T&C talks to promis­ing young au­thor Brit Ben­nett.


Town & Country (Philippines) - - CONTENTS / APRIL - By Man­ica C. Tiglao

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.

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