Brit Bennett Talks The Mothers & The Women Who Shape Our Lives

In Brit Bennett's debut novel, The Mothers, a young woman grieving the death of her mom falls into a relationship with the church pastor's son, has an abortion, and then has to live with the consequences. But those repercussions aren't necessarily what you might think — and therein lies the brilliant beauty of this book, which challenges the judgements we make about women's choices, and the people who make those judgements to begin with.

Bennett, who graduated from Stanford before going on to the Helen Zell Writers' Program at the University of Michigan, has written one of fall's most anticipated works of fiction. But once upon a time, she wasn't entirely sure she could stay the novelist course. The idea for The Mothers formed when she was in college, and fortunately she wound up with mentors who told her to pursue it.

"I was so young that if somebody would have been like, ‘This is trash,’ I might have listened to them," she recounted over coffee on a balmy September morning. Thankfully, she kept at it, and the result is a smart, insightful story about the unique ways in which women need one another, the ways only women are capable of hurting each other, and how a decision you make when you're young can ripple like a bullet through the rest of your life — whether you regret it, or not.

First off, who are "the mothers"?
"They are the church mothers who sort of narrate the story — these older women at the church who kind of serve as a moral compass, but a moral compass whose arrow is not pointing north. I was very interested in the way that mothering is an act, and not just like a static identity of who you are if you have a child. It’s something I didn’t do consciously, but now that I look back I see the ways in which motherhood, or mothering, refracts through the whole book.”
Is the church in the book reflective of your own upbringing or community?
"Somewhat: I grew up in the church, but not in a church that small, so it was kind of based on my best friend’s church. The church she went to, people would notice from week [to week] if you weren’t there and comment on it. I think to some extent, it was drawn from the older Black women in my life who love me and care about me but also are judgey."

In the first moments of the story, the main character gets pregnant and decides to have an abortion. But even though the book is catalyzed by that event, it's neither a deep, dark secret she regrets every day, nor something she never thinks about again. We don't usually tell that story about having an abortion.
"I was also aware of that dichotomy — and very consciously trying to push back on it. I’m not interested in convincing people how they should feel one way or another; on the other hand, I am aware of the way in which emotion [around abortion] is often so manipulated. For me, it was sort of a balancing act of thinking about the way in which she does think back about it and it does affect her life, but is not something that damages her forever or ruins her."
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I just love seeing stories about characters who come from these different backgrounds. But that’s not the whole story. That’s not anybody’s entire life.

Brit Bennett
I feel it's important to mention that this is a young Black woman going through something that is a pretty average female experience, but one that isn't often told from a nonwhite perspective.
"I just wanted to write a book about regular Black people. I feel like we — our culture — really loves historical Black narratives, like whether it’s the popularity of slave movies or civil rights, Black people only have resonant stories that already happened. There are rarely stories about Black people that are set in the future, and people don’t really want to talk about Black people just living lives now.

"That’s one reason I like the new show Atlanta: It’s just like Black people just talking. That’s not to say it’s not inflected by race, or it’s not framed or shaped by race, because life is inflected by race and shaped by race. But I really was interested in these characters whose main conflicts are not racism... We all live in racialized bodies, so we experience race in different ways. But that’s not to say the major conflicts of our life are necessarily racially based. Sometimes they are — and obviously, I’m writing from experience that is very different than writers who came before me.

"My mom grew up in the Jim Crow south, so the things I’m saying would probably sound crazy to her. She couldn’t try on shoes in a store because she was Black: They had to take a piece of string and measure your foot and then take the string to the store. So something as casual as buying shoes was a racial experience [for her] growing up. I’m speaking from a different perspective in time; I grew up in a very racially diverse place and it wasn’t majority white, but it also wasn’t majority Black.

"I just love seeing stories about characters who come from these different backgrounds. But that’s not the whole story. That’s not anybody’s entire life. It's the scale of being human: It encompasses so many different things, including race, including gender, including sexuality, class, all of those things. But it’s not restricted to that."

I think you could apply that same thinking to motherhood: Like, you can be a mom, but that doesn't mean that's the only thing you are, or even necessarily your primary identity.
"Right, exactly. I’m not a mom, but I feel like there’s so much pressure on what it means to be a mother, and I think that pressure is also racialized often. This idea of bad Black mothers, that trope is weirdly common in culture. It’s inflected by class and a lot of other things, but that was something that I wanted to sort of take on, these mothers that are all very imperfect. But also I wanted to strive toward humanizing them or making them not seem like these monsters."

Is there anything else in particular you want people to take away from The Mothers?
"Sometimes, with the books that I read, it’s like: Okay, this is intellectually stimulating, but it leaves me cold. I don’t want my book to do that. I want my book to just leave people feeling something. Whatever that is — if it’s anger at the character, frustration, whatever — I just want you to feel something.”

The Mothers by Brit Bennett debuts October 11, 2016.
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