Series 29: For the Love of Black Lives | Episode 09
Recasting Portrayals of Race, with Brit Bennett
Stories come in many forms: in the reports we see in the news, the TV shows and movies that light up our screens, from books to toys and so many other places. New York Times bestselling author Brit Bennett is here to discuss the ways that Black stories are told and the ripple effects they have across American culture. She shares insight into her life as a young author and how she’s used her writing as a way to figure out the way she feels about different topics—like what it means to “perform race,” which she wrote about in her latest book called The Vanishing Half. Brit dives into the stories she’s looking to create in the world—ones that show the human experience of what it means to struggle and the ways we experience hope and joy and love.
Brit: As a writer, I’m not interested in only telling stories of trauma, and I think it’s actually pretty dehumanizing to expect that. I also want to write about love, I want to write about joy, I want to write about hope. So I think that all of those things are interconnected in what it means to be a person alive in the world.
Jen: Welcome to the For the Love Podcast with me, Jen Hatmaker. Today, we’re talking about the portrayals of Black women and men in the media with New York Times bestselling author Brit Bennett.
Hey everybody. Jen Hatmaker here, your host of the For the Love Podcast. Welcome to the show.
You probably know that we are in a series called For the Love of Black Lives, which has meant so much to me. The caliber of women that we’ve had on the show these last few weeks has just been beyond extraordinary and more than we deserve. It’s been my real honor to join this national dialogue right now on racial inequality and the reckoning that we are facing.
So this week we are talking about the way our media portrays Black Americans, how that shapes the way that we treat Black stories and Black lives, the way that our storytellers choose to show people on screens big and small or in the pages of our books. It has ripple effects, you guys, like, especially for people whose stories are not traditionally centered. The stories we choose to tell. The stories we choose to fund. And then how we tell those stories speaks volumes about who our culture values and the dignity and worth our culture ascribes. Right?
The question here is are we seeing a true portrayal of Black lives in the news we watch or read, the movies, TV, books we consume? Many would contend that we are not and that misrepresentation of story might be shaping the way we view one another. So can you imagine for your own life, not being able to see yourself in the stories that are put out in the world about you? Right? As a writer, I can tell you that I’ve had a lot of time to think about how important it is to see your story reflected in the world realistically.
So let me tell you, to see yourself in a story of beauty and nuance and struggle and triumph, this is what it means to have a voice. This is human. This is what happens when your thoughts and feelings and hopes and potential are reflected correctly back on you from the screen and the page. Because then you begin to think, Maybe I’m not alone, or, I can do this, or, My life does matter, because there it is right in front of you.
Like my friend Jo Saxton says, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” So today we’re going to talk about Black stories in our world with a writer I promise you are going to be hearing from for decades, decades. She just turned thirty. We are catching her as her star is on the rise.
Today we have Brit Bennett on the show. She was born and raised in southern California, now lives in New York City. She is an honoree of the National Book Foundation’s Five under Thirty-Five. She’s written two novels. One is called The Mothers and her latest is called The Vanishing Half, which we talk about—a fascinating premise—which was an instant number one New York Times best seller. And it’s been talked about all summer since it came out. Brit is also a brilliant essayist and her writing has been featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Paris Review, Jezebel, all over the place.
She is someone I’m going to keep watching and reading because she’s not just an incredible writer’s writer, she’s a thinker that we need in our world. We are lucky to have her, and we are beyond lucky to have her on the show today. Get excited, because I am about to introduce you to a writer that you are going to love. This conversation was fantastic, and I’m so pleased to share it. Here with the brilliant novelist and writer Brit Bennett.
Okay Brit, welcome to the For the Love Podcast. I am delighted to meet you, really.
Brit: Thank you. Thanks for having me. It’s great to meet you, too.
Jen: Same. Okay look, so I have filled in our listeners with a little bit about your background, your writing credits, which are like whatever, man, just mind blowing impressive. And they give me real insight into what your top values are.
So I just wonder here at the beginning of the interview, would you mind telling us more about yourself in your own words? What your story is, where you’re from, what your deal is, and then kind of where you’re finding yourself in the world at this moment and the kinds of stories that you’re working to tell?
Brit: Yeah. Well, I’m from Oceanside, California, which is in San Diego. I’m now living in New York. Yeah, big difference. I went to grad school in Michigan, so I have that sort of climate swing already. But yeah, that was pretty traumatic. But I’m on the east coast now.
I think I’m always just interested in telling stories usually that foreground the relationships between and among women and usually between and among Black women. I think sort of complicated characters, I like difficult characters, I like stories that are just about those relationships, whether they’re between sisters or mothers and daughters or friends. I think that those are always the relationships I’m drawn to writing about, I think in part because those are the relationships that have been so important to me in my life.
Jen: So okay, I want to talk to you about this. Obviously the stories we see in the media, the way those stories are told, it matters. They especially matter for people whose stories are not traditionally centered.
So I’m thinking right now about something you wrote about your dad when he was the Deputy District Attorney in LA. And he was pulled over by the cops for what he assumed was like a routine traffic stop, but it was not that. It was not a routine stop. I wonder if you would tell me about that story and how it gives a picture of a really common way that Black people are painted in the media version of what happened?
Brit: Yeah. I mean, it’s a story that my dad had told me before, when I was a kid, and I think it was one that I became sort of more interested in as I got older and wanting to know more of the details about what happened to him.
But yeah, he was working for the Deputy DA’s office and he was coming home, sort of hilariously enough, from a Bible study. And it was almost like a cartoon-ish situation of how sort of by the book he was as a person. He was pulled over. They were looking for some other suspect, and they pulled him over and held a gun to his head.
I think it was recently when I asked him “Well, what was actually going through your mind at that time?” And he just said “I was so stunned. I just couldn’t move. And I think that that’s really what saved my life is that I was so stunned that I could not actually react.”
I think it was something about sort of talking to him about that story, which happened to him when he was probably around my age, in his late twenties and sort of asking him about that and reevaluating the anecdote in light of the conversations that are happening now about police violence that became really interesting to me.
So something that I wanted to write about in framing this idea of racial profiling. I think sometimes we focus on the intentions of people. Are people meaning to be racist? Were the police who pulled him over racist? It doesn’t matter really. It’s the fact that they saw him and they made an assumption, they made the snap judgment. And then afterwards there was no recourse. He told me recently he filed a complaint with the city, and the city denied his complaint. My dad was working for the DA’s office. So the fact that this is something that was so traumatic and violent and potentially could have led to the end of his life—and to my life not existing—is something that I thought about a lot when I was writing that essay.
Jen: Obviously we know story, it comes in all kinds of forms. You have made me think about this. One form of story that maybe a lot of people don’t think of immediately is in the toys we give our kids, dolls, action figures, et cetera.
So in The Paris Review a few years ago, you wrote an incredible essay about the American Girl doll Addy. How for almost two decades, Addy was the only Black American Girl doll, and she was a slave.
I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about that entire construct, a little bit more about that particular story, how that impacted you while you were young, and then ultimately what you wrote about it, what your assessment of that was?
Brit: Yeah, I mean that essay really came from when I was studying abroad, we were all just up one night talking about American Girl dolls. And I just remember having a white friend who said that she’d always wanted to have an Addy doll, but she felt like she could not have that doll because the doll is an enslaved person, and it would be wrong for her as a white child to own that doll.
And I just laughed because I had never thought about that. And then sort of I started to kind of take that step back and start to think about what it meant for me to own this doll. And that was part of the essay, was that interrogation.
I think that—I always say that I don’t have answers when I’m writing, only questions. And I think that essay’s just full of questions because there was this discomfort that I had when thinking about it, the idea that I received this doll when I was young enough to believe that Santa brought her to me, but simultaneously old enough to understand the horrors of slavery and learn about that.
And there was something uncomfortable about that, but then at the same time, when I was talking to my mom about it, she was just like “Well, I didn’t even think about that. I just thought it was a really beautiful doll, and I wanted you to have it.” And I started to think about the fact that my mother had never owned a beautiful Black doll when she was a child, because they didn’t make them that she could access.
So it was all a really sort of complicated question that I was trying to untangle as I was thinking about this American Girl doll, and just the complications of Black American childhood and the notions that we have of innocence and how we don’t think of Black American children as innocent. That Black American children can handle this at this age, but at the same time there is something, I don’t know, maybe something necessary in learning those sort of harsh histories that are there.
Those are all the questions that I was writing towards in this essay, and as you can see I still think that they’re very thorny and complicated, and I haven’t figured out exactly how I feel about it. But to me, that was I think my favorite thing that I have written as far as nonfiction, because it was really fun to do the research into the connection between race and toys and dolls, which is really an interesting and strange connection. And also because it is such a complicated question of what did it mean for me to receive this toy that I thought about uncritically for however many years of my life until one night I was up late in the UK with a bunch of friends talking about it? So I enjoyed writing that essay, but I think that it was me trying to untangle a bunch of questions about innocence and race.
Jen: I wonder if you could talk for just a minute longer about something you just said—when you said maybe we have a hard time perceiving Black children as innocent. Can you talk a minute more about that?
Brit: Yeah. I mean part of what I was talking about in the essay was the idea that childhood is considered this protected class. We understand that children do not have as much knowledge, they don’t have as much wisdom, they’re not held responsible for the choices that they make. We understand that, or at least we believe them to be fundamentally more innocent than adults.
But that’s not the case in the same way with Black American children or Black children. And part of what I talked about was Tamir Rice, who was a child, who was twelve years old, who was holding a toy gun and was shot immediately before the police cruiser even came to a stop, even though the police were warned by the dispatcher that he was probably a child sitting on a park swing holding a toy gun.
And I was just reading about a kid who had the cops called on him for playing with a toy gun during his Zoom class. And the school did not alert his parents, they called the police and the police arrived at this child’s house for playing with a toy gun.
So the idea of who is afforded that assumption of innocence, who is afforded that protection of innocence that we generally afford children or we generally try to afford children. The fact that Black children are denied that, to me, there was something in that about the idea of this doll with this really traumatic backstory being offered to Black children, and at that time the only doll that was offered to Black children, there was something about that question in that. And also what did it mean for the Black adults in my life to give me this doll? What did that mean about how innocent they perceived me to be, or if they knew that I would not be afforded that innocence and this was sort of an act of protection?
So it’s a thorny question, and it’s one that I continue to kind of think about. But those are the types of essays that I really love writing, when I don’t know how I feel about something, and writing it is me trying to figure it out.
Jen: That’s good. I’m going to parlay that forward because I think about Addy, I think about everything you just said, about the burden that Black storytellers encounter for their generation and those that come after them because it is upon you to tell these beautiful and innocent children. It’s like both about the suffering that their people, their family members have endured for hundreds of years. But of course if the story stopped there it would just be tragic, but it didn’t.
So then there’s these other stories of renewal and redemption and flourishing and innovation of Black men and women, of course. But those stories are not always elevated to the top of our cultural vernacular, of course. Dr. Mae Jemison said it well. She said “Never be limited by other people’s limited imaginations.”
So you’re a storyteller. How do you elevate Black stories that truly inspire and are also still reflective of the Black experience, and why does it both matter? Like why do you have to hold both of those, one in each hand?
Brit: I mean, that’s a tough question. You know, I think as far as my life, before I was a writer, I was a reader. And I think about the stories that I read that really impressed upon me in a lot of different ways. And some of them were things like those Addy books, there were some brutal realities relayed in those books. I remember her brother I think loses his arm in the war, and she loses—I forgot which of the family members. The family is never reunited, at least from what I remember. I haven’t reread those books in a while. But I don’t remember this big happy ending of “Oh, Addy escapes to the north and then her family is reunited.” There was always that sense of really deep discomfort reading those books, and at the same time there were those moments of triumph when she does get to Philadelphia, and she does learn how to read, and she does go to school, and all those things were interconnected in that way.
So I think that as a writer, I’m not interested in only telling stories of trauma, and I think it’s actually pretty dehumanizing to expect that. I think that that read on what it means to be Black or marginalized in any way is actually really dehumanizing. I’m interested in telling stories of people who struggle because we all struggle, and that’s what makes stories. Yeah, it’s human and that’s what makes stories interesting is to see somebody struggle. But at the same time I also want to write about love, I want to write about joy, I want to write about hope. So I think that all of those things are interconnected in what it means to be a person alive in the world. And those are things that draw me to books as a reader and things that draw me to the types of stories that I want to write.
Jen: That’s good. That makes me think of something you wrote. You said this, “A stereotype does not have complex individual motivations.”
I want to talk about that a little bit. What’s your perspective here? Do you feel like the stories that we see largely about Black women or men or children largely fall into stereotype? And why does portraying someone’s motivation matter so much here? I’m curious what you think. What do you see out there in the world right now in terms of portrayal?
Brit: Yeah, I mean, I don’t know. It’s tough. I think as a writer, I’m interested in motivation because that’s what makes a character who they are. It’s not just what choices a character makes, it’s also why they make those choices. And those are all of the things that are really interesting about all of the characters that we all love is thinking about that.
And when I wrote that section, I was sort of talking about this idea, again, of intent, which is something that I keep swirling around. Does it matter if your intentions are good if you still harm somebody? And the idea of being asked to question the intentions of somebody who has committed harm and to judge their actions based on that, but to not care about the intentions of the person who has been harmed—it doesn’t really matter about that person’s intentions, which I always found frustrating and strange.
So I think as far as I guess our larger landscape, I mean it’s tough. I think that there certainly are some sort of limitations to what types of stories are out there, but I also think that we are alive at a really exciting time where we have things like shows like Insecure or Michaela Coel’s show I May Destroy You, which is brilliant. And then we have writers like Yaa Gyasi or Angela Flournoy or Tayari Jones. I mean, the people that we have—Jesmyn Ward. We have so many people telling so many really exciting and complicated stories.
So I do think that there can be ways in which there are types of characters or types of stories that people are familiar with and that they think sell and they think they can make money. There can be those ways in which I think our culture props those up. But I think we have so many exciting writers that are pushing against that and writing against that right now, so it’s an exciting time I think to be a Black writer.
Jen: Yeah. I couldn’t agree more.
So speaking of that, I’m curious, Brit. You are a woman of color telling Black stories largely, and a writer obviously who has attended prestigious universities, you’ve won a slew of literary prizes and all of its acclaim. I’d like to hear how has your experience as a professional writer differed, from what you can see, from the experience of your white colleagues? I would like to hear, if you’d be willing to share what obstacles or even traumas or microaggressions you have faced that they obviously don’t have to.
Brit: I mean, it’s hard to say. I think that in a lot of ways, I’ve been really fortunate that my publisher has been backing me. They bet on me from day one, when I was twenty-four years old.
Jen: Incredible. That’s absurd.
Brit: I mean, it is, and there’s honestly no reason why they should have backed me at that time. I’m just like, I was truly a child coming out of grad school, and they threw their weight behind me. So I’ve had a lot of support in that way, but that’s not necessarily the experience of a lot of other writers that I’m talking about.
Like, Tayari Jones will talk about how An American Marriage was sort of her breakthrough book, very deeply into her career. There was a lot of conversation earlier this year with Publishing Paid Me when we found out some really harrowing details about how little publishers have been willing to invest in their Black writers. And the amount that you’re investing in a writer, that’s going to dictate how their books perform. And then when their books underperform, then that gives you more license to continue to not pay them. It’s just this perpetuating cycle.
I think for me a lot of it has been, it’s hard to say what your experience is like compared to someone else. But I think a really eye opening moment for me was I was doing this event with Roxane Gay and George Saunders, and I just was paying attention to the panel to see the types of questions that George Saunders received versus the types of questions that Roxane and I received. And I don’t know that I had ever really noticed it in that way. But just all the questions he received were about writing, they were about craft, they were about storytelling, they were about the thing that he has studied and honed throughout his career. And all the questions that she and I received were about identity.
She said this thing about how women are thought—I’m paraphrasing horribly—the idea that women are only believed to be experts about ourselves. And I think that that’s true of any marginalized person. The idea that you can only be an expert about your experience and anything beyond that is just sort of beyond your kind of area of knowledge or expertise, versus somebody like George Saunders, who was rightly acknowledged as an expert on writing and his thoughts on that are sought appropriately.
So it was moments like that that I saw, Oh, this is what it’s like to be a white guy on a book tour, and people want to ask you about how you write. Versus some of the questions Roxane and I got were just like, “What’s it like being a Black woman right now?” And it had nothing to do with our books.
So I think there are moments like that of realizing interacting with people and realizing some readers see you as a Black person that they know, almost. There’s a weird familiarity that people have, and they just want to ask you all of the questions that they’ve always wanted to ask a Black person, and it has nothing to do with your book. So there are moments like that that I think are frustrating moments of navigating the world of publishing as a Black writer.
That being said, like I said, I feel fortunate that I’ve mostly dealt with microaggressions, and that I’ve had the support of my publisher. That they have been conscientious of what types of opportunities to send my way and what types of ones to shield me from because we know sort of what those environments might bring.
Jen: You’re keeping some pretty good company up there on that panel.
Brit: Yeah, it was crazy that I was invited to be on that panel. I don’t know how I snuck on there.
Jen: I’d like to hear a little bit about your writing process as a writer. I’m a writer but I write nonfiction, so it’s a different genre. I am endlessly fascinated with novel writers and those of you who can craft a story just out of your brain, out of your thoughts. You invent thoughts and you write them on paper. It feels like a miracle to me every time.
Have you written since you were little? I know you were a reader. Have you also written?
Brit: Yeah, I used to write little short stories when I was a kid. Yeah, since I was in second or third grade I wanted to write.
Jen: You did. Wow. So you had a sense early on, This could be my work. I can do this. I’ll make a living. I’ll be a writer.
Brit: No. I didn’t have that sense. I wanted to, but I never knew. I didn’t know a living writer when I was a child. I just thought of writers as dead people that were on your bookshelf. I didn’t meet a living writer until I got to college and then though, Oh, maybe this is something that I could do. But even then I didn’t think that I could make a living doing it. But it was really sort of graduating college during this recession and thinking, Well, I’m not going to get a job anyway, I might as well go to grad school. It was sort of those series of decisions that led me onto this career path.
Jen: And in grad school, is that where you really started getting your words on paper that were going to print?
Brit: Yeah, I had been working on The Mothers a little bit when I was an undergrad. But when I got to grad school I had three years of time to just focus on that solely. And to not only focus on it, but also to have a workshop where people were giving me feedback and to have professors read it and give me feedback. So that’s when I started to actually finally kind of crack that book that I had been working on and thinking about for all those years.
Jen: So in your new novel The Vanishing Half, you—among lots of other elements—explore the idea of race as a construct, which begs the question what does race really mean? What even is this? What is this structure?
I wonder if you can talk a little bit more about the writing process of that book, where the idea came from, how it began developing for you? And then this idea that you explored inside of it, the notion that we can perform race. Can you talk a little bit more about the whole overview of The Vanishing Half?
Brit: Yeah, so The Vanishing Half actually started the conversation I had with my mother, who was very offhandedly one day telling me about this town she remembered hearing about as a child, growing up in rural Louisiana, where everyone in the town kind of intermarried so that their children would get lighter and lighter. And it was a very strange idea, but it immediately struck me as the setting for a novel. And I started to think about the idea of there being twin sisters who come from this town and they decide to live in two different directions. One is a white woman and one is a Black woman. And I think as to the question that you asked at the beginning, that’s entirely the question that I’m interested in the book. What is race, and what does it mean to perform race? And what does race mean if we can just perform it? I think those are entirely the questions that I’m really interested in.
I wanted to think about this character journeying from growing up in this segregated and rural town in Louisiana, and entering into this white world and having to learn how to appropriately perform whiteness, and always kind of doing it wrong. She never kind of figures it out because the context in which she has experienced white people were as a Black woman in Louisiana. And then she eventually enters this very different world of wealth and status and power that’s very different from the world that she knew. So she has to perform class. She has to perform whiteness in this way that’s convincing, and she never quite does it correctly.
So I just kept thinking about those questions. I think sometimes when you say that race is a construct, people assume that you mean that race is not real. But that’s not what I mean. What I mean is that there’s nothing inevitable about it. There’s nothing inevitable about racial categories or even biological [categories]. Yet, at the same time while there’s a flimsiness to race as a construct.
Jen: That’s a good way to put it.
Brit: The idea that this person can—Stella walks into a building, and she is assumed to be white so then she becomes white. So there’s a flimsiness to it, yet at the same time it has very real implications on all of our lives. It affects where these characters live and where they can buy a house and who they can marry and what their kids look like and where their kids go to school and what types of jobs they have and all of these things down to essentially where characters are buried, on which side of the segregated cemetery. The idea that something that is so flimsy can affect our lives in such concrete and real ways to me is—something about the tension between those two ideas that I found really challenging and interesting to explore in this book.
Jen: When you set out to write it, I’m curious—how developed is the idea for you at the beginning? Are you a real loosey goosey, basic outline, We’ll see what the characters have to say? or do you have a really clear idea of who everyone is, where they’re going, what the story arc is going to be? I love the process of fiction writers. It’s just so fascinating to me. And they’re all over the map too. It’s not one path through at all.
Brit: Yeah. No, I have no idea. I usually know where I want to start. I think with all of my projects I’ve known where I wanted to open. So I knew I wanted to start the book with Desiree, who’s one of the twin sisters returning to her town holding the hands of her really dark-skinned daughter and that causing a stir. I knew I wanted to start there. I had no idea where I was going to end up. I had no idea what was going to happen to Stella, if we were going to find out, when we were going to find out. To me, that is the joy of drafting, is not knowing and really just following what’s fun and what’s exciting to you as you’re writing. I think that the work is what comes in later when you’re revising, and you’re trying to make sense of all of it.
But for me, as far as those early drafts, there are no rules, I don’t know what’s going to happen, anything that happens is fine, I’m just going to go in the direction of what’s exciting and what’s fun and see where I end up.
Jen: I can’t handle it. Do your characters come to you? Do you know what I mean? Like do they tell you where they want to go? Does that make sense?
Brit: I mean, I don’t know if I think about it in that way but I usually have a sense. Like I had a sense, kind of, of what Stella was like and what Desiree was like. But I think for me it’s more unpeeling as you go on. Like, you have the idea. I think of it like that more than—forgive all of these terrible metaphors—I don’t think of it as like chiseling the statue. You know, you have the block and you’re chiseling it. I don’t think of it as that. It’s more like you’re unpeeling it. And I think that’s the way that you get to know somebody. You see them and you make judgements and you make assumptions based on how they immediately present themselves. And then as you get to know them, you get deeper and you get deeper and you get deeper, then you start to figure out who they really are. And I think that’s how I think of these characters is I maybe know one thing about this person in the beginning, but the more I start thinking about them and the more I start seeing them in different situations, seeing them face problems and feel uncomfortable and be challenged, that’s when I start to really figure out who they are.
Jen: I love it. When you were writing The Vanishing Half, was there ever a moment or an experience, reaction, anything that even took you by surprise? Or you’re like, This is how this has to be, this is what’s happening?
Brit: Yeah. I mean I think there were several moments. Like I said, I had no plan writing it. So much of it took me by surprise. But I think really figuring out the story beyond that sort of opening, Okay, this person returns to her hometown and then what? I had no idea what was going to happen beyond that.
So figuring that out, and then I think eventually realizing that I wanted to go into the second generation of that family and to look at these estranged sisters and their daughters and those relationships, that wasn’t what I originally planned to do. I thought I was just going to write about the sisters. So once I went to that next generation, then sort of anything was kind of up for grabs because I had no idea what the worlds of these daughters would look like, and that became really exciting. So it’s strange. It’s fun, and I mean, I love drafting.
Jen: You do?
Brit: I don’t hate revising, but I love drafting. Yeah, I think it’s fun. You feel just like a kid playing in a sandbox.
Jen: Okay. That’s something that a writer’s writer says. That is a true writer thing to say right there.
How long did it take you? Like from you put your fingers on the keyboard and you type the first bit of it to the last draft?
Brit: It took I think about four years.
Jen: Yeah. Dang. Wow. Ugh. That is a real commitment to the craft. Four years.
Brit: Yeah, it was challenging. It was a challenging book to try to figure out how to organize.
Jen: What are you working on now?
Brit: I’m working on a third novel. Yeah, it’s about a rivalry between two singers. So it’s really fun.
Jen: Two singers!
Brit: Yeah. It’s been fun to do something really different than…
Jen: Is it a modern context?
Brit: No. There’s sort of a backstory. There’s a kind of present storyline but also there’s backstory. So the bulk of it, the singers were really famous in the 1960s and 1970s. So that’s the bulk of the story. But yeah, but it’s been really fun. I’ve never written anything about music. I don’t play any. I have no musical talent. I just appreciate it. So it’s fun to write about these musical careers that do not exist.
Jen: So does that mean you had to do your fair share of research?
Brit: I mean, I read a lot of tell-alls. I’ve read a lot of memoirs. It didn’t feel like research. It just felt fun to be like, Let me read this book about Diana Ross. Yeah, I’ve done some reading on different musicians and pretty much all women that were performing during the era in which I’m writing, the type of music that I’m writing about. So there’s some research, a lot of listening to music, which has been really fun, and a lot of just thinking about these women who were once friends and become enemies. It’s a fun type of relationship to write about. It’s just very different from anything that I’ve written about so far, I think.
Jen: Is it too soon to have a title, or would you have to kill us if you told us?
Brit: There is no title yet. No, unfortunately.
Jen: Can you even tell us, “This is about when you might see this finished masterpiece”?
Brit: No, because right now it’s just nonsense. It’s total nonsense right now so I can’t even tell you when it will be coherent, let alone readable. So unfortunately, I don’t know. But I’m having fun again in that early stage of just playing.
Jen: Good for you. That’s exciting.
Okay, I want to wrap it up here with you. These are some questions that we’re actually asking everybody in the series. So here’s the first one, and you could have a ton of answers here. So just whittle it down however you want. For you, who have been some of your greatest role models?
Brit: Oh, interesting. I guess my parents. My mother was the one who gave me the love of reading. She’s the reader in the family. So my mother was hugely influential to me in that way as far as my entire career and everything in my world is based on books.
But I think my father also has taught me so much and he’s kind of where I get more of my analytical side from. So definitely my parents in that way. I guess as far as literary role models, I mean, definitely all of the greats, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Jesmyn Ward, Dorothy Allison, these are all writers that I just love and continue to study.
Jen: I mean that was a roll call of the greats that you just rattled off right there.
Jen: How about this—who are some of your personal favorite either artists or teachers or leaders or innovators that you would like us to be listening to and paying attention to and learning from or supporting?
Brit: Yeah, I mean as far as artists, like I said I love Michaela Coel. I think that she’s a genius. I’ve thought that she was a genius for quite a while now. I think I May Destroy You is one of the most brilliant television shows I’ve ever seen. I just can not imagine—the tonal shifts that that show goes through where you’re laughing and then you’re cringing and then you’re crying. There’s just, I don’t know how she does it. I would just love to just peek inside her brain. But I think that she’s incredible.
I think a bunch of the writers that I was talking about earlier, I think those are a lot of people whose work that I find to be really interesting and instrumental.
I just finished reading Stakes Is High by Mychal Denzel Smith. It just came out on Tuesday. The subtitle is Life After the American Dream. So it’s not at all uplifting. It’s very real. But it’s weirdly a book that feels like the point at which he finished writing it was before pandemic and any of the things that have happened this year, but it feels weirdly like it predicted all of these things that emerged from it, all of the things that are broken within our culture. So that’s a book that I found to be a challenging read but also a very sobering one.
Jen: So if you’re listening, we will be sure to link to all of these authors and artists and that book particularly.
Last question, and we ask every guest this question, but you can answer this however you want. It can be serious, it can be ridiculous, big or small. So you pick. But this is a question I learned from a leader of mine that I love. Anyway, here’s the question. What is saving your life right now?
Brit: I think my friendships. That was my gut reaction when you asked that question. Definitely my friendships. I was quarantining by myself from like March until July. And then I went and saw my family over the summer, and then I’m by myself again. But I think if not for my friends who I’ve been able to see across the park when I have, but also who have scheduled Zoom calls and Zoom book clubs and Zoom drinks and all of the things that we’re all doing right now, I truly truly would have lost my mind in isolation.
So I’m so grateful for my friends for supporting me and just being there I think at this time in which we’re all reevaluating the things that really matter to us. And to me, that has certainly been one of my takeaways from this moment is just how grateful I am to have friends in my life, even if I can not see them, that these are still people who care about me and check in on me and feed into my life.
Jen: Absolutely same. I can’t even think of an alternative without the friends, even virtually or weirdly separated across some grass, whatever it is right now. What a weird time.
Brit: Exactly. It is, yes.
Jen: Well Brit, I can not thank you enough for coming on the show and just for being who you are. It’s so exciting to watch your career just rise.
Brit: Thank you.
Jen: You’re in your twenties right? How old are you?
Brit: I just turned thirty.
Jen: Oh my God! What’s ahead of you is just so exciting to think about. Like what stories lie inside of you, what’s going to come to bear, what you’re going to write for the world. I’m thrilled to watch you and you’re such a special talent. Thanks for being on the show today. I’m cheering you on, sis.
Brit: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Jen: Absolutely. Okay everybody, there she is in all of her young, magical talent. Run, don’t walk, to your bookstore and pick up her books, The Vanishing Half, the most recent. You’ll be so glad. I’m just telling you, she’s on her way you guys. Brit Bennett. You’ll know her name. Such a special talent and gift to the world. And important stories to consume and to purchase that matters. Our buying dollars signals to the industry, “This is what we’re interested in, these stories, these kinds of writers, more of this.” So it matters. It matters what we buy and who we read.
Delighted to have had her on the show today and to have her in this entire series, which I have loved and you have, too. Thank you for your incredible response to this series and for sharing it and subscribing to it and joining the discussion around it. Our entire podcast team is so grateful for you and delighted to bring you this work week in and week out, these conversations that matter to us and we know matter to you too. So thanks for being here guys and we will see you next week.