At seventeen Brit Bennett sat down to write a book. Back then she was a high school kid living with her parents and two older sisters in Oceanside, California. Her story centred on the lives of three teenagers within a devout black community and it began like this: “We didn’t believe when we first heard because you know how church folk can gossip…”
That sentence remains the opening hook in ‘The Mothers’, Brit’s ‘New York Times’ bestselling debut novel, which was published in 2016. “Recently I found a flash drive with an old draft on it,” she tells me when we meet for coffee in Fitzroy. “I looked at it, as much as I could bring myself to, and the thing that surprised me was that the first sentence was still the same. That was the thing that carried on through this whole process.”
The “whole process” is a fairy-tale of persistence arcing over eight years. Brit’s story, in its various shapes and forms, followed her from undergrad at Stanford in California to postgrad at the University of Michigan and was complete when her breakthrough essay ‘I Don’t Know What to Do With Good White People’ was published on ‘Jezebel’ back in 2014. The essay, deeply personal and political, was read by an online audience of over one million in three short days.
Since, Brit has written for ‘The New York Times,’ ‘The New Yorker’ and also ‘The Paris Review.’ Her novel ‘The Mothers,’ which began life as a single sentence typed on the Bennett family computer, announced her as a writer (not an up-and-comer, but a natural) and has been picked up by Hollywood producers for adaptation to the big screen. In this conversation, Brit and I discuss her experience growing up in Southern California, writing from coffee shops in L.A., and her desire for “mobile happiness,” where she can be happy living anywhere.
Brit Bennett with her coffee at Napier Quarter in Melbourne. Photo by Beth Wilkinson for Lindsay.
“It’s probably true for most people: you don’t realise what’s unique about your hometown until you leave.”
You grew up in Oceanside, California, which doubles as the setting for The Mothers. What was your experience of growing up there and what are some memories that define those days for you?
It’s probably true for most people: you don’t realise what’s unique about your hometown until you leave. I went to undergrad in the Bay Area, in California, and I would talk about experiences I had growing up that other people who came from other parts of the country or world thought were really weird. Like the fact that we had fire days for wildfires. I distinctly remember being excited by the wildfires because we didn’t have to go to school! We’d be like, “Can you smell the smoke in the air? Maybe they’ll cancel school.” You don’t get snow days in California, so that seemed like the next best thing. Now that I’m an adult I know it’s terrible and people are losing their homes, but when you’re a kid you think, “Now I don’t have to turn in my homework because school’s cancelled.”
Oceanside was a racially diverse place because of the military base there, Camp Pendleton. Going from that to Stanford, which is not racially diverse as a university, made me realise that where I grew up was unique in its own way. It wasn’t a majority black place, but it also wasn’t a majority white place—it was somewhere in between. My high school was majority Latino, but we also had a lot of Pacific Islander kids, a lot of Filipino kids. That for me was very normal, and then later when I moved away I’d meet people that were either from these all white places or all black places and both of those contexts felt really strange to me.
What did you read growing up? Who do you count as a teacher, in the sense that their writing or influence is meaningful and significant to you?
A formative book for me was The Outsiders. A teacher gave that book to me when I was a kid, probably in the third or fourth grade, and I read it and was really, really into it. The fact that the author wrote it so young was pretty motivational. To see the lives of young people taken seriously was kind of new to me when I was a kid. Up to that point I’d read children’s books, but you get to an age when you’re looking for older things to read. Finding The Outsiders was really important.
Writers who have influenced me are Toni Morrison and James Baldwin. They’re both amazing writers. I admire that Toni Morrison writes about black communities in a way that doesn’t centre whiteness or on white people. She has faced some blowback for doing that, but stood her ground on it. It’s absurd that you can’t be taken seriously as a writer if you’re not writing about white people. She’s pushed back against that in a way that’s really important. James Baldwin is someone who’s written in multiple genres. I admire that and aspire to be that good in both non-fiction and fiction.
Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker are important writers to me. I also really love Dorothy Allison. Whenever I think about this question, I realise how many women writers I name. At first, I would think, “Should I throw a man in there?” But no, the writers who are important to me are mostly women.
“I think it’s the same thing writing about place, because if you’re writing and start feeling self-conscious about how you’re representing it, you’re going to be stuck.”
Was writing about your hometown a smooth process, or challenging in its own way because of its place in your real life?
I started writing The Mothers when I was in Oceanside, but I didn’t really think about the book being set in Oceanside at the time. I was just writing a vaguely Californian novel. It didn’t have a strong sense of place at first. But when I went to Michigan for grad school, I think having that physical separation was something that allowed me to see my hometown in a new way. Just to be away from California, period. To be in a place where it snowed, I started to think about Oceanside in a new way and realise there was something really interesting about this place.
I was in Miami recently and there was a talk I went to about persona. [The poet] Adrian Matejka was talking about writing in the voices of others. He was like, “You have to ask permission before and after; you can’t ask permission during the process of writing.” I think it’s the same thing writing about place, because if you’re writing and start feeling self-conscious about how you’re representing it, you’re going to be stuck. Either before you go into it, you think about how to write it in a way that’s truthful, real or responsible and maybe afterwards you deal with the consequences of that… But while you’re writing it you can’t think about it.
For Nadia, the main character in The Mothers, there’s an intense focus on university education. When did you realise that you wanted to write—to be a writer—and how did you pursue it?
I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was little. I liked to write stories. But I don’t think I ever really saw it as a viable career path because even as a kid I was kind of a realist. I mean, that’s not something you become! You can’t just do that! To me it was like saying you want to be a movie star—yeah, there are people who do that, but it’s not going to be you. I remember being aware of that but also just loving writing stories and plays and whatever else I was doing as a kid.
I started taking it more seriously when I went to college. I did a bunch of independent studies with professors who were really generous with their time and saw some talent in me and tried to nurture it. I’m really grateful for them supporting me. I remember I applied to grad school because it was the recession and I knew I wasn’t going to get a job with an English degree. I only got into one place, so I went to that one place and while I was there I was able to finish my book. My parents really wanted me to go to law school and do something very practical. My best friend went to law school and it was a strange thing, watching her lead the life that I was supposed to live.
“I’d always seen my experiences through the filter of race and then when I went to Oxford there was still the filter of race, but also the filter of nationality.”
What was your experience of living in England?
While I was in Stanford I did a quarter abroad during my junior year. It was the first time I’d ever been out of the country. It was a really important experience for me because once I had done that, I was like, “Yeah, I’ll go to Michigan… Yeah, I’ll come to Australia.” It really opened up the world for me. I was thinking about this the other day: the concept of the well-travelled American. I know so many people like that, who are so intolerable, listing all the places they’ve been, all the things they’ve collected and the experiences they’ve gathered. Travel is a privilege.
At the same time, I think of the people who are never really able to get outside of their hometown and the perspectives that I’ve been able to access, so I feel really fortunate having been able to live in another country and culture and really reflect on what it means to be American, which I’d never really done to be honest. I’d always seen my experiences through the filter of race and then when I went to Oxford there was still the filter of race, but also the filter of nationality. To be in a place where as soon as I opened my mouth and said something, there was this realisation, “Oh, you’re foreign.” I think to be black in America is also to feel foreign, but it was in a different kind of way.
My mum and her sister, my Aunt Liz, were the only people who really left Louisiana on the maternal side of my family. My mum went to California, met my dad and that’s where she stayed. She left Louisiana when she was about 18 years old. She’s lived most of her life now outside of her hometown and there’s a way in which she’s been treated like an outsider in her own family. I kind of carry that spirit with me. My mum had gone to D.C. and worked with the FBI doing fingerprint analysis, but she couldn’t get a job as a black woman back in Louisiana. She was doing things like cleaning hospital floors for five dollars a day. It always strikes me, because after she left D.C., she went back to Louisiana for a little bit. She had been in the nation’s capital—she was working for the FBI doing this really technical work—and then returned to Louisiana and all that was open for her to do was clean hospital floors. At one point her sister and brother-in-law were like, “Hey, we’re going to California.” And she was like, “Alright. I’m going to hop in and go.”
“The spirit of what she did, I carry in me, wanting to say yes to everything, to see more of the country and see more of the world.”
She left behind her family and what she knew to do that. I admire that so much. The spirit of what she did, I carry in me, wanting to say yes to everything, to see more of the country and see more of the world.
After studying at Stanford, Oxford and then the University of Michigan, you settled in L.A.. What propelled you towards L.A. in particular?
After grad school, I had no idea what I was going to do for a living. I really had no marketable skills. I was having a hard time finding a job, so I was like, “Okay, I guess I’ll just go to L.A. where I have family.” I made this decision but what ended up happening was so different. I remember getting an email that said, “This is your last cheque from school financial aid. Goodbye and good luck.” A week after I got that email, I sold my book. It happened really quickly. But at the time when I was making my plans, I had no idea how I was going to pay my rent, so I’d decided to go back home.
I’m based in Encino, L.A.. I don’t love it there and I don’t think I’ll be there forever. I’m a restless person, so I’m already thinking about what’s next. I’ve been in LA a year and a half. Where can I go next? We’ll see. It might be New York.
“I want to live in a way where my happiness can be mobile, be happy anywhere, live a life anywhere.”
Is there a sense of community that you’ve plugged into in L.A.?
A little bit. My friends are scattered all over. It sounds kind of depressing to say, but I haven’t ever felt a strong sense of love for a place. I used to date this guy who was from Chicago and that was the only thing he loved; it was the best place in the world, there’s no place better than it. I was always really sceptical of that because I’d never felt that way about Oceanside and I don’t feel that way about L.A.. I enjoyed Ann Arbor, but I don’t feel that way about Ann Arbor. I don’t know if that place exists for me somewhere or if I’m just the type of person who is not going to feel that way about anywhere. One of the professors at Michigan was saying how his happiness is mobile and that’s how I want to be. I want to live in a way where my happiness can be mobile, be happy anywhere, live a life anywhere.
What’s a typical day for you when you’re back home? Do you have a defined routine that helps you to write?
My routine is going to coffee shops and writing. I try to get out of the house to work at least three or four times a week, just because I get stir crazy if I’m stuck there. I also love going to movies. I’ve accepted this about myself: I love going to movies. The last one I saw was The Fate of the Furious. For the first ten minutes it was like, “This is insane; this is ridiculous,” but by the end of it you realise it’s so pleasurable and fun to watch people race these really fast cars. I try not to be a snob when it comes to movies. I think about that John Waters quote where he says, “I don’t have guilty pleasures because I don’t believe in feeling guilty about your pleasures.” I love really mediocre TV. I’m not going to be ashamed of that! If it makes you happy…
“The novel is like this long marriage. So if I’m going to write a novel about something, it’s going to be something I’m really passionate about.”
Are there different motivators that drive or trigger you to write your non-fiction and fiction?
For me, I think of it in terms of scope and scale. The novel is like this long marriage. So if I’m going to write a novel about something, it’s going to be something I’m really passionate about. The essay can be a long marriage too, but—at least in my experience—it’s been a little bit quicker. So I think about scope and scale and how passionately I feel about the idea. There are some non-fiction topics that are just so cool because they’re true; it’s like if you wrote this as fiction, no one would believe it. I feel like this about my dad being pulled over by the cops [an event Brit wrote about in her article for Jezebel]. You know, he was working for the District Attorney’s office when this happened, and if you wrote this as fiction it might be a little on the nose, but it was a thing that really happened. I don’t think I wrote this in the essay, but my grandpa—my dad’s father—was a cop. He worked for the Police Department when this happened. In fiction, that might have been a little on the nose. When I think of an idea that I can juice up by making stuff up, that’s when I think it might be more suited to fiction versus non-fiction.
Are you excited about The Mothers becoming a film?
I mean… Yes. It’s very weird to work on the screenplay and to return to the world of the book. I’ve been talking about it, touring and reading from it, so I haven’t completely left it, but I haven’t published anything new. Actually, I met a writer who was talking about what he didn’t like about adapting his own work and it was the sense that people want you to fix the flaws of the book in the screenplay. But that’s what I find really exciting: the possibility that I can do things differently. There are lots of situations in the book where I wish I had done this or I wish it had seemed like this… And now I have the chance to do it.
When you hear the word “home” now, where does it take you?
I think of my parent’s house, even though it’s not where I grew up. They moved when I was in Michigan. It was weird at first to go home for Christmas to a house where I didn’t grow up, but I think the feeling of being home is attached to my parents. Their house is not where I live and it’s not where they have lived for long, but when I think of walking in and seeing my parents, that’s what I think of as home.
In Issue No. 1 we meet Australian fashion icon Jenny Kee, translator from Italian Ann Goldstein and French-Cuban music duo Ibeyi. We learn about Ramadan, the Aboriginal ball game Marngrook, the Kiribati dance, the art of pickling, and the importance of home. And we see what it’s like to dress up in Myanmar, live in Cuernavaca, make ceramics from different soil, and walk the streets of Florence.
In Issue No. 2 we meet Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, NASA astronaut Stephanie Wilson, and Croatian painter Stipe Nobilo. We discover how the French protect their language, why nostalgia blurs our memory, and the way women around the world have used textiles as their political voice. We learn the steps to prepare a boisterous Korean barbecue, dress up for Feria de Jerez and eat our way around Hong Kong.
In Issue No. 3 we meet Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki, Berlin-based musician Nils Frahm, and Moroccan-British artist Hassan Hajjaj. We descend to the ocean’s floor with Japan’s Ama divers, muse over the Bengali renaissance and applaud the detailing of India’s uniforms. And we try our hand at some treasured Italian recipes, visit one of Hong Kong’s homes up high, master the etiquette of the Japanese onsen and learn about the architecture of Iraq’s mudhifs.
In Issue No. 4 we meet Nigerian-born artist Toyin Ojih Odutola, Indigenous Australian Elders Uncle Bob Smith and Aunty Caroline Bradshaw, and Palestinian-American chef and artist Amanny Ahmad. We peer inside the Parisian ateliers Lesage and Lemarié, muse over the iconic lines of European chair design and celebrate the colourful woodblock prints of Japanese artist Awazu Kiyoshi. And we venture along Morocco’s Honey Highway, get lost in the markets of Oaxaca and discover the favours of Ghana.