Brit Bennett's The Mothers
has been one of the most anticipated and buzzed about debuts of the fall, for good reason — this story of three young people within a close-knit black church community in California is moving, poignant, subtle, and gorgeously written. Nadia, a beautiful, troubled teenager about to leave on a college scholarship, starts seeing Luke, the pastor's son, after her mother's suicide — and then she gets pregnant. Her decision to have an abortion has a ripple effect on all of their lives, including Aubrey, a devoted church-goer who has her own secrets. The relationships between Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey are framed by the voices of The Mothers, the older women who are the bedrock of the church. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly
raves, "[A] brilliant, tumultuous debut novel….[Bennett] shows extraordinary compassion for her flawed characters….an exquisitely developed story." And Angela Flournoy, author of National Book Award–finalist The Turner House
, writes, "Bennett is a brilliant and much-needed new voice in literature." We are proud to choose The Mothers
as Volume 62 of Indiespensable
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In an interview with Jezebel
, you said that you grew up with this book. When you started it, you were the same age as the main characters. How did it begin, and how did it evolve over that time?
A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled upon this old flash drive in my parents' house and bravely clicked on the files to look at an early draft of the book from, like, 2009. I was 19 then. I was probably a couple drafts in.
One of the most surprising things about looking at that old draft was that the first line of the book remained the same. That was one of the only things that remained as I revised it a million times. The book changed in a lot of ways. One change is that originally when I started writing it, the book took place over one summer, the summer during which Nadia has the abortion. It was very contained in that one moment.
As I got a little bit older, I became interested in what the characters would be like as they grew older. I started thinking about them beyond teenagers. What would they be like in college? What would they be like after college? So that's one difference, the way the time frame of the book expanded.
The other biggest difference is that originally Nadia was not the central character; Aubrey was.
As I began writing the book and thinking about it a little bit more, I realized that Nadia and the secret that she's keeping, which originally was just sort of lingering in the back of the story, was actually the engine pushing the story forward. I became more interested in her and her life.
And yet it begins the same way, with that chorus voice of The Mothers.
It took me a while to come about thinking of that chorus voice. Originally it was in third person, but once I was in grad school I started thinking of the idea of using the collective voice of The Mothers to structure the book.
What did you draw from to create that voice?
A lot of it was drawing from older women in my life who I knew. I had a lot of fun writing it as a younger person and thinking of that older voice. When you're younger, you often have these older people telling you, "Well, I've lived longer than you. I know this about life. You don't know anything." That's a voice I heard a lot growing up. A lot of it is true, but I also had fun channeling that voice for once instead of being the person receiving it. [Laughter
That was part of it. Growing up, thinking about the women in my family, thinking about things that my mom has told me about life, and also, in the context of this smaller church community, thinking about the way that you feel like there are older people watching you all the time, commenting on you.
The Upper Room Chapel church is a really central part of all of your characters' lives. Why did you want to have that church and that community at the center of the book?
I grew up in the church. I actually grew up going to two different types of churches. My mom is Catholic, so we would go to her church sometimes, go to mass. My dad is Protestant, so I would go to his church also. They were very different churches as far as the style of the service and the demographics of people who went there. It was something I was always interested in, the friction between those spaces that are both Christian churches that hold the same beliefs overall, but have very different ways of expressing them, and different types of people who go there, and different forms of worship.
Also, growing up as a young person in the church, I always felt on the inside of that space but also on the outside of it. I felt like church was a space for older people, for sure. I always felt like, OK, this is kind of for somebody else.
But I also saw these young people in the church who seemed extremely devoted. I felt on the outside of that level of devotion. I felt more ambivalent towards religion than a lot of people I was seeing who were around my age, who were involved in the youth groups or doing projects.
I was interested in writing towards that space that I didn't understand, and thinking about what it means to be a young person in a church. You're going through life. You're making mistakes. You're asking a lot of questions of the world, but the ways in which people can do that while also maintaining an intense devotion was something that I was interested in.
It sounds like how Nadia feels about Aubrey before she gets to know her. She's wondering what her life is like, and how she has such strong devotion.
I grew up in a small Methodist church myself, and all this felt very familiar. I was wondering how you named the church. The "Upper Room" reminded me that my grandmother used to always read the Upper Room
My grandma used to play piano in her church and she had this book of hymns, and I remember flipping through it. I don't know if this was the name of her church or if I saw it somewhere in this book, but somehow I really liked the idea of the story from Acts, and the idea of the Upper Room was something that felt like a classic kind of church name, but it also made me think of my grandma in that way. She was involved with her church for a very long time, always playing piano. It made me think of her.
Growing up as a young person in the church, I always felt on the inside of that space but also on the outside of it.
The way you were saying you felt both inside and outside — I think that comes through in the book in some of the characters' actions, and also in the mother's voices. It reminded me that there's ambiguity in a church community. There are the good things about it, and then there can be the judgment and the hypocrisy within that, too, which comes out in the book.
That's something I also was really interested in, because I think conversations around religion can often be very flattened and simplistic. Either people come from a point of view where if you're not religious, if you're not a believer, then you're damned or you're a bad person. On the flip side of that, there are also people who think that churches just want to take your money, that they're just trying to judge you and manipulate you. So I was very disinterested in thinking about it from either point of view because both of those points of view are wrong, and also boring. [Laughter
I was interested in the ways in which I've often felt like I'm being judged, or people are being judgmental, but I've also seen the ways in which, even with people in my life, churches have rallied around people, taken care of them. For example, your house floods, and people in the church help you out.
There are ways in which churches can be such supportive communities, but there are also ways in which they can be communities that sort of condemn. I was interested in thinking about that space between those things, because I think that's true of a lot of people's experiences.
I was intrigued by something The Mothers say about prayer, that if you don't become the people you're praying for, prayer is nothing but words. Is that how you think about prayer, and also, is that similar to how you think about writing, as an act of intense empathy or embodiment?
For sure. Personally, I always strive to be an empathetic person. Often even I find myself being judgmental sometimes if people are not being compassionate enough, when I'm reading about people, or thinking of different stories that are in the news. So it's something that I always strive toward, just thinking about what other people are experiencing.
I was interested in thinking about The Mothers because they're such an engine for judgment in this book, in a way that they can be empathetic and can imagine the lives of these other characters. I wanted to think of this other side of them beside the judgmental, gossipy group of people within this church.
And yes, it is something that I think is important in writing. Empathy and imagination are two of the most important qualities in a writer, and two things that I always strive to nurture in myself.
I really love your language on a couple of different levels. There's something very clear and precise about your imagery, even when it's metaphorical. For example, I liked Nadia's thinking that before her mom died, she'd been so rarely alone — she was handed off like a baton between teachers, friends, and family. I'm wondering how you think about metaphor and about those kinds of images in your prose.
That's a good question. I do strive, first of all, to be clear and to be understandable. I don't like writing that tries to be too intellectual or tries too hard to obscure itself. The point of good writing is that people understand what you're saying.
That's not to say that you're dumbing anything down or that you're being overly simplistic. I like really good, clear writing. The writers that I look to also write clearly in that way.
Specifically with that passage, I was trying to think about how this character would view her experience, and I thought about being a young person and being in high school, going from one activity to another and never really having that space of no one being there with you.
It's hard to think about how these things come about. But yes, I try to be clear and try to be interesting, but I also don't like writing that intentionally obscures itself. That frustrates me to no end as a reader.
It's a wonderful combination in your writing, clarity but also subtlety and nuance. It's understandable, but it's also complex.
You also write straightforwardly and insightfully about emotion without it sounding sentimental or trite — talking about the way that "grief was not a line, carrying you infinitely further from loss. You never knew when you would be sling-shot backward into its grip." Or "hard deaths resist words; hard deaths get caught in the teeth like gristle." How did you think about that tone, that kind of emotional authority?
Obviously it's hard to do, the idea of conveying emotion in a way that's palpable and real but not too sentimental. It's something that most writers are probably self-conscious about.
I was thinking the other night about how tenderness is such a difficult emotion to convey. If you don't go far enough, then there's nothing there. You're not really conveying any type of feeling. But if you go too far, it becomes very sappy. It's an emotion that requires such a light touch.
I was more interested in what happened after she made the decision than the fact of her making it.
It's something that I do think about, how to convey these feelings in a way that's apparent and will make the reader feel something, but that's not too cheesy. I try to be specific. That's how I try to approach it, because if you try to convey any emotion in a general way, it's not going to resonate with anybody.
Thinking about this image of someone being slingshot backwards, it's something I realized about loss. We think about time moving in this linear, straightforward way, but that's not how we experience emotions. I think that came from that personal realization on my own behalf. It's not, Well, that's done. I'm just going to keep moving on from it.
That's not how we actually experience that emotion.
I feel like I've known girls a little like Nadia — beautiful, smart, but troubled. Or "wild," as they say — sometimes for strong reasons, like Nadia's, sometimes less obvious ones. How did her character come to you?
As I said, originally she was someone who was hovering in the background. She was a girl who went to a church and had this secret. The secret eventually comes out.
I became interested in her when I was an undergrad. I had an independent study with a former Stegner Fellow. I remember saying something during that independent study about how Nadia was the type of girl who I wouldn't really want to be friends with.
The professor I was working with pushed back on that and was like, "Well, why? Why do you think that?" That was something that prompted me to think more deeply about who this girl was and what it was about her that I resisted.
I became interested in her, this idea that she's this character who is quite guarded and tries to be tough, a lot tougher than she actually is. I began revising, and she moved to the center of the book. I started trying to peel back those layers.
I remember my professor saying, "You have to find a way to knock her off her game." It became like a challenge to me to think of ways that this character, who tries to be so put together, is constantly knocked off kilter and her plans are knocked off kilter.
I was interested in that blend of vulnerability and toughness that I think exists in all of us to some degree but I found particularly interesting in the character of this young woman.
It's interesting that you say you initially wouldn't have wanted to be friends with her, because the friendship between her and Aubrey really becomes one of the main relationships of the book.
Yeah, I think of that as the emotional center of the book, that relationship that develops. It seems unlikely on its face, but both of the girls are drawn together by the fact that they don't have mothers.
Even though their circumstances are very different, they both find things that they want in each other, and also there are ways in which they both cause these problems and these complications that challenge that friendship.
The way you write about Nadia's mother and her mother's death, that loss in her life, is really poignant and heartbreaking.
My mother's still living, thankfully, but I was so drawn to this idea because it's an idea that really terrified me. The idea of losing a parent, period, but also the challenges of losing a mother at an age when you are becoming a woman and you're trying to figure out what it means to be a woman in the world.
The abortion is another point of loss. Nadia has decided from the outset that that's what she's going to do, and so it's not an option for her not to, really. But it is something that both she and Luke, especially Luke, feel some sorrow about.
In earlier drafts, her mother had died when she was much younger, and as I began revising, I realized that I wanted to put those events of her losing her mother and her deciding not to become a mother together, because I thought that there were interesting connections and tensions between those two ideas.
So it was something that I decided to compress in time, which I think puts more pressure on that decision that she makes and also allows it to resonate a little bit more.
And then of course those things resonate with the church mothers' voices too — there are so many representations of motherhood and un-motherhood.
In that same interview with Jezebel
, you said, "As a writer I'm interested in the aftermath of things — the events that happen after someone has already decided," and I thought that was really interesting in terms of those two events in the book. How did that affect the way you thought about the novel, through that prism of aftermath?
I always knew that I wanted to start after she had decided to have this abortion. A lot of drafts opened with her physically at the clinic, and I think that was something that was difficult to do because I wanted to establish things about the character before she was thrust into this really emotionally intense situation. But I wanted to avoid the idea of her actually going through the decision making, because I knew what decision she wanted to make. I was more interested in what happened after she made the decision than the fact of her making it.
When I was in my MFA program, I remember I had professors chide me about this sometimes. They would debate whether what I was turning in was actually a story or not, because typically we think of the story as some choices that the person is making. I was always like, "OK, that's fine, but what happened after they made that choice? I'm not interested in the story leading up to her mom's death. I'm interested in what happens after her mom has killed herself. I'm interested in what happens after that abortion."
That resists some natural way that we think of narrative sometimes. There's something that was kind of boring to me about the stuff that leads up to the decision.
In particular, in the case of abortion, it's such a highly political topic that we can debate in every way, but often we don't really think about the aftermath of it. We think about, Should people have access?
Or, Should this be illegal?
Or, Should we close these clinics?
Often when we think about the aftermath, it's in a very simplistic way, whether it's that either people are just completely relieved or people are just completely wracked with guilt for the rest of their lives.
I knew that I wanted to avoid that, too, even though those are ways that people feel and those are valid ways to feel. But, again, I felt that was kind of boring. I was more interested in talking about more complex feelings about this decision that she'd made.
It has that same ambiguity we were talking about earlier. It resists easy interpretations or easy answers in terms of the abortion, in terms of her mom's suicide. You really never know why that happened. Nadia doesn't know, and no one really knows. That's one reason the book feels so realistic to me. It feels a lot more like actual life.
That's one of the tragedies of life, that we can't completely know where other people are coming from or what other people are feeling. I had other drafts where I was like, Maybe she should find a suicide note. Maybe she should find some big answer of why her mom does this.
But then I thought how, while sometimes there are people who can communicate why they've chosen to take their own lives, a lot of times you are just left on the outside not knowing. There was something to me that was very resonant about that and interesting about the fact that she would have to grapple the rest of her life with this question that she can never really know the answer to.
They have been damaged by the world that, at the same time, they've been forced to take care of.
Another thing that's maybe a little unexpected is Aubrey's relationship with her sister and her sister’s girlfriend. It's really moving how well they're taking care of her. It is maybe a little bit surprising that somebody who's that involved with the church would have an openly gay sister. How did you think about that relationship, and including those characters?
I always really loved those characters. I had so much fun because I never really write characters where people just love each other and are kind of happy. [Laughter
] I wrote so many pages of them just being happy that didn't make it into the book because it was like, This is too much and it is detouring from the actual story.
But I love the characters of her sister and her sister's girlfriend. I did like that tension or the fact that that was something that was somehow surprising. Although to Aubrey, maybe there’s not much of a tension at all between her religious beliefs and the love she has for her sister and her sister's girlfriend.
Also as I kept writing, I remembered I had a professor point out in a workshop that you have both of these girls who are unmothered in a sense, but then also in a different sense Aubrey has two mothers and Nadia has none. That became something that I also thought was interesting, where Nadia loves spending time with this family but it also really illustrates the depth of her loss and her lack in that way.
It is really nice to have this happy relationship in the book, even if it's not given a ton of airtime. They care about each other so much. It's like, These people are nice to spend time with for a little bit here.
Yeah, exactly. That's how I felt writing it.
I do also love the character of Nadia's father. Their relationship is loving but guarded, not terribly open. He's such a poignant character.
He was the surprise breakout character! As I'm talking to people who've read the book, whenever someone comes up to me and is like, "My favorite character is…" it's been her dad, which was something that really surprised me.
There's a way in which, like you're saying, he loves her but he's distant, and there's something that's frustrating about that relationship but also sad, their tendency to pass by each other and their inability to connect.
The best one so far was when I first got galleys and my parents finally read the book for the first time. This was a few months ago. I went down to the kitchen and they were arguing about the character of her dad, because my dad was really empathetic towards him and my mom was like, "Yeah, but he needs to get it together and be there for his daughter." [Laughter
It was really weird to hear my parents arguing about this character I'd created. But I think it also brought out the fact that the character has this complexity that draws people to him, whether it's something that makes them really feel for him or also frustrates them at the same time.
Oh, that's great. That's a cool experience.
There's a passage where The Mothers are talking about how they tried to love the world but they've left this world. You write:
We tried to love the world. We cleaned after this world, scrubbed its hospital floors and ironed its shirts, sweated in its kitchens and spooned school lunches, cared for its sick and nursed its babies. But the world didn't want us, so we left and gave our love to the Upper Room. Now we're afraid of this world. A boy snatched Hattie's purse one night and now none of us go out after dark. We hardly go anywhere at all, besides Upper Room. We've seen what this world has to offer. We're scared of what it wants.
I was wondering if you wanted to talk a little bit about that passage, because I found it really striking.
I'm always obsessed with this idea of the church being outside of the world, and how that's such an odd phrase when you think about it in a very literal sense — this idea that you're supposed to exist outside of whatever's going on with the rest of the world.
I starting thinking about that in the context of being a black woman, particularly being an older black woman who's experienced segregation and all of these things that have made her feel, in a lot of ways, outside of the world. The idea that these older black women who have existed on the margins for so long, and then the ways that they have been damaged by the world that, at the same time, they've been forced to take care of.
When I thought about older black women who I know and older relatives, and thinking about things that they've seen and gone through, that was something that drew me to the fact that, a lot of times, when you think of particularly black churches, you do think of these older women who are so important in the church but also have such little actual institutional power.
This idea of being marginalized within the larger world but also within the church was something that I think again drew me to these church mothers and caused me to really feel for them. There's a way to dismiss them as these gossiping busybodies, but when I think about the things that they've been through and seen and the ways in which they've been marginalized throughout their lives, it was something that I really felt for.
You were talking a little bit earlier about writers you love who have very clear prose. Who do you think of as your influences, or who do you particularly love?
I really love Toni Morrison
. I don't know what more needs to be said about Toni Morrison's genius. I really like Baldwin's fiction. I know a lot of people really love his nonfiction, which I enjoy also, but I think his novels are so interesting, particularly something like Go Tell It on the Mountain
, which is also based in a church and focuses on this end-of-the-line character who's in a very fervent church community.
I also really love Dorothy Allison
. She's great at writing about marginalized communities in this way that's not too sentimental or not too precious, but also doesn't condemn them or further ostracize them. She writes about ugliness in a way that's very beautiful.
I really like Jesmyn Ward
. Again, she's endlessly empathetic towards her characters in this way that I admire. I also really like Tayari Jones. Silver Sparrow
is such an incredible book. It was one of these books that I read years after it came out and was angry I didn't know about it right away. It was so great, and every person that I've told to read it has loved it also. It does some things structurally that I'm like, Oh, I've got to steal this. This is so genius.
I like writers who use language in beautiful ways but also are able to tell interesting stories about interesting characters. Particularly small communities. I'm always drawn to that idea, even though the town I grew up in was not tiny. But I think a lot of people don't really know it.
I live in LA now, and when I talk about being from Oceanside, everyone's always just kind of like, "Oh yeah. I drive past there. I see the sign on the freeway." [Laughter
] It's like the place you drive past when you're going to downtown San Diego, or some other part of San Diego that is more fancy. From that experience, I've always been drawn to storytellers who are interested in these forgotten or overlooked places.