The Rumpus Book Club chats with Nicole Dennis-Benn about her second novel, Patsy (Liveright, June 2019), writing against tropes about immigrants and motherhood, letting go of her characters when a book is finished, and more.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Elissa Washuta, Theresa Warburton, Trisha Low, Ayse Papatya Bucak, Jeannie Vanasco, Leigh Camacho Rourks, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Hi everyone! Welcome to The Rumpus Book Club chat with Nicole Dennis-Benn about her second novel, Patsy!
Eva Woods: Hi hi! I’m excited to talk about it. I loved this novel.
Ann Beman: It’s on every recommended reading list I’ve seen recently!
Nicole Dennis-Benn: Hi everyone!
Eva Woods: So good to talk to you Nicole!
Marisa: Hi Nicole! Thanks so much for joining us tonight.
Nicole Dennis-Benn: My pleasure! Thanks for having me.
Eva Woods: I have a kind of light question to get started with—why did you set it in 1998? The near past is such an interesting almost-present, but not quite.
Nicole Dennis-Benn: I wanted to set it during the time/period when I was also looking to leave the island. Somehow that year stood out, because I remembered the Reggae Boys being a big deal in France. There was this pride, which coexisted with my yearning to leave Jamaica.
Nicole Dennis-Benn: It was also during the period when I was in high school, being told to “be the best I could be,” knowing very well that upward mobility in Jamaica was hard and that if I was going to do that, I would have to leave. Somehow, Patsy took me back to that…
Eva Woods: That mix of pride and yearning to leave reminds me of something you said to the NYT about James Baldwin loving America enough to criticize it, and relating to that with Jamaica. Can you talk about that a little bit? The idea of authentic love being demanding really resonated with me.
Nicole Dennis-Benn: Yes… I love Jamaica, no doubt about that. But as I writer, I want to tap into the issues that led me to leave in the first place. It’s really out of love, because I really want to see Jamaica get better. I’m no politician, but I figure that I can put our pains, our triumphs, the essence of our culture on the page as a mirror. Hope that answers your question!
Eva Woods: That’s beautiful. I loved that this book showed a diversity of experience that I don’t think a lot of people see in the way Jamaica is portrayed in media. And showing the humanity and reality of a place makes people take it more seriously I think. Doesn’t allow them to keep it abstract in their mind.
Nicole Dennis-Benn: Exactly. I got really tired of seeing us being portrayed as the weed-smoking rasta, the gunman/gangsta, or the smiling natives. We’re more complex than that.
Marisa: There are a lot of connections between your first novel, Here Comes the Sun, and Patsy, but Patsy’s focus is more on issues of motherhood, and the roles we assign to women. How different was the writing process for Patsy? Did the second book come easier?
Nicole Dennis-Benn: To answer your second question, Marisa, it was a bit challenging at first. For Patsy, I wanted to create a character who we might see everyday and think we know… the nanny pushing the baby on the Upper West/East Side. The good immigrant wanting to do good for her family. But on the contrary, she’s actually someone with deep rooted fears about motherhood/her ability to accept that role that society expects her to play well. She’s also in love with a woman who is the reason why she moved across the ocean, hoping to make a home in “paradise.” I really wanted to capture the interior of this woman and unpack her motives. It really forced me to sit with her, empathize with her.
Eva Woods: This book really made me consider how differently the world treats a woman who leaves the other parent to raise their child, vs. how they treat men. It’s something that instinctively feels fair to judge, but really is something you never know anything about from the outside. Can you talk about withholding your judgement of Patsy to be able to write about her compassionately?
Nicole Dennis-Benn: Eva, exactly. You have a point… men get judged less. So many fathers leave home for America. Very rarely does that get looked at as a big deal. I wanted to spin that on its head and make the parent who leaves be a woman. I went even farther by not having her write or send anything back, tapping into the question of what happens we lose when we choose ourselves.
To answer your next question on judgement… I had to push my judgments of Patsy aside in order to write the book. I found myself pulling back, fearing how she might be perceived and realizing that I was the one judging her based on my perceptions of how a mother should be. It turns out that I had internalized a lot, too, as a woman in society.
Eva Woods: I felt that just as a reader! (And mother)
Eva Woods: The image of the altruistic immigrant is actually really damaging, so it’s cool to explode it and look at why we demand that narrative so much.
Nicole Dennis-Benn: Yeah… I wanted to write against the “altruistic immigrant” trope.
Eva Woods: I loved that. That trope accepts the frame that only the “right” kind of brown and black people can be American.
Nicole Dennis-Benn: So many people migrate for reasons other than to give back to family. Patsy came to reinvent herself, to love the way she wants to love and live the life she feels she deserves, especially since she wasn’t given a choice in the beginning to explore her own identity
Eva Woods: You did similar things with gender tropes, too. Tru had struggles, but not the same kind of self-doubt and hatred you see so much in stories about the non-cis hues in the spectrum. At least, that’s how she felt to me.
Nicole Dennis-Benn: Right!
Eva Woods: Was that your intention with her/ can you talk a little more about her personality and how you formed it?
Nicole Dennis-Benn: First of all, Tru came to me when I was at Hedgebrook. I was writing this girly-girl character and noticing that I was having trouble executing the right voice. Something didn’t feel right. So I waited and waited. Finally, almost at the end of my residency, Tru started to speak and it was a character who was clearly androgynous. Or I should say “gender ambiguous”?
Nicole Dennis-Benn: I didn’t want Tru to be a tragedy in Jamaica… that would’ve been too predicable, though not far-fetched. I gave her a community: a father who really accepts Tru for who Tru is, friends who give Tru love and respect.
Eva Woods: That’s that balance of loving and still wanting better for the place.
Eva Woods: (Can you tell I really loved it?! I loved it so much)
Nicole Dennis-Benn: Thank you!
Eva Woods: Also a father who steps up and stumbles and tries and fails, that’s so important to see. Just the trying.
Nicole Dennis-Benn: Yes. Again, my desire is to create complex characters. We all have contradictions as humans. So characters definitely must have them too! Roy is definitely one of my favorite characters—he was fun to write!
Marisa: It sounds like you really live with your characters as you work and they come to life. Is it hard to let them go when you finish a book?
Nicole Dennis-Benn: It’s definitely hard to let them go afterwards! Every time I finish a book I go through this period of mourning. I don’t know if that’s even the right word. It’s this low period where I can do nothing else but think about them, knowing that they no longer belong to me but to the world.
Eva Woods: Tell us about the ending! I loved it, and it was such a whirlwind. How did you decide how Patsy and Tru would end this part of their story?
Nicole Dennis-Benn: The ending was something I worked on for a while. I know I didn’t want it to be devastating. I know I wanted both mother and daughter to salvage their relationship, but in their own way… For Tru, it was important for me to have Patsy be the one to empower her. I didn’t want to have her being lost or worse, succumb to her depression. I also felt it was important that Patsy stayed in America. Yes, she’s undocumented and wouldn’t have been able to go back home, but the fact that she stayed… Her letter is that olive branch she extends, hoping for Tru’s forgiveness. I left it a bit open-ended.
Eva Woods: It just struck me how much altruism is also expected of mothers and that Patsy’s refusal or inability to confirm to those expectations carries through so much of her character. It was hard not to think, in this political situation, that if abortion laws had been different, Patsy wouldn’t have ended up a mother. Did the American political climate seep in as you were writing?
Nicole Dennis-Benn: I started Patsy in the fall of 2012. So the political climate wasn’t as intense as it is now. So, it feels like an interesting coincidence. However, immigration laws were always harsh, regardless of the party [in control].
Eva Woods: I guess it highlights the universal quality of women’s rights struggles. Sad laugh. And the prospects for immigrants aren’t as bright as they can appear from the outside. Did you hope to dispel that somewhat? The whole “streets paved with gold” thing?
Nicole Dennis-Benn: Yes. The immigrant stories I’ve read and heard about always had a fairytale effect to them. The whole “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” But if you’re coming here without education, if you’re coming here working-class, if you’re coming here just on a visiting visa and hope, then you’re screwed.
Eva Woods: Yeah exactly. It’s like, where are the bootstraps supposed to come from?!
Nicole Dennis-Benn: Exactly. I own my privilege. I came straight to college because of an undocumented immigrant.
Eva Woods: The lie of the meritocracy is so old, but exposing it never gets old.
Nicole Dennis-Benn: No one talks about those of us who never got the chance to achieve upward mobility… the ones who are stuck doing the jobs no one else want. Why are they invisible? It was important for me to write Patsy for that reason.
Eva Woods: And how even without that success, staying here can still be important.
Nicole Dennis-Benn: Yes, because if you go home, you’d be considered a “failure.” Barrington was an example of that.
Eva Woods: Our stories aren’t just financial, they’re loves and families and the feeling of being in a place that accepts who you are.
Eva Woods: What’s the hardest part of writing about Jamaica?
Nicole Dennis-Benn: Capturing the memories. I find that those memories are only mine, but if I want to broaden it a bit I go back to capture it fully.
Marisa: And to piggyback on Eva’s question, are there authors who you especially look to as a writer, or feel influenced by? Writers tackling similar subject matter—or not.
Eva Woods: If you haven’t read Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous yet, I think you’d really like it. It’s a motherhood and immigration story, but from a son’s PoV.
Nicole Dennis-Benn: Marisa: Edwidge Danticat, Paule Marshall… As for women’s sexuality and complexity, Toni Morrison and Audre Lorde.
Eva Woods: We didn’t even get to the sexuality stuff! This book just has so much I care about.
Nicole Dennis-Benn: I know! I must say that it was important for me to write sexuality into the book… I’m tired of the “black woman as matriarch” or the “mother as holy-than-thou.” I wanted to give these women in my stories passion, desire, sensuality. They’re humans, not temples.
Eva Woods: It was wonderful to read it in the book! Not least because their relationship shows the gulf between gender and sexuality, and the difference in generations in how we frame and look at these things. As a gender weirdo with a dad who tries hard and a mom who struggles to mom, thank you for this book.
Marisa: Ann mentioned earlier that this book has been on so many must-read lists, and I think it’s so wonderful that writing tackling all of these complicated and less-discussed themes is getting so much attention. Thank you for the work you put into this book!
Eva Woods: Let women be whole people 2020! Nicole I’m going to go devour your first book, and thank you so much for your time.
Marisa: Nicole, thanks so much for joining us tonight, too! This was a great conversation!
Nicole Dennis-Benn: Thank you all for having me and for your great questions!
Photograph of Nicole Dennis-Benn by Ozier Mohammad.