THE MOTHERS

How did Brit Bennett write a novel relatable to everyone? By writing about black women.

Emma Trim/Riverhead Books

Back when her novel was different, before it was a New York Times best seller and a story about a secret, Brit Bennett got her first fan. She’s young now, 26—a fact that no one can believe, because her book feels so much older—but she was even younger then, 18, maybe 19. She was in a creative writing class her freshman year of college and she needed a short story to workshop. “I’m not a short story writer at all,” Bennett told me.

Instead, she pulled a scene from the novel she’d already been working on for more than a year, wrote it from the perspective of a girl with a deep, dark secret, and handed out copies to her class. One of her classmates admitted the next week in workshop that she’d become so engrossed in the story that she missed her stop on the train.

Over coffee last week, Bennett—who was thoughtful, amiable, and infectiously likable—talked about this experience with reverential nostalgia. “I think that was the first affirmation I ever got,” she told me. “I knew I wanted to be a writer, but it was always a pipe dream. To me, it was as bizarre as wanting to be a rock star.”

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Bennett’s debut novel, The Mothers, was released by Riverhead Books on October 11. One week later, as we sat in the café beneath Politics & Prose in Washington, DC, where Bennett was scheduled to give a reading, we were surrounded by her book cover. Women, mostly women, carried her book clutched to their chest. They swung tote bags splattered with its unmistakeable art all over them.

Right now, Brit Bennett is about as close as the book world gets to a rock star.

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The Mothers certainly doesn’t shy away from hot-button issues of race and gender. But it’s not a novel with any mission other than trying to tell a story.

The story it wants to tell is Nadia Turner’s. Nadia is a 17-year-old black girl growing up in the shadow of her mother’s death in Oceanside, California, who decides to have an abortion after the pastor’s son gets her pregnant. That’s not a spoiler, because it all happens in the first chapter. The rest of the book does the work of a life. It forces Nadia to grow up, to move on, to decide who she is going to be after this decision and how she will reckon with it.

The Mothers is a masterwork of modern fiction. It is beautifully written, with showstopper lines like: “A daughter grows older and draws nearer to her mother until she gradually overlaps her like a sewing pattern. But a son becomes some irreparably separate thing.” But neither the pristinely polished prose nor the political drama around abortion is why The Mothers is the kind of novel that makes you miss a bus stop. It’s the people. The world that Bennett built inside a church community, riddled with gossip and history and judgment, creates a space for itself in your mind that feels surprisingly real.

“I have had to stop myself from asking Brit how [Nadia’s father] is holding up, remembering that she made him up entirely!” Bennett’s agent, Julia Kardon, told me.

After graduating from Stanford with an English degree and the University of Michigan with an MFA, Bennett did something she’d never seen as her purpose or passion: She started writing non-fiction.

It started with a piece for Jezebel, edited by her former MFA classmate Jia Tolentino, titled “I Don’t Know What to Do With Good White People.” Written in the wake of the deaths of Eric Garner, and Mike Brown, and Trayvon Martin’s death, the essay is a brilliant examination of white privilege and black lived experience, and whether an intention can really be called “good” if it results in someone else’s death.

“The piece […] had a ring of clarity and innocence about it,” Tolentino told me via email. “It felt like something Brit had written for herself, for her family, without any of the tricks of performance and self-consciousness that bog so many writers down.”

Bennett’s essay gave her a platform. More than a million people read it in its first week of publication. It’s what inspired Brit’s agent to reach out. “I thought she could be the next Ta-Nehisi Coates,” Kardon told me. “She did say she was working on a novel […] but I thought I would convince her to return to it later.”

That’s not what happened. Brit sent over the first chapter, and it took Kardon around a month to look at it. Once she did, she knew she was working with something special. She requested the full manuscript, and read the whole thing in one sitting. She knew she was working with something that had a heart that people needed to feel beat.

“I’ve had to learn a lot of skills just by nature of being alive that a lot of my white writer friends don’t have to think about,” Bennett told me. “I think it has made me a stronger writer. As a black writer you have to constantly justify why your work exists. You can’t just flow into the room and be like, ‘I just wrote this because.’”

Since her Jezebel story, Bennett has written for The Paris Review and The New York Times. Her non-fiction work deals with race and racism more explicitly, more closely than The Mothers ever comes. It’s an intentional choice, and one that places Bennett in a legacy of black women writers who’ve done exactly the same thing.

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The topics Bennett delves into in The Mothers could be a list of potential presidential debate questions: the purpose of the church, abortion, young unwed black mothers, women who love each other, the American Dream. But none of those really feel political, or even open for debate, over the course of the book. Nadia’s decision to have an abortion isn’t ever treated as a question. It is always what she was going to do. Whether you agree or not doesn’t matter. What matters is the purpose of the book: how Nadia moves on afterwards.

That’s intentional, Bennett told me. “I know my work will be read politically no matter what I do. People want work by people of color to be representative,” she said. And then she told a story of a woman at one of her readings who stood up and asked a question about this book: “Do the characters have to be black?” Bennett immediately granted this woman empathy, saying she knew her intentions were to understand the role of race in the book. “That says more about her perception of what a black narrative is than it does about anything I put on the page,” Bennett said.

“From white readers, there’s this thought that this is not as black of literature as we expected,” Bennett said. The Mothers, after all, isn’t a book where the plot hangs on racism. It’s a book about middle-class people in California, and trying to figure out how to live.

Bennett mentions that while she was in her MFA program, there were some people who didn’t really understand what she was trying to do. As Tolentino explained, “The point at which workshop silence starts to feel uncomfortable is when the comments you’re hearing are based on ideas that are self-evidently wrong: in her case, that she had to make some sort of thesis about black life in America for the book to work.”

The only thesis Bennett seems to be making is that black lives—the mundane, the boring, and the personal—are worthy of storytelling. “I think the idea of humanizing and showing the complexity of people does political work,” Bennett told me. “To be honest, when I wrote the book, I didn’t really think anybody was going to care outside of black women. And I was perfectly happy with that.”

Bennett is writing about a particular place, a particular family, a particular young black woman. And in doing so, in focusing so concretely on lived experience instead of policy and grandeur, Bennett joins a long and successful history of women’s writing. The domain of the personal is the space of Zora Neale Huston, of Maya Angelou, of Alice Walker, of Jayne Cortez, and so many others. In our interview, Bennett talked passionately about Beloved, and how Toni Morrison had done exactly the same thing.

As Morrison told The New York Times in 2015, “What interested me was the African-American experience throughout whichever time I spoke of. It was always about African-American culture and people—good, bad, indifferent, whatever—but that was, for me, the universe.”

Bennett said the same thing to me, another way: ““With fiction, I am just interested in the ordinary lives of people. I write about black characters and I write about black communities. That’s all there has to be.”

In the world of The Mothers, blackness isn’t political. It isn’t historical. It isn’t as important that the books talk about slavery as it is that they talk about community and how it builds and breaks us. “To me there is something maybe not political but definitely powerful about conveying black joy in those times and now,” Bennett told me. She raved about how much she loves the television shows Atlanta and Insecure. Inner lives, she was clear, are the stuff she’s interested in. “If the sort of huge historical struggle of being black is that you’re seen as subhuman, then to reflect the sort of humanity of the characters, I think, is really important.”

And that’s what Bennett does so well in her novel: give voice to young black women, so they can find themselves on her pages.

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Near the end of our conversation, Brit’s phone vibrated. She apologized before checking it, and then apologized again as she told me the news. Her book, the book she spent almost a decade writing, was going to debut at number 18 on The New York Times best-seller list. Her vision, that being a writer was akin to becoming a rock star, had become her reality.

But what makes The Mothers such a good book is that it was never trying to be a best seller. Sure, every novelist might bury that dream somewhere close, but Bennett didn’t focus on it.

I had asked her a question before she checked her phone. We had been talking about Jeffery Eugenides’ interview of Zadie Smith published in the New York Times, in which Smith admits that she doesn’t always feel as confident and authoritative as she thinks white male writers feel.

Here Brit Bennett sat, in a coffee shop beneath a room where she was about to do a reading of her book for 60 people. She had just been told that her book is a best seller, that she had achieved the dream. But she wanted to be clear.

“My friends, many of whom were white, were very willing to say, ‘My audience is everybody. Everybody will read this.’ There was a level of certainty in portraying a universal experience that I have never felt about writing,” she said. “I don’t know if I want that kind of certainty. You want to have authority over your material, your voice and feel confident in that, sure. But I never want to profess the universal. My experiences are not a stand-in for the universal.”

And that, right there, is the key to Brit Bennett’s work. From her political non-fiction to her emotionally gripping first novel, she wasn’t ever trying to write for the world. But in writing for herself, for the black women around her, she’s done just that.