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Monica Brashears' 'House of Cotton' is an off-kilter fairy tale set in a funeral parlor

Brashears told TODAY she was inspired by her childhood in Appalachia, the writing of Toni Morrison and working retail. "I’d take advantage of lulls and conjure up worlds in my head," she told TODAY.
Beowulf Sheehan / Flatiron Books

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"House of Cotton," Monica Brashears' debut novel, opens at a funeral — fitting, considering much of the action will later take place at a funeral parlor. "All the God Bless You's the church plans to gift me can't take away this hurt," Magnolia, the book's observant and melancholy 19-year-old protagonist, says. "Can't take away me knowing that the only person who would have an answer to my problem is stiff and mute in an oak box."

Magnolia's grandmother, Mama Brown, has just died. And while her mother, Cherry, is alive, she might as well be absent. Magnolia hasn't seen her in four years.

And so, at 19, Magnolia is practically alone in the world, walking the balance between surviving grief and poverty, and preserving dignity. At that precise juncture, a man named Cotton walks into the gas station where Magnolia is working at a gas station, with a proposition. Magnolia is hired to be a “model” for his funeral parlor, acting out a recently deceased person to help with goodbyes. Meanwhile, Magnolia is processing her own grief.

"House of Cotton," by Monica Brashears

That’s the premise of “House of Cotton,” out April 4, 2023, but it doesn’t capture the book’s rhythm and mood, where the weird live side-by-side with the mundane, and where fairy tales are used to make sense of real life. The novel is set in Knoxville, Tenn., near where Brashears — a Syracuse University's MFA program — is originally from. Brashears lyrical prose style may be connected to her childhood in Appalachia, where there are "so many sweet, growing things to describe." Her penchant for the macabre is from there, too: "I grew up hearing Appalachian tales of banshees, witches, and so many ghosts," she told TODAY.

Speaking to TODAY, Brashears said the book’s genre, a Black Southern Gothic, mimics her own experience. “To read a Black Southern Gothic tradition is to see my lived experience in narrative.”

Below, find out more about “House of Cotton” from the author herself, and read an excerpt from the start of the book.

Flatiron Books

TODAY: What was your reaction to seeing the cover?

I was thrilled! Before the reveal, my hope was that the cover would capture both the inner world of the protagonist, Magnolia, and the feel of summer months in Tennessee — a bramble of life, lust in all that blooms, and haunted wherever shadows fall. This cover achieves that, I think. There’s a sense of temptation in the art, seeming to ask the reader behind a mask of innocence and domesticity: won’t you enter? I’m obsessed.

How would you describe your book to someone?

House of Cotton exists in that gauzy space between life and death, between inflicted trauma and deserved tenderness. A few words to give an idea of what that might look like: singing and bones and oleander and daydreams.

What are a few of your major (or minor) inspirations for 'House of Cotton'?

At all the retail jobs I’ve worked, I’d take advantage of lulls and conjure up worlds in my head. I’m sure bits of those thoughts have worked their way onto the page. Major inspirations would have to be writers I return to again and again —Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Gayl Jones, Jesmyn Ward, Arthur Flowers — every writer I’ve read who can make their prose sing.

What interested you about Appalachia as a setting? What did the environment offer you as a writer?

Appalachia is my hearth and home. I grew up hearing Appalachian tales of banshees, witches, and so many ghosts. The mountains held magic for me as a child and became the place where those tales grew tangible in my little mind. Who’s to say what lives among the trees? I think my lyricism also stems from that environment; there are so many sweet, growing things to describe!

'Black Southern Gothic' is a phrase used to describe your book. What does the genre mean to you?

To read work in the Black Southern Gothic tradition is to see my lived experience in narrative. Recently, I wrote a letter describing Magnolia that speaks to the genre: “Living as a Black girl below the poverty line, holding reverence for the land while also surviving the encounters with the whiteness which inhabits it, and being capable of love as big as religion while fearing the men who fear God.” The genre also urges the reader to acknowledge a truth; time is a melty thing.

Read an excerpt from the beginning of 'House of Cotton'

I ain’t ever felt as trapped and choked as I do right now. When I get this way, when I feel like kudzu is wrapped tight around my ribcage and I’m bleeding a bright heat, I like to slip inside my head. I can forget about this hardbacked pew and all the silk, wide-brimmed hats bobbing to the mourning gospel. I ain’t here. I ain’t in Mountain Bend Baptist. I ain’t even in Tennessee.

I am a little black bean. I am a little black bean in England, 1734, and a boy is carrying me home. When we get to his cottage, his mama says: Boy, I just know you ain’t sell the cow for some beans. Before she whips the white off him with her slipper, she throws me out the window, but I ain’t hurt. I am a little black bean landed in soft loam. I sleep deep in the cool ground. When the morning comes, the sun don’t wake me. The boy wakes me. His skinny fingers grip my sides. I am a stalk: thick, and green, and healthy, and tall enough to touch heaven. But the boy can’t let me be. He wraps his legs around me and pulls up his milk-fed body. His bones dig into me. I say, “The fuck you climbing up me for?”

A smooth palm rubs my shoulder, tugs me back to the eulogy.

“Magnolia, baby. Your granny got peace, now.” The dusk-colored woman next to me must have mistaken my laughter for sobbing. She traces loops on my arm, soft as a whisper, with her acrylic, until Pastor Wooly strikes something in her. “Hallelujah!” She claps. Mama Brown and me, we only came to church twice a year. Easter and Christmas. I can’t remember her name. But she loved my Mama Brown. Unlike most people.

They sure didn’t love her enough to know she’d hate the flowers clustered around her casket: fluffed carnations, limp roses, tongue-colored peonies. Mama Brown would have wanted something like home: garden tulips with sprigs of baby’s breath. They got her face all wrong, too. Her foundation is two shades too light and Bible thick. And she wouldn’t want this rambling sermon. She would want music and happy dancing.

“Now, what the Good Lord say?” Pastor Wooly taps the head of the microphone on the back of his hand. He is a dark and wrinkled man, with a tuft of dandelion seed for hair. Every Sunday, he starts his routine by hobbling up to the altar with his cane. This funeral ain’t no different. When he catches the Spirit, Pastor Wooly throws his arms up. The sound of the cane smacking against the hardwood floor always results in a resounding Hallelujah. The individual voices of the congregation—the throaty, old women; the young men with fire under their toes that make them jump, jump; the sinners that find bits of glory in their mouths—become a uniform voice, strong and deep. When I was little, I thought in these moments he was conjuring up the voice of God. Now I know that ain’t true.

“I’ll tell you what the Good Lord say,” Pastor Wooly says.

“Yes, Pastor,” a man in the back shouts.

“He say, I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.”

“Hallelujah,” the pretty woman next to me says.

“Y’all hear me?” Pastor Wooly jumps, loses his breath. Every other word is shot into our ears with a wavering inhale. “He say, I am-uh the resurrection-uh and the life-uh!” The cane smacks the floor.

“Hallelujah!” The congregation rises.

I can’t stand the thought of standing around, being strangled by hugs and White Diamonds and Old Spice and condolences. All the God Bless You’s the church plans to gift me can’t take away this hurt. Can’t take away me knowing that the only person who would have an answer to my problem is stiff and mute in an oak box.

I slink out the side door that opens to the edge of the cemetery. The horizon ripens with red; it’ll be dark before they lower Mama Brown.

“Miss Magnolia,” a voice calls from the headstones.

Sugar Foot saunters from the cusp of the open grave, puffing on a wrinkled roll-up. He grins when he reaches me. “Ain’t this some bullshit?”

I didn’t see Sugar Foot during the funeral. He sure ain’t dressed for one: mahogany suit with a gold tie and a slanted Fedora to match. I been knowing this man my whole life, and I ain’t ever seen him out of his deacon clothes: white shirt and slacks. He tosses a disk of butterscotch.

I catch it. He been feeding me sweets since I was little. “Sir? What you mean?”

He waves his lit cigarette in circles at the door. “All this. Your granny would hate this.”

“Mama Brown’d be fine with it,” I say, “Church has done their best.”

He takes a drag, blows a fat cloud of smoke in the space between us. “I seen a miracle in there.”

“A miracle?”

“Yes, Miss Magnolia. I seen about ten women in there crying with dry eyes. Not a damn tear.” He chuckles.

I smile. “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”

The door opens. “We been looking for you all over, girl,” Pastor Wooly says.

“You drive?” Sugar Foot asks as I step in.

“No, sir. I walked here,” I say.

“I’ll take you after.”

“Yes, sir.”

Pastor Wooly leads me back to the front pew; the pallbearers lift Mama Brown like she’s light as a wish.

I follow the shuffling crowd out to the dirt, this tiny fenced in graveyard. How would I feel if could weep? Silly. Wetting the earth with tears ain’t ever made anybody sprout. The last light of the day sinks into the ground with her.

Excerpted from HOUSE OF COTTON by Monica Brashears Copyright © 2023 by Monica Brashears. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.