The Millions Interview

Thinking Another Person’s Thoughts: The Millions Interviews Brit Bennett

By posted at 6:00 am on March 28, 2017 3

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Brit Bennett’s debut novel The Mothers (Riverhead Books) tells the story of a religious African-American community in Oceanside, San Diego, and the emotional fallout that ripples through the community when young Nadia Turner decides to seek an abortion. The novel, which examines black women’s interiorities with rare insight, became a New York Times bestseller upon its release last fall. Bennett’s good fortune continued earlier this month when actor and producer Kerry Washington (of Scandal and Confirmation fame) announced that she is working with the author to produce a film adaptation. I spoke with Bennett about adapting the film, the importance of the novel in telling black stories, and the politics of representing abortion.

The Millions: Congratulations on the film adaptation! I’ve just been thinking about what might have to change in order to turn the novel into a successful film. What does cinema demand of the story that the novel doesn’t, and as you work on the screenplay, what changes do you think you’ll have to make to satisfy those demands?

Brit Bennett: Well, I’ve never written a screenplay before so this entire process is new to me. The biggest change I’m anticipating is that the story has to become more visual. I’m generally a pretty scenic writer, so I think that will lend itself well to film. But I’ll have to think about aspects of the book like the narrative voice, for example, and how to translate that to the screen.

TM: So much of the drama in The Mothers depends upon the tension you build not just through dramatic irony, but through the slow unearthing of your characters’ psychologies. It’s an unearthing that seems peculiar to the novel, since it gives you the time, space, and language to explore your characters. Do you worry about that not quite translating to the screen?

coverBB: I think my biggest concern is finding ways to translate character interiority onto the screen. But I think about a film like Moonlight that conveys a character who actually speaks very little yet the viewer still understands who he is and what he wants. It’s a quiet film that relies little on actual dialogue, but there’s still interiority. So it feels like a big challenge but also an exciting one. I’m looking forward to learning a new form and a new way to think about storytelling.

TM: Speaking of next projects — you’re writing about the black South for your next book, and that’s a very different context for writing about blackness. What does setting a novel in Southern California lend you when you’re writing on the black experience? Does your approach change when you think about black Southern California?

BB: The setting has been one aspect of the book that readers — particularly white readers — have been startled by. I think focusing on a black community in a Southern California beach town has been very novel to readers. That’s interesting to me, because I grew up in Oceanside. I grew up 15 minutes from the beach, and I had friends of all races — this was not anything unique to me. But people expect black stories to exist in the South or urban North. I wasn’t aware of that when I wrote the book, so I didn’t write with that in mind, or anticipating it as a conversation I’d be having with readers.

Oceanside is a beach town, a military town, so there’s a lot of racial diversity and a lot of people who are constantly coming and going. I never thought that was interesting until I went to college. I’d tell people about wildfire season and people would go, “What?” I’m like, “Yeah we would get a week off from school, we were so excited!” I went to college in the Bay Area, so aspects of life like that weren’t familiar to people in every part of California, and certainly not to people in other regions of the country. I think for me, I wanted to write about where I came from, and I was thinking about the experiences of black people as diverse, whether that’s geographical diversity or something else. People’s shock over the setting says more about what people expect from a black story than about anything I’ve written.

TM: How does setting it in a beach town subvert what people expect from a black story?

BB: My working theory on this is that what people expect from a black story is a racism-driven plot. I gather that, and my book is a story that is inflected by race, but the plot points don’t hinge on racism. That’s one way I which my book upends expectations. People think because it’s about a religious community it must be set in Mississippi…

TM: Not knowing that we have Baptist churches in Southern California too…

BB: Right! So there’s that sense. People think that San Diego is just beaches and golf courses, but Oceanside is known as the blight of the county. So I was interested in the aspects of the place that weren’t just beautiful beaches and golf courses.

Then, California in general is a place where so many people come from elsewhere — it’s a bunch of communities of transplants. So this assembling of black identity, or any racial identity, is about mixtures of people from the rest of the country ending up in this place. What gets made from that?

TM: This makes me think, part of what’s so special about a black SoCal story is that it might seem unhinged from some of the histories that haunt black communities in cities like Chicago, for example. Not to paint California as a post-racial society, of course, but how does that inform your writing?

BB: I think that’s true — there’s a newness to the black California narrative. These are not communities where generations of your family lived. For some people that’s true, but my mom’s from Louisiana, my dad’s mom is from Arkansas, and because of that there is this sense that we’re dealing with a new history. We’re also dealing with the mythology of the West as this new frontier, which the Second Great Migration bolstered, with people leaving the South for defense jobs. So there are these stories that aren’t as cemented as stories from Chicago, for example, or the American South. There’s a potential freshness from writing about black California, particularly black SoCal. When I was writing the book, I had a professor who said they’d never read a book on black San Diego — and I hadn’t, either!

TM: You seem a little surprised by people’s reactions to how the novel represents blackness. How much has your perspective on the novel changed since it came out? Have you discovered new things about it that you didn’t expect to know by reading reviews and doing interviews?

BB: I’ve thought a lot about process since I’ve been going around talking about the book. Process wasn’t something that I thought about very deliberately when I was writing, but now that people ask me about it, I have perspective on why I made certain choices.

coverI’ve mostly reflected on the lack of certain types of stories. I’ve had young black women tell me that this is the first book they’ve encountered that portrayed young black women with emotional depth. I’m glad people are responding that way, but that also makes me deeply sad. I had that feeling when I read The Turner House, for example, and it’s strange that these are such remarkable experiences. It’s sad that there’s something unique about depicting black girls who have interior lives. I think that’s telling of the state of literature. That’s not to say that I’m the only person who does this, but the fact that there are so few of us bums me out. Showing black people with complex emotional lives in the contemporary moment, not during slavery, or the Civil Rights Movement…the fact that this is unique reveals a lack of certain types of stories in the literary world.

That’s been the most shocking thing to me, but I’m also excited to be writing in a moment when black writers in all media are challenging the idea of a single black narrative. Whether its Moonlight, Insecure, or Atlanta, or books like The Turner House, black people are writing about the diversity of their experiences, and I’m glad audiences are responding well.

TM: I’m so glad you mentioned Moonlight, Atlanta, and Insecure. Obviously there’s a place for the novel and the narrative essay in telling our stories, but so much of the work of telling black stories these days is being done on television, or film, or in music. In a media environment where there are so many venues to tell black stories, what makes the novel special?

BB: Novels simulate the experience of thinking another person’s thoughts. I love television — I watch probably way too much — but when you’re watching TV, you’re not thinking the same thoughts. There’s no other way to do that than reading fiction. As close are you are to people you love, you will never think their thoughts or feel their feelings. That’s something the novel does that other forms cannot. I also appreciate the language of novels, and the fact that novels are a slower way to experience time. In the politically fraught moment we’re experiencing, it’s been refreshing to turn off a screen or step away from a constant influx of insane news.

TM: You mentioned earlier that we’re in a cultural moment where our stories our proliferating, and it seems like maybe that was a moment peculiar to Obama’s America. Something about his presence created the space to tell those stories, and even though it was an era of racial strife, it also set up new horizons for black storytellers. What changes now that Trump is in office, for you?

BB: That’s a really good question. It’s complicated for me, because on the one hand the best writers write towards the moment they find themselves in. Burying your head in the sand and pretending we’re not living in this moment will not serve your fiction.

That being said, I resent the idea that what I write has to be a response to a person who resents me so deeply. I rankle at this idea that I need to spend my mental and emotional space writing in reaction to Trump. There are ways in which the moment we’re in will filter into our work. I was thinking about this because the book I’m working on is in a lot of ways an Obama-era novel, because it’s about fluctuating identities, multiculturalism, a lot of these questions that seemed so pressing these past eight years. When I think about it, it feels like a response to Obama rather than to Trump or Trumpism. I don’t want to ignore the moment we’re in, or abdicate responsibility to respond to it, but I don’t even know what a fictional response to Trump would even look like! Writing about black people who have humanity is already pushing back against Trumpism. Just asserting that black humanity matters, black bodies matter, black love matters, and black joy matters. That’s my general project.

To write about black characters is to assert black humanity. By doing that, you’re pushing back against the forces of white supremacy, which have existed before Trump and will continue to exist long after him. I don’t what else engaging Trump would look like, but I guess we’ll have four years to see.

TM: Hopefully less than that.

BB: Lord willing.

TM: Part of what I enjoyed about the book is the fact that it does the unfortunately extraordinary thing of portraying black women’s interior lives. But I also enjoyed the fact that you do a great job of portraying a masculine vulnerability, and subverting the stereotypes of black masculinity that permeate our culture. How conscious were you, while writing the novel, of subverting these images that trap black men and women?

BB: It’s something I was definitely conscious of. In the case of Nadia and her mother, I was thinking about the “strong black woman,” which is often meant as a compliment. People have applauded me for being strong, and it’s something that I am deeply skeptical of. What happens when black women are weak or vulnerable?

As far as black masculinity, it was important to me to create black male characters that are complex and have interior lives, which they’re not afforded in our culture. Particularly, Luke was someone I wanted to humanize. Originally, he was a character who would abandon this girl he got pregnant—that was it. But I started to think of him as a character that reacts to this unwanted pregnancy in a way people would not expect a young man of any color, but particularly a young black man, to react. I wanted him to feel vulnerable, to feel these things people wouldn’t expect him to feel, and that he often couldn’t express to anyone.

coverTM: Let’s talk about the abortion. Many of the reviews and profiles I’ve read have portrayed it as something that doesn’t dominate the novel, and to many critics it seems revolutionary that you can have this abortion, and then move on from it in short order. It’s similar to how people praised Obvious Child. But it seems more complex than that: the event happens and they move on, but the abortion’s emotional impact permeates the novel. How do you think about the tension between the liberation modeled in portraying the abortion, but also the lingering psychic and emotional impact?

BB: Narratively, abortions are often depicted as events that will end a person’s life, or just a background detail. Politics or anything aside, both of those options were boring to me as narrative choices. I wanted to think about Nadia as a character who made a choice that didn’t dictate her life, and freed her to live her life. But at the same time, I wanted it to have implications and some type of emotional resonance. I didn’t want to write a story about damage, but I also didn’t want her to never think of it again.

Of course on a personal level, those are perfectly fine ways to feel. But from a storytelling point of view, they’re not interesting. I wanted to move towards what was complex, so that was a story where she made the right choice for her at the time, but continued to think about what her life would have been like if she had chosen differently. She feels that she made the right decision, but regrets that she was in the position to make the decision in the first place.

TM: The complexity of human emotion here supersedes politics.

BB: Right.

TM: How do you feel about people appropriating The Mothers as a pro-choice advocacy novel? Of course there’s no problem with that, but the actual novel is more complex. How do you feel about people reducing the complexity of Nadia’s story?

BB: It just shows how insufficient “pro-choice” and “pro-life” are as political positions. They’re useful categories, but they’re oversimplified and flattened. They don’t reflect how complexly people actually feel about this topic. I had a few people criticize the book because they thought it was pro-life! The fact that Nadia still thought about the abortion signaled regret, which must mean the book is pro-life. The fact that you have to diminish the unwieldy aspects of actual life in order to fit into one of two categories is unfortunate.

What’s been really interesting to me, in going out and talking to people about the book, is getting to see how complexly people actually feel about this issue. It’s very different from the polarization we’re presented with when we discuss it politically. I’ve had people — men and women — talk to me about their experiences with abortion. I’ve had people tell me that their mom is pro-life, but she likes the book because Luke shows regret. People find different characters to identify with politically or emotionally, and that’s gratifying; I set out to write a book where characters have complex feelings, feelings that are representative of the American public. I wanted to represent that complexity, so when I see people trying to put the novel into a camp…that’s fine if that’s the way you choose to read, but it’s not the way that I want to read. It’s boring to me.

TM: What does that say to you about how political partisanship has changed how we process nuance?

BB: It’s one of those things…I understand that for something to be politically viable, you have to simplify it. If you are for reproductive choice, or believe that abortion should be illegal, it’s useful to have two camps. If your answer is, “It’s complicated,” you can’t advance an agenda. What’s been revealing to me is that in a moment when reproductive rights are under attack at the state level, if you write a book where a character has an abortion and continues to think about it, people react to it as a pro-life message, just because exactly that sentiment gets manipulated and weaponized politically. So I have people on the left who conflate Nadia’s regret with a pro-life political maneuver. Reproductive rights are under so much attack that people have a knee jerk reaction to anything that resembles a pro-life argument. That’s revealed a lot to me about the state of our political discourse: any nuance can be mistaken for a completely separate political position. But that’s the good thing about literature as opposed to politics. Literature lets us live in nuance, in that discomfort. I think there are a lot of things in this book that will make people uncomfortable, and that’s not a bad thing. I like reading books that challenge my beliefs, that make me uncomfortable intellectually and politically. I hope other people can have that experience too.

TM: I doubt there was ever any period in American history when nuance was a political virtue, but it seems like we’re in a moment when nuance is just beyond the pale.

BB: Well there’s a way in which, because the Trump side is so against nuance that responding with nuance almost seems counterproductive. I worry about that too — replicating the thing that you oppose politically. But when there’s one side that just disregards facts, how do you respond to that with a nuanced, reasoned argument, if you can’t agree on what’s objectively true? Then perhaps nuance only muddies the water. But who wants to be part of a discourse that has no place for that nuance?

TM: It seems like you perform a similar complexity when it comes to racial politics, if there are racial politics in this book. You’re invested in providing these characters with a certain amount of nuance around racial identities, and you portray a situation where race isn’t the organizing principle of these characters’ lives. There’s that one moment when Luke’s mother tells him that reckless black boys are dead black boys, and that’s a moment when anti-blackness comes to the fore. But then it recedes, and the drama around the abortion surmounts it. I know you were working on the novel while simultaneously writing your essays on Black Lives Matter. How do you toggle between those two modes, between politically inflected nonfiction and literary fiction? Do you see them as being two different modes?

BB: Yeah, in a sense, but I approach them the same way: opening with a question that’s interesting to me. I never want to know how I feel about something, because if you do that, it’s boring. I always want to sit down and think. I wrote the [Paris Review] essay on American Girl dolls, in particular Addy, the black girl who is a slave. As I got older, I thought that was kind of weird! Wow, I was playing with a doll that was a slave, what does that mean? That doesn’t mean Addy was bad or good — it’s just a question. I always want to write from a place of trying to figure something out.

I also want to write with empathy. That’s one reason why I’ve not written anything about Trump. I was in Houston, and this woman asked me if I had an empathetic thought about Donald Trump. I really had nothing! I was just like, I cannot…I have nothing to say about this person. That’s why I have not addressed him, because my feelings about him are very flat. Maybe over time they’ll gain some complexity. I don’t foresee that, but maybe. But I always want to write with empathy.

The thing with nonfiction is that you have to make your thinking clearer. With fiction, you can make a lot of leaps between ideas, and your readers are willing to meet you there. With nonfiction, you have to be more explicit, to show your work and thinking.

TM: I was really impressed with how you deal with the lingering racial fear or pain that’s always in the vicinity of black life, even if it doesn’t structure blackness at all times. Was it difficult to address that fear without giving it pride of place in the novel? Were you afraid of making it too prominent?

BB: Something that I began to think about further on was that I was writing a novel about a woman who decides not to be a mother to a black child, in a time when we’re discussing Black Lives Matter, and the precariousness of black youth. So that was on my mind, but…I never want to downplay the institutional and emotional impact of racism on lives of color, but I reject the idea that racism dictates your every action and thought. The idea that all your interiority is dedicated to thinking about white racism…there’s something so insulting about the idea that my life revolves around whiteness. It doesn’t! I think about race a lot, but it’s not as if you walk down the street and a burning cross falls on you. The sense that that is what it means to be black is often something that white people think — that all black people do is think about white people. I reject that as a reality. It’s not real, and it’s politically troubling.

That’s one thing I love about Toni Morrison: she’s not interested in writing about white people. She writes about black communities, and whiteness will linger or influence the story, but her characters are thinking about other black people, their own problems, their own lives. That notion of decentering whiteness from a narrative was important to me and felt realistic to how I experience life as a black woman. That was something I kept in mind while writing. The fact that that’s surprising says a lot about how people think black people experience the world.

coverTM: There’s a moment in I Am Not Your Negro when Baldwin proclaims, “I am not a nigger,” and he makes it very clear that the outsized image that white people assume they have in black people’s minds is more about the outsized image that we have in the white mind…

BB: Right, 100 percent…

TM: I wonder if you feel like that has an effect on how people have received your book? Is part of the surprise you’ve hinted at about white people encountering black people who live in a multiethnic society, but who aren’t always focused on white supremacy?

BB: Absolutely — there were moments when we were editing the book when I got to the part when Nadia is at a “white people party.” And you know what I mean when I say that…a lot of black people will know what I mean when I say it’s a “white people party.” That was something that my editor pushed back against. For me that wasn’t a comment about racism. That was a way to describe the make up of the party: who’s at the party, what the vibe is…

TM: Do they have a keg or not…

BB: Yeah! To me that was a detail about the world she was in. One of my best friends grew up around Irvine, and he was like, yeah, we went to the white people party at the beach! That’s what you do when you go to a beach town. Invoking race raised questions for my editor on the role of racism in that scene; but to me it was just a way of describing a party, because when you’re a black person you immediately recognize who’s in that room with you. You walk in and you notice that everyone is white — that doesn’t affect the scene, it doesn’t affect what happens between Nadia and Luke, and it doesn’t affect the choice that she makes. But it does affect her perception, because that’s how you experience race and the world in general when you move in a black body. I think that feels real about how we experience the world, but that doesn’t give race or white supremacy a larger role than it actually occupies.

TM: It’s about racial categories as describing certain cultural differences, but not determining how one behaves with other people.

BB: Right. I think often white people will assume that if you invoke race, it has to be connected to racism. If I’m telling someone a story and I say a black dude walked in, a friend might think that the guy’s being black means something racist is going on. But no, it doesn’t mean that at all! People live in raced bodies, and it’s important for me to acknowledge that. Especially if a character is white, because if a character is not raced, then I know readers will assume that character is white. So it’s important to me to race characters, even if it doesn’t affect the plot in any tangible way. So yeah, we live in raced bodies, and race is something that we notice as we move through the world, especially people of color, in a way that maybe white people don’t notice as much unless they’re in a space with non-white people. So it’s important to name and see race. Otherwise, in the absence of a racial description will be a stand in for universal humanity, which gets read as whiteness. I don’t like that absence.

TM: Then maybe the discomfort around naming race for white readers or viewers is about disturbing that universality?

BB: I think that’s part of it. Within the framework of whiteness, there are few ways to talk about race that aren’t associated with hatred. Within a black context, you can express racial pride because it’s pride that arises in conflict with white supremacy. There are people who would disagree with that and say that being proud to be black is racist, and…fine. But the idea of racial pride for black people has arisen in a very different context than white racial pride. I think that if you invoke race, white people will associate it with hate, because within a white context that’s usually what it means. There’s not really a pleasant way of evoking whiteness. In I Am Not Your Negro, Baldwin says that whiteness is a metaphor for power — we don’t have a framework for invoking whiteness that isn’t a way of wielding power. So I think that for white readers, the red flag of racism gets raised because that’s the only way they can think of race within a white context.

TM: I was struck by your description of the novel as a way to practice empathy, because it seems that so much of your novel is about how people struggle to develop empathy and intimate bonds. The Greek chorus of the church mothers is ground zero for demonstrating that struggle — you have women who should be omniscient, but never really have a perspective on or empathy for Nadia’s mother’s mental illness. How important was this chorus to you as a way to explore the limits of empathy?

BB: As far as empathy goes, so much of the novel is about gossip, which in a lot of ways is antithetical to empathy. We’re at our least empathetic when we’re gossiping, because we’re reducing people to a story, and we’re not that interested in what they were thinking or feeling. We’re only interested in them as a narrative device. So the mothers are definitely guilty of that.

I’m also interested in the way of how generations are guilty of speaking past one another instead of speaking to each other. That’s something that happens a lot as the mothers discuss the younger characters — instead of connecting with them or helping them, they often judge, in the same way that the younger characters often dismiss the mothers. So I’m interested in the way that people try to create bonds but often fail — it’s just one of the facts of being alive. We often fail to connect with people even though we want to. In the case of Nadia and Aubrey, for example, those girls are close friends who keep huge secrets from one another. That’s a sad thing, but that’s the way we create connections between ourselves.

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3 Responses to “Thinking Another Person’s Thoughts: The Millions Interviews Brit Bennett”

  1. Judy Krueger
    at 2:10 pm on March 28, 2017

    Wonderful, excellent interview. So full of truthful ideas and perceptions. I was undecided about reading The Mothers, even though I bought the hardcover, but now I see that I had an incorrect idea of what it is about. I will read it this week and then compare and contrast when I next read JCO’s Book of American Martyrs. In his 1951 essay “Many Thousands Gone”, Baldwin writes “It is only in his music…that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story.” But he and Toni Morrison and many others, including you Ms Bennett, have been telling it in novels, as you so well explain.

  2. RK
    at 2:57 pm on March 31, 2017

    Excellent interview! I loved The Mothers and can’t wait for her next novel.

  3. Akilah
    at 10:22 pm on April 9, 2017

    Excellent interview. I loved the discussions on race and nuance in discussing politicized topics here. Super thorough and thought-provoking.

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