Brit Bennett came to prominence in a way that was unheard of in the literary world a generation ago. She published a piece about racial justice in Jezebel in 2014, and it provoked a huge discussion online and demonstrated what a fine writer she is.
Soon enough, she was hearing from literary agents and now she’s publishing her debut novel, “The Mothers.” She talks with Kurt Andersen about how attending different churches in her childhood informed the book, and why she started her novel by revealing its biggest secret.
Kurt Andersen: You grew up in a church-going family?
Brit Bennett: Yeah, I went to Catholic church for a while, my mom is Catholic. She grew up in Louisiana, so I went to Catholic church when I was younger and my dad is protestant, so I also went to his church. And my mom’s church was mostly white, my dad’s was mostly black, so I had these very different cultural experiences going to these different churches as a child so I think I’ve always been interested in church as a space that can be so culturally different, even when people are professing to believe the same thing.
How interesting. If you haven’t written it already, there are whole essays to be written about Protestantism vs. Catholicism and black Protestantism vs. white Catholicism.
Yeah, I’m really interested in black Catholicism also, that’s something I’ve been thinking about because my mom went to this segregated church in Louisiana when she was a kid, and I remember thinking, “How could you go to a church that’s segregated? How could you sit there?” But that’s just what they did. They had their religious beliefs and they were willing to stomach the indignity of going to a segregated church because they believe that was how they wanted to worship.
I remember she told me the church was shaped like a cross, and the black people had to sit in the outer arms of the cross so that the priest didn’t have to look at you when he was speaking. And that’s an image I’ve never forgotten.
Your main character, Nadia — and this isn’t a spoiler alert — decides to have an abortion. Was that something you knew would be part of the story from the get-go?
You know, originally it was something that was lingering in the background of the story. This girl was harboring this secret and she was just a minor character that went to the church and you realized this was a secret that was going to affect the church in this large way. So she was a character that emerged from the shadows and kind of crept up on me. But yeah, I realized that she was the engine that was driving the story forward — the secret that she had, the way in which it affects the pastor’s family and the way it affects the whole church.
It’s interesting that you began with the idea that she’s a secondary character with a secret, but in the first few sentences, it’s no longer a secret. That’s quite an evolution.
Yeah, I think part of this was grad school. I did have professors who were like, “what generates tension in a book is revealing information, not withholding it.”
Which is counterintuitive. People think, “Fiction, it’s all about mystery and slow reveal.”
Exactly. I always thought as a young writer, “I’ll just keep this as a secret and eventually tell people,” but it’s way more interesting when you put this up front.
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