I sent someone a photo I had taken of a page from Brit Bennett’s debut novel, The Mothers. It was a passage written from the perspective of Luke Sheppard, the local pastor’s son. I told him it reminded me of something he had once said to me. “Brit gets us,” he replied. And from that brief passage, I wondered who ‘us’ was. Was it men? Was it me and him? Was it something else entirely, a category I hadn’t thought to think of? I hadn’t considered that my fascination with Bennett’s work could be summed up in a phrase so succinct. But as I thought more, it was true. Bennett does get us, if ‘us’ refers to people who live, and think, and experience deeply in the world. And isn’t that one of the best gifts that literature can offer—to understand and be understood?
The Mothers is a quiet, beautiful text. It considers decisions and how the ramifications of these individual choices spiral out, engulfing multiple lives. When seventeen-year-old Nadia Turner becomes pregnant by Luke, she chooses to have an abortion. That could be the end of it, but life is often more complicated than that, and as readers, we are given insight into how this decision affects the lives of the three protagonists in the years after, as well as the lives of the community that surrounds them. So much is packed into the pages of this novel, but it never feels overwhelming; instead, it is a story told with nuance and care. As a reader, it is easy to trust where Bennett is taking you. Surrender is necessary, but with someone who can craft stories as skillfully as she can, it isn’t painful. When Nadia Turner is finished with you, you won’t want to leave.
Everything I’ve read of Bennett’s work has felt like she’s known me a little—from her short story “Butterball” to her essays on American Girl dolls, segregated pools, and even Colson Whitehead’s most recent novel. In late 2014, when I came across her Jezebel essay, I knew she was a writer to look out for. Since then, Bennett’s work has been a constant in my life and I’m so pleased that through this novel, her work will soon be more of a constant in the lives of others as well.
I had the pleasure of speaking to Brit on the phone—a Friday afternoon in Manhattan, still the morning in Southern California.
The Rumpus: In an interview with Jia Tolentino for Jezebel, you said, “A pregnancy generates narrative: things are changing, there’s an obvious progression. But when you start a book with an abortion, you’re starting with something that’s ended.” In a way, your novel starts with two endings—a suicide and an abortion. Why did you decide to begin this way?
Brit Bennett: Good question… I mean, obviously this is an extremely political topic within our country, within the world. And often, the question is ‘oh, well, should you or should you not do this thing?’ To me, that was something that was very boring and I was more interested in, okay, this person’s made this choice, however you might feel about it personally, but what happens after they did that? So I didn’t want this scene where the person finds out that they’re pregnant and they’re waffling and what am I going to do? I didn’t want to go on like that for a hundred pages. For me, I always knew that she was going to make this choice. I just wanted to start there.
I think with her mother’s suicide, that was something that came about later. In every iteration of the book, she did not have her mother. But in earlier iterations, her mom had died when she was younger. I realized as I was writing it… I needed to compress [those events] in time and move them closer together because there’s a way in which they inform one another. They sort of reverberate around each other in this interesting way to me. This idea of losing your mother and then deciding not to be a mother. There was a tension there that was interesting that only existed in that way if those events happened closer in time, so I think that was partly why. And not to get too dorky about craft, but I think a lot of issues in fiction can be solved by manipulating time in this way—compressing events or extending them. It brought out things that resonated between those two events in her life… That’s the long version of why I decided to start there. [Laughs] But it presents an interesting craft problem. I remember how I had someone tell me in workshop about how a lot of my stories are about the aftermath of things. They’re not really about the thing itself. And I don’t know, there’s a way in which that can be hard to write because it’s not as generative of narrative naturally to think about the aftermath as it is to think about all the events leading up to it. But there’s also ways that my mind just goes there. I’m always interested in, Okay, but then what? What happens after that? So, it was challenging in a craft way, but I guess more interesting to me.
Rumpus: That’s really interesting, particularly going back to Nadia’s relationship with her mother and sort of seeing the aftermath of what is left of that relationship now that her mother has died. And Nadia getting pregnant at a time when her mother had actually gotten pregnant, too, and seeing this as a way of ruining her life in a way and the idea that she also ruined her mother’s. That’s not really a question, sorry. [Laughs]
Bennett: [Laughs] Well, I mean, those are interesting observations and I think I was also just interested in this question that she had to be thinking, which is, “Well, should my mother have had me? Maybe she would still be alive if I wasn’t alive.”
Bennett: And to me, that was such a dark question to think about, but it was an interesting space in the space of what-if, which is obviously something that she can never know. But something that she’d be thinking about and also just the idea that she feels so stupid because she ends up in this situation in the first place. The idea that she’s like, “Well, I should have known better out of all people because my mother made this mistake. I was her mistake.” I was interested in that question also and how this character would deal with it.
Rumpus: In an interview with Elena Ferrante at the New Yorker, author of The Neapolitan Novels, Nicola Lagioia wrote:
Each time Lila vanishes from the horizon of Elena’s experiences, she nevertheless continues to act in her friend, and presumably the opposite is also true. Reading your novel is comforting because this is what occurs in real life. The people who are truly important to us, the people we’ve allowed to break us open inside, do not stop questioning us, obsessing us, pursuing us, and, if necessary, guiding us, even if they die, or grow distant, or if we’ve quarreled.
And so, I haven’t read The Neapolitan Novels, but a friend and I have discussed this idea as a haunting, the way we carry various people with us. I think this can also be seen in your novel, that these people can’t, and in some cases, don’t want to, let go of each other or the imprint that one of the characters has left on them. Can you talk about this?
Bennett: I think that there are a lot of haunted characters, when you put it that way. I think there are. I think about the girls who are haunted by their mothers that have left them in different ways—one through suicide and one through actual abandonment. I think about the way that Nadia’s kind of haunted by this child that she chose not to have and how that is a decision that she continues to think about throughout her life. I think I was interested in the way that grief shapes us, that it’s not this idea that as time goes by, I will get over it. That’s not the way that it operates. [Laughs] There’s a way in which I think we all are sort of haunted by—whether it’s decisions we didn’t make or decisions that we’ve made, or people who have left, people we’ve left, I was just curious of the way that that tracks through time. When I originally started writing the book, it took place in a very short amount of time, but… I decided to follow the characters years later and think of what they would be like when they were not just seventeen, eighteen, but twenty and twenty-five as they come of age a little bit more, to think about how the decisions that they did or didn’t make would continue to affect them.
Rumpus: Nadia doesn’t regret her decision to have an abortion, but it is something that follows her. And like you said, abortion is really political. And when it comes to discussing abortion, it often can feel like there’s only room for so many narratives, and that a person can have a reaction that is something other than ecstatic relief after the fact doesn’t often fit into the dominant pro-choice narrative. But for Nadia, I felt that this was another haunting. Do you conceptualize it in that way?
Bennett: Yeah, I think that was something that I knew was going to be difficult to write because, like you’re saying, we have this way of thinking that when women have an abortion, she is purely relieved or she is forever traumatized by that decision and not to say there aren’t people who feel that way, but that dichotomy was uninteresting to me from a fiction perspective, so I wanted to strive toward something more nuanced, but I also am aware of the fact that we have this binary way of looking at it. So there will probably be people on either side of this debate who will read the book one way or another and feel like she’s haunted by this decision and that means she shouldn’t have done it and abortion’s bad, or whatever. People are going to read that into it, but I wanted to strive towards that nuance because it wasn’t something that I saw a lot as you follow these debates within our country and even around the world. I was curious about someone who feels that they made the right decision for themselves but also regrets the fact that they were in a position to have to make it. But it was something that I wanted to make sure was nuanced and complicated because I think that this is a complicated question in a lot of aspects, but there’s a way in which it is so flattened by the way that we talk about it or even don’t talk about it.
Rumpus: And just the ways that our lives are complicated. I think that throughout the novel, you brought up a lot of nuance and were able to do that very well. There’s an undercurrent of loneliness for many of the characters throughout the book. Often, it reminded me of a line in “For women who are difficult to love” by Warsan Shire, where she says, “you can’t make homes out of human beings / someone should have already told you that.” There’s the love aspect of it, but I also think Nadia’s loneliness is often very palpable when she is at church, as a non-believer surrounded by believers. Why did you decide to make the church the background voice for this story?
Bennett: Well, I think originally, it started from this very dogmatic idea of exploring the politics of it when I first started drafting it, like ”What if this abortion took place in the backdrop of a church? The politics of that would be so fascinating.” And then as I got older and kept working on it and realized that wasn’t what I was interested in at all, I was a lot more interested in the ways that these communities can be so oppressive at times, but sometimes these communities are all you have to keep you together. There’s a way in which that community rallies around her father when she’s not even there. That’s something that seems so good, but there’s also a way in which the community does make her feel oppressed and judged, and even making her feel that way on behalf of her mother. I was interested in the tension in between those spaces. I’m interested in people who are sort of ambivalent in religious spaces because, again, it’s one of these things that we often see this binary of ‘you’re a believer or you’re not.’ But I was curious about this person who grew up in this church and sees some good in it and sees some bad in it. She feels a lot of mixed ways, but also does feel on the outside of that community. This book would have been very different if she were a very ardent atheist or if she were a very ardent Christian, so to me, it was getting in that in-between space of this character who grew up in this community and can see the good in it but can also see the bad at times. And also struggling with where she fits into that community. That was something that I thought was worth exploring.
Rumpus: With the loneliness that a lot of characters experience, to me, it seems like such a common thread for Nadia’s dad and Nadia herself, for Nadia’s mom before she died, for Luke in some ways, for Aubrey. I feel like despite this thread of loneliness that ties them together, it’s also a very isolating experience for all of them in that it’s not something that brings them together as much as it repels them from each other. Can you talk about this?
Bennett: Yeah, I think I was particularly interested in that when it came to Nadia and Aubrey. I remember there were previous drafts where both girls are juggling various secrets. There were previous drafts I was writing where eventually, all of their secrets, they just told each other everything. And as I kept revising, I realized how that felt very unrealistic to me because I feel like one of the saddest things about being human is you can never really know everything about anybody else. And maybe that’s a good thing at times and maybe it protects us from one another, but there was also something that was deeply sad about that to me, that you can love this person and really care about them, but there may be things that you can just never know. And that’s what’s true about Nadia and her mother. That as much as she might wonder why her mom killed herself, she’ll never actually know the answer to that question. And it was something that also intrigued me about the friendship between those two girls, where they could love each other but they both keep these pretty big secrets from each other. So yeah, I was curious about that. To me, it felt like a more realistic way of portraying the friendship than one where they just spilled their guts all the time. I think there’s a way in which the book is interested in how intimacy is created and how intimacy can also be destroyed in these interesting ways.
Rumpus: Yeah, because it’s not only that they’re not telling each other things, but it’s also them trying not to hurt each other with the things that they can tell each other, in a way… There’s a lot of issues that come up in your novel, from mental health and abortion, to disability and masculinity, to violence and what happens when you leave your family in order to create a life for yourself. Often, these can be tough topics, but just as in real life, in the lives of your characters, these things are not talking points; rather, they just make up the stuff of their lives. However, as readers, we’re not only privy to the internal thoughts of these characters, but also to the widespread conceptions about them by their community, and these thoughts and conceptions rarely match. I’m wondering how you decided to write both of these narratives so that the reader has access to both of them.
Bennett: I was interested in gossip. Gossip is this mode of communication that I think is often trivialized and dismissed, but is also a way for people who don’t have a lot of institutional power or a lot of overt power to express some power. So, I was always very interested in the way that gossip would function in a community like this, but, again, I think that’s the tragedy of being human and not being able to know people in a certain way, even if you want to. I was interested in this tension between the gossip that you hear about somebody and what’s actually going on in their life and the way in which people are not able to tell everything but sometimes think that they know everything, and that wide gap I think you see as a reader when you hear the gossip about some of these characters and then you get to be in their head and see what they’re experiencing, which is something that we don’t get to experience in real life. So, it was something that I wanted to think about as I was writing the book. And thinking about the way in which the idea of gossip and exchanging information operated within this community, that these older women really had no institutional power but had this moral authority and the ability to create stories about people.
Rumpus: As readers, we know that The Mothers have a faulty conception of things, and yet, in the end, we’re left with that conception. And in some ways, I feel like that frees Nadia, but in other ways, it kind of tethers her to the image of her that they have in their heads. Why did you decide to do that?
Bennett: As far as the ending?
Bennett: That’s a good question. That ending changed a lot. [Laughs] I think I was interested in thinking about the ramifications of telling this story on the church, so I think I wanted to land there. The book is structured by Nadia coming and going often, which created some craft problems for me because I didn’t want it to be like, oh here’s a time jump, now let’s catch you up on what you missed last. Like a recap. But it was something that felt real—to be a young person and to leave your hometown and you do whatever and then you come back occasionally. And what people know about you, or what they can gather about you in that time—they don’t know your experiences. They just know these vague details of what you’ve been up to. So I liked this idea of Nadia kind of vanishing towards the end. I remember we went back and forth as we were editing it. My cousin read it and she was like, “But what happens to her?!” [Laughs] But to me, I liked this idea of remaining in the perspective of The Mothers—their limited perspective that’s kind of both all-seeing, but also extremely limited. I thought it was interesting to end there, as they are the voice of the community and the community really does not know what comes of this girl.
Rumpus: I mean, it is interesting. It starts with them and ends with them. How much of this novel, if any of it, is inspired by things you were told or things you heard growing up?
Bennett: I think a lot of it was based in my fears for myself growing up. I remember when I was a kid, my mom told me that the one thing I could do that would break my father’s heart was if I got pregnant young and that was something that really stuck with me because I remember being like, “Dang, not if you killed somebody or something really terrible,” but it was something that instilled this fear in me, like “Wow, this is something that I could do with my body that would hurt somebody else in this way.” My mom did not have me at a younger age. She actually had me at an older age. So it wasn’t something that I feared in that kind of way that we were talking about earlier, but it was something that I knew could derail my future and I knew I wanted to go to college and I knew I wanted to do all these things, so I think a lot of that was writing from that space of thinking about what I feared when I was sixteen and seventeen and exploring this character who was actually going through that moment and thinking about what she decides to do when she finds herself pregnant. I think part of it is that and I think part of it is also growing up in the church.
I didn’t go to a church like the church she goes to. The church I went to was actually pretty large, but I was interested in this really small church because when you force people to be around each other in these closer, smaller spaces, everything gets more tense. [Laughs] Because in a big church, you’re allowed to escape each other. In a small one, you really can’t. So, I wanted to set it in a smaller church even though it wasn’t like the one I grew up in. But I did grow up in a church where I saw these very active young people in the church and I was always so intrigued by them and thinking “Do they really believe this? Are they doing this because their parents are making them go to church? What about all the other stupid teenage stuff that you do? Are these kids doing it? Are they just better than the rest of us? Are they holier?” It was something that I was always very interested in. I think the book kind of comes from a lot of those spaces, just the backdrop of this more conservative church community, and also thinking about what I feared for myself and what I hoped for myself. And to think about the character going down this path and having to figure out what to do about it.
Rumpus: When Nadia goes to Michigan, she learns a lot about subtle racism. It made me think a lot about your Jezebel article. In that essay, you write, “I should be grateful for this. Who, in generations of my family, has ever been surrounded by so many good white people?” Does it seem like an inevitability to you, that black people who go to predominately white institutions, or maybe even who just live in this world, will have to learn how to navigate this subtle racism, almost like a coming-of-age experience? Do you still feel like you should be grateful?
Bennett: I think it’s a complicated question. When I was writing that essay, I was thinking about—like that section you were reading, I was thinking about my family. My mom grew up in the Jim Crow south. My dad grew up in the inner city in [Los Angeles]. My dad had this urban experience, my mom had this rural experience, and they both experienced this very overt racism growing up. And then I think about my childhood, which I was saying, surrounded by good white people, but having to learn how to think about race in a different way. And there was a way in which I think that often can be a lot more complicated than someone just calling you the n-word to your face. [Laughs]
I was recently in Texas and my cousins were kind of like, “Yeah, we think it’s actually easier where we are because we know exactly what people think. They’ll tell you, versus you guys growing up in California,” blah, blah, blah. And you know, they’re saying this now. My cousin was telling me about his daughter getting called the n-word when she was two or three. [Laughs] So they’re telling me this now. So I think this was something I’ve always thought about, as far as occupying a lot of these predominately white spaces. I grew up in San Diego. I then went to college at Stanford and then I went to [graduate school] in Ann Arbor, so I’ve mostly lived in these very predominately white spaces and I’ve had to learn to navigate racism in a way that nobody in my family ever has. And not saying that it’s worse, but it’s different, and I think that’s something that I’m continually interested in and often talking to friends about, particularly friends who have experienced growing up in these predominately white spaces like I have.
I don’t know if I would say it’s gratitude. Yes, I’m definitely glad I’m growing up now and not in the Jim Crow south, the way that my mother did. I’m glad for that. [Laughs] But I don’t know. I wrote that essay out of a place of just wanting to think about how much good intentions matter when it comes to racism. Because I think that often, we think about racism as this character flaw. People are so invested in arguing that they’re not racist, but they’re not actually thinking about what they’re doing or what they’re saying that might make people think this. And I think that the conversation, again, gets flattened because we get into this argument of who’s a racist and who’s not a racist, instead of the argument—or the discussion, should actually be about what people are saying and doing, which to me, is a lot more important than whether we label you a racist. I’m way more interested in identifying problems or policies or any of these things that are racist than I am in labeling any one person a racist, but I felt like that was a conversation I kept noticing popping up and I was writing this about people arguing that they’re not a racist and that taking the predominate position in the discussion.
As a person, I try to move through the world with empathy and it was something that I kept wondering about: if somebody means well, but they still do or say these things that are racist, how much should their well-meaning count for? [Laughs] And I think that, again, that is a different question than my ancestors have had to navigate. When my mom was growing up, I don’t think she really dealt with a lot of well-meaning white people in her day-to-day life. [Laughs] To me, it’s a question of space, but also a question of time that, I think, black writers nowadays are grappling with race in this really different way than people who came before us did, just on the nature of the fact that we live in—I guess I would say a less segregated society. I won’t say fully integrated, but less segregated than people in the past. I think for me, I was always interested in that question of whether intentionality really matters when people are racist and how as black people living in these predominately white spaces, we kind of are learning new ways to interact with race than our parents, or even our grandparents, have had to in the past.
Rumpus: This is switching gears, but in the novel, there are moments where these girls who become women have to choose between the man they love and the friend they love. I think a lot of girls have stories like that, especially when they’re younger. And throughout the novel, it really seems like so many of the characters are simply trying to figure out what love actually means. They search for love, they doubt the love that’s there, they experience love that refuses to fade. Aubrey feels that it’s greedy to ask that she be loved by more than one man and Nadia wonders if the inability to leave someone is what it means to love them. Do you feel that they ever really settle on an answer?
Bennett: Probably no, because I don’t think my writing ever really settles on answers. [Laughs] I feel like my writing is always just questions and never really arriving because I don’t know. I think everything is kind of like a moving target and I’m constantly trying to recalibrate how I feel or what I think about anything. But I think that I was so interested in the love between these two girls in the book because I do think that often, when you’re younger particularly, but even as you get older, often the most important relationships in your life are with other women or even just with your friends versus these romantic relationships that tend to be narrativized a lot more. I was always very interested in how these two girls who are so different in personality, but both are bonded by their motherlessness, would come together and how that relationship would be challenged as they got older and had to figure out how to be women without mothers there to guide them through that process.
Rumpus: There’s a moment early on where Nadia’s mom tells her that boys can be careless for their whole lives, but girls can either be careful now or careful later. And then there’s Luke’s mom, who feels that reckless white boys become politicians, but reckless black boys end up dead. In both of these thought patterns, these mothers are considering the same things—an unexpected pregnancy relatively early in their child’s life. But the undercurrent here seems to be that either way, a life will end. What do you think about these differing, but similar messages that girls and boys receive?
Bennett: I remember somebody told me once when I was younger that if a black girl can make it to sixteen without being pregnant, that’s a win, and if a black boy can make it to 16 without being shot, that’s a win. And I remember thinking about that and just being like, “Whoa, this is an equivalent that you’re drawing between somebody dying and somebody creating a life?” Those are both considered the worst-case scenarios for both of these people in a way that seems so un-equivalent when you think about it. But it was this comparison I saw drawn as far as “this is the worst thing that could happen to you,” and it was something that really stuck with me and something that I really questioned why we would think that.
So, I was so interested in this mom and the way that she is a woman herself, but so protective of her son and how she kind of views Nadia as this interloping troublemaker—someone who threatens her son. And the idea that she is, again, this woman who does a lot in this church, but doesn’t have a lot of institutional power as far as she’s not the person standing in the pulpit and giving the sermon, but she does so much behind the scenes and the way she’s invested in upholding this church that she’s worked so hard to create. I was curious as to the message that she would give her son and the way that she thinks of him and his recklessness, but to me, I always go back to that saying that somebody told me when I was younger. It was something that always troubled me and confused me, but I think that it is indicative of the way that people pathologize young black people, where the pathology of young black girls is either they’re getting pregnant too early, they’re having too many kids, or they’re having too many abortions. Somehow, all of these things coexist in the way that people pathologize young black girls. And the way that people pathologize young black boys is, “Oh, they’re violent criminals.” So to me, that was something that just summed it up in one sentence. The worst thing that could happen to a black boy is for him to die, but the worst thing that could happen to a black girl is for her to give life. To me, that was something that was very strange and something that was maybe lingering in the back of my head as I was working on this book.
Rumpus: Speaking of black people in particular, your book really does deal with mental health in a lot of ways and there’s the narrative that mental health isn’t spoken of in black communities, particularly the black church. And Nadia’s mom is a woman who commits suicide right after being in the physical space of a black church. And in a way, she’s sort of pathologized, too, by the members of the church. Were you thinking about these narratives of a lack of discussion when you were writing?
Bennett: I think it was something that was lingering in the backdrop. I remember thinking about the fact that black women, statistically, commit suicide at pretty low rates relative to other demographics and thinking about why that might be, and also just thinking about this narrative of the strong black woman. There’s sort of this idea after she kills herself of, “Why would she do that? Her life was pretty good. Why would she do that? She was living like a white woman, what did she have to be upset about?”
Bennett: And I think that to me, there was something so pervasive about that narrative of strength within black women. I understand why it exists and I understand that there are people who are empowered by it, but it’s also, to me, something that’s potentially very damaging because it flattens black womanhood into this idea of always just enduring without actually allowing for anyone to have space to interrogate what it means to endure or what we have to endure or what happens when we can’t endure. So, I think those are the things I was interested in. This person, she’s not a strong black woman in the traditional definition and the way in which her community judges her for that, she sort of failed to fulfill this role that they expect of black women, which is that you are expected to survive. And she opts out of that narrative in this way that disturbs people in the community. Because it’s a suicide and this is a religious community, there’s a way in which that bothers them just point blank, but I think also this idea that she is a black woman—she is supposed to be stronger than this. And that definition of ‘strong’ is just enduring and surviving in spite of everything… I didn’t want to explore, “Oh, well, what was her diagnosis? And maybe she should have done this.” I didn’t want to go down that path when thinking about mental health because, again, it’s sort of this mystery that nobody really understands why or knows why or can point to one reason why this woman has decided to do this, which I think is how suicide works in life, often—you just don’t know.
Bennett: But I was interested in that tension and this idea that she has sort of violated what it means to be a strong black woman, which is really what people often think of what it means to be a black woman, period.
Bennett: And the way in which that violation upsets the church community and also the way in which Nadia, who I think as a character is strong in a way—she’s constantly this character who has her guard up and is constantly trying to be strong in this way that her mother was not. So, I was curious how it affected the church and also how it ripples through her daughter’s life.
Rumpus: Do you think Nadia, Aubrey, and Luke are settling for love?
Bennett: [Laughs] Are they settling? I don’t know. We’re all looking for people who will be what we need in different ways and maybe sometimes somebody is not everything you want or everything you deserve, but they can fill a need in a certain way that nobody else can. And I think there are ways in which all of these characters can fill different needs within each other. And I don’t know, maybe that’s settling, but also I just think that’s the way we interact in life. Looking for people who can be there for us in ways that we need. I don’t know if that really answered your question.
Rumpus: [Laughs] That’s actually a really beautiful answer. Thank you for that. Whose work has inspired yours?
Bennett: I think Toni Morrison, probably obviously. Some people have been comparing the book to Sula, as far as it depicting this friendship. I think it’s interesting because Sula is not actually my favorite Morrison novel or one that I really thought of as directly influencing it, but I love Toni Morrison. I feel like she was one of the first authors I read that I really deeply loved and admired. What else is there to say? She’s the greatest. She asks these big questions, she has a lot of compassion for her characters, her language is amazing and always so beautiful. One of my friends from grad school gave me one of my prized possessions, which is the last line of Song of Solomon, framed. [Laughs] I love Toni Morrison.
James Baldwin. I’ve been talking a little bit about Go Tell It On The Mountain, which I think is a great church novel and particularly insofar that it also has a character at the forefront who’s sort of ambivalent about religion, although his arc is a lot different than the arc of Nadia, but it was something that I was interested in. The position of being between beliefs within a community of believers. Love that book. It’s something that I read when I was younger and went back to when I was an adult.
I also really love Dorothy Allison, who I think is not really as championed as a writer as she should be. I think that she’s so great at writing about small communities that are often very easily dismissed. She’s really great at writing about people that often—particularly the literary world is quick to condemn or ignore or dismiss. You know, these poor, white, rural communities. She writes about them with such compassion, but also a lot of humor. But also will sort of take them to task—she doesn’t give anybody a pass. I really admire her work.
I think The Color Purple is also one of my other favorite books. It’s not a book about church, but it’s a book about God. To me, that distance is interesting. Alice Walker talks about this in one of the introductions of the book, how people so rarely think of it as a book about God, although it’s addressed to God. But I think it’s a beautiful meditation on the relationships between and among black women and also spirituality. I think there’s a way in which that might have influenced me a little bit. That’s always a tough question for me to answer because when I think about this book, I wrote it over so many years and I read so many things within those years that it was really a book that I wrote as I grew up and left my teens behind and became an adult. It’s hard to pinpoint one or two things that influenced me during that time because it seems like I changed so dramatically during that time, as we all do. So, that’s what I’m thinking of off the top of my head.
Rumpus: Who do you write for?
Bennett: That’s a tough question. It was something that I had to start thinking about in grad school. I remember I had a professor who was mentoring me and also a woman of color and she asked me at one point, “Who do you imagine to read this book?” And I was just like, “Well, young black women. That’s who I imagine to read the book.” And it was something that changed the way I was thinking about the book because when you’re in a workshop or when you’re in academia, my cohort was fairly diverse relative to other years and other programs, but my cohort was not representative of who I thought would actually really love the book. So that was something that liberated me in a way and it gave me a little bit of freedom. There were some decisions I made that people in workshop didn’t really like or didn’t understand, but it was something that liberated me to stick by my decisions that I was making, partly knowing that there are ways in which people are just not going to get certain aspects of this small black community, but liberating myself into writing what I wanted to write in spite of that. So I think that’s part of it, but as I’ve heard back from people, hearing back from young black women who are reading it, that really touches me because this is a book that I wanted to write because it’s a book I wanted to read. It’s like the Toni Morrison quote. They were experiences that I hadn’t really seen represented—black kids growing up in this beach town. I’d never really read a book like that, let alone about people within my generation going through these things. I think that’s something that excites me, but I will say also, the other thing that has truly surprised me about this experience is that I’ve heard from people from all demographics who’ve been really crazy about the book. I remember I had a bookseller come up to me who was an older white guy and he was just like, “I’m sure I’m not who you had in mind when you were writing this book.” [Laughs] And I was laughing because it really wasn’t. I really did not think, “There are going to be men who like this book” or “There are going to be older people who like this book” or anything like that. I really thought I was writing for a much more specific demographic that I belong to, so it’s been very surprising, but also really exciting to see people from different groups that I didn’t have in mind telling me that they really love the book.
Ed. Note: Abigail Bereola has recently taken a job with Riverhead Books, the publisher of Bennett’s novel. This interview was planned prior to that occurrence.
Author photograph © Emma Trim.