The debut novelist opens her book The Mothers with an abortion scene, and it is being hailed as one of the falls best new books
Few American novels depict abortion with any level of specificity, especially not literary novels. There is one obvious example of Richard Yatess Revolutionary Road, where the plot turns on a housewife wanting to end a pregnancy in an era when abortions were illegal, dangerous and often self-administered. So though not precisely unprecedented, when one picks up Brit Bennetts debut, The Mothers, it comes as a surprise to find an abortion performed within the first chapter.
In fact, Bennett follows her character, Nadia, further than any novelist I can think of. The reader is taken right into the room where the procedure is done. Overhead, speakers played a meditation CD classical guitar over crashing waves and she knew she was supposed to pretend she was lying on a tropical island, pressed against grains of white sand, Bennett writes, rendering the banality of the experience alongside the poignancy of it.
In our interview at a Manhattan restaurant, I asked Bennett why shed chosen the subject. Her brow furrowed. It was something that I didnt think was going to be that interesting, Bennett said. Pretty much every interview Ive done someones asked about it, and every reading Ive done, someones asked about it. From the beginning of her process writing the novel, she says, it was just clear that the abortion was a choice the protagonist was going to make. But sometimes, she said, when she first showed people the manuscript, I could see them visibly get uncomfortable.
The Mothers follows the fallout from the abortion: the split that it causes between Nadia, and her then boyfriend, Luke, and the eventual entanglement of both their lives with a third character, Aubrey, who becomes Nadias best friend and Lukes eventual love interest. The plot is simple, perhaps even easily guessed at, from that description.
But the intrigue of the novel comes from the fact that it treats the abortion as a defining event in Nadia and Lukes lives. On some level, that goes against the standard political line on abortion, one which holds either that abortion is a life-ruining event, or that it is no big deal. Aside from politics or anything, those [options] are just too simple, Bennett told me. Those are too flat and uninteresting for the book I wanted to write.
Though the book is not autobiographical, some of its elements mirror Bennetts own life. She grew up in Oceanside, California, just outside San Diego, where the book is set. She also briefly attended school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where Nadia also studied. It was kind of a craft decision, more than me wanting to write about my own life, Bennett said, of the parallels. I wanted to put her in a place that was going to be a foil to Oceanside. And Ann Arbor, Michigan, was in many ways that kind of contrast, of climate, and culture and just a very different place.
Bennett did an MFA at Michigan, during which she says she mostly just worked, slowly but steadily, on this novel. She is just 26 years old. When it went out to publishers it was purchased in just a few days. In her MFA program, Bennett says, the students would sometimes sit around and guess about which of them would actually succeed as writers. (The yield of successful, even published, novelists from MFA programs is notoriously low.) I never felt that when we talked about who would be famous, that that would be me, Bennett said, but nonetheless, shes one of the first of her classmates to succeed in this way.
The fuss around her book, which has a strong advance printing and a lot of positive advance press in the US one of the falls biggest literary debuts, the New York Times recently claimed clearly makes her nervous. Several times over the course of the interview, she tells me how strange she finds it all. I never imagined any part of this experience, just from jump, she said, frequently looking down at the table as she tried to formulate her thoughts. I was clearly one of several interviews she was doing just that day alone.
As she worked, for years, on the book, she thought it would be a small novel. Im writing a book about some black kids from a town nobody knows. But its release has ended up coinciding with a cultural mood that, in the name of diversity, wants to make her into a kind of spokeswoman on the subject of race. She told me in interviews she was sometimes asked if the characters in her book had to be black. The question bothered her. She couldnt imagine a similar question being asked of a white novelist, whose characters are white. All of our lives are shaped by race, she said, not just black peoples. The idea that the only conflict in my life is white people, its just crazy.
That, she says, makes her uncomfortable. Maybe this is a shady comment, Bennett said, grinning a little. But I do kind of hate the white readers who will post about reading the book, and will congratulate themselves for reading diversely. Thats fine, dont tag me in that.
Its not that she is without views on the current state of race relations in America. In 2014, she wrote an essay for Jezebel titled I Dont Know What To Do With Good White People that went viral. And most of her nonfiction has been about race, although she says that predominantly, thats what editors want her to write about. But she is careful to say that she has nuanced views on the subject, views which sometimes dont fit into the defined political categories already available.
She points out that in the restaurant where we are sitting, she is the only black person. Its an observation. Its an experience, she says, sounding very much like a novelist rather than a pundit. Which is exactly how Bennett defines herself.