I don’t need to like the books my guests choose – the whole point is, it’s their favorite book. Not mine. But today someone chose one of my all-time favorites, a book that I honestly think will be taught in lit classes for generations. Today I’m talking to about Brit Bennet’s “The Mothers” with Taevia Norris, the brilliant mind behind Books and Brown Sugar Co., an apparel line designed amplify Black literature. Taevia and I talked about diversifying our bookshelves, and how a good writer helps us relate to a character emotionally even if we have no exterior connection to him or her. Bonus: Taevia has the best idea for how The Mothers should be made on film.
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Hello. Bookworms welcome to the Best Book Ever, the podcast where we talk about your favorite books. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and today I’m talking to the owner of Books and Brown Sugar Co, a clothing and accessories company to amplify Black literature. Frankly, I’ve been really surprised that no one has chosen today’s title before. I happen to agree that today’s book is one of the best books ever written. Without a doubt. I am delighted that Taevia Norris joined me today to talk about why The Mothers by Brit Bennett is the Best Book Ever.
Julie Strauss: Hi, Taevia, welcome to the Best Book Ever podcast.
Taevia Norris: Thank you so much for having me.
JS: I am wearing one of your beautiful shirts. It says “Amplify Black Literature” in gigantic letters across the chest. It is so soft and comfy. I love it very much. Will you tell my listeners about what it is that you do with your company?
TN: Yeah. And you look amazing by the way. I know y’all, can’t see her, but she does. So, I started Books and Brown Sugar Co by way of my personal Bookstagram. I was just looking for, you know, bookish merch and I didn’t really see anything that spoke to me and my culture. I didn’t see anything. And so I was like, well, you know, let me create my own. That’s kind of how it was birthed. The goal and the mission is to amplify Black literature. That’s one of our staple pieces because oftentimes our stories aren’t heard, right? Black literature is not always amplified. I know in college or in high school, unless I was taking a Black studies class, it wasn’t in a part of it. In high school you would get a summer reading list and there would be all kinds of Shakespeare, you know, Hamlet, you had to read all of these things. I didn’t read James Baldwin or Toni Morrison until my adult life. And so, I just thought, okay. It’s really important to make sure that we continue to amplify Black literature and make sure that our voices and our stories are continuing to be told.
JS: Tell me about the things that you offer in your store.
TN: Right. So we sell shirts, totes for book lovers, you go on a bookstore or you need your tote with you. I reated my own bookmarks and the designs, I create those as well. We sell mugs, you know, all the essentials for a reader, pretty much. I have a fall launch coming up where I’m gonna start selling some key chains and beanies. So we already have had expanded. So a lot of goodies.
JS: You know, I have always thought of myself as a really, really diverse reader. And this was maybe three years ago and I, I journal my books and I thought, I wonder how many I read. And when I went and looked, I was like, I am not a diverse reader. I think I am, because I know what’s going on in the book industry. And I was stunned by the actual numbers and it was so eye-opening to me that even someone who walks around thinking, I read everything from everybody, didn’t. It takes actual work. Like, it is now part of my process. When I’m in a bookstore or at the library, I flip it over and I look at the author now.
JS: Right. And you know, that is, even for me, a woman of color, that is something that I have to be conscious of. Because when you go into a bookstore, the best sellers or the books that they’re promoting usually aren’t by people of color. So you have to literally be intentional and go to that section to find those books. But sometimes as a reader, we just stumble and say like, I’m just going to pick up this. I’m going to pick up this. I think the thing about it is, Black stories aren’t amplified. Right? So, we aren’t the ones who are getting the big publishing deals and the big marketing push. There are some authors who are, but when you look in totality, like many aren’t And so it’s something that you do is have to be intentional about. But even with me, because the hot books that they’re promoting usually aren’t by people of color. But the marketing is so present that it makes you want to read it. And then they become movies. When you think of things like The Hunger Games, when the fourth one was coming out, the marketing was great and they were getting a lot of eyes on the book. But when you think of people of color, they don’t always have that. They don’t always have the money to do that. And so that they’re just not seeing it. People don’t realize it just because it’s just not visible.
JS: I think that marketing thing that you’re talking about plays into our sense That we are well-read. Because the person we’re going to talk about today, Brit Bennett, she does get the big pushes. Everybody reads a Britt Bennett book. And then we white people go, I am super well-read. I read the big deal Black author book last year. But it was one book out of however many you read. It’s like that big marketing feeds into our need to think that we’re doing our work.
TN: Yeah. And that’s a problem that I have sometimes where, you know, especially when everything was going on with George Floyd, sometimes people can look at like an author, like Brit Bennett and say, well, look how well we pushed her. And I read her like my due diligence. It’s like a company saying, well, we have two Black associates, so we are diverse. But you have over 500 employees, and those two Black associates are entry level. And when you get to the top, it gets whiter and that kind of thing. That’s how it is. Even in books. These publishing companies, they have one or two Black authors who they really push and then say, I did my job. But when you look at how many books that they’re promoting and pushing that year, you said you read 30%? They’re probably not even touching 10% of who they’re giving book deals to and publicity to.
JS: So before we do get into Brit Bennett, tell me about your reading life in general. How did you become such a reader?
TN: I started as a reader, not out of the womb, obviously, but as a kid, I was just really quiet and I had a very vivid imagination. So when I read books, like I play a movie in my head and I can see it. And I’ve just always been like that. I love to learn. I love to, when I read, like I’m in a different world. And so it was an escape for me. That’s how I started. And, you know, there’ve been ebbs and flows of how often I read depending on what’s going on in my life. I always find, when I’m in a down period, I always kind of circle back to reading. It’s like one of my first loves and I just kind of feel like I have just a love for books. Like they never really failed me. I can just disappear. It’s definitely my self-care.
JS: Was there a specific time where you really started noticing the absence of Black literature in what you were reading? Or was it when you became and adult and you looked back and you went, wait, why did we only read Hamlet?
TN: Maybe towards the end of college? I started to notice in high school. I was always reading. My dad and me, we would go on dates to Barnes and Noble, and he would let me pick out two books. I would just pick books that either someone recommended or what I seen on a table. I believe I wasn’t really socially conscious of what I was doing. I was just reading for the love of it. But after college, I started to really think like, I kind of found my way back to reading and that’s when I started to really pick up Toni Morrison and James Baldwin and Maya Angelou. And I started to think like, wow, I’m 20 something and I’ve never read these. Of course I knew who they were. I knew how important they were to the culture, but I never had read their writings. And then when I went home to visit, my parents still have all my books from high school. And I looked at him a bunch of Twilight and all kinds of stuff. And I was like, wow, I really didn’t read a lot about Black authors. I did read some, you know, I had a couple of Terry McMillan and things like that. But not much. And I had to really kind of think like, why is that? Why wasn’t that present? Since then, I have been very intentional about the books that I read. And, that’s kinda how I got here.
JS: What do you generally read in your free time? What are your go-to genres?
TN: I love second chance romance. There’s something about something about circling back around. I don’t know. Maybe it plays a little bit in my life so I can relate. That’s my go-to. I also love The Hunger Games. That’s probably one of my favorite series. And typically, I cannot watch the movie first. I have to read the book and then watch the movie. But The Hunger Games – so, my step-mom is a reader too. And I remember she was telling me about it and she’s like, there’s a book out, and they put a whole bunch of kids in the arena and they had to fight for their life. And I was like, I don’t think I want to read that. But I’m watching the movie and I kept thinking, I bet the book is better. I just kept saying that because you know, in the book you can hear what they’re thinking. Minute details. And I read the book and I just loved it. So, some kind of action and second chance romance are my favorites.
JS: Do you remember how you first came across the book that we’re talking about today? The Mothers by Brit Bennett?
TN: I came across The Mothers before I even got on Bookstagram. I didn’t even know what Bookstagram was at the time. I hadn’t even heard of Brit Bennett. I was at Target and I seen the cover, and the cover was just so pretty. And I was like, man, this looks good. And it was. I still have my little “Diverse Book of the Week” sticker. Because it was there. It was like on my own shelf. Then the cover kind of drew me and then I read the back and I was like, okay, well this looks like something I would like. And I read it and I loved it. And then after that I started to YouTube Brit Bennett, all her interviews. I must have watched every interview she did about the book.
JS: Can you describe the plot of this book for people who haven’t come across it?
TN: The Mothers is really … I don’t really think it’s a coming of age, but it is a relationship that follows three different people for the most part, and their journey of relationships and how it changes. Throughout the book, you start with Nadia and Luke, and then you transfer to Nadia and Aubrey, and then Aubrey and Luke, and then it just cycles back around. And it’s just such a beautiful story about relationships and how they change and how experiences and moments can change them forever.
JS: I was thinking, as you were describing that the books that you like in the romances that you like are second chances. And it was kind of clicking into place because to me, this book is all about second and third chances. Not just romance, although there is romance in it, but second chances at every relationship throughout these three people’s lives. There’s just such a sweetness to this book, as sad as it can be. There is this beautiful sweetness of people trying to reconnect.
TN: Yeah, whatever relationship you pull from it, you can see that. Oh, and one thing that I loved about the book, let me see if I can find it. I, when they were talking about Aubry and Luke being together and they were saying they were together, but not quite, the way you can fix a hole in a worn pair of pants, but they never looked new. That to me was kind of like encompassing of the book. You know, fixing things, but you can tell that it’s not quite new. It’s just a beautiful story for a second chances. I literally get lost in her writing feeling. It is so beautiful and it feels like every word has a hidden meaning. Every sentence you can relate to something. I don’t feel like there was any fillers. Sometimes I read a book and I’m like, okay, I can probably skip this and not miss anything. But in this book. I felt like every sentence meant something. There was some kind of relation. It was really beautiful.
JS: And what do you think about the relationship between the two primary women, Aubrey and Nadia?
TN: So, let me back up a little bit. Their relationship, I felt like they were looking at each other and there was some assumptions of perfection, right? I think Nadia was kind of looking at Aubrey because she had the First Lady’s ear. Right? She would look at her, going to her office and be kind of jealous. And in a book she says, how dare she wear those sunflowers shoes? You know, Nadia saw a sense of innocence in Aubrey that she was dealt with up because at this time her innocence, I feel had been taken from her at her abortion and she saw innocence and I agree that she kind of longed for it. And I think Aubrey saw a sense of ambition in Nadia and she kind of longed for that. You know, I grew up a little bit more timid. So I think in the beginning it kinda came, their friendship was kind of like, who is this girl? Because there’s some way they both were abandoned by their mother. And so they started to bond over that and really grow into a friendship, which I could feel right in my soul. Like I felt like I was their third best friend. You can see them just falling in love in a platonic friendship way. And there was a sense of understanding and freeness in their friendship. You know, the hard part of that is as life goes on, when Nadia goes away. And she comes back and then I think a lot happens in their friendship. But it is so hard to talk about it without giving it away. But I think that things happen in a friendship that actually has nothing to do with Aubrey. I don’t think she really meant to hurt Aubrey. I think she had a lot of pain with Luke that was unresolved that had nothing to do with Aubrey. I think it was very selfish, but I think partly Nadia needed that to heal. You know, that moment we looked for healing, but that moment of healing forever changed her relationship with Aubrey. The book doesn’t really say how they aimed it, but we can tell, like, it says, things were not quite new, you know, like patched pants, you can tell things are different. But I don’t think that’s a testament of how much Nadia really loved Aubrey. I think the situation with her and Luke was independent, even though they were all in a time.
JS: And I also love that she didn’t turn these two women into a girl on girl fight, you know?
TN: Even their confrontation, which I have been waiting for, because you know it’s coming, right? And I had known all along and even in the confrontation, I could feel it off the pages of how Aubrey felt. And I felt hurt. You know, I felt that hurt leaking off the pages. It didn’t feel like some best stuff you would see on reality TV or anything like that. It felt like real life. Like, man, I love you. I love you. But I’m hurt. Deeply hurt.
JS: Yeah. It’s so complex. I was reading the review that you left of this book on your Bookstagram account. a while back, probably maybe the first time you read it? And you specifically said that what you like so much is that you saw so much of yourself in this book, is that because of the female friendships? May I ask?
TN: Yeah, so honestly it’s because of everything. I really relate to Nadia, her mother. I’ll just start from the beginning, where her mother, she felt abandoned. That’s kind of the dynamics between me and my mom are, there are many times where I felt abandoned by her. Now the reasoning maybe fits more with Aubrey. My mother and my father were divorced and my mom often chose other men over me. Eventually I went to live with my dad. So in that way, I could understand some of them moments with her father. And then her ambition and coming from a small town, you know, that’s how I always fit. I always felt very ambitious and like, I want to get out of this small town. So I could really relate. And then also her relationship with Luke and the summer they had before she went to college. I had a boyfriend in high school and we had a whirlwind romance. We met in physics class and we just fell deeply in love. And I went to college and things just, they didn’t fizzle out, but we ended up breaking up out there my first year of college. And then, I went on with my life and I met my husband and, and all of these things, but sometimes – if I were a writer, I would write it in this book because sometimes I feel like I would go back to that summer. And there’s a moment in the book where she says she’s with Luke and she can feel the years shedding off for her. She can feel the moments where he doesn’t know Aubrey yet. She doesn’t know Aubrey yet. She’s unpregnant, as she calls it and she feels like herself. And sometimes I think like now I have a kid, I have a husband and I went to college. I lived a lot of life, but there was something so pure and innocent about that summer. And so, when I read this book, I could feel what Nadia felt for Luke. And that’s how I know in the moment, when she did the terrible thing of sleeping with her best friend’s husband, I knew that it was a moment of pain relief that she needed. Sometimes as adults, so much life can happen to us. And we don’t realize in those moments of young-ness, how we didn’t really have much to worry about for the most part, you know, and especially as women we take on so much. And I think sometimes it’s not like the high school boyfriend. It’s not even wanting to be young. It’s just a period where before you were a mother, before you were a wife, before you were a business owner and you were just you. That’s associated usually to maybe a time or place, and sometimes it can be a person. So that’s how I look at it. I don’t always think it’s the person. Sometimes. I think it’s maybe the moment. Y’all created the emotion that you’re searching for, whether it’s freeness or healing. Or whatever.
JS: Do you reread frequently?
TN: I don’t. The book would have to really blow me away, or be one of my favorites. Thisone I have read three times. And it is one of my favorites, maybe number two. But I don’t often reread unless the book is just so dynamic and complex to where I could re-read because there are parts in this book that – you know how you watch a movie and you see something new every time or something like that? It was kind of like that. But some books, if I start to reread it and I already know where it’s going to be said in my head, I’m anticipating the next thing. I’ll probably put it down. Some books just aren’t that complex when they’re written. And some authors prefer that way and that’s fine. But I don’t really read those because I can just remember and anticipate what’s going to happen with what they’re saying. But this book, and it had been a few years in between the rereads and I knew the big parts, but there were intricate details that I have forgotten. So then also with rereading, I think it depends on where I’m at in my life. When I re-read this one, it hit a little different just because of what I was going through personally. So if I’m going through something personally, I’ll pick up something that I know is around the time of when I’m dealing with it. And you know, I have a different perspective at that point.
JS: Taevia what are you reading these days? What’s on your nightstand?
TN: So right now I’m reading Seven Days in June. It’s really been a very popular book on my Bookstagram feed. That’s actually where I get a lot of my book recommendations now, Bookstagram. It’s by Tia Williams. I think it’s going to be made into a movie. And I think this is maybe her second book, but it’s again, another second chance at love. And it’s about these two authors who were in a relationship before and they were in love, but they broke up. They’ve been secretly communicating through their writings of their novels, and they circled back around to each other. I’m in the very beginning, but it’s a great book so far. And I think that it is so popular because it was Reese or one of these book clubs. And it is also by a woman of color. It kept coming up on my timeline, and I love second chance. So I just bought it and I still in the early stages of it.
JS: That would make a good movie. I want to know when The Mothers is going to be a movie. Cause wouldn’t that be great?
TN: Yeah, honestly, you know, with The Mothers, I think it really should be a series where episodes. Because just – this is why Brit is forever the GOAT, because you really start with Nadia and her and her mother, right? That leads into her father. That would, to me, be an episode. And then you go into her and Luke, that’s episode by itself, maybe even two. And then you go into her and Aubrey, and then to the Aubrey and Luke. And then you go back to Luke and Nadia, and then from there they all intertwine. It’s finding out about Luke and Nadia, but Nadia is also home with her father. So now you have these separate moments of exploring the relationships and then at the end, they all kind of are intertwined. So I think it would be a perfect series.
JS: Imagine if there were an episode of when she comes back to her father, after he’s been injured and they’re sort of reconciling, but like you said, it’s patched. It’s never quite good. That would be so bittersweet and tragic and wonderful.
TN: Yeah, I think if this was a series, the part that would probably be most heartbreaking is Aubrey confronting Nadia. That would probably be a really hard episode to watch because in the book, you know, she’s like, she’s not facing her. Nadia comes out of the shower and she was like, Hey, why didn’t you let me know you were here? She asked her, but never facing her. So hurt and distraught that that she can’t even look at her. Like, I just, my chest would be so…
JS: All right, Hollywood executives. I know you’re listening. We need to make this happen! Taevia, will you please tell my listeners where they can find you and your work? Yeah. So thank you for having me. I really enjoy talking about this book. It is one of my favorites. So if you want to see what I’m reading, and what I’ve read before, you can follow me at @booksandbrownsugar. If you want to get some of our merch, then you can go to @booksandbrownsugar.co on Instagram. And then our website is Books and Brown Sugar Co.com if you want to purchase. That’s where you can find me.
JS: And this is not sponsored, but I have some of her products and I love them. So I can personally vouch for them. Keep an eye on my Instagram because we will be doing a Books and Brown Sugar giveaway next week. So keep a close eye on that. Taevia, thank you so much for joining me today. I hope you will come back anytime you have a book you want to talk to me about cause it’s been really fun.
Yes. Thank you. I really enjoyed this conversation.
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Thanks for joining me today. And I will see you at the library.