Breakout literary star Brit Bennett talks troubled times in America

US writer Brit Bennett is only 26 years old, but her debut novel The Mothers has been described as “ferociously moving” by The New York Times and has seen her hailed as one of America’s best writers under 30. Set in Oceanside, Southern California, The Mothers tells the stories of two young black women and one man, a pastor’s son. (Kerry Washington is producing the cinematic adaptation, which Bennett herself is writing.) From her Los Angeles home, Bennett speaks in a vivacious, dynamic voice, reminiscent of her pages. We discuss her father’s experience of police brutality, Trumpism, empathy, and contemporary American abortion politics.

ALEXANDER BISLEY A line that’s been resonating a lot recently is William Faulkner’s line from his book Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

BRIT BENNETT Yeah, I think in some ways this book is kind of a ghost story. It’s about characters who are haunted by their past, whether that’s somebody you’ve lost in the past or a decision you’ve made in the past that lingers with you. I think that quote is very relevant in the political-historical sense. But also in a personal sense, as you were saying, in the way that our past travels along with us.

As with the film Moonlight, The Mothers’ exploration of masculine vulnerability is powerful. That’s a big concern of the book. Particularly with Nadia’s father, or even with Luke, these male characters who are vulnerable. I was interested in these black men who are given the space and freedom to be vulnerable, and are also given interiority and complexity that I think black men in real life are often denied.

The Mothers centres on an abortion. What are your thoughts on contemporary American abortion politics? I find it very troubling that we’re in a period where state legislatures are increasingly passing these anti-abortion policies. A lot of people passing these laws don’t actually think about what it would look like in practice if Roe v. Wade were overturned and if abortion was banned in the United States. Throughout time and throughout cultures, women have always found ways to terminate pregnancies they didn’t want, even before there were surgical ways to have abortions. It’s something that seems inevitable to me, regardless of what the legislation looks like. These laws being passed by predominantly male legislators trying to make it impossible for women to legally and safely access abortions are very troubling.

The Republicans’ abortion platform is outrageous, and hypocritical. Obama had a Saint Louis pilot for free birth control for poor women that lead to a massive decline in unwanted pregnancies and therefore abortions. But the Republicans maintained, and maintain, their usual scorched opposition to that. What we’re really arguing over is how much freedom women should have with their sexuality. So much of this conversation is really about that. It’s about men trying to control how free women can be with their bodies. It’s not about life because if our country was that concerned, we would invest for everyone to have better sex education and more access to birth control and family planning. We wouldn’t have such a high maternal mortality rate. In Texas, they have more women dying in childbirth than in a lot of other countries around the world.

“Oh girl, we have known littlebit love. That littlebit of honey left in an empty jar that traps the sweetness in your mouth long enough to mask your hunger. We have run tongues over teeth to savor that last littlebit as long as we could, and in all our living, nothing has starved us more.”  That’s The Mothers’ special novelistic language. I love TV, I love film, I love all these other forms of storytelling right now. But when you’re reading a book you’re able to pause in time, and spend a lot of time thinking about what the actual language sounds like. I spend so much time looking at my phone and doing all of these other things, but reading a book, there’s a way in which I feel like I’m out of the time that I’m in. 

You’re currently working on a book set in the South, which is where your parents are from. I think of it as a book that feels ‘of the Obama era’ even though it’s not set there chronologically, because I think all of these questions within the book are questions about identity and these categories of identity that are eroding increasingly. In so many ways Obama’s rise and his presidency coincided with this way of questioning these identity categories that people previously thought were very static and have proven since to be fluid. Whether that’s of race, or multiculturalism, or gender. I think a lot of the Trumpism is a reaction against this sort of multiplicity of identities and this forward-thinking way of looking at identity. Trumpism wants to send us back to these very codified identity categories. 

Your Jezebel essay on your father’s youthful experience of police brutality went viral. “He was a Deputy District Attorney at the time, driving home one night from bible study when...officers swarmed his car with shotguns aimed at his head. The cops refused to look in his wallet at his badge. They cuffed him and threw him on the curb. My father is mostly thankful that he’d stayed calm. In his shock, he had done nothing. That’s what he believes saved his life.” Any further thoughts? I wrote it very quickly one afternoon when I was feeling very strongly about everything that was happening at the time. My dad’s story was something I started to think about in connection with Michael Brown and with Eric Garner; these other black men whose stories ended very differently. I wrote that piece out of a genuine question, which was: “What is the value of good intentions if the end result is harm?” I continue to think about that question because so often when we talk about race we focus on individual motives and intentions, but so many of the problems with race are systemic.

The author of The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead, told me he still agrees with Martin Luther King’s belief that history arcs towards justice, but adds that it’s very, very, very slow. What do you think? I think it’s perhaps a wave, waves back and forth rather than an arc. In America, we like to think we’re always marching towards this progress. We like to skip over the moments where everything went backwards. We like to talk about the Civil War and the civil rights movement, but we don’t like to talk about the Reconstruction era, the birth of the Ku Klux Klan, and all of these lynchings that happened in the early 20th century. All these really dark moments where we seemed to have moved backwards. They exist and it’s important to think about how they happened and what it’s like to experience them. Right now it feels like Reconstruction. We had this really historic presidency, we seemed to be oriented towards increasing progress. Gay marriage was legalised. Suddenly we’re slingshot backward. There was a backlash during the civil rights movement, there was a backlash when slaves were freed. With any moment of racial progress in this country, there was a backlash. In a way, this Trump presidency is distinctly American. I think essentially we will move forward towards justice, but again who knows how long this moment we’re in now is going to last. God willing this country still exists a hundred years from now.

“Just asserting that black humanity matters, black bodies matter, black love matters, and black joy matters,” you’ve also said. There’s a tendency to want to read art by people of colour through a strictly political lens instead of an aesthetic lens in the way that I see art by white people engaged with. But most things are political, even if we don’t necessarily see their politics. For me, to write about black humanity is an act of politics. Black humanity is something that’s still being debated, so to write about black characters who are fully human has become a fact of politics, even though that shouldn’t be political at all. The fact that black lives matter is a controversial statement.

Is there anything you hope people might take away from reading The Mothers, or from your visit to Auckland? I’m always really drawn to visit these places near water. I hope, first of all, that people enjoy the book. I also love the idea of reading as gaining empathy, and for people who are often different from you. I think that’s one of the great experiences of reading that you can connect to somebody across culture or race or gender or time or anything like that. I love the idea of people really connecting to these characters, and of people being challenged by the characters.

Barack Obama has talked about how he loves books because they taught him empathy. That’s one of the reasons why you can tell he is a reader, he is an empathetic person. That’s an important quality about being alive, trying to understand where other people are coming from. Also understanding the limits to your own perspective. Understanding that you don’t know everything and realising you can learn from other people’s perspectives. Empathy is an important quality in a leader, and I think it’s one of the reasons why it’s so shameful that my country elected Trump, such a very obviously un-empathetic person, to the highest office. 


Brit Bennett appears in three Auckland Writers Festival sessions from 17-20 May.


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