The Wheeler Centre
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Debut novels announcing the arrival of fresh, young talents are often praised for their capacity to dazzle. Freshly anointed literary darlings are ‘brilliant’, ‘precocious’ and ‘virtuosic’.
But such descriptions don’t exactly fit with 26-year-old Californian author Brit Bennett, whose stirring first novel, The Mothers, is remarkable not for its flashy prose or clever metanarrative manoeuvres but for its restrained eloquence.
This idea that art can be divorced from the politics, I don’t believe that.
Bennett’s protagonist, 17-year-old Nadia, lives in a conservative black Christian community in Southern California. The Mothers is a story that navigates both familiar coming-of-age fare (stifling small-town life, evolving friendships, vocation) and complex moral terrain (abortion, suicide, religion) with subtlety, intelligence and wry humour.
Bennett’s talents have seen her rise in demand as an essayist, too. Her non-fiction work, much of which has centred on American racial politics and identity, has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times and the Paris Review.
In conversation with Emily Sexton, Bennett talks about the duties of writers, the politics of art, the burdens of identity, and The Mothers.
Born and raised in Southern California, Brit Bennett graduated from Stanford University and later earned her MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan, where she won a Hopwood Award in Graduate Short Fiction as well as the 2014 Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers. Her work is featured in the New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, Paris Review and Jezebel. The Mothers is Brit Bennett’s debut novel.
Emily Sexton is a former Head of Programming for the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas.
She was the recipient of a prestigious Sidney Myer Creative Fellowship in 2014. Previously, she was Artistic Director of Next Wave (2010–14), where her key achievements were a radical rethink of an arts festival model, and a series of landmark commissions, publications and talks featuring First Nations artists, co-curated with Tony Albert and Tahjee Moar and titled Blak Wave.
In 2013, she was Artistic Director of the Ian Potter Cultural Trust’s 20th Anniversary Celebrations at the Melbourne Recital Centre. She was also Creative Producer for Melbourne Fringe Festival for 2008–10.
Emily has been a proud Board Member for Arena Theatre Company, Snuff Puppets and Theatre Network Victoria, and is alumnus of the Australia Council’s Emerging Leaders Program (2011). She is a regular peer assessor for the Australia Council for the Arts, Creative Victoria, and other philanthropic trusts and foundations. Emily holds a Bachelor of Arts (Media and Communications, English) from the University of Sydney (2005). She is a regular host and facilitator for writers’ festivals and arts organisations around Australia.