By Jennifer Cox
November 18, 2016
"Abortion doesn't generate narrative in the same way pregnancy does," Brit Bennett told a packed room at Harvard Book Store on Friday, October 21; "I opened with something that has ended." Bennett's debut novel The Mothers recently hit the New York Times best seller list and has been universally praised as one of the best books of 2016. It tackles difficult but crucial topics like abortion, racism, suicide, religion, friendship, love, and community, and it does so with compassion, nuance, intelligence, and grace. On the page, her words are thoughtful and smooth. When read out loud they sound even better. Bennett read three excerpts to the group: two scenes voiced by the chorus of church mothers and in between, young Nadia Turner waiting alone in an abortion clinic soon after her own mother's suicide. "I'm interested in women in churches, especially black women in black churches," Bennett said later in the evening, "because they keep thechurch running every day but are never given official forms of power." She noted the role of gossip is often trivialized in society, but it's greatly influential and can be harnessed by people who typically don't have a lot of institutional authority. The mothers tell huge sections of this story, shaping the narrative and ultimately creating characters' legacies. They also offer sage advice, thought the teenagers rarely want it or take it:
"We would've told her that all together, we got centuries on her. If we laid all our lives toes to heel, we were born before the Depression, the Civil War, even America itself. In all that living we have known men. 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" (22).
The plot of The Mothers is immediately compelling. Nadia decisively moves to abort her pregnancy, and Bennett explores how that decision effects not only her life, but the lives of those in her community. Bennett deals with this topic with a rare but necessary combination of love, forgiveness, and pain. The thing that makes Bennett's novel truly special, however, is the genuine complexity of her characters, who are flawed but so easy to love because we know their desires, fears, and insecurities. Nadia, along with her best friend, Aubrey Evans and her high school beau Luke Shepherd, are the three pillars of the story, standing tall against the backdrop of their mothers or the space where their mothers used to be. Nadia and Aubrey are unlikely friends: Nadia is notoriously pretty and has a reputation for being wild, while Aubrey is deeply religious, wears a purity ring, and wept at the alter in front of the entire congregation while asking to be saved. "It's hard to write unlikely friendships," Bennett admitted. "There have to be reasons why your characters are choosing to be around each other when the only reward of a friendship is each others' company." Nadia and Aubrey bond first over their shared motherlessness, but also look to each other for absolution from their private shame. The friendship between the two young women is one of the best-written female friendships in recent literature; Nadia and Aubrey love each other sincerely, but are unable to fully know each other because of dangerous, well-kept secrets:
"[Aubrey] patiently guided her through the basics, then stood behind her to correct her stance. Aubrey's hair tickled the back of her neck as she guided her hand back for her first stroke. Nadia wanted to feel the soft, constant pressure of another person's touch. She wanted Aubrey to hold her, even if it was a fake embrace. 'Can you show me again?' she said" (109).
Bennett's characters are layered, and she admitted it took years of writing drafts to form them. "Characters resist being known," she said, "I wrote pages and pages of backstory in what I call 'invisible writing.' Writing isn't just about a word count. You have to get to know your characters and find out what makes them tick, and many of those details bleed into the final novel." She dramatically revised The Mothers over the course of eight years, even cutting out a major character because she realized he wasn't essential to the story. "I just liked him," she laughed.
When an audience member asked who her favorite writers were, her eyes lit up as she listed Dorothy Allison, Jesmyn Ward, Maggie Nelson, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison. "Toni was the first writer who made me feel seen," she said. On what she admires most about Morrison, she added, "She writes about odd, unlikeable characters and does so unflinchingly." She continued by saying that Morrison writes about black communities unfiltered by a white gaze, and noted her incredible language and unforgettable imagery.
During the editing process, Bennett was forced to cut a scene she wrote from Nadia's mother's perspective. It reminded her of Beloved's strange section of narration in Beloved, but as her editor was quick to point out, "Brit, you're not Toni Morrison." True, she's not Morrison, but after the reading The Mothers, readers will know being Brit Bennett is something to be tremendously proud of as well. The Mothers is a unique novel--arguably one of the best of the decade. It's refreshing, memorable, and smart. We'll have to wait a bit for Bennett's next novel which she said she's just started, but there is every reason to believe it will be just as good as her first. Bennett knows how to write the ache and beauty of a human heart and is unafraid to tackle challenges in her writing. Keep an eye out for her future work, and in the meantime, pick up The Mothers.
Jennifer Cox works at Harvard University, where she's working on her master's in Literature & Creative Writing (and an apocalypse novel). More writing can be found at jen-cox.com. Follow Jennifer on Twitter at @jnohalani.