Brit Bennett on Writing an Acclaimed Novel About Black Women's Complex Lives

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by Kimberly Foster

In her debut novel The Mothers, Brit Bennett writes Black women carefully. These characters are not pristine or precious. Instead, they are provided complex and compelling inner lives. 

This attention to an oft-neglected interiority makes Bennett's best-selling debut an unmissable read. 

The Mothers became one of 2016's most critically-acclaimed books and made Bennett a rising star in literary circles. She's now crafting a screenplay for a film adaptation produced by Kerry Washington.

I talked to the author about the politics of crafting rich, Black characters and how she's managing success.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity*

We're basically the same age. People ask questions about my work and my age a lot. I'm going to ask you, how does it feel to be a critically-acclaimed author and a best-selling novelist at 26?
It feels good. It feels really good, but I think also I never necessarily wanted to, like, "Oh, I've got to publish a novel by the time I'm 25." I didn't really set out to do that. I think the stars aligned in a way for me that allowed this to happen so young. I'm grateful for it, but it's also not something that I really foresaw, or tried to make happen.

I assume that you want to write more books. Do you feel any pressure moving forward? Are you even thinking of the next book?
Yes. I started the next book. I think my book came out among a lot of hype, and I think that's exciting as a debut author because you want people to be paying attention. You want your book to be on someone's radar, and it's exciting that people were so enthusiastic about the book so early on. That was great.

There was also a way in which that becomes stressful because you worry about living up to the expectations, and all that stuff. I think I've just had to tell myself the hype exists outside of me, and there's nothing I can do to create it, and there's nothing I can do to end it if I want to. I try to just focus on what I can focus on, which is the next book.

I think at the end of the day my standards for myself will always be higher than anybody else's expectation for me. That's something I just have to put my head down, and get back to work.

Does writing keep you centered?
Yes. I think I'm the type of person who has to write everyday. I haven't been able to recently with all the sort of publication stuff, but it makes me feel off when I'm not writing or if I haven't written something that day. I know that not everybody is like that, but that's just kind of my thing.

It makes me feel good to write something each day, and to feel like I've created something new that didn't exist.

When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer?
I wanted to write from when I was really little. I remember writing short stories when I was eight or nine, or whatever. I was in elementary school. I would write these short stories, and I wrote screenplays, and I wrote all these other little things through growing up, but I don't think it was something that I took seriously. I didn't really think that you could make a living as a writer. It didn't seem like a real career that you could do. It just seemed like this sort of pipe dream.

When I got to college I finally met writers, and met people who kind of mentored me and showed me there is a way that you could try to make a life as a writer.

You didn't feel like writing was going to be a viable career option because you didn't see any writers in your life?
Yes. I'd never seen that modeled for me, so to me to be a writer was as fantastical as being a movie star, or something, growing up. I think once I actually met people, and I saw the different ways that people make livings as writers, that became something that became more real to me, and it was something that I realized I felt passionate about, and I wanted to take the chance and see what happens.

Do you remember the first book you fell in love with?
Yes. I think it was The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton. I read that book when I was probably in elementary school. A teacher gave it to me, and I remember just really loving this book about this group of friends, and tragedy strikes, and then the book just ripped my heart out, and it was something that it was the type of book that made me want to write. It could be because the author was young when she wrote that book, so I remember sort of seeing that as kind of a challenge of "Okay, let me see if I could write a novel. Let me see if I could write 200 pages, or write 300 pages." That's definitely one of the first books I remember that really wracked me emotionally, and made me want to be a writer.

Your novel,  The Mothers, is brilliant, and I love the way that it centers Black womanhood, and the ways that Black women navigate society. It's not overbearing. It's not overwrought. I'm wondering about centering Black women's experiences. How do you make that choice?

I think generally I write about Black women. I did also want to write about Black masculinity in this book and think about these male characters, how they would navigate the situations everyone finds themselves in, but at the end of the day I think I am really interested in all these intersections between or among race and gender and sexuality, the way all that converges in this story about this small community.

How do you approach exploring Black masculinity as a Black woman?
I think it was something that came about later in the book. I never thought that would be the storefront of the book. I think particularly in the case of Luke, I became really interested in how this young male character would respond to this unwanted pregnancy and later this abortion. I think that's often a perspective that's missing when we talk about abortion, culturally. Originally, I think he was kind of this flat character who responds as we might assume a young man would respond, where he's just sort of relieved that he's escaped this responsibility. I think over time I realized that was pretty boring, and I wanted him to be a more complex character.

That was particularly important to me because I think often young, Black male characters are not allowed, not afforded really any complexity, or any sort of rich interior life. I wanted him to be an emotionally complex character, and I think that he's the type of character that has both entranced and frustrated people who have read the book. At least people have told me this, which I enjoy because that's how people are in real life. We're flawed. We make mistakes. We have regrets. I think he's that type of character. It was important for me. Like you're saying, I'm a woman. I have not lived this experience as a young, Black man.

I thought about men that I knew who, again, were flawed, but also have these rich lives, and are emotionally complex. I wanted to portray that.

There's a really well-known adage in feminist communities, "the personal is political." I wonder if you feel like your art is political, your writing is political.
I think it is in the sense that I'm not hesitant to engage with politics. I think to write about abortion is inherently a political decision because you're speaking about something that is a very polarizing topic, and that people do have very strong emotional reactions to. I think regardless of what happened in the book, to even write about an abortion is a political decision.

That being said, I don't think of it as a political book. I don't think of it as a book that's attempting to argue one way or another about how someone should feel about any of these issues. I don't know. I think there is a quickness with which people like to read fiction by authors of color as political, and they're hesitant to do the same for white authors. I think there's a way in which I also push back against that. To construct an all-white world is a political decision, and it's just as political as constructing a black community like I did.

That's exactly what I mean. I don't think you're explicitly making a statement about a broader politics, but I think that what you're doing by exploring the interiority of black men, exploring the inner lives of black women in a world in which that is denied us, that is a statement in and of itself.

How was a book tour for you as a debut author?
I like talking to people, and seeing people who are really excited about the book, or people who have read it, and have reactions to the book. It's fun, but it's been a whirlwind, and certainly nothing I ever expected.

When people discuss their reactions to the book with you, are there any particular themes that they bring up?
I think the surprising thing to me has been, and perhaps it shouldn't be surprising, but the two things people want to talk about the most are abortion and race. To me that's been an interesting trend. I don't know if it's going to hold up throughout all these places I'm visiting. Both readings I've done so far somebody has asked a question about abortion, and someone has asked a question about race. It's interesting to me that those are both seen as, like you were saying, these two political topics, even though in my mind their political nature is so different. One is a decision, and one is just an identity. There's a way in which those are both sort of these really tense political discussions that people have been bringing up.

They haven't been unpleasant questions, unpleasant conversations, but it's been interesting to me that those have been the two things that people want to talk about.

It seems that you approach these topics unselfconsciously. Is that how it comes to you?
I knew that this was going to be a book about this girl who gets pregnant, decides to terminate the pregnancy. For me, that was just it's a decision that millions of people make everyday. It's a decision that's politically polarizing, but it's also something that just happens.  Over time I realized that was going to be the engine that drove forward the story, and it really caused a lot of ripples throughout the church community.

I worked on this book for a while, so it took a lot of twists and turns as it developed. I grew a little bit, and the story became a lot bigger and more expansive than I originally imagined. I had a few things I knew I wanted to explore walking into it, and I knew one of those things was going to be that this abortion happens and causes an upheaval in this church.

Let's talk about religion a little bit. What role has religion played in your life?
I grew up in the church. I grew up going both to Catholic Church, and to sort of like a black Protestant non-denominational church. That was a very normal part of my upbringing. My parents are fairly religious. I think I was always just interested in those types of communities.

The next project I'm working on is not about a church, necessarily, but it engages with Black Catholicism. My mom is a Black Catholic, and I think that is something that surprises people often. She's from Louisiana, so it's not unusual there, but I think a lot of people are just like "Black Catholics? What is that?"

I'm always interested in these communities and how people are brought together by their beliefs and how they're also split apart by their beliefs. I'm always very interested in the nature of belief and the nature of doubt and how that manifests and how the church communities can be such sources of support and love, but can also often be so oppressive, and so judgmental.

In this book, what are you exploring about the relationship between religion and sexuality, about women's bodily autonomy?
That's a good question. I don't know. I think I'm just generally sort of interested in the ways in which the degree to which women have power within religion. I think particularly within the Black church it's particularly interesting because, at least in my experiences, Black women do so much of the labor that really upholds the church, whether ...

That's not just your experience.
Right. I'm always hesitant to generalize, but I feel like that's probably, generally, true. The idea of doing the sort of unseen labor. The idea of Black women doing so much labor that really makes the church run but often not having any of the actual institutional power. It's just this idea of Black women doing a lot of the unseen labor that really sustains churches, and often being silenced or disparaged, or controlled through religion.

I think that the book follows this character who makes this decision that she knows will be seen as bad and shameful within her community, and that causes her to keep it as a huge secret through these years, and that secret ends up having huge ramifications for her life. And not only her life but the church itself. I think I really liked the idea of thinking about power in that way, and I think that's what the church mothers I think do also because they are characters who don't, again, do not have institutional power, but because they are the storytellers they are the ones who are gossiping, and sort of spreading the news of the church they actually have a huge amount of power. I like that tension. I wanted to explore that in the book.

What type of messaging did you get around sex and sexuality? How was that in your religious experience?
I always felt like there was a huge sort of divide between the spirit and the body, and the idea that the flesh is sinful was something that I grew up hearing in a sort of abstract sense. In a very concrete sense, it was: premarital sex is bad, homosexuality is bad. There wasn't a lot of conversation about abortion, but I vaguely knew that it was a sort of evil thing you shouldn't do.

I had a lot of fear about sexuality as a kid, and I was always very worried that I could make a mistake and end up pregnant. Then what would I do? I wanted to go to college and wanted to do all these different things, and I felt like that was the thing that could really ruin me. I had a lot of fear and anxiety about that, that I grew up hearing in the church.

I don't know. I think this idea of separating the spirit and the body is something that I'm constantly thinking about the implications of that, and how that belief effects how you feel about yourself, and how you feel about your relationships and everything. That, again, has these huge wide ranging ramifications.

Does writing a novel like this, working through it, help you process some of the messaging that you were taught?
I think now that I'm a little bit older and I can think back on my adolescence and teen years and the things I was afraid of then and the ways I thought of relationships then–I thought of relationships as being these really fraught things. It's not just fun and games or "I like this person." It's like "Oh, but if you're not careful this relationship could ruin your future."

In the book, thinking about this character whose mother got pregnant at a young age and had her, she also has the weight of that history sort of bearing in on her–this idea that she is supposed to do better than her mother did.

She's not supposed to repeat the same mistakes, but she finds herself in the situation where she also gets pregnant at a young age and makes a different decision. I think working on the novel did allow me to revisit some of the things I learned or heard growing up and start to challenge them a little bit more, I think.

You mentioned the theme of intergenerational trauma. What do you think this book highlights about that theme, about that idea?
I think there are things we inherit from parents and grandparents that sometimes we're aware of it and sometimes we're not aware of. I think sometimes we reject that inheritance, and sometimes we welcome it.

I was interested in the way that the main female characters, Nadia and Aubrey, they both are missing mothers through very different circumstances. The ways in which they lose their mothers effects not only how they feel about being daughters, but also how they feel about being mothers someday.

Nadia in the wake of losing her mom finds herself pregnant, and she's not only not in any position to raise a child, but she's just lost her mother. She's looking for a mother, she's not looking to be somebody's mother.

Aubrey, on the other hand, is abandoned by her mother, and not protected by her mother. The way she feels about motherhood is very complicated by that. I think a lot of the book is about the intergenerational trauma, but also just intergenerational communication, and miscommunication. I think there are ways in which generations fail to understand each other, and talk past each other, or talk at each other. That's something that I always observed growing up, this failure to actually communicate among generations. That was something that I also wanted to think about for the book.

You said that there's a lot of talk about race surrounding this book. Do you think that's a byproduct of the current cultural moment?
I think it's that. I think it's also some people who have read my nonfiction, which is very explicitly about race. I think they want to read those things in conversation with each other. I'm sure there are some connections, there's some overlaps. I think I set out to do something in fiction that's not necessarily the same that I set out to do in nonfiction. I think there are people who are looking for it to be the same thing. I think it's that. I think it's the cultural moment. We're in a moment where we're thinking about and talking about race all the time.

I just think for a lot of people it's a depiction of Black life in a way that is new to them or it's different to them. I've had people remark about the fact that the book isn't set in the south, or it's not set in the urban north–the idea that if you're writing about Black people, and it's not Mississippi, or it's not New York or Chicago, people don't really know what to do with that. I think there's also this sense that there is a portrayal of Black life that is not familiar to a lot of people, and it's not something that they really imagine or expect. They want to talk about that, also.

Kimberly Foster is the founder and editor-in-chief of For Harriet. 

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