The Mothers: Week 1 P. 1 - 69

Alright, hopefully a good amount of you have been able to order and begin our next book, The Mothers, by Brit Bennett. So far, I have to say, I am really liking this book. Although it still deals will important, thought-provoking topics, it's not quite as heavy as The Association of Small Bombs was, so I think it will be a nice, restful second read. After reading the first section, I came up with a few of the main issues that the plot revolves around, and I will split my first week's discussion accordingly. But first, a quick summary of our reading this week:

In the beginning of the novel, we are introduced to both the main character, Nadia, as well as the narrating character(s), who refer to themselves as The Mothers. The voice of the narrator(s) (it is unclear if we are hearing from one or from multiple) is very interesting to read. They seem almost omnipotent in their knowledge of the events of the story, while at the same time, they have their own opinions and view points of the events. So far, the bulk of the conflict surrounds Nadia's teenage pregnancy and the resulting abortion, as well as her grief over her mother's recent death and her struggle to find a way to communicate with her father. Towards the end of the section, Nadia gets a job as a secretary for the Pastor's wife (who also happens to be the mother of Luke, who is the father of Nadia's child). This appears to be what will tie her in with The Mothers who are telling the story.

A Place of Our Own

The first thing that I think is important to talk about when we begin this book, is the amount of influence Black American culture and Black communities has on the story. Bennett continuously and un-apologetically reminds the reader just what kind of community they have stepped into. The characters, outside of their close knit community, are aware that they are part of a minority culture. It haunts their thoughts and interactions and it haunts the readers as well. Culture gaps and double standards are shown to us throughout the reading and quotes like the one below just seem intensely honest.

"See this girl right here, he'd tell a passing waiter, first black lady president, just watch. Every black girl who was even slightly gifted was told this," (10).

Nadia, the main character, and her feeling of isolation is something that we will talk about more in depth later on in the discussion, but it is important to bring it up now as well, because it fuels a lot of her attitude towards the whites she interacts with. Nadia, a young black girl, already feels like an outcast within her own community, and this feeling doesn't improve during the sections of our reading where she wanders outside her close knit social circle. Bennett writes these interactions with a feeling of both humor and jealousy.

"The volunteer-blonde, twentyish, earnest-...was a junior at Cal state san marcos, she said, volunteering at the clinic as part of her feminist studies major. she looked like the type of girl who could go to college, major in something like feminist studies, and still expect to be taken seriously. she asked if nadia planned to go to college and seemed surprised by her response. 'Oh, michigan's a good school,' she said, as if nadia didn't already know this," (25).

This interaction between the girl and Nadia, while humorous to a certain degree, also highlights the casual racism that Nadia and the others in her community deal with on a regular basis. It doesn't seem to faze Nadia, though while waiting in the abortion clinic we do see a bit of her fear and shame over her situation, "there was nothing special about a girl like this...she was just another black girl who'd found herself in trouble and was finding her way out of it," (15). Nadia knows that the opportunity she has to go to college and further her life is not something that everyone in her community has, she takes this seriously and her decision to have an abortion is largely related to that fact.

There was one other part in this week's reading that I thought was very strong in its approach to highlight racial tensions, especially in light of the current issues regarding police brutality and institutionalized racism. In the last few pages of our reading, Luke tells his mother, Latrice Sheppard, contemplates her son's recklessness:

"He wasn't a bad kid but he was reckless. black boys couldn't afford to be reckless, she had tried to tell him. reckless white boys became politicians and bankers, reckless black boys became dead," (60).

I thought that this section of the book was a very strong and emotional statement, especially coming from a maternal figure who seems to be on the verge of giving up. It was a good way to take a subject that can oftentimes be controversial and make it more approachable, without taking away from the message of that moment. Ultimately, however, I feel like it doesn't really matter if this message is approachable or if it is portrayed in a way that doesn't ostracize white people, because this story isn't about white people. When it comes right down to it, Bennett's novel is about Black communities, and though we (we being any individuals reading that are not Black) can (and should) read it to learn more about this culture and to understand the issues Black people in America face everyday, at the end of the day, we should stay away from passing judgement on their experience.

Feminism and Maternity

Ask anyone of my family members what my favorite topic to talk about is and they will tell you. Feminism, especially feminist literature. Though I am not entirely sure that this novel is trying to be "feminist" per say, it definitely has some feminist aspects.

In her novel, Bennett introduces us to a myriad of strong female characters. Nadia, a reckless party girl who winds up pregnant and gets an abortion, could very easily have been portrayed as just that, nothing more than a shameful teenager. Bennett, however, doesn't shame Nadia. Even The Mothers, in their narration, don't ridicule or judge her too badly. Instead, they seem to empathize with and for her, especially in passages like the following:

"...What did a bunch of old ladies know? We would've told her that all together, we got centuries on her. if we laid all our lives toes to heel, we were born before the depression, the civil war, even america itself. in all that living, we have known men. oh girl, we have known littlebit love. that littlebit of honey left in an empty jar that traps the sweetness in your mouth long enough to mask your hunger. we have run tongues over teeth to savor that last littlebit as long as we could, and in all our living, nothing has starved us more," (22).

To me, it's very interesting to see how the women interact with each other, especially in the mother daughter relationships. We, the readers, only meet Nadia's mother through flashbacks, as she has committed suicide before the starting events of the novel, but we are told early on that Nadia was "her mother's mistake" (12). Nadia's thoughts on this are very complex. It is clear that she had a very close relationship with her mother, and loves and misses her, but she also feels guilty over the fact that her mother was so young when she was born, "if getting pregnant was the most harmful thing Nadia could do, then how much pain had her unexpected arrival caused? How much had she ruined her mother's life, if her mother told her that a baby was the worst thing that could happen to her?" (50) and she feels betrayed and abandoned. "How dare anyone at that church judge her mother? No one knew why she'd wanted to die. The worst part was that Upper Room's judgement had made Nadia start to judge her mother too...a part of her thought, I can't believe she did that to me either," (55). Ultimately, Nadia is uprooted and lost, a status that seems to be stemmed from her mother's death, "Maybe she'd never really known her mother at all. And if you couldn't know the person whose body was your first home, then who could you ever know?" (67). We end up seeing a lot of these feelings come up as tension between Nadia and her father:

"Her father never cared about where she went, except when she asekd to borrow his precious if it were the only child, needy and demanding of his love," (26).

I think that part of what makes Nadia such a strong character is how torn she is between opposites. Even her abortion isn't clear cut. She gets it out of necessity, but later we find that part of her still feels at least some small attachment to the baby she aborts (yet another example of maternal relationships). It is ironic, to me, that Nadia and Mrs. Sheppard get along so poorly at first, as they are both perhaps the strongest individual female characters in the novel thus far.

Mrs. Sheppard, though not always the gentlest or most sympathetic, is perhaps one of the strongest, most feminist figures in the book so far. When we first meet her, she is described as "tall and demanding, not some meek wife who sat in the from pew, silent and smiling," (58) which sets her apart from the usual trope of the pastor's wife, quite, demur, and ever patient. Even her husband, despite his position of leadership, seems to be intimidated by her, slipping off his glasses while talking to her in one scene as if "some things were easier for him to say once she was blurred, out of focus," (59). As far as being a mother, we see Mrs. Sheppard interact with two of the other characters in a maternal fashion. She is somewhat exasperated with her son, whose decisions she doesn't agree with and who she feels she can't connect with as much now that he's older, but she also takes on a maternal role in Nadia's life as well, as we find out that it is Mrs. Sheppard, not Luke, who puts up the money for Nadia's abortion. This is revealed to us by the Mothers, not through Nadia herself, so I am interested to see how their relationship will progress and whether this fact will come to light.

Coming of age an outsider

If there's one thing that sticks out about Nadia, it's that she is definitely an outsider. She doesn't seem to fit in with the church community, and she appears to be moving past the party lifestyle of the kids around her. The main source of this conflict seems to be her torn nature between still being a child and becoming an adult. Already at an age where she is beginning to mature, her pregnancy and resulting abortion cause her to grow up even faster. The theme of growing up to fast is displayed as Nadia sits in the abortion clinic, in a scene that sticks out to me somewhat particularly. As Nadia watches a young girl crying, she wonders if the woman sitting next to the girl is her mother. She soon decides that the woman couldn't be, after watching her rather rough manner, "..this woman reached over and pinched the crying girl's thigh. 'Cut all that out,' she said, 'you wanted to be grown? Well, now you grown,'" (17).

Despite the fact that The Mothers tell us about Nadia being wild and a party girl, and despite the pregnancy, the Nadia that we meet is more or less pretty mature. Whether due to the pregnancy or her mother's death, when we meet Nadia she seems to be moving away from her crowd of friends, "The yellow house already felt like something she'd outgrown and once she'd graduated, she promised herself that she would never return," (31). Her infatuation with Luke and their romance seems to be the last vestiges of her childhood, despite his age and the mature nature of their intimacy, "In a way, she had known this...but she'd wanted to believe in Luke, in love, in people who did not leave," (32).

This coming of age puts Nadia in a strange position. She is too grown for the high school party scene, but she is still too much of a child to feel like she fits in with the women who attend her church. She is an outsider looking in, and though she puts on a tough exterior, it is clear that she wants to be included, both from her interactions with Aubrey and with Mrs. Sheppard. When we are first introduced to Aubrey she seems like the exact opposite of Nadia, innocent and care free, Nadia watches her at the church and things "In another life, maybe, Nadia could have been like her. Playing in the summer morning, scooping up a child who smiled, grateful to be caught by her," (53). When she sees Aubrey and Mrs. Sheppard sitting together, she at first ridicules Aubrey in her mind for the girl's clothing, but it also seems that Nadia also feels jealous, imagining herself sitting with Mrs. Sheppard, and wishing that she had been more accepted into Luke's family. The twist towards the end of the reading is that Aubrey feels like she is just as much an outsider as Nadia:

"I live with my sister, Mo. and Kasey." "Who's Kasey?" "Mo's girlfriend. shes a really good cook." "your sister's gay?" "So?" Aubrey said. "It's really not a big deal." But she'd gotten so prickly, so nadia knew that it was...the life she'd imagined for aubrey- a stay at home mother, a doting father - was melting away into something murkier...She felt a sudden kinship with a girl who didn't live with her mother either. a girl who was also a keeper of secrets," (69).

Our reading ends there, with Aubrey and Nadia's friendship starting over a shared brownie, and I am excited to see what will happen now.

Discussion Questions

  1. "The Mothers" blend together limited narrators with omnipotent narrators. What do you think about them as storytellers? Do you think they count as a character all on their own?
  2. At one point, Nadia's father leaves her a note saying "I'm trying". What do you think he is trying to do? Why do you think he is having so much trouble?
  3. So far we have seen a lot of racial tension, this can be a really touchy subject, but what do you think about how Bennett depicts race? If you are from a black community, do you think that this accurately depicts the lifestyle and every day problems you have witnessed in your experience? If you are not Black, do you feel like you have more understanding of the problems that Black communities face?
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Jessi Young

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