Truth through Fiction: Talking with Nicole Dennis-Benn
To say that Nicole Dennis-Benn is highly accomplished as a writer is an understatement. Her debut novel, Here Comes the Sun, received titles of best book of the year from the New York Times, NPR, Amazon, and Kirkus Reviews, amongst others. Now, Dennis-Benn is also the writer behind the forthcoming novel, Patsy (Liveright, June 4, 2019).
Although both Here Comes the Sun and Patsy tackle issues of living in Jamaica as a working-class Jamaican woman, Patsy is an intergenerational novel about a woman moving to America and leaving her daughter and mother behind, with no intent on returning for them.
Once in America, Patsy, the conflicted yet steadfast center of the story, struggles with the devastating reality of living in America as undocumented immigrant. Throughout, she also struggles to process her friendship with Cicely, her childhood friend, who has started a new life in America. While Patsy is in America, her daughter, Tru, undergoes her own development in Jamaica as she processes her new life with her father, his partner, and her siblings.
Through the characters in Patsy, Dennis-Benn explicitly questions the idea of woman as inherently maternal, and explores what it means to feel ambivalent about becoming a mother in the first place.
Born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, Dennis-Benn is a graduate of Cornell University, holds a Master of Public Health from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and has attained her MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College.
Dennis-Benn and I recently discussed her writing process for both Patsy and Here Comes the Sun, as well as issues of motherhood, religion and the Church, immigration, and craft.
The Rumpus: Patsy offers a very different perspective that I personally haven’t read before. I’ve read stories of Caribbean women coming to America, but Patsy also takes on topics of maternalism, friendships, relationships—and the complexities of each. Through writing Patsy, has your own perspective changed regarding motherhood and what a mother is supposed to be like?
Nicole Dennis-Benn: To be honest with you, while in the early stage of writing Patsy, when the character revealed to me that this was actually her story, [that] her motive was to actually leave her daughter/abandon her daughter, I felt myself judging the character. It took me a while to write it because I started, and then put it down, because I was like, Oh my gosh, I’m hating this character right now. I’m not even feeling this person. Then I actually challenged myself to get the story out, learning from the first book, Here Comes the Sun… about a prostitute who commodifies the bodies of young girls. I judged Margot, initially, like I judged Patsy. It was actually in letting go of that judgement that the story opened up in the first book. Similarly, that’s happened in Patsy as well. I let go, and had her walk me through. When I say that, it’s not that Patsy’s a real person, but at the same time, in terms of of my inspiration as a writer, I tend to sit with characters for a while. Every time I wrote her, revising, and re-revising. I realized, Wow, she really has an intention of leaving Tru behind. I had to let go. I had to say, Let me go with it. That, to me, is the best thing about writing, because I feel like my characters teach me more about humanity. They’re not bad people; it’s just that the decisions they are making are based on circumstance.
Rumpus: Do you intend for your readers to let go of their possible judgement towards these characters as well?
Dennis-Benn: Yeah, it’s so interesting because the reason why I write my stories is because more women than we know go through that. More women than we know don’t have that ability to say. They don’t have the privilege of choosing whether or not they want to be mothers. For example, in my culture, motherhood just happens upon a woman, especially if she’s of a particular class. I mean, she’s not going to be willing to get an abortion because it’s illegal in Jamaica, so she just rises to that role—or she’s expected to. But again, to question popular belief, and popular decision—what if she doesn’t rise to that role? What happens to the woman that admits to herself that this is not for her? So I walk you through the world through her eyes, as this person who doesn’t know how to take on that role, or doesn’t want that role to begin with, because she wasn’t given other choices of exploring her own identity. I wanted to see that with a character like [Patsy].
Rumpus: I also like how you took on describing aspects entrenched within Jamaican culture, such as homophobia and Christianity. Patsy almost kinds of scoffs at them. Do you feel Patsy, as a character, exists to rebel against those circumstances?
Dennis-Benn: Kind of. Secretly, I was kind of writing against that—recognizing how religion plays a heavy role in our culture. So talking about Mama G’s character, we have so many women like that in our country. Because the thing that is parallel is the escape. There’s migration for those who can migrate, but there’s also escape through the church. The ones who can’t leave escape through the church. Because really, religion is an opiate for the poor. For the poor, working-class Jamaican, most of them have no hope. They can either look to America, Canada, or the UK, if they’re lucky, or to the church. Mama G escaped through the church. I didn’t want to blame those individuals because most of the time it’s still their choice and opportunity. At the same time, I wanted to hold a mirror up to a culture and the fundamentalist Christians who are there. In terms of judgement, It’s so ingrained. I don’t know if I’m explaining this right, but they actually take on the characteristics of the oppressor, if that makes any sense. That was what I was trying to get at. [Patsy’s] mother is looking to the church for her salvation, but ends up alienating her daughter, who needs her in a very critical time in her life. Her mother took to the church, and everything went downhill after that.
Rumpus: In terms of escaping, from your perspective as a Jamaican native, what is appealing to Jamaicans about America? I think you not-so-explicitly explain it throughout Patsy.
Dennis-Benn: It’s a fantasy that was sold to us. It’s interesting, because the whole world watches America through media. Even in the book itself, Patsy references sitcoms where there’s a laugh track, there’s an American with his lawn and the picket fences. That is what we’re fed of America… everything’s nice and shiny and bright. So when people come here, that is the message they send… [I know ] friends and family who take pictures of themselves standing in front of nice houses—two-story houses in neighborhoods that they don’t even live in, as a sign to say “We’ve made it.” So a lot of us back home say, “Wow, that’s what will happen when we move to America.” Working-class Jamaicans want a better life, and move to this country as their salvation… [With] Patsy, that’s what I wanted to achieve. That was really her motive for coming to America. The same with myself as well. I came here for that reason, [thinking] America is going to be the place where I get my freedom. You mentioned homophobia earlier. So, for me personally, leaving Jamaica was leaving colorism behind. I was leaving feeling ostracized as a working-class Jamaican, and also as a lesbian, thinking that [America] was actually finding more freedom to explore parts of myself that I couldn’t explore in Jamaica. If you were to ask me if any parts of the book are autobiographical, that motivation itself is the most autobiographical part—the motive to come to America.
Rumpus: What did you learn about hopefulness, and what are you trying to convey about hopefulness, in Patsy?
Dennis-Benn: There’s the irony that you are looking toward a place that was sold to you as a fantasy. Then coming to realize that it’s no different from any other place, and definitely no different than the homeland itself. I wanted to highlight that irony in Patsy. You have Ros Nobert, the Rastaman [in Patsy] who keeps saying “believe me, believe me not,” talking about gold buried in their backyard. A lot of folks didn’t realize that, the blessings that they already had… The people who realize that are actually the wealthy Jamaicans who can afford to stay on the island, actually relish and get the best of what our country has to offer. They talk about Jamaica’s beaches and our white sand. All these great things you hear about Jamaica in the ads: “Come to Jamaica, because everything will be alright.” The poor Jamaicans can barely keep their heads up to actually see that beauty. We’re usually hustling, trying to see our children. We’re usually trying to talk to our politicians so they can fix the roads in our communities. So when you ask who gets the best of Jamaica, who owns that country, or who owns the beauty of our land, it’s usually not us—the working-class, Black Jamaicans. So, we end up leaving.
Rumpus: I studied and taught a summer school in Jamaica. My professor, she’s from Jamaica, and she insisted that we see Jamaica for what it really is. It’s hard to see the realities of who gets to benefit, especially since there’s no middle class. There’s only really, really poor, and then almost estate-style houses. In the classroom, when I’d ask students what they want to be when they grow up, so many of them said President of the United States.
Dennis-Benn: Wow! Was Obama in the presidency then?
Rumpus: At the time, yes, he was the president, and they really liked Obama…and Drake.
Dennis-Benn: Oh my gosh! So this proves the point when you were asking about America, and why it’s so appealing to us. We get so much information about America, from the president to Drake and Rihanna. When I was growing up, it was Punky Brewster and The Cosby Show. It used to come on all the time in Jamaica, and those were some of the images of America we saw. The Black Americans were portrayed as a comedy show, like the Jeffersons. Then you come here and realize there’s more. There’s definitely classism, and also racism as well, and that’s what I also wanted to incorporate in Patsy, where she realizes in New York, and her interactions with Marcus… all those things I wanted to also tackle, also revealing that here is no different than back home.
Rumpus: I want to talk about the body language, physicality, and lack of physicality between Pasty and her childhood friend Cicely—you did a great job of capturing their awkwardness amid serious emotions in their scenes. What was your inspiration in writing that?
Dennis-Benn: Those were the scenes that came to me first. That awkwardness of seeing an old friend, in terms of how they’re dressed, and all the life and years that happened between the time that they [last] saw each other. I knew I wanted to make sure that I kept that level of awkwardness. Patsy is the one who flings her arms around Cicely, because she was reading the letters, and in Patsy’s mind, she thought there was intimacy between them, and kind of expected that when she arrived. So she threw her arms around Cicely, and Cicely is the one who kind of steps back and says, “Oh, you put on weight.” And that was her way of kind of distancing herself from Patsy to begin with. Knowing that [Cecily’s] life has definitely changed and things were definitely not the same. So I wanted to do that dance, where Patsy was still in love and wanting romantic love between them, and also the friendship of Cicely stepping away saying, “we’re not girls anymore. You can’t be thinking this way, or feeling this way.” I wanted to build on that. That devastation, coming to America with all that hope, and want, and desire, and dreaming, and how all of that slipped away.
Rumpus: How do you feel that Patsy differs from your previous novel, Here Comes the Sun?
Dennis-Benn: It’s different because I feel like I, myself, have grown as a writer and as a person. Because really, now it’s that process of motherhood, and wanting to know the process of motherhood, and Patsy doesn’t have that much choice, and she’s seeking to find that place in the world. She does it by walking away from her family, and migrating. Like the characters in Here Comes the Sun, she’s responding to the same sociopolitical and sociocultural norms of Jamaica. She’s a working-class Jamaican woman who looks around and feels that she’s at an economical disadvantage and wants more for herself, not only in terms of money, but also personally. She wants to live her life and love the way she wants to love. Similar to Margot, who wanted that desperately for herself as well, and did what she had to do to get there. Patsy did what she had to do as well, which was leave. In terms of the differences, It’s that one is set in Brooklyn and Jamaica, and the other is set in Jamaica primarily. For Patsy, it still covers women’s bodies. It still talks about death, identity, class, race, sexuality. I feel like for some reason, I’m still kind of questioning the same things, but in a different way with different characters.
Rumpus: It’s still the same conversation, but different angles and slightly different perspectives. What would advice would you give to writers who want to portray a culture that they come from in a nuanced, complexed way?
Dennis-Benn: I would say in terms of writing cultures, not to shy away from anything, especially for people who are a part of a culture, there’s that tendency to be protective of it. I always go by what James Baldwin said: “loving a face so much that it grants you permission to analyze it.” For me, I love Jamaica so much that I feel like I do have that license now to critique it. Not just criticism; I’d love to see change in that country, and have them know that a lot of Jamaicans are, in fact, leaving the island because we have no opportunities. Also, in terms of classism, homophobia, and even the sexualization of our young girls… not being afraid to write that… Start conversations about these very important issues. It’s our responsibility to hold that mirror up to our culture, and not be afraid to do that, and not be afraid to demonize it. if it’s written properly, it’s not demonizing; it’s just really opening eyes, from a person who is familiar with the culture.
Rumpus: What do you think that Jamaica as a country, and other countries that have systems of Christianity and homophobia in place, can do to foster change? Like you said, starting those conversations is important. What kind of things do you think would’ve helped a young Nicole in Jamaica? Or a young Patsy, a young Tru—so that people don’t feel like they have to escape?
Dennis-Benn: That’s another good question. Because I’m not a politician, I’m a writer. So I’m doing what I do best. That’s why I wrote Patsy, and why I write books especially about Jamaican women and having these conversations. Just to see what’s really going on, with our boys as well, and our society as a whole. If I was a little Nicole in Jamaica I would have loved to see books like mine out there. First of all, with my face on the back as a Black woman, because I never saw that growing up. Also to open up the page and see myself, not only in complexion, but also speaking the Jamaican Patois, which we are told not to use, and that was really saddening to see as a culture, and took away our identity. I was so desperate for books like that. Right now, as I’m writing, I continue to think of that, to think of myself at that age. Think of myself as a teenager, and also the Patsys as well. Opening a book and seeing that there are actually women in our society who don’t want children. Is it a crime? No, but that conversation needs to happen as a culture [of] women starting to see that womanhood is not just one box. Women are not defined by motherhood or by what we see as the media’s portrayal of femininity. Tru, for example: We talked about Patsy and motherhood, but there are [individuals] like Tru out there who don’t make sense in the eyes of the media or social norms, but they deserve representation as well. They don’t have to wear heels and pink and dresses, so I wanted to broaden that scope of identity.
Photograph of Nicole Dennis-Benn by Ozier Mohammad.