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Passing and Intergenerational Trauma in Ladivine and The Vanishing Half

Le « passing » et le traumatisme intergénérationnel dans Ladivine et The Vanishing Half
El « passing » y el trauma intergeneracional en Ladivine y The Vanishing Half
Gina Stamm


Cet essai présente deux romans structurellement similaires qui racontent deux histoires du passing racial : Ladivine de Marie Ndiaye et The Vanishing Half de Brit Bennett. Les deux romans suivent l’histoire d’une femme afrodescendante claire de peau qui quitte sa maison familiale et se fait passer pour blanche, se mariant et fondant une famille, gardant pour elle le secret de ses origines. Le roman de Ndiaye, malgré sa localisation en France métropolitaine — où il n’y a pas la même tradition du roman dit « de passing » qui existe depuis presque deux siècles dans la tradition (afro)américaine — partage plusieurs caractéristiques avec ce qui a historiquement été un des exemples les plus connus du genre : le film Imitation of Life de Douglas Sirk. Les expériences émotionnelles et psychologiques dépeintes diffèrent beaucoup entre le contexte américain et le français, enracinées comme elles sont dans le contexte historique, social, et démographique des deux pays. Ce qui rend ces deux romans particuliers, cependant, est leur focalisation non seulement sur le personnage qui choisit de recourir au passing, mais sur l’effet de cette action sur leurs enfants, bien que ceux-ci restent ignorants de ce qu’on leur cache. Les deux romans montrent le passing comme une décision impliquant des conséquences intergénérationnelles, même si à travers ces conséquences on aperçoit deux visions distinctes de la signification d’une identité racisée chez les deux autrices.

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  • 1 Amy Gentry, « Marie NDiaye offers rewarding study in identity in new novel Ladivine », Chicago Trib (...)
  • 2 Douglas Sirk (director), Imitation of Life, 1959.

1When Marie Ndiaye’s novel Ladivine was published in the US, the Chicago Tribune’s reviewer stated « Ndiaye’s latest novel to be published here might be called a “passing novel” if it were American; in Ndiaye’s hands it both is and it isn’t »1. I would argue that Ladivine participates fully in the genre, in many ways echoing one of the most classic of these narratives, the film Imitation of Life2. However, it also offers a unique insight into the contingency of the imagined psychology of the act of passing when juxtaposed with another recently published novel in the same genre: Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half. These novels contain a number of structural similarities; both feature a young, light-skinned Black or mixed-race woman who starts passing for white as a teenager, marries a white man to whom she is wholly devoted and for whom she severs herself from her family, and has a daughter from whom she also keeps the truth about her previous life. The contrasts between them highlight the culturally variable psychological experience of racial belonging or unbelonging and the voluntary abandonment of community and family ties. Both books, however, unusually portray and explore the involuntary passing imposed on the following generation. What does it mean for the children who are raised ignorant of their mother’s secret? What is the outcome of both the fact of keeping a secret and the meaning that larger society imposes upon their inherited identity? While the atmospheres of the novels differ dramatically (Ndiaye’s somewhere between psychological horror and magical realism, Bennett’s realistic historical fiction), they both push the boundaries of the genre farther by exploring the act of passing as the initiator of intergenerational trauma.

Passing Novels and their Affective Dimension

  • 3 In recent years, the category of « passing » stories has become more elastic, including passing bet (...)

2The « passing novel” has been a staple of African-American fiction since the mid-19th century. It historically refers to the narrative of a person of African descent adopting a white identity or that of an ethnicity considered more proximate to whiteness (such as Latin or Middle Eastern). This choice may be made in order to access resources, safety, or social, professional, or romantic opportunities. One of the reasons that this has been considered specific to the American context is the persistence of the so-called « one-drop » rule, which separated legal privileges associated with racial status not by phenotype but by any amount of African ancestry. This ancestry, if exposed, could result in the invalidation of a marriage or inheritance or serve as grounds for divorce or dismissal from one’s job. Even in places where no legal benefit or status is associated with race, social status and material benefits that go with it (from safety to career advancement) can make the deception of passing advantageous3.

3Traditionally, passing narratives share a number of characteristics relating to ethical or emotional consequences for the protagonist, as described by Erika Renée Williams:

  • 4 Erika Renée Williams, op. cit., p. 288.

[T]he protagonist passes from the black world into the white, only to encounter psychic danger, the loss of cultural roots, and a cycle of deprivation and despair. In many of these works, like Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars, Chopin’s « Desirée’s Baby, » and Larsen’s Passing, the passing subject’s story ends in death. In others, such as Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bun and James W. Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, the passing subject experiences a figurative, social death mourned by passer and reader alike. For example, the « Ex-Colored Man » famously laments that he « ha[s] sold [his] birthright for a mess of pottage »4.

  • 5 Danzy Senna, Caucasia: A Novel, New York, Penguin Publishing Group, 1999.

4It should be noted, while discussing the consequences (social or psychological) for the passer’s actions, that these novels represent less a window into the interiority of those who have passed, and more a reflection of how the people who pass are perceived by those who don’t. The passing novel, counterintuitively, may depict more what racial belonging, felt either as a positive or negative experience, represents for people who do not and perhaps cannot cross the color line. We have no (known) examples of novels or memoirs describing the experience of people who chose to pass as a lifestyle. The closest example is perhaps Danzy Senna’s Caucasia, which incorporated details of her own life where she, the light-skinned daughter of a White mother and a Black father, was made to pass for Jewish by her mother after her parents separated5.

5Passing not only means adopting a new persona, but it also means abandoning everyone who knew your former identity or finding some way to bring them with you. In a nonfiction account of the circumstances around an ancestor’s decision to pass, situated in a history of passing in America, Alyson Vanessa Hobbs writes:

  • 6 Allyson Vanessa Hobbs, A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life, Cambridge, Har (...)

This book is about loss. Racial passing is an exile, sometimes chosen, sometimes not […]. Between the late eighteenth and the mid-twentieth centuries, countless African Americans passed as white, leaving behind families, friends, and communities without any available avenue for return6.

  • 7 Donavan L. Ramon, « “You’re neither One Thing (N)or the Other”: Nella Larsen, Philip Roth, and the (...)

6The extent to which the loss of family and/or community affects the « passer » depends in large part on who they leave behind. As Donovan L. Ramon observes, the act of passing can often follow the loss of a parent7, minimizing the emotional cost associated with passing by not requiring the choice between the parent and white society, or not subjecting the parent to feeling that they are the cause of the child’s shame. Conyers and Kennedy, writing at the end of the Jim Crow era, identified several other reasons one might not wish to pass or might suffer if they did:

  • 8 James E. Conyers and T. H. Kennedy, « Negro Passing: To Pass or Not to Pass », Phylon (1960-), vol. (...)

[T]he literature offers more refined explanations, among which the following are commonly given: (1) fear and anxiety concerning disclosure of racial identity; (2) race consciousness, pride, and a desire to assist in solving the race problems; (3) loyalty to family and close friends; (4) feeling of estrangement and loneliness as white; (5) loss of status and esteem as white; (6) risks involved would be too great; and (7) too much well-thought-out and calculated planning would be involved8.

  • 9 Jessie Redmon Fauset, Plum Bun, London, E. Mathews & Marrot, 1929.

7It should be noted that, in the survey conducted by Conyers and Kennedy, the « feeling of estrangement and loneliness as white » was ranked as the least-applicable reason (3.5% of respondents), where this feeling features prominently in passing novels (Jessie Redmon Fauset’s Plum Bun9, for example, in which loneliness drives the protagonist back to her community of origin, even if this means renouncing considerable material advantages).

The Emotional Costs of Passing

  • 10 For example, in Mon Coeur mis à l’étroit, « Nadia’s ‘hemmed-in heart’ beats more and more loudly th (...)
  • 11 Andrew Asibong, op. cit., p. 19.

8The two novels featured in this article also explore the experience of passing as emotionally costly, but with the qualitative nature of that cost varying between cultural contexts. Marie Ndiaye’s novels frequently feature the problem of passing from one social sphere to another, as well as the psychological effects of keeping one’s identity secret10. Most of the time, though, what that identity is and what one is passing as is not specified or heavily metaphorized: it could be articulated as race, class, some kind of illness or curse, or a more fantastical identity — Andrew Asibong refers to this as being “marked”11. One of the cases which is most explicitly tied to race (as national origin and phenotypic identification) is Ladivine, which follows the life of Malinka (who later renames herself Clarisse). The protagonist is the daughter of Ladivine Sylla, who has immigrated to France from an unspecified country in the global South, and an absent French man. Early in her life Malinka begins to « pass » by what seems to be a banal incident at school:

  • 12 Marie Ndiaye, Ladivine, Paris, Gallimard, 2014, p. 29.

Sa mère, qui était une servante, n’avait pas l’air d’être sa mère, elle qui était une princesse.
De sorte que, un jour où sa mère était venue la chercher à l’école, et qu’une fille, lui adressant la parole pour la première fois, lui demanda, avec une moue étonnée et dégoûtée, qui était cette femme. Malinka répondit : C’est ma servante, et il lui sembla qu’elle disait là une grande vérité12.

9This experience of shame in front of schoolmates who discover the race of a previously (passively) passing child is a familiar episode in American passing narratives like The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and Imitation of Life (when light-skinned Sara Jane’s mother comes to the classroom to give her daughter rain boots for her walk home after a storm has come up). Ndiaye’s novel hits many of the same beats as the latter, with Malinka/Clarisse leaving her home and school while still young, moving to another city where no one knows her, and rejecting the mother who comes to find her. While it is never named as racism within the novel, the daughter sees her mother’s social position as being one of contagious isolation:

  • 13 Ibid., p. 30.

Clarisse Rivière savait aussi qu’il était exact, en revanche, comme Malinka en avait eu très tôt l’intuition, que personne au monde ne se souciait de leur existence, non parce que ces deux créatures, la servante et la fille vénérée, inspiraient l’antipathie mais simplement parce que nul lien ne les rattachait à personne13.

10Her refusal of her racialized identity and her identification with French society do not appear to her as a wish to distance herself from an entire community, but rather simply from her mother, who seems to exist in a vicious cycle: unlovable because unloved, unloved because unlovable. The immigrant status, which leaves them “unattached” in the daughter’s eyes, and therefore suspect, represents a different internal experience of racialization than that portrayed in many of the canonical examples of the genre, where passing is from one group to another, causing much of the sense of “loss” evoked in the Hobbs citation above.

11Malinka/Clarisse locates herself on the side of society against her mother, and believes that if she can get away from her mother’s negative associations, she can be someone else, and not just pass:

  • 14 Ibid., p. 47.

Elle frémissait toujours d’un étonnement ravi en entendant son nouveau prénom […] la personne qu’elle était devenue, cette Clarisse à la belle chevelure châtaine raidie par le fer, au visage lisse, dégagé, plein d’assurance malicieuse, ne pouvait s’empêcher d’éprouver un peu le mépris délicat, apitoyé, envers celle qu’elle était quelques mois plus tôt encore, cette empotée qui s’appelait Malinka et ne savait pas se maquiller, cette fille à la tête creuse, au regard effaré, cette fille obscure qui s’appelait Malinka14.

12Malinka sees herself as European French when she is away from her mother: then she becomes the ultra-competent waitress Clarisse. While this may seem to reinforce the idea that racialization is purely a matter of perception — she is identified as Black when she has a foreign name and a Black mother and White when she has a French name and no mother — she also undergoes a character change in response to that perception. Malinka/Clarisse marries a customer at the café where she works and moves away from the city, returning only once a month to visit her mother, to whom she refuses any other contact or even information about her life, going so far as to hide the fact that she is pregnant. While she began with a feeling of revulsion or rejection towards her mother, as she grows older, she understands rationally that her mother has done nothing to deserve such indifferent treatment. Nonetheless, her decision seems irrevocable:

  • 15 Ibid., p. 63.

Comme elle se sentait sinueuse et abjecte près de la servante légère, claire, et vaillante dans son attachement.
Clarisse savait qu’elle s’était réprouvée elle-même, elle savait qu’elle serait punie un jour pour avoir abandonné la servante. Elle en éprouvait du malaise, mais pas de peur.
Car sa décision une fois prise ne pouvait, même en pensée, être trahie

13The dominant feelings experienced by Malinka are disgust and guilt. Any loss she experiences is not that of the love of her mother, but of innocence in that relationship. She is not surprised when the self-abnegating behavior prompted by that guilt leaves her abandoned by her husband, déclassée, and finally murdered.

14The Vanishing Half revolves around identical twin sisters Desiree and Stella Vignes and their daughters. Both twins run away from the town in which they grew up, the fictional village of « Mallard » Louisiana, populated by only light-skinned Black people. This small town is a microcosm for the larger community of settled and (relatively) autochthonous Black Americans. Only Stella decides to pass as white, cutting off all contact with her family, and eventually Desiree returns home with a dark-skinned daughter named Jude. Stella marries a white man and lives with him and their daughter in California. For Stella, the decision to pass as white originates in a series of traumas. First, the twins witness their father’s lynching at the hands of « White » men scarcely lighter-skinned than himself. She perceives then that it is not complexion, but the status imposed by social racialization that puts her in danger. Later, the poverty into which that death throws the family forces the twins out of school and into domestic service, where Stella is repeatedly sexually assaulted by her employer. To escape that situation, the two sisters run away to New Orleans, where Stella begins to pass as white to support herself by working as a secretary. Unlike with Clarisse, she does not see a white identity as intrinsically positive, associated as it is with exploitation and violence; but being white-identified provides protection and social mobility. While Ndiaye portrayed a racialized identity as rendering her characters alienated, Bennett’s characters experience it as being made vulnerable, which influences the emotional stakes of their choices.

15Passing becomes a way of life, rather than merely a means to an end, when Stella’s employer asks her to move with him to Boston, and later to marry him. In the only conversation she ever has with her sister after this, decades later, Stella explains:

  • 16 Brit Bennett, The Vanishing Half, New York, Riverhead Books, 2020, p. 319.

« I met someone».
« You did all this for a man? »
« Not for him,” she said. « I just liked who I was with him ».
« White ».
« No », Stella said, « Free. »
Desiree laughed. « Same thing, baby. »16

16Stella’s passing « freed » her from the material indigence into which white supremacist society had forced her family, and from the vulnerability she had to her employer, whose position relative to her meant he could abuse her with impunity. She is not, however, « free » in an absolute sense. Because as far as she can get away from her family, she cannot get away from the larger African American community, and her fear that she might be unmasked by someone who recognized her as a Black person becomes concentrated into a reproduction of the same racism from which she had suffered. This comes to a head when a Black family buys a house in her upper-class California neighborhood, and Stella objects vociferously in a homeowners’ meeting, prompting her husband to reflect:

  • 17 Ibid., p. 147.

Stella wouldn’t hire colored help for the house — she claimed Mexicans worked harder. He never understood why she averted her gaze when an old Negro woman shuffled by on the sidewalk, why she was always so curt with the elevator operators. She was jumpy around Negroes, like a child who’d been bit by a dog17.

17This fear, though, reveals another emotion: loneliness. Stella is unable to develop friendships with the white women in her social orbit, feeling alienated and unable to reproduce the social codes that seem to come naturally to her peers. So, when the Black family finally moves in, she finds herself, almost unwittingly, drawn to the wife Loretta and lying to her own husband about her visits. Her being comfortable around Loretta is predicated, however, on her maintaining her « superior » social position, where her lies will be believed over any truth Loretta might reveal. When confronted by her neighbors and husband Stella ceases contact with her and never tries to repeat the experience.

18As Stella gets older, the object of her anxiety changes. She no longer predominantly fears discovery by her peers, but by her daughter Kennedy:

  • 18 Ibid., p. 175.

She was raising Kennedy to lie too, although the girl would never know it. She was white, she would never think of herself as anything else. If she ever learned the truth, she would hate her mother for deceiving her18.

19And this is what she repeats to Desiree, whose daughter has moved to LA and stumbled upon the identity of her aunt and cousin:

  • 19 Ibid., p. 322.

« Your girl will keep trying to tell mine the truth and it’s too late for all that now. Can’t you see that? »
« Oh sure, it’s the end of the world. Your girl finding out she ain’t so lily white — »
« That I lied to her,” Stella said. « She’ll never forgive me. You don’t understand, Desiree. You’re a good mother, I can see that… But I haven’t been a good one. I spent so long hiding — »
« Because you chose to! You wanted to! »
« I know,” Stella said. “I know but please. Please, Desiree. Don’t take her away from me. »

20What was once about access to a costly « freedom » has developed into the maintenance of an affective relationship that can only be maintained in an already-damaged and damaging form.

21Although Stella seems to be reinforcing rather than challenging racial hierarchies by acquiescing to the need to be white in order to obtain certain things, she remains largely the same in character from one side of the color line to the other. She is introverted to the point of secrecy, meticulous, and intelligent. She gets the intellectual development that was denied to her as a Black woman for financial reasons in her thirties when she gets a GED (a diploma equivalent to that of high school) and eventually a graduate degree in mathematics, but her husband’s resistance to her doctoral ambitions shows that racial domination is not the only limit to her possibilities in life. However, Stella is also shown moving toward something (« a man », « freedom ») when she passes, and not away from her mother and sister, whom she is never shown to feel negatively about, even as she abandons them. Stella does not fundamentally feel any sense of shame about who she is, and once Kennedy knows that she is Black and confronts her with proof, she talks to her frankly, although she doesn’t allow what her daughter learns to go beyond the limits of that conversation. Despite being relieved to be honest with her daughter and thus relieved of the fear she had carried about that particular discovery, she has no desire to be rid of any of the other strictures of passing; the lie to her daughter was the only part she feels guilty about. This is in contrast with Malinka, whose shame can only be relieved by confessing to someone she feels to be as isolated, as abject as the identity she is revealing (her eventual murderer). These outlets found by both characters emphasize how passing narratives are dependent on the imperfection of their performance. Our access to these narratives as a reader is predicated on willing or unwilling disclosure of secret identities, even if it is only to us, the audience.

The Next Generation

22Regardless of their different experiences of racialization and passing, Stella and Malinka’s stories give us an element of the « passing » narrative that is not often depicted. What effect does passing have on the children of the passer? While women passing in other novels have children, and the effect on the mother may be shown (Clare Kendry in Passing describes her fear that her child would be born dark), the point of view of that child is rarely explored. The two women are very different mothers. Stella is a demanding mother who is dismayed at her child’s bohemian lifestyle when Kennedy misbehaves publicly and drops out of college to become an actress, while her husband is the permissive one. She resents her daughter’s wasting the opportunities that she herself was not granted and treats her with severity. Malinka, on the other hand, cannot find it in herself to criticize or even judge anything her daughter does because of her own guilt:

  • 20 Marie Ndiaye, Ladivine, op. cit., p. 98-99.

De même se sentait-elle incapable d’élever sa fille Ladivine selon les préceptes clairement formulés de la morale commune.
Dès qu’elle était en situation de donner un avis sur tel ou tel comportement, de juger de l’honnêteté d’une attitude, de signifier simplement ce qu’elle pensait, en bien ou en mal, de telle situation, se dressait devant ses yeux effrayés la silhouette de la servante qui lui paraissait alors la mettre au défi de blâmer qui que ce fût, elle, Clarisse Rivière, qui s’était condamnée elle-même20.

23Ladivine the daughter grows up with a total lack of boundaries to the point of becoming a sex worker in high school, and then almost in reaction to that unmoored lifestyle, she finds herself years later living the life of a petit-bourgeois wife in Germany, working as a French teacher with two children. In contrast, Kennedy rebels against the rules of the upper-middle class home in which she was raised and drifts, unable to form any stable relationships.

  • 21 Brit Bennett, The Vanishing Half, op. cit., p. 260.

24While these are very different trajectories, the way the daughters describe their relationships with their mother is eerily parallel. They both find themselves unable to attain any kind of intimacy with the older women. Kennedy feels held at a distance by her mother, which she attributes to some sort of personal antipathy. When Stella lets slip a detail of her old life once by accident, Kennedy tries to push for more information, and when her mother stonewalls, she reacts angrily: « It’s just like, it’s impossible to know anything about you. I have to beg you just to tell me about some roommate you had and you’re my mother. Why don’t you want me to know you? »21 Another slip is foundational of their relationship:

  • 22 Ibid., p. 269-270.

« You told me you were from a little town. It starts with an M. M-something. You told me when I was little. »
Her mother was quiet for so long that Kennedy started to feel crazy, like Dorothy at the end of The Wizard of Oz. And you were there, and you were there too! But the story about the town was real, she just couldn’t remember all the particulars, except that she’d been in the bathtub, her mother leaning over her. But now, her mother only laughed.
« And when was I supposed to have told you this? » she said. “You’re little now. »
« I don’t know — »
« You must have remembered wrong. You were still a baby » […]
This was the first time Kennedy realized that her mother was a liar

25Beyond the distance created by the lie, this kind of gaslighting about Kennedy’s own memories develops into a deeper sense of irreality as she grows older:

  • 23 Ibid., p. 270-271.

It would be something that she would always know she was right about but could never prove, like people who swore they’d seen Elvis wandering around the grocery store, knocking on the melons. Unlike those loons, she wouldn’t tell anyone. A private crazy — she was okay with that23.

  • 24 Ibid., p. 245.
  • 25 Ibid., p. 305.
  • 26 « Son visage était franc et simple, sans mystère, et pourtant Richard Rivière escomptait toujours q (...)

26She takes on a role in a play after reading the script and feeling an affinity with the character: « [E]ven though it was bad, she’d wept when she read the script. A lonely girl living in a world surrounded only by ghosts. Nothing reminded her of her own life more. »24 As her mother continues to deny the truth in the face of mounting proof provided by Jude (in the form of a photograph of the twin sisters together as teenagers), Kennedy’s life becomes increasingly unmoored, as she goes off to « find herself, » inventing stories about her life. This project seems ridiculous to Stella: « You didn’t just find a self out there waiting — you had to create who you wanted to be »25. Ironically, this is what Stella has been able to do, since she had a stable foundation from which to start, something she has denied to her daughter, until that conversation late in life, when Stella finally admits. Luckily, Kennedy finds some peace in her relationship with her mother and her cousin, but the same could not be said for Ladivine, who also experiences a lack of intimacy in her relationship with her mother, as does her father26:

  • 27 Ibid., p. 97.

À cette impression de réussite s’opposait néanmoins l’idée de plus en plus gênante que son oubli volontaire et permanent d’elle-même avait construit autour de sa personne une mince muraille de glace et que sa fille comme son mari s’étonnaient parfois, sans le dire, sans le savoir peut-être, de ne pouvoir l’atteindre au cœur de ses sentiments27.

27In addition to the lack of moral guidance and boundaries from her mother, Ladivine has a profound feeling of alienation from her, the feeling that she doesn’t actually know anything about the woman other than the performance of selflessness that she gives. Even the kind of limited reconciliation that Stella and Kennedy are able to have is foreclosed by Malinka/Clarisse’s murder.

28The sense of irreality felt by Kennedy is literal in the case of Ladivine when she goes on vacation to a country that is presumed to be that of her grandmother’s origin. Her husband identifies her resemblance to the locals, many of whom also seem to recognize her and ask her about a wedding that they believe she attended. Invited to dinner at the home of one of the locals, she falls into the role that is assigned to her, establishing a kind of complicity with them that seems to distance her from her husband:

  • 28 Ibid., p. 280.

Alors, sans comprendre précisément ce qui la poussait, le désir de faire plaisir à la vieille femme, de jouer les importantes, ou, simplement, certain goût qu’elle avait toujours eu pour raconter des histoires, Ladivine se surprit à parler du mariage comme si elle y avait assisté, ne se souciant plus d’être entendue de Marko ni d’Annika […] Et les convives se turent peu à peu pour l’écouter décrire la cérémonie avec force détails qui lui venaient elle ne savait d’où et ne voulait le savoir28.

29When the boy who had invited them to dinner tries to sneak into their hotel room at night, Ladivine’s husband throws him from the balcony. This act of violence seems to open an irreparable rift between them, ranging Ladivine on the side of the inhabitants of the country against her husband. Finally, this mysterious affinity is concretized as Ladivine walks into the forest at night and her body and mind meld with those of the dog she has seen following her since her arrival in the country. As this metamorphosis begins, she tries to fight against it, but without success:

  • 29 Ibid., p. 370.

Elle voulut se débattre mais les ordres affolés donnés à ses membres restaient sans réponse, comme si la léthargie l’emportait sur la panique bien qu’il fût évident que la panique avait raison […] elle savait qu’elle ne voulait pas aller dans cette direction, pas encore, et qu’elle devait lutter avec son âme et non avec son corps qui, lui, n’était pas impliqué.
Mais, d’une telle lutte, elle n’avait pas reçu l’enseignement ni les armes ni l’esprit29.

  • 30 Andrew Asibong, op. cit., p. 33.

30However, by the end of her transformation, she is described as experiencing joy and pride. The nature of this mysterious connection is not made explicit. Is there some atavistic blood connection between her and these people that obliges her to become part of the country itself? Is it the outcome of her lack of connection to her mother, a mother with whom she no longer has any possibility of reconciliation, that she scrambles to connect to anyone, especially when the inhabitants of this country bear a noted physical resemblance to herself and, in particular, to her mother? While the feeling of inevitability and the futility of resisting the pull of doom are common in all Ndiaye’s writing (sometimes compared to Kafka30), here that inevitability is conditional: if she had received the tools to fight against the pull of the transformation, she could have chosen her fate.

31In this Ladivine’s predicament resembles that of Kennedy who seems unable to choose who she wants to be as her mother has. While in a way Ladivine has been spared the social burden of a racialized identity by her mother’s decision, she lacks the means to choose her own destiny. An undecidability is imposed on their identity without the explicit communication from their mothers. Asibong gestures towards the nature of the intergenerational transmission of traumatic experiences:

  • 31 Ibid., p. 26.

In accordance with the theories of Abraham and Torok, NDiaye’s heroines and heroes are afflicted by familial phantoms which are not the product of their own repressed complexes, but those of their mothers and fathers, and of their mothers and fathers before them31.

32Like the « ghosts” Kennedy was surrounded with, Ladivine is literally haunted not be what she herself has repressed, but by what her mother did not or could not say. In terms of how this mechanism is enacted, Anna Maria Nicolò and Eleonora Strinati go still further in explaining the transmission of intergenerational trauma, using the theories of Jean Laplanche and René Kaës:

  • 32 Anna Maria Nicolò et Eleonora Strinati, « Transmission du traumatisme et défense transpersonnelle d (...)

[L]a transmission transpsychique [...] est caractérisée d’une part, par l’urgence d’une impulsion à transmettre sous l’effet d’un impératif psychique incoercible qui ne peut être contenu dans le sujet lui-même, et d’autre part par la violence d’une certaine dépossession de la subjectivité du sujet [...]dans la transmission transgénérationnelle sont transmis des objets non élaborés, des vécus, des traumatismes qui restent enkystés et inertes à l’intérieur du sujet de la transmission32.

33« Transpsychique » or « transgénérationnelle » transmission of an experience is opposed to the « intersubjective », where experiences can be articulated in symbolic language from one individual to another. It is the former two terms that encapsulate well what the children of the passers experience: first, that the content transmitted is « unelaborated » or unarticulated, perhaps unable to be articulated; second, that there is an impulse to transmit that information (which they can only articulate in words too late or to the wrong person); and third, by the « dispossession » of the subjectivity of the receivers, who are not aware or able to narrativize the content that they have inherited, and are unable


34The comparison of these two novels allows us to see the ways in which racial passing can be experienced differently in different social contexts, regarding both the motivation for passing and the emotional burden created by living with this deception. Depicted by Ndiaye in Ladivine, the isolation of the racialized immigrant Other leads to a negative self-identification or internalized racism that drives Malinka/Clarisse to pass in order to create a better self-image. As her passing is specifically to avoid association with a mother seen as an individual social pariah, the act prompts profound guilt for abandoning the already-isolated older woman. On the other hand, although speaking about her family is painful for Stella, she has left her mother in a community in which her family is deeply anchored. In a mixed society such as the US of the 20th century, passing as Stella does becomes a practical choice that does not necessarily require negative views of her own identity to be undertaken. It does, however, represent a more constant danger of discovery due to the presence of racialized people in everyday social interactions. Thus her experience is dominated by fear and by the fear of alienation from her daughter. These two books, however, also offer us a unique reflection on the experience of the child of someone keeping such a secret, particularly two aspects that the two books have in common, despite the differences in the mothers’ experiences. The children are kept at a distance by the mother in such a way that the children feel that they do not know her and have no intimacy — in the case of The Vanishing Half, this distance is read as outright rejection. Also, without a narrative of their mother and themselves to begin with, these children seem unable to create a stable identity for themselves and, in the case of Ladivine, to resist the pull of external forces of destiny.

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Asibong, Andre, Marie Ndiaye: Blankness and Recognition, Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 2014.

Bennett, Brit, The Vanishing Half, New York, Riverhead Books, 2020.

Conyers, James E. and Kennedy, T. H., « Negro Passing: To Pass or Not to Pass », Phylon (1960-), vol. 24, n°3, 1963, p. 215-223.

Fauset, Jessie Redmon, Plum Bun, London, E. Mathews & Marrot, 1929.

Gentry, Amy, « Marie NDiaye offers rewarding study in identity in new novel Ladivine », Chicago Tribune, 28 Apr. 2016. URL:

Hobbs, Allyson Vanessa, A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2016.

Johnson, James Weldon, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, Boston, Sherman, French, & Co, 1912.

Larsen, Nella, Passing, New York, Knopf, 1929.

Marcus, Frances Frank, « Louisiana Repeals Black Blood Law », New York Times, 6 July 1983, p. 10.

Ndiaye, Marie, Ladivine, Paris, Gallimard, 2014.

Nicolò, Anna Maria and Strinati, Eleonora, « Transmission du traumatisme et défense transpersonnelle dans la famille », Cahiers critiques de thérapie familiale et de pratiques de réseaux, vol. 38, n°1, 2007, p. 61-79.

Ramon, Donavan L., « “You’re neither One Thing (N)or the Other”: Nella Larsen, Philip Roth, and the Passing Trope », Philip Roth Studies, vol. 8, n°1, Spring 2012, p. 45-61.

Senna, Danzy, Caucasia: A Novel, New York, Penguin Publishing Group, 1999.

Sirk, Douglas (director), Imitation of Life, 1959.

Williams, Erika Renée, « Subverted Passing: Racial and Transgender Identities in Linda Villarosa’s Passing for Black », Studies in American Fiction, vol. 40, n°2, 2013, p. 285-307.

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1 Amy Gentry, « Marie NDiaye offers rewarding study in identity in new novel Ladivine », Chicago Tribune, 28 Apr. 2016, accessed April 1, 2023. URL:,

2 Douglas Sirk (director), Imitation of Life, 1959.

3 In recent years, the category of « passing » stories has become more elastic, including passing between different ethnic groups or gender identities. Erika Renée Williams, « Subverted Passing: Racial and Transgender Identities in Linda Villarosa’s Passing for Black », Studies in American Fiction, vol. 40, n°2, 2013, p. 285-307.

4 Erika Renée Williams, op. cit., p. 288.

5 Danzy Senna, Caucasia: A Novel, New York, Penguin Publishing Group, 1999.

6 Allyson Vanessa Hobbs, A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2016, p. 4-5.

7 Donavan L. Ramon, « “You’re neither One Thing (N)or the Other”: Nella Larsen, Philip Roth, and the Passing Trope », Philip Roth Studies, vol. 8, n°1, Spring 2012, p. 57.

8 James E. Conyers and T. H. Kennedy, « Negro Passing: To Pass or Not to Pass », Phylon (1960-), vol. 24, n°3, 1963, p. 217.

9 Jessie Redmon Fauset, Plum Bun, London, E. Mathews & Marrot, 1929.

10 For example, in Mon Coeur mis à l’étroit, « Nadia’s ‘hemmed-in heart’ beats more and more loudly the more determinedly she walls up her shame, and, like the guilty narrator of Poe’s ‘Tell-Tale Heart’ (1843), is eventually forced to spill its ugly secrets, or at least abject traces of them, in the distinctly ‘un-blank’ form of the ‘chose noire’ (MCE, 296) she gives birth to in the novel’s post-catastrophic final chapter. » Andrew Asibong, Marie Ndiaye: Blankness & Recognition, Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 2014, p. 93.

11 Andrew Asibong, op. cit., p. 19.

12 Marie Ndiaye, Ladivine, Paris, Gallimard, 2014, p. 29.

13 Ibid., p. 30.

14 Ibid., p. 47.

15 Ibid., p. 63.

16 Brit Bennett, The Vanishing Half, New York, Riverhead Books, 2020, p. 319.

17 Ibid., p. 147.

18 Ibid., p. 175.

19 Ibid., p. 322.

20 Marie Ndiaye, Ladivine, op. cit., p. 98-99.

21 Brit Bennett, The Vanishing Half, op. cit., p. 260.

22 Ibid., p. 269-270.

23 Ibid., p. 270-271.

24 Ibid., p. 245.

25 Ibid., p. 305.

26 « Son visage était franc et simple, sans mystère, et pourtant Richard Rivière escomptait toujours qu’un autre visage se dévoilerait derrière celui-ci, un visage qui lui serait inconnu et qu’il reconnaîtrait aussitôt néanmoins comme le vrai visage de Clarisse Rivière [...] derrière la femme impersonnelle, irréprochable et candide qu’il avait fini, à bout d’ennui, de frustration, par quitter ». Marie Ndiaye, Ladivine, op. cit., p. 411.

27 Ibid., p. 97.

28 Ibid., p. 280.

29 Ibid., p. 370.

30 Andrew Asibong, op. cit., p. 33.

31 Ibid., p. 26.

32 Anna Maria Nicolò et Eleonora Strinati, « Transmission du traumatisme et défense transpersonnelle dans la famille », Cahiers critiques de thérapie familiale et de pratiques de réseaux, vol. 38, n°1, 2007, p. 64.

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Gina Stamm, « Passing and Intergenerational Trauma in Ladivine and The Vanishing Half »TRANS- [En ligne], 29 | 2024, mis en ligne le , consulté le 17 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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