When you write a novel about abortion, says author Brit Bennett, you will have a lot of conversations with strangers about abortion. It’s made her realize how rarely we talk about it as a human experience. What if we approached all polarizing topics more willing to experience the world through someone else's eyes? Bennett offers her humble opinion on setting ideology aside to connect.
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Brit Bennett's debut novel, "The Mothers," centers on a character's decision to have an abortion.
It caused a stir when it was published last fall, and is still sparking conversations across the country, as you will hear in tonight's In My Humble Opinion.
When you write a novel where a character has an abortion, you will have a lot of conversations with strangers about, well, abortion.
It usually goes like this. Someone asks what you do for a living. You say that you're a fiction writer. Then they ask what your book is about.
My novel explores the ripples a teenager's abortion causes throughout her church community. There's no way to describe the story without launching an intensely emotional and intensely political topic at a person you have just met.
Oh, people often say, so it is autobiographical?
All fiction writers get asked this question, but it never loses its absurdity. Like, did my Lyft driver just really ask if I have ever had an abortion?
Turns out, it's really uncomfortable to talk about abortion. And as I have traveled this past year, I have realized how rarely we do so. We debate the politics, of course. We march and protest and rally. We yell at strangers on the Internet who disagree with us.
But how often do we talk to each other about abortion as a human experience?
Since publishing my novel, I have heard from many strangers who just wanted someone to talk to. Once, an older man who'd just interviewed me confessed that he'd personally experienced an abortion. I didn't know if it was a girlfriend or sister. He said it quietly, not looking at me, and I wondered how many people he'd ever told.
Before the novel's release, a grief-stricken teenage girl wrote me on Instagram. She was searching for a book that would relate to her recent abortion and stumbled upon mine. I didn't know how to comfort her, but she didn't want much. She just thanked me for writing the book, grateful for a space to process her loss.
Of course, you can never completely avoid politics, and I have had some readers argue that my book is too pro-life, others that it's too pro-choice. But I have mostly been encouraged by all the readers who've approached my novel with nuance and empathy.
From Wichita to San Francisco, I have met readers from all across the political spectrum who set aside ideology in order to connect over a human story.
This is the wonder of fiction. Novels help us have difficult conversations, and allow us to explore topics that are far more complicated than our polarized politics suggest.
Awkward small talk aside, it's been liberating to have conversations about abortion that don't center on what side we're on. Instead, we have talked about family and grief and agency and what it means for this particular girl to make this particular decision.
When we seek to understand another person, our own world enlarges. And I wonder what our political debates would look like if we all approached polarizing topics the way readers do, willing to peek around our own beliefs in order to briefly experience the world through another's eyes.
Novelist Brit Bennett.