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Novelist Brit Bennett Is Not Here to Translate Black Grief for White Audiences

Nov 18 2016 2:05 PM
Novelist Brit Bennett Is Not Here to Translate Black Grief for White Audiences

Photo by Emma Trim

"The Mothers," with its clear-eyed portrayal of female friendship and abortion, has found fans in both Gabrielle Union and the National Book Foundation. The author behind the acclaimed debut talks about navigating the politics of race.

Brit Bennett is having quite the week: Her debut novel has just been published to incredible hype; she's started her first tour; she's just been named one of the Five Under 35 authors by the National Book Foundation; and Gabrielle Union has tweeted about her, "which was like one of my top ten most absurd life moments," she tells me through Skype from Austin." She seems pretty unfazed, though: "I think I have a pretty laid-back demeanor, I don't convey a lot of the enthusiasm I feel. I guess it's the Californian in me."

Bennett, 26, started writing The Mothers while she was still in high school, the same age as protagonist Nadia at the start of the story. She set it in an African-American community in Oceanside, the same Southern California coastal village she grew up in—a place without seasons ("the idea of having certain activities that you could only do certain times of the year—it was like no, we go to the beach in February, who cares?"). Like most of the book, she initially chose that because "it was all I knew," but that decision was mulled over as she workshopped and tweaked the novel for years thereafter. "After I left [for Michigan], it began to feel like the right place to set it: It's a military town, with people coming and going all the time, and it has communities that are very important but also very fragile, because they are constantly losing people."

Absences are central to the book, as are community, friendship, and family. The novel tells Nadia's coming-of-age story, but in a rather unusual way. It begins with two endings: Nadia's mother has just committed suicide and, shortly after, she becomes pregnant by the pastor's son and decides to have an abortion. Eventually, it pivots around Nadia's friendship with Aubrey, whose mother is also absent, and it traces their relationship as they grow into adulthood in a very tender, emotionally perceptive way—a friendship, like many, with ecstatic moments of communion and with low betrayals.

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Bennett weaves parallels between Nadia and Aubrey's motherlessness, which is cause for bonding, and their decisions over their own bodies, hinting at the idea of inherited trauma. It addresses grief head-on ("Grief was not a line, carrying you infinitely further from loss. You never knew when you would be sling-shot backward into its grip") and places it in the whirlwind that is a teenage mind at the best of times ("Like most girls, she'd already learned that pretty exposes you and pretty hides you"). Ultimately, it's a novel about choice, ambivalence in the face of religion, and taking control despite their community's expectations, conveniently symbolized by the voices of a gossipy group of elderly church ladies (known as "the mothers") whose narration frames the story.

"There was never a version of the book where she has that baby. From the beginning, I knew that this character would make the choice that she makes. For me it was as obvious as the fact that she's a woman," Bennett says. What's unique about the book's portrayal of abortion is both how central it is to the plot and the complete lack of judgment around it—both shockingly rare in our culture's stories about young women. "It's an occurrence that happens every day, everywhere, and I didn't want to be coy or hide that fact. I just decided that I wanted to put that upfront in the beginning, and the thing that interested me is what happens after she has made this choice." The theme strikes a type of balance, she says: "It's a decision that's consequential but it's not one she is condemned or punished for, in the way that often women are punished for making any decision, really, but especially decisions involving sexuality and reproduction."

Still, she's been surprised that people are most interested in the abortion. The same thing is happening with race—the novel features predominantly black characters, but it is not about race or racism; they are ordinary people with lives and problems like everyone else—and yet "there hasn't been a single interview where I haven't been asked about abortion or race." She still doesn't know what to make of that, and says she's been thinking about it on the plane over. "I see how both of these are topics that can be polarizing and that are politicized. That being said, blackness is not a choice in the way that deciding to have an abortion is. Black people just are. But there seems to be a lot of fascination about the fact that these are black characters that don't necessarily conform to what people expect black people to be, or how black people live."

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Similarly, her portrayal of fathers pokes holes through one of the most oft-repeated stereotypes about black communities—Nadia's father ("the character that a lot of people tell me that they really love the most," she says) is the one constant figure in her upbringing. "A lot of times we have these pathologies of 'this is what's wrong with the black community' and it's the absent fathers, it's the single mothers, it's this, that and the other, and that was not something that was true of my experience growing up and it wasn't true of a lot of people I knew... So I really did want to think about: If the bedrock of the black community is black women, what happens when black women are absent from that equation?"

Bennett initially came into prominence for her essays on race, police violence, and systemic injustice such as a history of black dolls and of the ways that black children learn about race in the Paris Review, "my favorite thing I ever wrote"; an op-ed on the racial history of swimming pools in the New York Times; and especially the viral I Don't Know What to Do with Good White People on Jezebel, about Michael Brown and Eric Garner, which led her to her agent. She has mixed feelings about that: "For me it was the greatest professional moment, [and it] happened among this deep personal sadness about what was going on in the news. And it's been a weird tension to navigate. [...] I obviously know that there is not any type of causation happening between those two ideas. It's not a type of guilt. But it's a strange feeling to be experiencing your professional high among so much suffering within your community. And I don't want my role as a writer to be a translator of black grief to white audiences."

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