“We were girls once, as hard as that is to believe.”
So begins Brit Bennett’s debut novel, “The Mothers”; a story covering topics from abortion and infidelity, to race and suicide, all within 288 pages. Booksmart Tulsa brought Brit Bennett to Central Library for an evening to discuss all this and more.
Brit Bennett was born and raised in Southern California. She received her undergraduate degree in English from Stanford University before going on to pursue her M.F.A. in fiction at the University of Michigan. Bennett’s career took off after her 2014 essay, “I Don’t Know What to Do With Good White People”, was published in “Jezebel” by a classmate from Michigan who Bennett had sought advice from. Her essay had over one million views in just three short days and allowed some her other nonfiction essays to generate critical acclaim. 2016 saw the publishing of her novel “The Mothers” by Riverhead Books.
Bennett began the night by thanking everyone for coming out since she was in a city where she didn’t know anybody and therefore couldn’t rely on her friends and family to show up to pad the crowd. She then proceeded to read a chapter of her book describing the two types of men in the world; “men who are and men who ain’t about shit.” The audience nodded in consensus when Bennett claimed we had all loved an “ain’t shit man”.
It was fitting that the large majority of attendees were women, considering that the novel revolved mostly around the inner workings of female relationships. The main character of the book, Nadia, is constantly being judged by the chorus of church mothers who narrate the novel and create a divide of misunderstanding between the young and old of the community. Because Nadia has recently lost her mother to suicide, the eyes of the community are often affixed on her and her typical teenage behaviors are viewed as promiscuous and uncouth since her affections land upon the pastor’s son, Luke. Nadia’s character is even further complicated by her seemingly incompatible friendship with Aubrey, a shy and studious churchgoer who lives with her sister and her sister’s girlfriend after escaping her life with her abusive father. Bennett identifies Nadia and Aubrey’s relationship as the main romance of the novel.
Bennett mentioned her research process when it came to crafting some of the male characters in this novel. Though the men definitely take a back burner to the complex characteristics and intricacies of the female relationships in the book, there are certain authenticities that Bennett really illustrates when it comes to the ways characters, such as Luke and Nadia’s father, behave. Bennett explained that perception of masculinity is often based on the ability for men to make decisions. In this vain, Luke’s masculinity is further challenged beyond his physical injury from a high school football game.
One of the most striking images within the novel is the fluidity of human beings and the fragile nature of relationships. In a restaurant where Luke works, Bennet is unable to hold on to the glasses he carries. He equates this to the way he let Nadia slip out of his life when he allowed her to abort her baby by avoiding her doctor’s appointment. And after all, Luke believed that the only reason he got to have sex with Nadia was because “she wanted him to fuck the sadness out of her.”
Bennett definitely acknowledged that the book was latent with sadness and a great many losses. However, she discussed some of the silver linings present in the novel in the form of love and strength. Though Nadia has her apparent setbacks and struggles, she learns to identify who she is and pursues who she wants to be without letting the people she’s grown up around influence her future. Later in life she is able to see her and her father’s relationship with more caring and compassionate eyes, now that she is able to recognize the ways her mother’s suicide must have affected him. And despite the rift between Nadia and Aubrey some way through the book, it is still very clear that the two girls care for each other deeply and were in each other’s lives when they needed one another most.
Bennett took a break from reading from the book and discussing her favorite moments of the plot to discuss some misconceptions or false inferences some readers had expressed to her upon finishing “The Mothers.” Bennett wanted to make clear that people shouldn’t view this book under a political lens or get too caught up in the factor of race. Race doesn’t necessarily drive the plot of the book forward so much as it shapes the personalities and lives of the characters. Furthermore, Bennett feels that political viewpoints require distinct ‘x or y’ responses, and that forces her book into a mold that it really doesn’t, nor should fit into. One of her classmates from Michigan said to her that she didn’t understand Nadia’s predicament because she “never thought about a woman regretting her abortion.” We as humans are so caught up in categorizing each other even though we can never possibly know or understand the entirety of someone else’s life. The point of the book is to highlight and evoke human connection rather than to force associations or polarize opinions.
Upon taking questions from the audience, Bennett described the fun she had in particular with writing the voice of the church mothers. She explains the intrinsic and external process that caused her to ask herself, “If I were 70 years older, how would I look at me?” She also discussed a chapter she had written from the perspective of Nadia’s mother beyond the grave and how although that section was removed before publication, it helped develop the sense of closeness that Nadia had had with her mother prior to the point of attack of the novel. She also explained her writing process as organic and ever-changing, though she sticks to some constants such as writing in the mornings before she has a chance to interact with the world, and working in coffee shops where she can feel people moving around her.
Bennett is currently working with Kerry Washington and Warner Bros. Studios on the movie adaptation of “The Mothers,” and is living in Hollywood in order to do so. The film has an all woman team — an anomaly within the film industry. Bennett concluded the evening by once again thanking everyone for coming out and making sure that any budding writers in the audience knew how special they were and how truly rare and special it is for people to be interested in your work.