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In conversation

I have an affinity for the people who exist on the margins | In Conversation With Nicole Dennis-Benn

Nicole Dennis-Benn
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Hey guys, it’s been a great #SyncityNGLLL season! In a truly star-studded Literary Lords and Ladies year, we’ve had the likes of Okey Ndibe, Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond, Tendai Huchu, EC Osondu, Yemisi Aribisala, and Chika Unigwe, and on Monday, we had yet another literary heavyweight with us. Nicole Dennis-Benn needs no introduction, but for those who don’t know, here are a few things about Dennis-Benn:

Nicole Dennis-Benn is a Jamaican novelist. She was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica. She is a graduate of St. Andrew High School for Girls and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Her debut novel Here Comes The Sun is a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and has won the Lambda Literary Award for Fiction. Here Comes The Sun has been long-listed for the Dublin Literary Award and was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Award, the New York Times Public Library Young Lions Award, and the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. Here Comes The Sun has received best book of the year nods from NPR, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Entertainment Weekly, the San Francisco Chronicle, Dallas Morning News, BuzzFeed, Vice, and Kirkus Reviews. She lives with her wife in Brooklyn, New York. 

Syncity NG: Let’s begin, Nicole. The community is super excited to have you. Speaking of the characters in Here comes the Sun, was there a deliberate attempt to paint all the characters as flawed? There was no ‘normal’ character.

Nicole Dennis-Benn: Yes. As in real life. We all have flaws as human beings. Characters are no different. They should be multi-dimensional.

Image result for nicole dennis benn patsy here comes the sun
Nicole Dennis-Benn | Image via BASHY Magazine

Syncity NG: When I read Here Comes The Sun, each character’s journey travails felt like punches. How did these characters come about? Is there a real life Maxi? Margot? How has the writing of this book helped show the privileged part of the world that these people exist?

Nicole Dennis-Benn: Ha! They’re all from my imagination. No real Margot or Maxi, but there are people existing in Jamaica whose lives aren’t so different from theirs. I’m taking about working-class Jamaicans behind the fantasy, working in the hotel industry. These are the people who work in the hotels with very little compensation. I have an affinity for the people who exist on the margins, the people we never see at all. In real life and in literature.

Syncity NG: Did you get any resistance from your publisher about the amount of Patios in the book? Did you have to fight to keep it?

Nicole Dennis-Benn: No fuss. No fuss at all. Not that I never had setbacks on the past. Earlier in my career, I did. But eventually I realize that it’s more important to be true to my characters and write dialogue in our dialect — of course giving context for those who are unfamiliar with Jamaican patois. Perhaps the only challenge I have now is translation. I’ve yet to have my book translated in Spanish or French and I immediately thought, “oh, the patois!” But my prose is standard English and my book has been translated in Portuguese. So….

Maybe the Jamaica I write is not what the people who vacation there the most (i.e., The Europeans) want to hear? Who knows. But I’ll always write in our dialect. As an artist, my goal is to reclaim what was taken from us: our language.

Syncity NG: Do you think Marlon James’s writing /acceptance in the West made this possible? I ask this because Western audiences are typically hesitant about languages that are ‘not easy to assimilate’ (read African/black/Caribbean languages).

Nicole Dennis-Benn: My book was sold before his blew up. So I don’t think so. I think the universe was just ready to give me my break. I had a good story and it took a brave soul like my agent to sell it.

Syncity NG: There is a method to your writing ‘madness’, if I may. Recurring themes occur in Here Comes The Sun  and in PATSY:  identity, gender, class, sexuality, language…are all your books going to follow this route?

Nicole Dennis-Benn: I write what interests me. I write the people and the stories I wish I saw on the page as a young reader. I never saw myself on the page. I never read books by Jamaicans or Black people until I was in college in America. My friends who went to college in Jamaica got exposure there. Not HS.

Image result for nicole dennis benn patsy here comes the sun
Image via Pimerang

Syncity NG: Talk to us a bit about PATSY? OMG, the reviews have been amazing! We even saw your face on the LinkNYC billboard recently.

Nicole Dennis-Benn: Speaking of experiences I never saw on the page: PATSY. It’s about a woman who was never given much choices or opportunities in life, finally getting to find her own identity in America. She leaves her daughter behind, hoping to reinvent herself. Patsy has high hopes of rekindling the romance with her best friend and former lover, Cicely, but quickly realizes that Cicely has moved on and America isn’t a paradise if she’s undocumented.

The story also follows Tru, Patsy’s daughter, who comes of age, questioning her mother’s abandonment and coming into her own identity.

Ama Udofa (@the_amazingama): I’m particularly interested, Nicole, in how you were able to tie the three main characters in Here Comes the Sun. Especially the Delores character who I believe is the mother of gaslighting. How did these colorful cast of characters come to you?

Nicole Dennis-Benn: In Here Comes The Sun, I know I needed different points of views. Thandi came to me first, followed by Margot and Delores. Margot and Delores ended up being my favorites because like Patsy in my second book, they’re fighting for their human right: to have fair game in life.

Ezekiel Okegbe (@ezekielokegbe): I can relate to this. My mother left when I was two years old. My dad says she was wicked; I feel the same way. But I also feel she was strong enough to leave what was burning her.

Nicole Dennis-Benn: Exactly. There are two sides to a story. I’m sorry you had to go through this.  That’s why I wanted to write from Tru’s perspective too. There’s a whole lot of resentment that comes with the abandonment of a parent.

Mystique Syn (@mystiquesynn): You are well publicized! It’s amazing. Who/what is responsible?
Good writing? Good PR? Hardworking agent? Being a ‘minority’ writer? Being one of the few Caribbean-American writers?
Also, how do you manage to win so many awards?

Nicole Dennis-Benn: I’d say the first three that you stated. You do the hardest work of writing a good book and others will catch on and do their best to help you sell it. It’s not [always] about who you are. It’s about your talent and the work you put into the project.

Ezekiel Okegbe (@ezekielokegbe ): What are the responses on your new novel PATSY,  a mother leaving her daughter behind only for her selfish interest?

Nicole Dennis-Benn
Nicole Dennis-Benn Image via The New York Times

Nicole Dennis-Benn: The “selfish” reason why PATSY left is exactly what made it a story I could not let go. We’ve been socialized as women to be selfless and maternal. So I pondered the reality of a woman who is no such things. Yes, it was hard to write at times, but oddly liberating.

Moje Ikpeme: (@mojeikpeme): Hello Nicole! How did you get here? Broad question, yes, but what were the biggest setbacks and lessons learned in becoming “The Nicole [Dennis-Benn]”.

Nicole Dennis-Benn: Biggest setbacks? Rejection. Before I was a writer I was an outsider. I was a dark skin working-class girl from Vineyard Town who was gay. I knew the world wouldn’t [readily]accept me. Somehow those personal rejections prepared me for the professional ones as a writer. I learned early that not everyone has to like me for me to be alright with myself. It’s that side of me that allows me to take risks. Write the things that are hard to write and be the person people try hard to make sense of.

Moje Ikpeme (@mojeikpeme): Another question, Nicole. By way of professional advice to young writers looking to build a career as writers, what would you tell them?

Nicole Dennis-Benn: You have to be the biggest advocate for yourself. There will be instances when you yourself will have to know your worth and show others. So trust what you do. Rejection is a part of the game. No matter how senior you are as a writer. Persistence is the key to surviving, even when your foot is in the door.

Ama Udofa (@the_amazingama): Okay.  So, earlier this year, you hinted on IG that two characters from HCTS would return in PATSY.  PATSY is yet to be released in Nigeria, so I’ve not read it. However, I’d like to know why you wanted them to return. Also, if I could hazard a guess?

Nicole Dennis-Benn: A world exists inside my head. Characters will return in subsequent books. The two characters from Here Comes The Sun who return in PATSY were the ones I saw fit to exist in PATSY’s world too. I’ll let others read to see who I’m referring to.

Image result for nicole dennis benn patsy here comes the sun
Image via Repeating Islands

Ezekiel Okegbe (@ezekielokegbe): Your stories are so rare and outstanding, Nicole. How do you end up writing stories that are rarely seen or rarely written. How and where do they come to you, your stories?

Nicole Dennis-Benn: I’m inspired by life. Just living life can trigger a web of stories. Not [just] autobiographical. It could be sensory. I always encourage my students to be present in all aspects of their lives. You’ll be surprised by the gifts life hand you in the form of creativity.

Ama Udofa (@the_amazingama): Final question: What do you think about mentorship, validation and recommendation? I ask this because you have an inspiring grass-to-grace story, and it can be daunting for us younger (unprivileged) writers to get work out there.

Nicole Dennis-Benn: Apply to writing workshops in your area where you can find those mentors. It’s not as easy as sending a random email. Find a good mentor, preferably someone in the field who is open to mentoring you; someone who can cheer you on when you feel like giving up. Someone who can say, “Put that story to rest. start anew, or, “Let me send your work to my agent. No guarantees, though.”

Jacqueline Smith (@working4urself): I’ve just finished reading HCTS. A great read! Was it intentional for you to not purposefully explain what became of Thandi and Charles and for the reader to ‘decide’ or will their fate unfold soon?

Nicole Dennis-Benn: Yes and no. I’m satisfied with [Here Comes The Sun’s] ending because it allows the reader to use their own imagination. I like the idea of leaving endings open. Such is life too. Open ended.  

Syncity NG: Thank you so much for hanging out with us, Nicole.

Nicole Dennis-Benn: It was a pleasure speaking to you all! PATSY will be available in the UK and for order from British Commonwealth countries by July 4th! So Nigeria should be able to have access. Looking forward to Ake Festival this year!  

Syncity NG: And on that note, we have come to the end of the #SyncityNGLLL.

Thank you Synners for joining us. While we wait for PATSY, take a couple of minutes to read our review of Nicole’s phenomenal debut novel Here Comes the Sun here.

Also, imagine a character from here Comes the Sun in the Big Brother Naija House? Read our roundup of 12 famous African book characters we’d totally love to see in Big Brother!

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