Asking What It Means to Be THE MOTHERS: A Q&A with Brit Bennett

Article by Lydia

This week marks the release of one of the most buzzed-about novels coming out this fall: Brit Bennett’s THE MOTHERS. This book is one of those exciting debut novels that not only deserves every ounce of preceding hype, but also announces a brilliant new author we’re all looking forward to seeing more from.

From the first page, the rousing choral voice of the church mothers, who narrate from a perceptive but not-quite omniscient viewpoint and provide one of the many reflections of motherhood in the book, grabs you by the wrist and pulls you in.

“All good secrets have a taste before you tell them,” the church mothers explain in the first chapter, “and if we’d taken a moment to swish this one around our mouths, we might have noticed the sourness of an unripe secret, plucked too soon, stolen and passed around before its season.”

This unripe secret is no secret to the reader for most of the book, but the sour, lingering grief it causes flavors nearly every page. Bennett writes expertly of grief: as most of the characters in this book come to realize, “grief was not a line, carrying you infinitely further from loss. You never knew when you would be sling-shot backward into its grip.”

At the core of the story is the unlikely friendship between two girls—Aubrey, the pure, saintly girl who reads her Bible relentlessly and comes to every available service at Upper Room church, and Nadia, recently motherless and going wild with hurt and guilt, who has “already learned that pretty exposes you, and pretty hides you and like most girls, she hadn’t yet learned how to navigate the difference.”

As in all the best novels about friendship between women, the bond between Nadia and Aubrey stretches between the twin poles of great admiration and secret envy. Their friendship develops unexpectedly and tightens quickly into an intense, complex thing with both girls seeking something they need from someone who seems to be her opposite. Even at the end, when that angry, festering secret comes between them, both women still look to the other to be what she can’t.

While you’ll (hopefully) read many good books this fall and winter, Bennett’s warm, shimmering prose and deft, intelligent characterization sets THE MOTHERS apart, and this resonant, human story is one I urge you not to miss. If you happen to be in Houston this Friday, October 14th, I also urge not to miss the chance to see Bennett read from and sign copies of THE MOTHERS in our store at 7pm.

I was lucky enough to get to ask Bennett some questions about THE MOTHERS and her writing life over the phone, and have included her brilliant answers below.

Brazos Bookstore: One of the first things that really struck me about the book was the voice of the church mothers as this kind of amazing semi-omniscient narrator, a sort of Greek chorus. Can you tell me a bit about developing that voice?

Brit Bennett: It was something that emerged actually pretty late, maybe about a year or year-and-a-half after I started writing the book. Originally, there was this sort of omniscient narrator floating above the action of the book, and I think as I continued working on it, I realized that voice sounded older, so I started thinking about what would happen if I located that voice in actual characters in the book, and the church mothers popped into my head. Before that point, they had sort of been lingering in the back of the church and occasionally commenting on what was happening. So I decided to sort of run with that idea, and it was something I had a lot writing, channeling in these dusty older women who watching these young people and judging and commenting on their lives.

Brazos: And yeah, in doing that, you were sort of giving us a third generation of mothers to be another reflection of the several different ways mothers can be.

Bennett: I don't think I thought about that consciously at the time, but it’s something that emerged—asking, What does it mean to be the mothers of a community or of a church? Not the biological mothers, of course, but this idea of how that sort of motherhood would play out, in a book that has all different types of mothers, where motherhood is iterated in many different ways.

Brazos: Yes, it’s a very matriarchal, female-driven book, which I loved. And it’s really interesting to read a coming-of-age novel that’s so woman-centric and so concentrated on the female experience, when I feel like a lot of coming-of-age novels, even when the main character is a young woman, tend to be very male-dominated.

Bennett: Oh yeah, I mean, I’ve always been interested in the relationships between and among women. A lot of, if not most of the closest relationships in my life are with other women, whether that be my sisters or friends. And I do feel, like you said, the relationships between women are often trivialized or shown as the minor subplot to the main story of a romantic relationship between a man and a woman, for example. But I was really interested, particularly in this part of my life when friendships are so, so important, so I was really interested in the development of women’s friendships and that aspect of your early and mid twenties when that is such a huge part of your life.

Brazos: And with Nadia and Aubrey, you seem to playing with these stereotypical/archetypal roles—especially given the religious setting of the church and this conservative, often judgmental community— where women are often given a choice between two roles to fill, typecast as the virgin or the whore.

Bennett: I knew I didn't want to present that easy dichotomy, because, you know, it’s boring for women to read, and also nobody is really like that in one way or another. People are complicated. So I was really interested in these two girls, with this unlikely friendship, in what they want from each other and what they need from each other. They’re bonded by their motherlessness, and in some ways Nadia wants to be absolved because she feels like she has done this “wrong” thing by having this abortion, and she looks to Aubrey as this pure example, as someone who could absolve her. And in some ways Aubrey looks to Nadia as someone who does things she wishes she could do. She lives boldly, and she leaves their town and explores the world, and she does these things Aubrey admires.

Brazos: There’s something I’ve noticed and have heard other women writers talk about as well—there seems to be this constant assumption when women, especially young women, are writing young female characters that they are just these autobiographical self-insert characters.

Bennett: I mean people have asked me about certain aspects of the book being autobiographical—and in a sense it can be. Nadia grows up in a place similar to where I grew up, and she goes to college in the same place I went to college, so these things are I guess autobiographical in a way. But I have had a lot of people ask me that. My mother is still alive, and a lot of these things of course are not me. And it’s been sort of interesting to get those questions.

I think Roxane Gay said something to effect once: “Oftentimes the only thing women are allowed to be experts on is themselves.”

Brazos: Right, and I have imagine a lot of people are asking thinly-veiled questions about whether you personally have had an abortion.

Bennett: Oh not even thinly. I’ve had people ask what the book is about, and when I give the basic premise, they ask “Oh is that part autobiographical?” which is such an invasive question, especially coming from people I don't know.

It’s also been an eye-opening experience for me about the strange ways we talk about abortion in this country.

Brazos: On the subject of autobiographical: as someone who writes both literary fiction and nonfiction/journalism (and both incredibly well, I should say) how do you approach that differently?

Bennett: I guess the thing I try to do with both that’s similar is start with a question, with something I want to explore or something I’m not sure how I feel about, and think my way through it. Which is something I also try to do in fiction.

I think the thing that's been most different in writing nonfiction is that I feel more exposed. As the author there’s more distance in fiction—you can be like, well these are my characters and take a step back.

With nonfiction you’re putting yourself out there a little bit more. Also the nonfiction I’ve been writing has mostly been pretty topical. There’s a faster turnaround, you don't get as much time to process things, and shorter amount of time to try to think your way through things, which can be an interesting challenge but also really frustrating to me, this idea that you have to instantly know just how you feel about things.

Brazos: I was really struck by a quote from your feature in Vogue, where it said “Bennett rejects the idea that it’s her responsibility to translate black pain for white readers.” And, even as a white reader, I see this pressure or “responsibility” for black writers to sort of crystallize or simplify this incredibly complicated, often dangerous experience of being Black in America, to make it more poetic, to make it easy for white audiences to understand and relate to. Is this pressure something you feel in writing fiction as well as nonfiction?

Bennett: Yeah, that’s a good question. I’m starting to reach a point where whenever there’s a black tragedy, I might have several editors hit me up about it, asking “do you want to write about this for us?” And at first, I would think “Yeah I’d dream of being in these publications, so sure, I’ll write something about it.”

But I think I reached a point where I became frustrated with feeling like I’m saying the same thing over and over. Who am I writing to? Who am I trying to convince? You know if you’re someone who isn’t convinced by an actual video of an unarmed person being killed by the police, you’re not going to be convinced by me spending the time to write you this beautiful poetic essay, you know? So I’ve felt some frustration with that. But at the same time I also recognize that I’m a writer, this is the way I use my voice and this is something that’s very important to me. So it is something I continue to feel ambivalent about.

I think with fiction the thing is I’m not out here trying to convince a reader of my black character’s humanity. I’m writing about these characters and trying to convey the complexity of their lives, but I’m not trying to reach that person who already does not believe that black characters could have humanity. That’s not a reader I’m interested in engaging, and it’s not a conversation worthy of my time or attention. So I think that when it comes to fiction, I’m just trying to portray the complex interior lives of characters who are black, but I’m not going out of my way to reach someone who doesn't want to read a book about black characters.

I always go back to that Toni Morrison quote about the function of racism as distraction, and the idea that we have so many talented black writers out here every day saying Black Lives Matter, which is something that should go without saying. And I think, man, if we could put all that emotional energy and passion into something besides asserting our basic humanity, what could we be doing?

Brazos: I imagine it’s exhausting to be asked to write so quickly about these traumatic events when you haven’t even gotten to process it yet.

Bennett: Exactly, and sometimes I need to process this privately, I don't want to work through it publicly. Sometimes I don't want to have to translate another tragedy.

I wrote a piece about slave narratives recently. The slave narrators job is to convince white readers that slavery was bad, to translate this horrible, unthinkable experience and make it palatable, understandable. And there’s this similar idea that the role of the black writer is to basically do that.

To think that in 2016 we’re still asking black writers to do this is crazy to think about.

Brazos: Right, and there’s this idea that black pain has to be public to really exist.

Bennett: Exactly, to be real, there has to be this spectacle of black pain, it has to be witnessed by the public in order for it to be real and believable.

Brazos: Well this is kind of a 180 degree turn, but what books would you suggest for fans of THE MOTHERS? Since THE MOTHERS is about to give a lot of people serious book hangover.

Bennett: SALVAGE THE BONES by Jesamyn Ward is also about a girl in this precarious space between being a girl and being a woman. She finds herself pregnant in the midst of Hurricane Katrina hitting landfall, and it’s a really beautiful story about longing for motherhood and facing impending motherhood. I think there could be some interesting connections between that and my book.

And also THE TURNER HOUSE by Angela Flournoy, a gorgeous novel about a black family and the ideas of home ownership and home loss, about the American dream and what it means to gain it and what it means to lose it.

Brazos: And last question, if you can answer it: what are you working on now?

Bennett: A novel set in Louisiana around the time my mom was growing up there. It’s about sisterhood and family bonds, but I’m still on the first draft so I can’t tell you much more.

The Mothers Cover Image
ISBN: 9780399184512
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Riverhead Books - October 11th, 2016

Brit Bennett signs THE MOTHERS on Friday, October 14 at 7PM. Order your book now and we'll have it signed for you.

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