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Black History Month

Award-winning author Brit Bennett talks ‘Roots,’ religion, and ‘The Color Purple’

Digging into the historical and cultural influences behind acclaimed novel ‘The Mothers’

Brit Bennett is one of the most celebrated debut novelists of 2016. Her book, The Mothers, follows the coming-of-age of Nadia Turner following the suicide of her own mother, who had her when she was just 17. Set in contemporary Oceanside, California, Nadia is 17 herself when she gets pregnant. Unlike her mother, Nadia chooses to have an abortion, a choice that haunts her through adulthood. The book is marked by the tsk-tsking and knowing clucks of the church mothers, who narrate the goings-on of Nadia’s life.

Bennett, 26, began working on the idea that would blossom into The Mothers when she was 17, and began seriously workshopping the story while in the University of Michigan’s M.F.A. program. Bennett cites S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind as two pivotal early literary influences. Scarlett O’Hara set off an interest in unlikable female protagonists, not just in books, but on television as well. She rides pretty hard for A Different World’s Whitley Gilbert, as played by Jasmine Guy. “Part of the charm of this main character was that she was a terrible person,” Bennett said.

Like her leading lady, Bennett grew up in Oceanside and attended the University of Michigan. She uses The Mothers in part to critique the environment she encountered at Michigan, one that’s typical of many predominantly white college campuses, where the assumption of a liberal political atmosphere can mask and deny the racial alienation students of color often experience.

How did you develop the voice of the church mothers?

Originally there was this third-person voice that was narrating the whole book. It was this omniscient voice. I remember thinking about it and there was a way that voice felt old. It didn’t feel like it belonged to Nadia or the characters in her generation. It was just the voice of the church and then, over time, I started thinking about church mothers and the role of black women in churches. Realizing that that voice I was hearing was old and felt vaguely female, I was like, OK, let me see if I can write it from these characters who were just in the book. They would be mentioned here and there, but actually telling it from their perspective. I was channeling older black women that I’ve known all my life.

What did they say?

[My mom] would sometimes say to me how she felt like in midst of the civil rights movement, there was so much optimism about where black people could go. Somewhere in between then and now that optimism has withered. It was that view that ‘we worked so hard to get your generation here and what have you all done with that.’ That was a take I heard a lot growing up. ‘Yeah, we did all of this for you guys and here you are.’ It was that sense of this diminished promise that I had grown up hearing and rejected on principle as a member of my generation. We’re not that bad, we’re doing what we can.

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What do they expect?

I don’t know what they expect. I think there are moments of hearing that type of thing, of like ‘you’re not the legacy we thought we were building. Your generation, with your rap and your whatever’ … I was interested in that gap between generations. Ways that generations fail to communicate with each other. It was fun to sort of be on the other side and write from that perspective and not just my own.

I wonder about your relationship with faith, and how that colored the way you portrayed the church. Aubrey is deeply involved with the mothers, but she doesn’t come off like a religious ideologue, though it’s clear this community is very important to her.

She’s been fortunate to find new family. That matters to her more than ideology. I’ve always been very ambivalent about religion and unsure of the role of my own doubts when it comes to belief. I’ve always felt like to doubt was the worst thing you could do and [I] grew up hearing that. One workshop criticism I had was that all the characters were lukewarm Christians. If it takes place in a church, do they need to believe more? Is it a bad thing that there aren’t really a lot of characters that are the type that [are] very ideologically strong? I don’t know. I wasn’t really interested in writing that type of book [but] I am interested in ambivalent characters. [Nadia’s] grown up in this space her whole life, but doesn’t really commit to anything.

Do you still go to church?

I do. I think one of the best books that exists that is about God is The Color Purple. Alice Walker says in [the] intro, it surprises her that people so rarely talk about [The Color Purple] as a book that’s about God, even though the letters that Celie writes are addressed to God. But people rarely frame it in that way. It is so often framed as this feminist text. Or a queer text — which it is. It’s all of those things, but I think that’s one of the best novels about God — without really being about church. Where my book is about church without really being about God.

Speaking of The Color Purple, when we get to the part where Nadia and Aubrey are cementing their friendship, I wondered if this was going to turn into a story where they end up experimenting with each other, but then that didn’t happen.

I wouldn’t say that all same-sex relationships are vaguely homoerotic. I won’t say that, but there is this intimacy of their friendship. That really is the emotional center of the book. It’s the most important relationship in the book. It’s like this idea that Scarlett O’Hara spends the whole book chasing this dude and then her main romantic rival [Melanie Hamilton] dies and then she realizes that really the love of her life, was this friend [Melanie]. It wasn’t really the guy at all. She doesn’t even want him. Our culture often prioritizes romantic relationships, like this is the important relationship in your life. My friendships are way more important than any person I might date or have dated.

We could think of Luke as a placeholder dude.

When I first started writing the character he was very flat. He was this dude that she dates and he abandons her and kind of just fades into the ether. An obstacle for her to overcome. As I began writing more, I was like, that’s boring. He needs to have more dimensions. What I’ve come to understand Luke as: He’s a f—boy with a heart of gold. He means well, but still is going to screw up, but feels bad. He’s not totally terrible, but he’s not that type of person you should end up with. I also wanted him to have more complicated feelings about the abortion because again it was supereasy to just make him scared. What if he’s the one who really regrets the decision? Which to me was a complicated thing emotionally to think about, politically. Like, how much say does he really deserve? I was so resistant, like how dare you really weigh in? It’s not your body. It was this practice of empathy to have to put myself in this position of this guy and think of what he would think about, because he’s totally not in the position to take care of this kid. It’s not like he had a good alternate solution. For all we know, he could have tried to talk her into keeping the baby and then go off and do whatever. Who knows what this guy would have done. He’s a character who constantly thinks about these lost chances in his life.

Speaking of the politics, there’s not really a space to be like, ‘I have these feelings about these things.’

Even just the idea of regret is often used to manipulate women or to make this argument [that] you are not allowed to make this choice, because you will regret it. For me, I wanted to be in that space between, where she makes this decision and she knows it was the best decision for her to make, but she does regret the fact that she was in a position to make that decision in the first place.

I think that’s really common.

It’s more complicated than this easy political dichotomy of you are pro-choice or you are pro-life. I mean, I had two people tell me about abortions in their own lives yesterday. I’ve had people hit me up on social media about it. People just wanting to tell somebody about this thing that they’ve experienced, that we have this culture of shame surrounding. Having very complicated feelings, because people are complicated. We’re more complicated than these dichotomies that are useful politically.

One thing that stood out to me was that the narrators repeatedly referred to it not as ‘abortion’ but ‘surgery.’ Was that a deliberate choice to use that particular word?

Well, sonically, ‘abortion’ is an unpleasant word. Writing this book has required many conversations with strangers about abortion. Because it’s such a politicized topic, it is also a very politicized word, so I catch myself saying, ‘a person who chooses to terminate the pregnancy.’ I’ve seen different ways people have avoided using that word. Sometimes it’ll be like, ‘she decides not to keep the baby,’ which is true but vague. That could be adoption, that could be anything. There are moments when to maintain the comfort of [an] interaction, I will elect to avoid using this word. I feel very cowardly when I do that.

That feels like very similar to the way we talk about race.

Yeah, I think so too. This is not polite conversation, talking about race. It’s not polite conversation to start talking about police brutality to strangers. That’s part of the issue though; we’re not communicating about these issues with a degree of complexity they deserve.

There’s a part where you talk about white people from rural Michigan coming to Ann Arbor and being like, ‘Oh, my God, diversity.’ Which is very different maybe from what a student of color feels like every day.

I had this white lady came up to me in one of the other cities I was in, and she said, ‘I was just so sorry to hear that you hate Michigan.’ I didn’t hate Michigan, I had a good time there. I made great friends that I still talk to. I love visiting. I learned a lot. I finished my book there. I don’t hate it. That being said, it was challenging in a lot of ways. I went to undergrad at Stanford. I hung out in the black community. I lived in the black people dorm, I was in [Black Student Union]. For a student body of 6,000 undergrads, there was a decent black community there. Then I end up in this town in the Midwest that is 70 percent white, and a lot of these kids are coming from places that are even whiter than that. They get to Ann Arbor and they’re just like, ‘This is the New York of Michigan.’

Teaching [as a grad student], I saw that perspective. I was trying to make these kids be woke. I made them watch that 30 for 30 on the Fab Five. This is a side of your university that you have not seen. They’re young, so they didn’t live through that. But their minds were blown that alumni were sending racist letters about these kids on the basketball team. They could not fathom that in their university. I’m like, you guys, this was within my lifetime, this is not long ago. That was an eye-opening experience talking to some of those undergrads who are coming into consciousness about these issues. I had to go through that learning process on my own. I just got started on it a lot earlier, because I had to be.

For self-preservation purposes.

Right. My parents were like, ‘You are going to learn about this.’ I was probably the most insufferable child because I was always like, ‘Actually, this is a lie.’ I told one of my teachers, ‘You know Abraham Lincoln didn’t free the slaves because he wanted to. He had to do that.’ I remember her just being like, ‘Oh, thank you for that.’ I was 7 or 8. I was that 12-year-old kid that wanted to read Roots before I ever saw Roots.

Where did you read that as a kid?

I don’t remember, [but] that was a really emotionally intense experience for me to read that book. I still remember Kizzy’s rape; that was the most traumatizing thing to me. I feel like people always talk about Kunta Kinte getting his foot chopped off, but to me it’s Kizzy’s rape. A lot of books I read shaped my racial consciousness, [and] that was definitely one of them. [The Color Purple] also influenced me because it’s about relationships between women. There are all these different relationships with women that can be romantic, can be sexual, can be platonic, can be familiar in all these different ways. It’s this multifaceted struggle and I love that. I know that was one of the reasons why that book and film are so heavily criticized. To me it’s so important, so beautiful. Probably one of my favorite quotes about religion is that quote of, ‘I think God gets pissed off if you walk by a field of purple and you don’t notice it.’ To me, I’m like, ‘Yes.’ You know?

Liner Notes

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.