Brit Bennett — author of several searing, can’t-share-them-fast-enough essays about race and a novel, The Mothers, published last month to wide acclaim— has spent a considerable amount of time thinking about abortion.
The young woman at the center of The Mothers, Nadia, begins the book by getting one; she is seventeen, a college-bound daughter of a woman who just committed suicide. Nadia is certain about her choice but its aftershocks linger with her just the same. The pregnancy, and her termination of it, leaves its imprint on her and everyone around her: Her then-kinda-sorta-boyfriend, preacher’s son Luke; her good-girl best friend, Aubrey; and the small church community in which they’re all nestled, where the word of the Bible is matched in its power only by the word of gossip.
So you can imagine how Bennett, who started writing The Mothers when she was still in high school and completed her manuscript seven years later, felt while watching the third presidential debate. Just twenty minutes in, the presidential candidates were asked about late-term abortions. GOP nominee and noted women’s health expert Donald Trump proceeded to detail how “you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother, just prior to the birth of the baby.” (Saw-style language aside, I believe that what Trump is describing — surgically removing a baby from a woman’s body at the end of her pregnancy — is known, in medical circles, as a C-section.)
“I don’t even know how to describe the moment of watching that,” Bennett said by phone. “It was one of these moments of listening to Trump use this fear-mongering, violent language in order to describe an abortion, and hearing Hillary respond with intelligence and nuance.”
The Mothers, Bennett said, is not “a political novel in the sense of it trying to make an argument one way or another about abortion. But I recognize that the act of writing about abortion is political.” She spoke with ThinkProgress about how the book came to be, experiencing and writing about subtle racism, and what fiction can do that political rhetoric can’t.
You started writing this when you were still in high school, right? And then you worked on it for seven years. What did you have at the very start that’s still present in the final product?
I feel like the book has changed so much. Sometimes even to think of it as the same book is pretty weird. I knew that it was going to be set in this church community, that it would focus on the lives of these young people, and I knew that this character Nadia would be involved. Originally, I thought of her as a secondary character. I didn’t think of her as the protagonist, but I was interested in the secret she was keeping from her family and from her church.
I’ve read that you “edit with a blowtorch.” What’s your rewrite process like?
I’m generally not wedded to many of my own ideas. I feel like a lot of things can be changed! Which is sometimes a good way to approach editing and sometimes complicates things. I never want to be wedded to my own bad ideas. I try to think about a book as a constantly changing thing.
I first came to your writing through your essay, “I Don’t Know What To Do With Good White People,” which appeared on Jezebel shortly after Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson was not indicted in the shooting of Michael Brown. And that’s how your agent found you too, correct? And your novel was already in progress?
I never considered my self a non-fiction writer. I’d been working on this book for a long time. But I wrote that essay because it’s what I was feeling and thinking in the moment. That was the essay that caught the attention of my agent; she was surprised when I told her I had a novel I’d been working on. I think of it as the moment that jump started my writing career.
I didn’t want it to be melodramatic. I didn’t want it to be, “this girl gets an abortion and it ruins her life.” That narrative is pretty common in pop culture. I wanted it to be a decision that she thinks and feels deeply about, but not something that defines her, or something that ruins her life.
Something that’s really striking in your book is the nature of Nadia’s feelings about her abortion. It’s not this binary thing — regret or relief — and it’s not a difficult decision for her to make. And yet she does spend a not-insignificant amount of time imagining this alternate path her life could have taken. How did you determine how often Nadia would reflect on her choice to have an abortion? At any point in your drafts, was there more or less of that material?
She is a pretty guarded character. Earlier, as I was writing the book, there are a lots of moments where I was farther from her emotions. But I got closer to what she was thinking and feeling — that’s what makes fiction really interesting, being in someone else’s consciousness, thinking and feeling what they are. It was something I wanted to handle well and strike a good balance with it. I didn’t want it to be melodramatic. I didn’t want it to be, “this girl gets an abortion and it ruins her life.” That narrative is pretty common in pop culture. I wanted it to be a decision that she thinks and feels deeply about, but not something that defines her, or something that ruins her life.
It’s also very intriguing to think about Nadia wondering if her mother would have lived if she had had an abortion, which of course would mean Nadia wouldn’t have ever been born. It’s a real emotional brain teaser.
I always knew that she would not have her mother alive. I knew that back when I was working on early drafts of the book. As time went by, I became interested in the relationship between those two things: her mother’s death and her decision to not become a mother. Those events happening in pretty close proximity, there was something thematically I wanted to explore. But it’s one of those things, you can never know. The idea of imagining what your mother’s life would have been like if you weren’t there. To me there’s something really heartbreaking about that, and it’s a question she can never answer.
Did you write anything about Nadia’s mom that you ended up cutting that revealed more of her backstory and why she committed suicide? Just to hear her voice in your head? In the book, as in life, I guess, there’s so little certainty there for the survivors.
I actually had a whole section from her mother’s perspective that ended up getting cut in the editing process. But it was exactly what you said: Let me just try writing in her mother’s voice. I wrote this first person section in her mother’s voice about her life. It was something I did pretty late, but it was illuminating, all the parts of her life her daughter doesn’t know and will never have access to. It’s not in the book, but it exists!
I think the act of telling a story, whose story you decide to tell, whose voice you inhabit and perspectives you show, that is reflective of these ideas of power and representation, and those are political.
This is small, but I loved the brief glimpse we get of the clinic volunteer who drives Nadia home from the abortion. She’s ostensibly this do-gooder character — she volunteers at an abortion clinic to help people in exactly Nadia’s circumstances — and yet she is clearly surprised to learn that Nadia is smart enough to go to the University of Michigan.
Nadia is a character who is very aware of how people are reading her. And I think the most interesting characters in fiction are like that. They have a sense of themselves, but they’re always thinking of how they’re being viewed. That’s something she struggles with as a character: She should know better because she is the smart girl who is going to college. And the fact that her mother got pregnant with her at a young age, she feels like she should have been able to avoid the situation. So she constantly perceives other people perceiving her.
How does it feel for this book to be out in the world against the backdrop of this election, when there has been particularly vitriolic and violent language about abortion? I’m thinking of Donald Trump at the last debate, describing how aborted babies get “ripped out” of pregnant women.
I don’t even know how to describe the moment of watching that. It was one of these moments of listening to Trump use this fear-mongering, violent language in order to describe an abortion, and hearing Hillary respond with intelligence and nuance. It was such a huge contrast in that moment of her essentially saying that, there are situations where a woman’s life is in danger and she doesn’t want an abortion but it saves her life. That complicates this simple dichotomy that our politics present this issue in.
I’ve been a little surprised that in spite of this spate of restrictive anti-abortion laws passing in a lot of states, that abortion has not been as much of a national issue in these debates and in the campaigns. But that was a jarring moment, and a pretty illuminating depiction of the way in which some people actually do think about abortion. What Trump said was this fundamental misunderstanding and a lack of empathy about the ways in which, often, these situations are very complicated. They’re not this simple pro-choice/pro-life divide.
Your non-fiction essays — like “Good White People and “Who Gets to Go to the Pool?” — are overtly political, consciously engaging with the news. Do you think your novel is, too? Are novels inherently political, or is that something a reader brings to the book by themselves?
I don’t know. I think that question about art versus politics, it’s definitely a false dichotomy. I don’t know that I’d say all novels are political, but I think all novels engage with politics. I think the act of telling a story, whose story you decide to tell, whose voice you inhabit and perspectives you show, that is reflective of these ideas of power and representation, and those are political.
I don’t think of The Mothers as a political novel in the sense of it trying to make an argument one way or another about abortion. But I recognize that the act of writing about abortion is political. And with this novel, I wanted to portray characters who experienced a range of emotions about this very complicated topic. I’ve heard back from readers of a lot of different political leanings who identify with a lot of different people in the book, even people who are anti-abortion or anti-those rights have identified with characters in the book. I just assumed someone who felt that way politically would just not read the book. So that’s been really interesting, and it speaks to what fiction can do versus what political rhetoric can do. It allows people to empathize.
I don’t think of ‘The Mothers’ as a political novel in the sense of it trying to make an argument one way or another about abortion. But I recognize that the act of writing about abortion is political.
Wow, I’m surprised that anyone who is that vehemently against abortion could even get past the first chapter.
Exactly. I assumed that. The book is not coy about that being the inciting incident of the novel. It’s spelled out right away. So you’re told right away; there’s not some big twist. But that’s been interesting to me, that even people who feel that way politically are relating to characters in the book. I think that is the cool thing about fiction, in a way. It adds more depth to what is often a very simplistic conversation.
Nadia and Aubrey’s relationship makes me think about the cultural idea of a “best friend,” and how and why we define what that is. There are these people from your childhood — or, like Nadia and Aubrey, from your teenage years — who, even if you grow apart, kind of get grandfathered into that “best friend” status. What does it mean to you?
I think when you’re young, friendship is often just based on proximity. “Oh, this person is in a lot of my classes” or “this person lives near me” or whatever. I was interested in what happens when that proximity breaks down and all your different life stages aren’t aligning anymore, what is it really keeping you together with this person? It’s something i think about as I continue to get older and enter adulthood: What is it that’s bonding me to the people I consider my best friends? My oldest friend, I’ve been friends with her since I was five, but there are so many different ways in which our lives have diverged.
I think there’s a way in which friendship can be a parallel universe sometimes. You look at your friends and think, this is a life I could have led. My parents really wanted me to go to law school and my best friend did, and there were moments when I was looking at this book and thinking, she’s living the life my parents wanted for me. Not even to mention other things that will surely come in my life, people getting married and having kids.
He is a character that really regrets the abortion and also feels that he did not have much say in that decision. And that, to me, was a position that was really difficult to inhabit as a woman, to think about how this guy might feel. It’s often a politically manipulative position.
The friendship at the center of the book does reflect that, this alternate life for both of them. There are things they envy about each other and want in their own lives. Aubrey really envies Nadia’s boldness and ability to go out in the world, and Nadia envies the relationship Aubrey has with her sister, and that Aubrey seems like a good person. She looks to her to absolve her for things she regrets or feels bad about. They are an unlikely friendship but I was drawn to these two girls being connected through their motherlessness, and how that would be able to sustain them as they grow older or how that connection might not be enough.
How did you get into Luke’s head? I feel like he is the hardest character to relate to, if you want to as a reader feel distant from him. You can think, he’s just this selfish guy who carelessly ruins these girls’ lives.
I think originally, he kind of was that character to me! He was an obstacle to be overcome by women. But over time I became interested in him too, and what he’s lost and trying to make sense of in his life.
He is a character that really regrets the abortion and also feels that he did not have much say in that decision. And that, to me, was a position that was really difficult to inhabit as a woman, to think about how this guy might feel. It’s often a politically manipulative position. So there’s a way in which I kind of resisted it and was questioning myself, how much say he should have over something that’s happening in someone else’s body. But it forced me to empathize with someone I didn’t think I could empathize with.
I wanted to explore him as a character who has emotional depth. He is a messy, flawed character who does create problems, but he feels deeply, and he feels cheated of a lot of things that he wanted or thinks he deserved that have been taken away from him, whether that’s his football career or this child that he actually did want but lost. It was a challenge to think about him, but I wanted him to be a more complex character than I think you might expect from this young guy who is caught up in this situation, and you think he’ll just be relieved that she decided to have this abortion and giving him a pass from taking any real repsonsibly.
In some ways, his is a very satisfying perspective because it fulfills those questions you have about people you dated in the past. Like, “Is that guy still thinking about me? Is he Facebook stalking me, too?” And with Luke, the answer is yes!
That’s true. [laughs] At the same time, it’s still not enough. This character who kind of means well but still just cannot really get it together. I think those are the types of people that are so difficult. You do want to empathize with him. He has feelings, he is trying, sort of. But if any of my friends were dating a guy like this, I’d be like, “Run! He’s not going to get it together.”
Speaking of people who mean well, when Nadia arrives at Michigan she thinks about the subtle racism she encounters there:
“She felt the sly type of racism here, longer waits for tables, white girls who expected her to walk on the slushy part of the sidewalk, a drunk boy outside a salsa club yelling that she was pretty for a black girl. In a way, subtle racism was worse because it made you feel crazy. You were always left wondering, was that actually racist? Had you just imagined it?”
Can you talk more about that idea?
I think that, as overt forms of discrimination are becoming more challenged and less socially acceptable, they become a lot more covert, and that requires a different psychological engagement than when it’s more in your face. It’s something I think about a lot with race. Compared to my parents who grew up in segregated areas; my mom grew up in the south, and she would say, “I never really thought about what white people might think about me because they told me.” It wasn’t a guessing game.
That’s something a lot different from my experience growing up, where there were these moments of subtle questions. And there’s something frustrating about that, because you can never really know what someone else is thinking, and it’s a waste of energy to even wonder. But I think about it as I move through the world, the ways in which I’m being engaged. Even with this writing thing, I think there are moments when I walk into a room and I’m not what people are expecting when they’re thinking of a novelist, and I don’t know if that’s because I’m young or black — I don’t know exactly what it is. But there are moments, still, of, “I’m not what you had in mind when I went to check in at this hotel.” It’s one of these things again, you can never really know exactly what it is, how someone is responding to you.
And you can start to feel like you’re being gaslit by the world, because there’s this degree of plausible deniability.
There were even a couple moments when I was with someone from the publisher who is white and a little bit older than me, and we would go to do different media things and the person meeting us would turn to her and think she’s me. And I was always thinking, do I look like i’m assisting her? Does she look like the writer? These are clearly people who haven’t read the book, but moments where people turn to her and are like, “Brit?” And I’m like, oh, I’m not what you had in mind when you thought you were bringing in a novelist.
I’m still not sure if it’s age, race, both of those things. But I can never know. and it’s not this feeling of, “Oh, I feel so oppressed in this moment by this overtly racist thing.” I’m kind of tickled by it. But it’s this thing of being human and realizing that someone is surprised by you flouting their expectations of what they thought a writer is and what a novelist is, and realizing, that’s not what people think when they look right at me. That’s been kind of eye-opening.
How does the success of The Mothers change your career and your life? What does it mean, practically, to publish a successful work of literary fiction? Do you still need a day job?
Right now I’m writing full-time. But it’s been really exciting to have such a warm reception to this book, particularly my first book. But every book is different and requires something different from you. It’s great that people liked this first one, but that does not help me when i sit down to this blank page. It’s nice to have that reception but at the end of the day, this is square one — new characters, new world. I have to learn how to write this novel in the same way I had to learn how to write this previous one. So it’s encouraging, but there’s also something very humbling about working on a first draft in this moment.