty in May, was too proud to wear his glasses. The waitress retorted that it had to be her, that even a blind man would recognize one of the Vine sisters – and it couldn’t be the other. Customers who had left their corn porridge and eggs on the counter did not care about these trivial considerations. Who was the black child? This is what we wanted to know. Was that really Desiree’s daughter?

“Who do you want it to be?” Lou said, scooping several paper towels from the dispenser to dab his wet forehead.

– I don’t know, an orphan she took in.

– Still, something so black, it can’t have come out of Desiree’s stomach.

– Is that so ? Because you have the impression that Desiree is the type to take in an orphan? ”

Of course, it wasn’t his style. This little one was selfish. If there was one thing we remembered, it was this. Besides, most people didn’t remember anything else. They hadn’t seen the twins for fourteen years, almost as long as they had known them. Volatilized after the Founder’s Day ball, while their mother was asleep at the end of the hall. The day before, they were jostling each other in front of the bathroom mirror, four identical teenage girls who never finished their hair. And the next day, the empty bed, done as usual – the sheets pulled tight when it was Stella, hurriedly pulled down when it was Desiree. The town had spent the morning looking for them, calling their names in the woods, naively wondering if they had been kidnapped. It was as if they had been called back to the good Lord on Judgment Day, abandoning all Mallard’s sinners on Earth.

The truth was obviously neither so sinister nor so mystical, and it wasn’t long before the twins resurfaced in New Orleans – selfish girls who had shirked their responsibilities, that was all. They would come back. The big city would soon have worn them out. Once their reserves of money and daring were exhausted, they would go home whimpering.

But we had never seen them again. Worse yet, after a year, they had separated and their lives had split in two, as neatly as the egg from which they had sprung. Stella had turned white and Desiree had married the blackest man she could find.

And now she was back, go find out why. Homesickness, maybe? His mother who he missed? Or, she wanted to get rid of her little morica. At Mallard, one did not marry blacker than oneself; we weren’t leaving either, though. But Desiree believed herself allowed anything: not content to leave town, she had married a black man and now she was coming back to stick her black-blue kid under their noses. It was the last straw.

At the Egg House, the crowd dispersed. The cook put his hairnet back on, the waitress counted the change on the table, and the men in coveralls whistled their coffee before hiring at the refinery. With his forehead pressed against the greasy glass, Lou stared at the road. Adele Vignes had to be warned. She would no longer miss her being caught off guard by her own daughter. If it wasn’t unfortunate, after all she had suffered. And now Desiree with this all black kid. Good God. He grabbed the phone.

“Do you think they plan to stay?” said the cook.

– What do I know! In any case, she was in a hurry. To wonder where it was running so fast.

– She’s not blowing her elbow, that one. And what reason does she have for believing herself better than the others?

– Good God. I’ve never seen such a black girl, ”Lou sighed.

It was a strange town.

Mallard (1) took its name from the ducks with their necks circled in white that inhabited the rice fields and marshes. One of those cities that are an idea before being a place. The idea had come to Alphonse Decuir in 1848, when he was standing in the sugar cane fields bequeathed by a father he had also owned. Now that the father was deceased, the freed son wanted to build something on his land that would defy the centuries. A city for men like him, who would never be accepted as whites but who refused to be assimilated to Negroes. A third place. Her mother, God rest her soul, hated her fair skin; when he was little, she pushed him into the sun, begging him to blacken. Maybe that was where his dream came from. Like anything inherited at the cost of great sacrifice, fair skin was a gift that condemned loneliness. He had married a mulatto even paler than himself, and when she was pregnant with their first child, he imagined the children of his children’s children, always lighter, like a cup of coffee that one would dilute little by little with milk. A Negro approaching perfection, each generation clearer than the previous.

Soon others joined them. Soon the idea and the place became inseparable. There was talk of Mallard throughout the riding of Saint-Landry. Black people whispered and wondered. The whites did not believe in its existence. When Saint Catherine was built in 1938, the diocese sent a young priest from Dublin who, on his arrival, thought he was in the wrong place. Hadn’t the bishop told him that Mallard was a city of color? In this case, who were these men and these women, fair, blond and red, the blackest not more swarthy than a Greek? So these were the people of color that the whites in America wanted to keep away from at all costs? How did they even make a difference?

When the Vignes twins were born, Alphonse Decuir was dead and buried for a long time. But whether they like it or not, her great-great-great-granddaughters were the custodians of her legacy – much to Desiree’s chagrin, who complained before every Founder’s Day picnic, was raising eyes to the sky whenever it was about him in class and pretended not to be concerned. It will be remembered after their disappearance: Desiree had always refused to be assimilated to Mallard, a city that she had nevertheless received in sharing. She thought she could free herself from History as one gets rid of a hand resting on her shoulder, with a simple flick. You can flee a place, but not its blood. The Vignes twins thought they could escape both.

However, if Alphonse Decuir had found himself strolling through the streets of the city he had imagined, the sight of his great-great-great-granddaughters would have delighted him. Twins with creamy complexions, hazel eyes and wavy hair. He would have been ecstatic in front of them. A child a little more perfect than his parents. What could be more wonderful?

The Vine sisters disappeared on August 14, 1954, just after the Founder’s Day ball, which was no coincidence, one would realize later. Stella, the smarter of the two, had no doubt felt the town would be too busy, drunk in the sun after the long barbecue in the main square, where butcher Willie Lee was smoking racks of ribs, brisket and sausage. spicy. Then the speech of the mayor, Mr. Fontenot, and the blessing of Father Cavanaugh, the already overexcited children pilfering scraps of grilled chicken skin from the plates of the parents collected. An endless afternoon of celebration, punctuated by the music group and, finally, the ball in the school gym. After which, the staggering return of the adults who had abused the punch of Trinity Thierry, tender memory of their youth revived by these few hours spent in the old gymnasium.

Another evening, Sal Delafosse might have seen the two girls walking in the moonlight through the window. Adele Vignes would have heard the floor crack, Lou LeBon would have seen the binoculars through the misted windows, while tidying up the restaurant. But, on Founder’s Day, the Egg House closed earlier; Sal, suddenly dashing, fell asleep rocking with his wife and, after several punches, Adele collapsed snoring, dreaming that she was spinning in her husband’s arms at the alumni ball. No one saw the twins slip away, which was precisely their purpose.

They had scampered down the deserted country road with their small bags, breathless, casting worried glances behind them, imagining the beam of the headlights. In fact, it wasn’t Stella’s idea at all; it was Desiree who had decided to run away after the picnic, and that shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Hadn’t she been telling anyone who wanted to hear her for years that she couldn’t wait to leave Mallard? In fact, she had mostly spoken to Stella, who listened to her with the patience of a girl accustomed to her sister’s dreams. Leaving seemed as unrealistic to him as flying to China. An adventure possible in theory, which didn’t mean she imagined herself doing it.

(1) Mallard: mallard in French (translator’s note).

Next weekend

Like an empire within an empire d’Alice Zeniter

Brit Bennet

The other half of you by Brit Bennet. Translated from English (United States) by Karine Lalechère. Otherwise, € 22.90 (ebook: € 14.99). In bookstores on August 19.


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