T&C talks to promising young author Brit Bennett.
BRIT BENNETT’S DEBUT MAKES A TOWERING IMPACT.
It’s hard to believe Brit Bennett was only 17 years old when she began writing The Mothers (Riverhead Books), the comingof-age novel that earned rave reviews from media outlets before it hit bookstores last fall. Though it is a study of modern black America, The Mothers was lauded for resonating effortlessly with readers across all backgrounds. “The novel speaks to some universal themes: loss, grief, family, faith,” says Bennett, who is now 26. “But I never imagined that so many readers would connect to this story.”
Bennett shares a few life experiences with her protagonist, Nadia Turner, who is also 17 when the story begins—both are precocious and driven (Bennett attended Stanford University and earned her MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan while finishing the book), and both hail from Oceanside, California. When we meet Nadia, she is a beautiful and promising student whose mother has just committed suicide, leaving her to cope alongside a stoic, grieving father who spends most of his time in church. There, the titular “Mothers”— their fellow church volunteers—whisper and speculate about the family’s tragedy and the other incidents that ensue in the years to come, particularly the romance between Nadia and the pastor’s injured football player son, Luke Sheppard, and Nadia’s friendship with the chaste Aubrey Evans. “Originally, I imagined Aubrey as the main character, but later I realized that Nadia’s secret was the most interesting part of the story,” Bennett shares. “I remained intrigued by the friendship of two different girls and wondered what would happen if Luke came between them.”
Bennett, who also grew up participating in church, says that the book is partly inspired by the experience of being a young person in a minority group bound by their faith. Though she has previously expressed her political frustrations (her essay entitled “I Don’t Know What to Do With Good White People,” penned for Jezebel, went viral in 2014), The Mothers isn’t one of her outlets—even as it deals with Nadia’s abortion, which is the incident that propels the story forward. Says Bennett, “I had always wanted to go to college and I knew that a teenage pregnancy was one way to derail those plans, so I wrote in the direction of those fears and imagined what a girl in that situation might do.”
As the novel’s three main characters grow up, each strives to leave behind fragments of their past, though it is Nadia who manages to break free from their community after heading Midwest to the University of Michigan. She spends semesters and breaks in Oxford and France, and does the kind of worldly things that Luke, Aubrey, and the Mothers back in her hometown can only aspire to. Years later, when Nadia returns home as an adult, the three learn to coexist as their shared history continues to be the subject of hushed conversations within their church.
“I didn’t set out to do this, but it became a story about motherhood where mothers were largely absent,” Bennett surmises. “In a way, that challenges the myth of absent black fatherhood because in this novel’s world, fathers are present. I was reflecting the world I come from, where families come in different forms.”
Though Bennett clearly has an aptitude for writing about modern times, she isn’t afraid to explore other periods and themes. “My next novel opens in the mid-20th century,” she shares. “I think we’ve entered a pretty terrifying moment where political factions across the world are consolidating power by harnessing racism, xenophobia, and religious bigotry, so it’ll be interesting to write about a time when the world was still reeling from the aftermath of global fascism when it seems like it may have made its return.” The Mothers is available at national Book store.