In Conversation with Nicole Dennis-Benn on ‘Patsy’
by Arriel Vinson
Nicole Dennis-Benn is a Lambda Literary Award winner and a finalist for the 2016 John Leonard Prize National Book Critics Circle Award, the 2016 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, and the 2017 Young Lions Fiction Award for her debut novel, Here Comes the Sun—a New York Times Notable Book of the year, an NPR, Amazon, Barnes & Noble Best Book of 2016. She’s a recipient of the New York Foundation for the Arts Artist Grant for her forthcoming novel, Patsy (Norton/Liveright, June 2019). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Elle, Electric Literature, Ebony, and the Feminist Wire. She was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, and lives with her wife in Brooklyn, New York.
Arriel Vinson reached out to Nicole to discuss her forthcoming novel Patsy.
Arriel Vinson: Would you mind sharing your journey to publishing with our readers? I took a lot of notes at the 2018 Kweli International Literary Festival, and I was especially interested in your movement through industries, as well as the workshops you took before applying to MFA programs.
Nicole Dennis-Benn: I took three fiction workshops in Brooklyn. They were very intimate settings and safe spaces, which I found very helpful as I prepared my MFA application. After the MFA, I taught writing composition to college freshman at various CUNY schools. I got this job through my wife's cousin's wife, who happened to know someone who taught in the CUNY system. I had no teaching experience, so I was truly grateful for the connection. This job helped me to fully transition from public health to writing. Given that teaching writing is technically the same as writing, I was able to work on my novel and sell it.
I started my own writing workshop—Stuyvesant Writing Workshop—in 2014, while teaching at CUNY. MFA programs don’t hire writers of color. But it was somewhat helpful to have the workshop on my resume, in addition to an acclaimed novel. I doubt the culture will change, but it was certainly worth it to give the opportunity to other women of color in my community to write in a safe space.
AV: At the festival, you also spoke a lot about being in spaces where your writing wasn’t particularly welcome. How do you continue to navigate through mostly white spaces in writing, including the spaces you teach in?
NDB: I bring my authentic self to the page. Once upon a time, I tried to “dress up” my voice and water down my language to appeal to readers. But I quickly discovered, through reading Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Paule Marshall, and Edwidge Danticat, that showing up to the page as I am is the magic to good storytelling. I realized that my students respond positively to that too, given that many, especially students of color, feel pressured to write a certain way to appeal to their classmates. When they see me in the classroom, they relax a little and allow themselves to claim their space inside the workshop.
AV: What were the responses to using patois in Here Comes the Sun—before and after it was published? How did you react/keep using a language you’re used to?
NDB: I use Jamaican Patois liberally in dialogue because it’s the language of the people. I’m grateful to have a team that allows me to use it and get away with it. I’ve gotten mixed reactions from readers, most of whom weren’t familiar with the language. But as they slow down and read, as they’d do with Junot Diaz or Zora Neale Hurston, they begin to get the cadence and thus appreciate the authenticity. I’m also happy when Jamaicans tell me that they’re excited to hear and see themselves fully on the page.
AV: Tell me more about your relationship with Jamaica and how it’s shaped you as a writer.
NDB: Jamaica is a beautiful country with beautiful people. I find that most of my memories growing up find their way into my works—from the tastes and smells and sounds, to the feel of a cool afternoon breeze on the veranda. Writing basically appeals to all the senses, and my first sensual experiences were at home.
AV: At the Kweli Festival, you also mentioned your wife was the reason you began taking your writing seriously. Can you tell me more about that?
NDB: Every writer needs encouragement. She did that for me. I’m grateful that she was able to see my talent and dedication and allowed me to follow those dreams. She could’ve said we need the bills paid and not been on board. It also made me work harder to pay her back tenfold for her unconditional love.
AV: Tell me more about your mentor from the Hurston Wright Foundation and how that relationship came to be. Do you think every writer of color needs a mentor? Why?
NDB: Marita Golden took me under her wings after I took her workshop at Hurston Wright Foundation Writers Conference. At the time I was feeling like an outcast in my MFA as one of the few black students in the program, and needed encouragement. She gave me the assignment to write a hundred more pages of my short story as proof to both her and myself that I’m a novelist, after all. I met the challenge and it was realized.
I think it is very important for writers of color to have mentors. It’s a lonely world for us, especially as we navigate the literary space.
AV: How can a writer of color find a mentor?
NDB: By putting herself out there. Make an appointment with a faculty she admires. Apply to programs such as Hurston Wright, Vona, Cave Canem, Kimbilio. Many successful authors might appear busy, but in residencies like these, those same authors are more likely to be chill. Also, if they happen to be teaching the workshop, it's easy for them to gauge the mentee's writing skills and dedication to the craft. It's a perfect time to network without appearing to do so.
AV: You’ve worked in many fields, including public health. What do you say to those who want to write, but maybe are afraid to leave the field they’ve studied for so long?
NDB: When I decided to pursue writing, I enrolled in my MFA program as a full-time student while I worked part-time. I wasn’t wealthy. Neither was I impractical. This is New York City, the most expensive city in the world, so I had to work. I would never prescribe ways in which one could or should pursue their dreams, but what I can say is hunger and heart drive ambition. Follow your gut. Given that I was a working student, I worked a lot harder. I knew if I failed, I wouldn’t have anything to fall back on, so I pushed. I turned down many a happy hour invites and wrote.
AV: Can you tell me more about your forthcoming novel, Patsy? What was the inspiration?
NDB: Patsy is a novel about identity and migration, exploring in-depth the immigrant experience. It was inspired by my experience as an immigrant in this country and the nuanced observations of how race, class, gender identity and sexuality are different and the same in the home I chose and the home I left behind.
AV: How has your writing grown from Here Comes The Sun to Patsy?
NDB: I wouldn’t say my writing is different. I’d say that I am different. I’ve grown as a person. I’ve matured as an artist as a result.
AV: What makes you decide to have your characters struggle with the themes of love, freedom (or the lack thereof), survival, and a love-hate relationship with Jamaica? What makes you gravitate toward those themes?
NDB: I never decide what themes to write. I trust and give the characters free rein. However, what I do know is that I write Jamaican working class women. Prior to my works, I had never encountered complex Jamaican women of the working class on the page. They were mostly caricatures. Therefore, I vowed to write our stories, capturing unspoken secrets and taboo issues that we were taught to be ashamed of, or silent about.
AV: Tell me about the exploration of gender and sexual identity in this novel. How does this shape Patsy and her beliefs? Did it change yours in any way, as you wrote?
NDB: I wanted to write this story from the perspective of a woman who struggles with the role of motherhood and society’s expectations of how she is supposed to feel as a mother. I come from a culture where women assume their roles as mothers early—whether or not they’re married, and whether or not they want to be mothers. Like many women, Patsy didn’t expect to be a mother, but felt she had no choice. She also wanted a lot more for herself but had no opportunity for upward mobility, nor the ability to explore her identity. She felt she had nothing to offer Tru.
The most obvious similarity between Tru and Patsy is their internal conflict with defining themselves in a world that has already defined them. For Patsy, it’s the battle within herself about the expectations as a woman; and with Tru, it’s the persistent struggle to be “a good, obedient girl”—the advice her mother left her with, promising that she would come back if Tru behaves that way. But Tru, like Patsy, knows very well that she never fit those narrow parameters of womanhood.
Patsy deliberately seeks to reinvent herself in America and revel in the freedom it offers her to love the way she wants to love. Hers is a story I wanted to explore—a story that goes against everything we thought the immigrant story to be: altruistic. It’s easy to see now that Patsy’s story is my own in that I, too, chose America to redefine myself. I had always felt like an outsider as a lesbian woman in Jamaica, where homosexuality is taboo and opportunities for the working-class are limited. I wanted to simply be, to find a home in myself elsewhere.
AV: I read an excerpt of Patsy on Lenny Letter. Tell me about your choice to make Patsy a mother who doesn’t love her child unconditionally.
NDB: It’s not that Patsy doesn’t love her daughter. She just doesn’t know how to be a mother. With that said, this is a taboo issue that most women don’t talk about. As women in society, we’re expected from a young age to have maternal instincts and innate dexterity. Not every woman feels that way. I wanted to explore that with my protagonist—an Afro-Caribbean woman.
AV: What does it feel like working on a second book after the first was so successful? Any doubts, fears?
NDB: There will always be doubt. I just write through it, knowing that each project stands on its own.
AV: Can you tell me more about shopping your first novel (and your second), and finding an agent that fits you and your work?
NDB: I found my agent through Poets & Writers database. They list agents and I basically went down the list and queried each one. Three got back to me, saying they were very interested. I ended up interviewing them to see which one would not only honor the stories I write, and sell my novel well, but help establish my career.
AV: Anything you want to add for our readers about your journey, your forthcoming novel, or any advice you have for writers (especially those of color)?
NDB: I’d say keep writing. Use rejections as fuel, not as deterrents. Trust that one day, someone will get your stories and honor your unique voice. In the meantime, surround yourself with supportive people and good mentors, who will hold you accountable and have your back.
AV: What are you working on now?
NDB: I am currently working on my third novel.
You can learn more about Nicole Dennis-Benn by visiting her website or following her on Twitter @ndennis_benn.
Arriel Vinson is a Tin House Winter Workshop alum and Indiana native who writes about being young, black, and in search of freedom. She is an MFA Fiction candidate at Sarah Lawrence College and received a B.A. in Journalism from Indiana University. Her poetry has appeared in Waxwing, [PANK] Magazine, HeART Journal Online, and also won third place prize in LUMINA Journal, judged by Donika Kelly. Her fiction has been featured in Lunch Ticket. Arriel's work has also appeared in Electric Lit.