STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: And I'm Steve Inskeep, with a bit of wisdom about secrets.
BRIT BENNETT: (Reading) All good secrets have a taste before you tell them.
INSKEEP: A taste? Well, that's what Brit Bennett writes in a first novel that's receiving a lot of attention. The novel is called "The Mothers." The secret in question is about a young woman - 17 years old.
BENNETT: (Reading) We shared this sour secret, a secret that began the summer Nadia Turner got knocked up by the pastor's son and went to the abortion clinic downtown to take care of it.
INSKEEP: The novel follows the young woman after that abortion. She graduates from school in Oceanside, Calif., moves away to college in the wider world. She sometimes returns home in later years to see people living the life she might have had. Writer Britt Bennett is 26 years old and on a National Book Foundation list of promising young writers. She wrote and rewrote and revised this novel since she herself was in high school in Oceanside.
How did you come to begin writing about that subject - the 17-year-old - when you yourself were 17?
BENNETT: Yeah. I mean, I think there was a way in which her situation was something that I feared at that age - the idea of this unwanted pregnancy and the way that that could change your life or, you know, dictate your future, depending on what you chose to do.
So I sort of run in the direction of that fear and explore the idea of these young people in this church community because I'd grown up in the church myself and had a lot of questions about being young in the church.
INSKEEP: So you were wondering, what if this was me?
BENNETT: Yeah, exactly. It was, you know - I think, often, the way that we think about teen pregnancies or even think about abortion is this very politicized way. It's not necessarily personal in thinking about what we would necessarily do if we were caught in these situations, which are very complicated emotional situations.
So I think I was drawn to the idea of this character who is driven and wants to go to college but who gets pregnant unexpectedly and has to figure out what to do.
INSKEEP: So when I was reading this, I was aware that the characters are African-American. But I didn't feel like anybody in the story had to be particularly black. And, in fact, here and there, I wondered if a character was black or not.
BENNETT: Yeah. I mean, I think I was interested in depicting this community that was racially diverse, which - Oceanside is, as a military town, very diverse. But I also was interested in the experience of creating characters whose lives are inflected by race but whose lives are not necessarily dictated by racism.
So I wanted to sort of just depict ordinary black life. I think that there's something really powerful in humanizing - of not foregrounding white racism as the number one problem of being black.
INSKEEP: How different do you think your experience growing up in California in fairly recent times was from, say, your mother's experience growing up in Louisiana?
BENNETT: I mean, I think it was very different. You know, I grew up in a lot of culturally diverse spaces and definitely not majority-black spaces, where my mom lived in, you know, segregated Louisiana. She went to segregated schools.
You know, she told me a story about how, you know, they couldn't try on shoes in the store. You had to measure your foot with a string and bring the string to the shoe store because black people couldn't try on shoes.
INSKEEP: Couldn't touch the shoes if they weren't going to buy them.
BENNETT: Exactly. And just the idea of an experience like shoe shopping being so racialized - I feel like the way that I've had to come to think of race and think of racism is complicated in a different way. I think that a lot of the ways in which I've learned to read it has been a lot more nuanced than somebody saying, you can't try on shoes because you're black.
INSKEEP: I'm thinking of an essay that you wrote a couple of years ago that got a lot of notice that deals with race. And you recount an incident at an airport where a white woman steps in front of you in line. And you never know. Is that because you're black or just because she's oblivious?
INSKEEP: Or - you never really know what's going on there. You just know that something annoying happened.
BENNETT: Right. And I think that that level of second-guessing - you know, I know my mom told me, like, I didn't have to second-guess, you know, growing up in segregated Louisiana. I knew exactly...
INSKEEP: They tell you. Exactly.
BENNETT: Exactly. I knew exactly - people would tell you to your face how they felt about you. So it wasn't that level of second-guessing. And I think that that's something that I experience. I think a lot of people of color told me that they experience that, too - this sort of question of, you know, is this person just rude?
Are they doing this to me because I'm black? You know, is it because I'm a young - you know, that level of trying to constantly read into the intentions of other people. And, you know, does it matter why this person did this thing to me, if it's harmful?
INSKEEP: So you clearly think about these things. And yet you're the second person of color who's talked with us on the program recently who said, I'm a racial minority. But I want to write a story about characters who are characters. And it's going to be obvious who they are. But it's not really going to be what the story is about. Is there a trend here?
BENNETT: I mean, I think it's - yeah. I think it's what - you know, I think it's indicative of our time. You know, I think racism is something that is pervasive, that is systemic, that definitely still exists and shapes our lives and shapes our perceptions and our reactions and our histories and all of that.
That being said, I think that there is something that's very powerful - to shine a spotlight on black communities that are interacting with each other. You know, black relationships and black people living life, going through whatever existential questions any person might experience - and that their major conflict is not whiteness.
You know, I think that that's something that's powerful to think about. And I think that there are a lot of really exciting black writers who are doing that nowadays.
INSKEEP: Brit Bennett's first novel is called "The Mothers."
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