the bookshelf

Literary Prodigy Brit Bennett on Writing a Modern Novel About Abortion and Race

Brit Bennett and The Mothers Photo: Emma Trim/Courtesy of the author

The most interesting thing about Brit Bennett isn’t that she’s debuting a novel at 26, or that the novel has already become the subject of praise among critics and celebrities alike, but that she broached the topic of abortion in her first book, and illustrated how it folds into intersectionality in a radiantly deft and nuanced way. The Mothers is a testament to Bennett’s talent in stringing along just the right words to form a remarkable body of work.

Bennett began work on The Mothers “seven or eight years ago,” she says, and sold the book shortly before graduating from her master’s program at the University of Michigan. Mothers — whether that’s the idea of motherhood, the absence of mothers, or the broader concept of “mothering” — are the bones of the book, while teenage main characters Aubrey, Nadia, and Luke are the meat. Mixed within their coming-of-age stories is an assembly of elder female members of small Californian church who shoulder the role of Greek chorus, periodically peeling away the layers within the happenings in the main character’s lives, most notably Nadia’s rumored abortion.

Bennett is black, as are most of the characters in the book, and she nimbly addresses the element of race. It’s there, but it’s not the main show, which Bennett feels more adequately mirrors real life. The Cut spoke with Bennett about her use of race in the book, avoiding typical abortion-story tropes, and why it was important to focus on “mothers” throughout the novel.

What drew you to write The Mothers?
I was interested in the lives of young people in the conservative church world. I grew up within the church, but I was never as involved as a lot of the people I saw around me. In the early 2000s, when I was coming of age and coming into political consciousness and thinking about abortion and the ways in which it was positioned as a religious issue, I started to think about the complexities of that — and that it wasn’t this very simple dichotomy that both sides of the political argument were positing it as. It came from that personal place, and also the political place of wanting to look into this topic that was such a polarizing issue.

What sort of statement are you hoping to convey about abortion?
I acknowledge that writing about abortion is political. I did not want this to be a novel interested in convincing someone one way or another on how they should feel. I wanted to render an experience that was more complex. It’s a strange issue because it’s something that’s deeply private that’s made extremely public when we debate the politics of it. I wanted to look into this one character who made this choice, and who continues to think about that choice as she gets older.

Were you fearful of falling into the trope within fictional abortion stories where there is some sort of tragic outcome?
It could be a very different book where a character has an abortion and it’s just a background detail and never mentioned again, but I knew this was going to be a major starting point. It was a balancing act of making sure that her decision had some weight and does affect her in a way, but also trying to avoid this idea that this is going to completely ruin her life. The way that I see it is that she doesn’t regret the decision that she made, but she regrets that she had to make that decision. That is a more complicated reaction than this idea that “I made this choice and never thought about it again,” or “I made this choice and it completely ruined my entire life.”

Did you always know the kind of characters that you wanted to highlight in this story, and that the subject of abortion would play a major role?
Those characters were always in the book, but in varying levels of significance. The character that became more nuanced over time was Luke. Originally he was pretty flat, kind of this jerk, and he responds to Nadia’s pregnancy in a way that you assume a lot of guys would respond. I like to describe him as a fuckboy with a heart of gold. But I think lost in the conversation about abortion is the experiences of men. In a way, I didn’t really want to explore this — it’s her [Nadia’s] body, and why should his opinion matter? But it was something that I wanted to know more about because it’s complicated. Young black men are often the most dehumanized characters in narratives, so it was really important for me to make this young black male character a lot more complex, and for him to have a rich emotional life, which is something that young black characters like Luke are often denied.

Why did you want the idea of mothering, motherhood, mothers, and the absence of to serve as the fulcrum of the book?
Part of that came out organically. I knew that Nadia would have this abortion, and I also knew that her mother would be dead from the beginning. As time went by, I began to think about the relationship between those two things and that became interesting to me. I was interested particularly in the idea of black motherhood because black motherhood is catholicized in a way that deeply frustrates me. You hear that black mothers are blamed for black communities, black women have too many abortions, black women get pregnant too young … At the same time, the idea that black mothers are vital to the black communities because all the black fathers are gone. I grew up hearing a lot of these narratives and they frustrate me. They weren’t true to my experience. I wanted to think about black motherhood in a way that wasn’t this idea that all black mothers are saints – that black motherhood is very complicated.

In your other works race is often at the forefront, but for The Mothers, race and race relations played a background role for each of the characters. Why did you choose to not explicitly discuss race?
I wanted to think about race in the way of my lived-in experience, where it informs my experiences and informs my perceptions but it’s not necessarily the major conflict in my day. I’m interested in thinking about the mundane in black life, because often narratives make it seem that black lives don’t have meaning if they’re not centered around conflict with racism or conflict with whiteness. There are great stories that center on struggles with racism, but with this book I knew that race would be something lingering only in the background. I reject the idea that black lives only have meaning in contrast with whiteness or in contrast with racism. Obviously those elements exist and are something we grapple with, but there is so much more than what it means to be black, and that experience is so much more complex.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Prodigy Brit Bennett on Writing a Modern Abortion Story