Brit Bennett is so bracingly talented on the page and so low-key lovely in person that I’ve never heard an untoward word about her, throughout and after the MFA program we entered at the same time—a period during which success (as marked by, say, a major book deal and a string of prestigious publications) goes from an abstract concept to something slightly more fraught. I’m proud to have introduced her to Jezebel via this barn-burner of an essay; I’m even more so to be able to interview her now about her debut novel The Mothers, forthcoming from Riverhead this fall.
Astute and absorbing and urgent, The Mothers is a coming-of-age novel set in a black community in Southern California whose moral history lives in the titular collective of women and whose heart lives in the church. The book begins with 17-year-old Nadia, whose mother has just committed suicide; she’s hot and restless (“Like most girls, she’d already learned that pretty exposes you and pretty hides you and like most girls, she hadn’t yet learned to navigate the difference,” the mothers say), and gets involved with the pastor’s son, an injured football star named Luke. Soon after, she’s pregnant; soon after that, she’s not.
The book, whose cover we’re unveiling here, opens with the mothers finding out about the pregnancy and the abortion. “We didn’t believe when we first heard because you know how church folks can gossip,” they say. They watch history alter and repeat itself through the heat of a slow, unsure summer, and on and on.
The Mothers is good as hell, set in a world you want to live in—and it always was, even in workshop when I read it in drafts. During that period, I was editing part-time at another website, and I kept asking Brit to write for me, but she kept demurring, until December 2014, at which point I was working here. She sent me a draft of a piece one night: we emailed back and forth exactly nine times afterwards, ran “I Don’t Know What to Do With Good White People” a week and change after she sent it, and within three days, it had been viewed over a million times. For me it remains the gold standard for the internet essay medium, proof that nuanced writing, at least occasionally, still goes huge.
By now, that essay has racked up 1.4 million views. Were you surprised by how people reacted? I was—it’s a serious and critical essay on race that draws no obvious conclusions—and I wasn’t, because it’s very, very, very good.
I was shocked. I remember you telling me, “I think this is going to be big.” But I had never really published anything, just a few short stories on a website with a readership that doesn’t compare to Jezebel’s. I had no idea what “big” would mean to you. I thought a few of my friends would share it on Facebook, and that’d be that.
There’s a lot of writing on the internet, and there are a lot of smart people in this conversation. I was surprised, I really was. I woke up that morning to my phone lighting up.
Internet writing is a real contrast to the feedback turnaround involved with a novel or even the workshop rhythm of an MFA.
Yeah, the novel process is so slow and prodding. Writing The Mothers took years and years, of sending drafts for people to read, getting feedback, going through that feedback. With this piece, I didn’t tell anyone that I was even working on anything. It was a strange thing to watch my Twitter blow up and think, “I guess I need to tell my family I wrote something.”
This was deep in the middle of that palpably unbearable season of police violence against young black Americans—not that the season has ended or anything, but for 18 months or so, there was really blood on the leaves. What event prompted you to write it?
It was the non-indictment in Ferguson, and the non-indictment of the officer who killed Eric Garner. The two events came back to back. And I was so frustrated, and even then, you still have a desire to be empathetic to all parties in the situation, which is a space I try to be in as a writer and as a person. In that moment, I was wondering, what does our intentionality actually matter? What does it mean that we keep getting the same results whether these white people intended to do well or not? And the response to that piece made me think a lot of people have the same question.
It’s an under-sung benefit of writing, especially now that the idea of audience is so immediate: you can still be answering questions for yourself first and foremost.
Yeah. I sent that piece to you and to our friend Chris, just because you two are writers I trust. If you hadn’t wanted the essay, I think I’d have been like, “OK,” and forgotten about it. It wasn’t that I desperately needed to have those thoughts out there as much as I needed to get them down.
But then I’m glad I did. That piece pretty quickly led me to my agent, which pretty quickly led me to selling the book.
Your timing was so good that you wouldn’t have been able to plan it.
It’s funny, I doubt either of us have ever been too interested in debating the pros and cons of the MFA, but us working together on that essay is evidence of some pro; for me another one is that I got to look at your book in workshop. I know you rewrite with a “blowtorch,” as one of our professors put it, but the bones of The Mothers are close to what I remember reading three years ago. In particular, an abortion is still the engine that starts the plot. Has that always been the case?
In short, yes, which is a challenging decision from a craft point of view. I’ve wondered, since writing—why aren’t there more narratives about abortion? But I think I know the answer, and it’s that abortion is anti-narrative in a way pregnancy isn’t. A pregnancy generates narrative: things are changing, there’s an obvious progression. But when you start a book with an abortion, you’re starting with something that’s ended, which causes certain problems in terms of the plot.
Still I don’t like the version of this story where a girl’s pregnant and she’s waffling. I didn’t want Nadia to be indecisive. As a writer I’m interested in the aftermath of things—the events that happen after someone has already decided. That is more complicated, and more interesting to me.
What has surprised you or not surprised you about the way people react to the role of abortion in the book?
It’s surprised me how weird of a topic it is for people to talk about, as common as a procedure as this is, and as much as we’re constantly debating it politically. I’ll be at the dentist, and he’ll be like, “What’s your book about?” And I’ll be thinking, well, you’ve known me since I was five but I guess we’re just going to go there.
It might sound like a cheap out, but I really didn’t debate the “should she or shouldn’t she” question while I was writing. She just did. And people will interpret Nadia’s decision very differently depending on their politics: for example, conservative people imagine it to be an act she’ll be wrecked by for the rest of the book.
Abortion is a type of violence that’s made aggressively visible in America, and through a lot of effort, considering that the act is inherently private. Racial violence, on the other hand, is the opposite: it’s everywhere, out in public, institutional, and it passes for invisible all the same.
A lot of your work has been about the latter type of violence rather than the former, how our racist past hides in plain sight: you’ve written about Addy the American Girl doll, the tradition of white terrorism, the history of black people barred from the pool. Writing about race online with a quick turnaround and a comment section attached is different from writing about abortion in a manuscript you’ve been working on for years; I’m wondering how it’s felt to go from one to the other really quickly.
Writing about race in public has been an incredible opportunity. To have that platform has been good; it’s been valuable to me. But certainly there’s something very strange in going from a person who only shares her writing in workshop to someone who editors will hit up when something is happening. And that I remain a little wary of. I never want to be this “go-to black person”—someone you call when something happens to black people, which usually means something bad.
I feel very conflicted about the fact that my writing career has benefited from violence against black people. It’s not like there’s a causal relationship, but there’s some degree to which that’s upsetting—which doesn’t negate the fact that I still feel a responsibility to use my voice in that way. I just try to stay protective of my writing. I don’t want to publish things that I don’t feel are necessary. Do I feel like I’m saying something that no one really is? Do I think I’m expressing it in a way that’s needed? If I don’t feel like my opinion is needed, I’ll tell people no.
What a concept! Last question: in workshop once, someone asked you very earnestly “what your book had to say about blackness in America.” I’ll never forget how stupid that sounded. I have no interest in asking you that question (you’ll be asked it often enough when your book comes out, too) but what I do want to ask you is what your book had to say to you—period. What did writing it put you in dialogue with?
Well, I grew up with this book. I started writing it when I was about 17 or 18, so either in college or about to go to college—and then started working on it more seriously in college and then grad school. So when I started writing The Mothers, I was the same age the characters were. I grew up as the characters stayed the same.
And I thought the book was going to take place just in one summer. But then as I got older, I realized something obvious—that the coming-of-age process doesn’t happen so neatly. The book, I think, is about this central question of how girls grow into women when the female figures who are supposed to usher you into womanhood aren’t there. How girls come of age with that absence. And it’s about how communities are shaped by loss, this thing I keep writing about—how in moments of grief, community can be both a source of comfort and a source of oppression. My main character feels this responsibility to her community yet wants to escape it at the same time. And I was interested in this complexity, as well as the experience of being a young black woman in a community that expects a lot of her, in a world that expects very little.
The Mothers will be published by Riverhead Books in October 2016.