For Colored Girls Book Club + Nicole Dennis-Benn

 
 

Nicole Dennis-Benn is a Jamaican-born writer that lives in Brooklyn. Her sophomore novel, Patsy has been one of the most highly anticipated novels of 2019. We caught up with Nicole over Skype to talk about her writing process, why she writes in Patois, and why Patsy is the non-altruistic immigrant narrative it is.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

 
Nicole Dennis-Benn holding a copy of Patsy (Liverlight 2019). Image via Dennis-Benn’s Instagram ( @ndennisbenn )

Nicole Dennis-Benn holding a copy of Patsy (Liverlight 2019). Image via Dennis-Benn’s Instagram (@ndennisbenn)

 

For Colored Girls Book Club:        

What was it like writing Patsy, and how was it different from writing Here Comes the Sun?

Nicole Dennis-Benn:             

Here Comes the Sun was my first book, my first baby. It was more me going back home and writing what came to mind. Patsy, on the other hand, was really inspired by being a Jamaican here in America. I started Patsy around the same time I started Here Comes the Sun, but I took my time with her, trying to protect my creativity because when the first book is so successful, there is more pressure to write the second one well. For me to write Patsy, I had to ask myself, “Why do I need to tell this story? Why is it important for me to tell Patsy's story and Tru's story?” And every time I asked myself that question, it became easier for me to just write through the doubts.

FCGBC:        

I did notice that both books explored a lot of the same themes like female sexuality and bodily autonomy. Why have these themes stuck with you?

NDB:             

Because I feel like I'm not done with them yet. I still have a lot to say about them, and my third book, which I'm working on now, might also have those themes. I guess there's something in me that really wants to get to the bottom of them, given that Jamaican women are socialized not to talk about these things. I feel it's my responsibility as a writer to tell our untold stories, the things that, as girls, we're told to be ashamed of, or to be silent about.

FCGBC:        

Did you expect backlash? Did you get any?

NDB:             

I kind of expected it, especially with the first book, because that was the first time people were introduced to me as a writer and I was writing about a woman [Margot] who is gay, who is a prostitute, who commodifies the bodies of young girls. But people saw the love story for what it was: a woman who was unable to love the way she wanted to love, and so for her, everything was about survival. With Patsy, I also was scared for a moment, because here's a woman who abandons her child to come to America, and again, in search of that love, choosing herself first.

FCGBC:        

Did you have any literary inspirations while writing Patsy? Have you seen stories like this in a book before?

NDB:             

No, I've never seen it in a book before. I love writing stories that I've not seen before. When I read immigrant fiction stories, [the immigrants’] coming here is very altruistic. They're coming to give money to their family, and to make everything better for their family back home. But in Patsy, I wanted to explore a woman who actually comes to America for herself. She walks away from everything and chooses to be a new person, which happens all the time with men. When men go off and they start new families, people kind of expect that. But when a woman does it, I wanted to start a conversation like how do we perceive her to be. So, I am asking that question “What do we lose when we, as women, choose ourselves?”

 
Here Comes the Sun  by Nicole Dennis-Benn. Photo via  @forcoloredgirlsbookclub

Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn. Photo via @forcoloredgirlsbookclub

 

FCGBC:        

In both books, you write such difficult and complex mothers who are contrary to how we're socialized to think of mothers—as all-giving, affection women who do everything for their children, but your mothers are not like that at all. I am curious about your choice to do that.

NDB:             

I wanted to explore the generational traumas that get passed down, because as a feminist writer I feel like changes can only happen when we look back and actually face those traumas so that we can impart something better for our daughters. In Patsy's case, it's her telling herself she doesn't have what it takes to be a good mother. She was afraid of imparting so much negativity on Tru that she said, you now what? I'm going to leave because I do not trust myself. She was so afraid of becoming Mama G.

FCGBC:        

I also love the fact that you are not shy about writing in Patois.

NDB:             

And I will continue doing that. Jamaicans speak Patois. It's not like we speak the Queen's English, unless we're in a formal setting. It's important for me to capture the authenticity of Jamaicans, so I have to use our language. I'm still getting the readers who say they can’t understand it or that they have to slow down. But that's my intention: for people to slow down and get to know the characters.

FCGBC:        

Did writing in Patois make it hard for you to sell Here Comes the Sun and Patsy?

NDB:             

It was hard for Here Comes the Sun. I got a lot of rejections from publishers who said they “weren't relating to the characters,” and I’m wondering, what are they not relating to? Before publishing Here Comes the Sun, I published stories in small journals, and so there were times when I also questioned using dialect. That was made real to me when my first agent said to me, “A woman in Michigan would not understand this dialect. Put it in standard English.” I was young at the time, so I felt really like I needed to do that in order to be successful as a writer. But when I tried this and it didn't ring true to me, I reverted back to Patois and I realized then that I can't continue with that agent.

FCGBC:        

I'm sure that was a difficult choice.

NDB:             

It was a very difficult choice, yeah. That was a low, low point in my career, because at the time I felt like that was the one open door, you know? But I was happy I stuck to my guns. and in all honesty, the only challenges I have now with having dialect in the novels are translation.

 
Patsy  by Nicole Dennis-Benn was For Colored Girls Book Club’s June pick. Photo via  @forcoloredgirlsbookclub

Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn was For Colored Girls Book Club’s June pick. Photo via @forcoloredgirlsbookclub

 

FCGBC:        

Another big thing in your book is this connection between sexuality and immigration or exile. Patsy loves Cicely and basically moves to America for her, but what I find really interesting is the fact that Patsy never really names her sexuality, never gives it a title or a label. Was this intentional? And if it was, why?

NDB:             

It was definitely intentional, and for various reasons. It’s the same reason Margot did not name hers. Patsy and Margot, they're not like us who say, we have a label, we know exactly who we are if someone asks us. They exist outside of academia, and inside a realm where the feeling is there, but to put a name on it would have been so unrealistic. Many Jamaican women, I'm sure, who are fluid and who have feelings for other women, they wouldn't know to verbalize that. All they know is that there is a feeling, and they either suppress it or act on it. Patsy is one of those women. She’s known for a long time that was in love with Cicely in the this is my oldest friend sense, but also in a romantic sense. I wanted sexuality in this book to exist on a spectrum. Tru didn’t label her gender either, because she doesn’t have vocabulary like “trans” or “gender non-conforming.” Maybe when she moves to England.

FCGBC:        

That's an interesting point—the way how we learn language when we’re no longer in a space that kind of stifles the expression. How has your own relationship with your sexuality and your nationality/country informed your telling of this story and your building of these characters?

NDB:             

Well, like Tru and like Patsy, I knew what I was but I never had the vocabulary for it until I came [to the U.S.]. That’s when I was like, that's why I was attracted to Janet Jackson and I had crushes on girls in high school. And so it was interesting how, as you said, in our culture, it was very hard to kind of step outside of the box, for one, and also name ourselves and be individuals, but then when we come [to the U.S.], it's different. Of course, I'm not saying America's not homophobic, but there are certain freedoms that we have here as immigrants, being around people who are more like us. Maybe it's the bigger place. It's not like we're going to run into a family member or cousin or our church on the corner. It's so different being in a foreign place, and in a foreign place, finding home within ourselves.

FCGBC:        

In the epilogue, you quote Warsan Shire, "Maybe home is where I'm going, and have never been," and that was really profound. I’m curious to know how do you now understand home? What is home to you?

NDB:             

That Warsan Shire poem really spoke to me, because still to this day, I feel like I connect with that line. Home is probably the place I've never been. I mean, yes, I look at Jamaica as home because it’s where my memories are and where my family lives. There are parts of me that still hold on to the Jamaica that I left in 1999, which will never be the same. But Brookyln is also my home. I found a new life here, I'm married to a woman, I'm living my dream of being a writer and a professor. So, I have multiple homes, but the most important [home] is myself, given that I don't think I would have been happy if I didn't find my true identity.

FCGBC:        

Patsy tried to make a home out of Cicely. Do you think this was to her benefit or detriment?

NDB:             

At first it was a benefit. I mean, we know it's a detriment because of we see the setup of Cicely BS-ing Patsy. But then, we see that it’s kind of a blessing in disguise, because here is this woman who actually comes [to the U.S.], and although all of these horrible things happens to her, she was still able to thrive, and in that thriving was able to find herself. Patsy had people like Fiona and Claudette who came into her life and somehow helped her to find her truths.

 
Nicole Dennis-Benn. Photo via  @ndennisbenn

Nicole Dennis-Benn. Photo via @ndennisbenn

 

FCGBC:        

Do you have a favorite character? Whether in Here Comes the Sun, or in Patsy?

NDB:             

I am really in love with Patsy as a character. And Tru. Margot in Here Comes the Sun was my favorite. And Delores, as well, even though she had to make hard decisions.

FCGBC:        

Delores?? Really?

NDB:

Yes! In her mind, she was the best mother ever. But she was mothering how she was mothered. And her being that voice of her post-colonial scars, I felt for her, knowing that when she said, "Nobody loves a black girl, not even herself,” she honestly believed that. It reflected so much about our country and our culture as a whole. But I think Patsy is my favorite, only because there's something about her brokenness. Here's this woman who was absolutely broken from the age of nine years old, and somehow was able to pull herself together with whatever energy she could muster, bring herself across the ocean, just to find her place in this world. To me, that's commendable. So many people would probably have given up. I have seen many times, when she had thought about giving up. I admire her trying her hardest to come into herself.

FCGBC:        

Do you have a character you hate?

NDB:             

Even though I like Cicely, I resent her a little bit. She toyed with Patsy and probably knowingly utilized her privilege. I kind of felt for her in that scene when you saw how Marcus ended up turning out as a husband. And her holding on to an identity as the trophy wife. And, again, writing our women, writing our culture, we do hear women proud of being the trophy wife or the side chick, especially in Dancehall. And I wanted to put the brownin’ on this pedestal and have her fight so hard to stay there by any means necessary.

FCGBC:        

She was the opposite of Patsy in that way. Whereas Patsy could see things as it was and make moves accordingly, Cicely was happy to stay in her cage.

NDB:             

Exactly.

FCGBC:        

How has Patsy changed between when you started writing it and in its final form? Were there any major changes?

NDB:             

There were some major changes. The first draft started out actually with Barrington jumping off the train tracks, which somehow moved all the way back to Chapter 31. In the developmental process of the story, I knew Patsy was ultimately going to end up as a mother who abandoned her child. But because I was fighting it so much, there were areas where I thought to make her send something to Tru, or call her. But even that call scene where she picked up the phone and she hung up, that wasn't there [originally] because I was thought, why wouldn't she answer the phone when she was so guilt-ridden? That train of thought followed in every chapter, where Patsy thinks about Tru, but doesn't have the courage to call her.

FCGBC:        

What was most important for you to get across in this book?

NDB:             

I wanted to show the immigrant experience from the perspective of a woman without many privileges in life. I noticed with immigrant fiction that a lot of them come as students, or fellows at Princeton, or wherever. But I wanted to show the immigrants who come here without any papers, without any financial backing, the ones cleaning our toilets, cleaning our streets. Who are those people? I wanted people to walk away with the knowledge that we can still be human beings, we can still have a humanity, even if our choices are not the best choices.

 
 

FCGBC:        

Do you think your stories will always feature a queer Jamaican woman?

NDB:             

Yes. Definitely. I feel like you can't write a story about people and a place and not put the diversity of who we are as a people. Plus, I hardly see queer people in fiction, period, be it Jamaica, America, or anywhere. As a queer woman myself, I crave seeing myself in a story. So, yes, I'm going to continue writing myself in the story, and both younger and older generations can actually read it and know that we existed as permanent protagonists, not just in background.

FCGBC:        

What did you read while you were writing Patsy?

NDB:             

Toni Morrison. So, of course, Song of Solomon, The Bluest Eye, Beloved, which is always on my desk. I love the way how she uses words and sentences, and also gives me permission to write our complexities on the page without shying away. That's why I always have to have her around while writing.

FCGBC:        

Who are your general reading or writing influences? Like who do you always turn to?

NDB:             

Edwidge Danticat, Paule Marshall, Julie Otsuka, who wrote Buddha in the Attic. And definitely Zora Neal Hurston. We talked about Patois and she has been using dialect, language that way for a long time.