Bennett, 26, has published essays in Jezebel, The New Yorker, and The Paris Review, among many other publications. As she prepared for her book’s release, I spoke to her about her childhood, the politics within the black church, the social power of church mothers, and female autonomy.
MORGAN JERKINS: What was the inspiration for The Mothers?
BRIT BENNETT: I think a lot of it came from growing up in the church. I was always interested in the lives of other teenagers who were in church; they seemed to be more devoted than I was. I went to church, but I had a lot of questions about religion and faith. I always felt vaguely like I had more doubt than the people around me did. I felt like I was on the outside, and I had questions that I couldn’t raise or explore because it felt like a bad idea to be doubtful. These young, church-going teenagers seemed so full of conviction, and I asked myself: Why do I have all these questions? From there, it metastasized into a story that encompassed the entire community.
You’re from California, right? Can you tell me a little bit about your community?
I grew up in Oceanside, which is in North San Diego County. It’s a military town — there are a lot of marines and military families, so it was a racially diverse town. It was also a beach town, where celebrities vacation, so there were these conflicting cultures — and conflicting perceptions of the town. I grew up 15 minutes from the beach, so there was the culture of having bonfires, but there was also this pervading military culture.
It’s a pretty politically conservative town, in general, because of the military. My family, though, is not military, so there was also this inside-outside dynamic.
The role of the female churchgoer has a sort of mythical, Greek chorus–like voice to it. She’s unnamed, but all knowing. Why did you choose to include her in such a significant way, and how did you go about choosing the right style?
It was something that came about later, this idea of a collective voice that functions as the voice of the church. I started with an omniscient narrator who served as an observer of the young people. But then I was drawn to these older women, church mothers who are a moral authority of the church, who cast harsh judgments on the congregation. The readers can see through and around their perceptions — we can see where they are totally wrong and misjudging.
How do you think the politics of the black church influences the story?
That is a big question. As far as the book goes, I was interested in the role of black women in the church. Black women essentially are the black church; they are the majority of people who go to churches and do the unseen and unacknowledged labor. I was interested in how black women are not allowed to speak at church — they’re not in the pulpit delivering the sermons most of the time. But they are doing the work that keeps churches afloat. They perform different roles, and are often silenced.
That’s why I wanted to explore the church mothers who are often dismissed as gossipy old ladies and don’t have institutional power. But they do have power. I think gossip has social power. Gossip is the construction of narratives around people; it spreads, and that’s something that’s powerful.
I was also interested in the idea of a black girl getting an abortion, which is controversial in her community. How much freedom do you have over your body? This is one of many questions that I think a black church like The Upper Room would find shameful.
There is a stark juxtaposition between Nadia, who is sexually experienced, and Aubrey, who is not. What do you want readers to take away about their relationship and what it demonstrates about their town?
Their friendship is the emotional center of the book. They are two unlikely characters, in the ways that you describe. When I think of what these characters need from each other, it comes down to the fact that they were both abandoned by their mothers, though in different ways. Nadia wants to be absolved of having an abortion, and she wants to be pure. Whereas Aubrey looks up to Nadia for doing the things that she wishes she could do. Aubrey doesn’t go anywhere or see much. These characters play off of each other, figure out what they need from each other, and also hurt each other. These relationships can be so passionate and intimate, but also devastating and hurtful at times.
How was the writing process for this novel?
It changed a lot. Writing about Oceanside while going to a college and grad school away from that town gave me the physical distance to see it with fresh eyes. Getting older allowed me to see the characters anew. I thought the novel was going to have a short time frame, taking place after Nadia has the abortion but before she leaves for college; it was a very contracted book. But coming of age is a series of moments. I started to think: What would happen to these characters when they were 18? Or 25? I became more interested in the scope of their lives, and that came with my getting older, too.
Tell me about this vibrantly colorful book cover. How much say did you have in it, and what were the artistic choices involved?
I actually just met the cover designer Rachel Willey for the first time yesterday! I thought she made a gorgeous and iconic cover. I was very fortunate — this cover was her first attempt, and my publisher told me usually it takes multiple tries. The cover is like stained glass, which evokes the church. I loved it immediately. I didn’t have much say, and I never went into the process of envisioning what I wanted the cover to look like. I was very open-minded, and I couldn’t have imagined the end result if I tried.
This is a novel that is very specifically about black women, and it’s getting much mainstream attention. How do you feel about that? What do you think it demonstrates about our present-day literary landscape?
I’m really shocked by it, to be honest. I wrote this book thinking that young black girls would love it. I had them in mind, and I was totally happy with that, because I write about and for black women. It’s been very overwhelming to see all the different types of people who are reacting to the book. An older white guy came up to me and said: “I know I wasn’t who you had in mind for liking this book,” and he was right. It’s really exciting to see all types of people connecting to this story, about young black kids growing up in a beach town.
There are so many young writers of color who are producing great works, and it’s exciting to see the literary world react to it — like Angela Flournoy and Yaa Gyasi. All of these works are so different and I can’t wait to see what they do next.
Speaking of which, what’s next for you?
I started a new novel; it’s extremely rough, I’m maybe halfway through the first draft. It’s set in Louisiana and it engages a little bit with my mom’s upbringing in the Jim Crow era. It’s about a pair of sisters who get separated. I want to keep challenging myself with essays, also. It’s not a form I've written in a long time, and I want to work on it. I would like to write an essay collection at some point — but as essays come to me, I want to keep pushing the form and write things that are more challenging and interesting for me. So, we’ll see!
Morgan Jerkins is a Harlem-based writer. Her debut essay collection, This Will Be My Undoing, is forthcoming from Harper Perennial.