We Can Be Anyone: A Pride Month Conversation with Nicole Dennis-Benn

June 24, 2019 | 6 books mentioned 12 min read

Novelist Nicole Dennis-Benn is having a well-earned cultural moment. Pick up any newspaper or arts publication and you’re likely to see her, or a (glowing) review of her newly released sophomore novel, Patsy. This nuanced, layered story about a mother and daughter touches on issues like motherhood, immigration, family, politics, sexism, say colorism, class, and queerness.

Dennis-Benn is one of the most well-known and highly recognized fiction writers working today, and being a queer Jamaican immigrant informs much of that writing, enriching the literary landscape in the process. In honor of Pride Month, The Millions sat down with Dennis-Benn to discuss Patsy, representation, the idea of home, gender and sexuality, what it means to have access, and what Pride means to her.

The Millions: In a recent Vulture interview, you said that, “The idea of home is so complicated…Both of my homes don’t give me the opportunity to be my whole self. So I feel I’m divided still. Really home has to be within myself.” This disconnect between identity, which is kind of the internal home, and the physical home where one lives is often a crucial aspect of stories about immigrants, queer people, and anyone who feels out of place. Both Patsy and Tru—the mother and daughter from Patsy—have periods of feeling very much not at home in their bodies or in their physical spaces. You also said that, “Love is synonymous with home.” How do you think the idea of home shapes these characters, and how do you think they shape or claim home for themselves in the novel?

Nicole Dennis-Benn: That’s a very good question. Let me start off with Patsy because she’s the matriarch, the first protagonist. Patsy, living in Jamaica, does not feel like she is home, in that she is a working-class Jamaican woman in a society where upward mobility is really hard. In addition to that, she’s a woman finding out that her body is in many ways not her property. She was violated at a very young age, and also feels like she has never been able to claim how she really feels as a woman. She is a mother, but a reluctant one, and in a culture like Jamaica’s, a woman who says to herself, “I do not want to be a mother,” or “I cannot be mother,” is seen as a pariah.

The reason why she looks so hard to Cicely is because Cicely, as a light-skinned woman, represents something that Patsy, a dark-skinned woman, was told to desire. She also looks to Cicely for her escape. Cicely was that person who she clung to, and was willing to move all the way across the ocean to be with, because of that false perception that Cicely chose her and accepts who she is. In that way, she claims Cicely as home.

Meanwhile, you have Tru, the five-year-old daughter who is left behind, who comes of age questioning this abandonment. She’s also coming into her own identity and realizing that her identity doesn’t really match anything that she sees around her as a gender nonconforming person. But Tru doesn’t have a word to describe this. These characters are not calling themselves lesbians or trans or gender nonconforming. It’s not a vocabulary that they have. But I had to write it in so that the reader picks up on it and sees that there’s internal conflict, in addition to the external ones that they are pushing against.

For Tru, I gave her a community that kind of sees her for who she is as gender nonconforming, but doesn’t really chastise her for it. A lot of that is because she’s Sergeant Bigfoot’s daughter; if she wasn’t, that would have probably been a different story altogether. So that’s where I wanted to go with that story line—home is not necessarily the safest place for people. And the home that we think is safe is not necessarily the safest place either. So the next best thing is to find home within yourself.

TM: In the beginning of the book, Patsy feels very burdened by motherhood in a lot of ways, as well as by her home life and her relationship with her own mother. So she kind of has this tunnel vision toward Cicely, because she has this fantasy that it’s going to be this freedom, this life that she can live with Cicely in New York. And it turns out she just kind of trades some limitations for other limitations. This makes her reflect on what she left behind, it seems.

NDB: Yeah, because  you have Cicely now existing in that place in America, trying to mimic this American dream. She’s suffering the abuses of her husband and is really unhappy, and here Patsy is saying “I love you, I can give you more in terms of love.” But Cicely doesn’t want that either. That crushing disappointment is something I really wanted to add to Patsy’s story, to show what’s at stake for her. Because after that, she’s left all alone trying to now fend for herself in this country where she thought she would be happy.

TM: Yes. You also mentioned Tru and how she really struggles with the abandonment of her mother on a daily basis. The fact that both Patsy and Tru are queer or struggle with traditional gender roles feels like this lifeline between the two characters. But it’s also devastating because, within the novel, they never really know this about each other. Can you talk about the decision to have both mother and daughter, the two characters at the heart of the book, deal with different but parallel journeys when it comes to gender and sexuality?

NDB: Yeah. I wanted to explore that irony, that mother and daughter definitely are queer. So they might have been best friends if they had been together—they probably would have been able to talk to each other and sympathize with each other. However, Patsy struggles with the knowledge that the world is not kind to women who dare step out of the box. Girls and women are told to like a certain thing, to be a certain thing. This seeds into Tru when Patsy tells her that she doesn’t want her to be a tomboy, enforcing this burden on Tru and telling her that if she doesn’t police herself now she’s going to be criticized. She tries to protect Tru by telling her this, but it’s a harmful way to do that. Women aren’t provided with a list or guidelines to guide our own daughters or our siblings or friends. We just say what the authority tells us to say, right?

So I wanted to play around with that a little bit where both are leading parallel lives as queer women or queer persons trying to navigate love and loss and relationships. Tru is coming into herself not feeling that she is girl or boy. She’s looking around and noticing that everybody else is so contained in their little boxes. So who can she look to? And of course the one person who she could have looked to is gone.

TM: Tru is one of my favorite characters in Patsy; I loved reading about her and found her journey really compelling. There’s still so few gender nonconforming characters in mainstream fiction, so it’s really refreshing to see such a well-rendered and complex gender nonconforming character like Tru on the page. What was the process of her character development like for you?

NDB: I did interviews. I researched. I went to an all girl’s school in Jamaica, and I always asked myself, what if? Especially when I came here to America. What does a person who isn’t gender conforming feel like wearing those gendered uniforms?

So I reached out to all my friends who are trans or gender nonconforming and I asked them, “What was it like for you in high school, coming out to yourself and feeling that you’re not girl or you’re not boy?” And they said they had to grit their teeth and bear it. For them it was like wearing a costume. So that’s how I started developing Tru, writing her in that way where she says she has to wear her tunic like a costume. And in terms of wrapping her breasts—that was research as well, where I looked on YouTube and I did interviews with trans men.

But more than that action itself is the emotion attached to it. The desperation. Wanting so badly to hide that part of oneself. And so I wanted to get into Tru’s mind, to get into this mentality of a teenage girl growing up in a society where no one else is doing this. No one else has words for it. She herself has no words for it—how devastating and crushing it can feel. I wanted to get into her psychology and also her ultimate depression. Existing in that realm.

TM: Yeah, actually the depression is kind of a throughline between Patsy and Tru also. You write about the Devil’s Cold and this kind of dark depression that consumes them both at different points. Can you talk a little about the portrayal of mental illness and depression in the book?

NDB: Yeah, so that’s another thread; they have depression in common as well. Depression is also biological. Similarly to their queerness, I wanted to tell a story where mother and daughter are grappling with the same thing. Mama G, Patsy’s mother, also suffered with depression, and she was the one who gave it the word Devil’s Cold. For her, the church could solve it. In Jamaican culture, everything is about the church. The church can cure mental illness, the church can cure cancer. Pray about it and it’s all good.

So in a way Mama G imparts that to her daughter, Patsy. Mama G looked to the church to cure her depression or to feel good about herself and her situation as a working-class impoverished Jamaican woman trying to make ends meet. In a sense, Patsy herself was abandoned for the church. She had her mother present, but her mother was absent. When she’s going through these depressive spells, she thinks about all the choices that she doesn’t have. About how helpless she is in society.

Patsy was never really given a choice to be herself, to be anything she wants to be. Depression is not a term we use loosely back home, especially among working-class Jamaicans. She doesn’t know how to treat it. She doesn’t know where to go. Her one attempt to get help in America, when she went to the pharmacy and she asked for Prozac, they told her it has to be prescribed, so she just turned back and walked away. She’s an undocumented immigrant; she doesn’t have that accessibility to mental health care or health care in general. Then there’s Tru suffering back home in Jamaica. She internalizes it even more and she starts cutting herself. That’s how she’s able to cope. In addition to that, I gave her soccer, where she feels that she’s more powerful on the field playing soccer with the boys.

They each have different coping mechanisms, and some of them are harmful coping mechanisms. But they don’t know to walk into a psychiatrist’s office, or they can’t, so I wanted to write it subtly, given that there’s still cultural stigma attached to depression.

TM: Yeah, that really comes across too. And it’s true, the question of access. There’s so little access to mental health resources across the board.

NDB: Exactly, and that came to me as well. Once my grandmother was here for three months and my wife and I were taking care of her. She was just here on a visiting visa, so we had to wait in the emergency room for four hours because she didn’t have papers. And I looked around and there were all these different Caribbean immigrants sitting in there who had been living in the country undocumented for years, and they had to do the same thing. Sit inside that emergency room to be called.

And I said to myself, wow, if anything happened to these people, this is what they have to do. They have to take the day off from work, and most of them don’t even have agency in their own jobs. They have to sit it this place for four hours to be seen by an intern who could care less what the symptoms are. They just say, okay, let me write you a prescription, go. No specialists, nothing. Nothing about mental health. There are so many different psychosomatic symptoms that could be a result of mental illness, but undocumented immigrants are rarely seen in the medical care industry, much less cared for in a nuanced way. So in writing a book like Patsy, I wanted people to see that our assimilation and acculturation process is mentally taxing and if you are a person who is predisposed to mental illness, it could send you over the edge.

TM: Switching gears a little bit, your 2017 Modern Love column, ”Who’s Allowed to Hold Hands?” is one of my favorite of the whole series. In it, you simultaneously paint this beautiful picture of lesbian love, and also write about how important visibility is in the face of homophobia, which exists everywhere—even in supposedly safe places like Brooklyn. Can you talk about how, if at all, increasing visibility and dismantling internalized homophobia informs your writing process? And is that something you actively try to do with your writing?

NDB: Oh yeah. I always think of that little girl in me, that 17-year-old girl, 14-year-old girl, who wanted to see books like mine. I didn’t see it. I wanted to see two women, love between two women on the page. I did not see that, or see anything Jamaican even, on the page. So I write the kind of books I want to see.

The incident I wrote about in that essay for Modern Love was really disheartening, because I came to America, like Patsy, for that freedom to be able to express my love for another woman. I didn’t realize that I’d get the same catcalls or that a man would ever say what that man said to us; he said, “Oh you two are going to hell.” And it really crushed me for a long time, but then I realized as a writer I do have the power to write it on the page so people can see that we’re visible. That we exist. And so the next time they see two women walking hand in hand, they already know it because they already see it in books. They already see it on film, hopefully. They already see it everywhere, so to them it’s not a shock anymore. And that’s really what I’m writing toward. I’m writing toward that place where readers can say, “Oh, this is normal.” They’re not going to pull back anymore when they see two women loving each other on the page. They’ll embrace it, embrace us. And know that we exist, no matter how we look. Black, white, Jewish, Asian, we exist. That’s my goal.

TM: Do you have any recommendations of things you’re reading now that you’re really loving? Or where you first saw yourself represented in books or media, if you did?

covercovercovercoverNDB: Yeah. The first time I saw myself represented in books was in Beloved by Toni Morrison. Also Audre Lorde’s Zami. That book! I read that book once a year. It’s so important to me. She was of immigrant descent, with parents from Grenada, and lesbian. I’d never encountered a woman who spoke so openly about her sexuality and her sexual exploits. Audre, she’s my literary mother. Zami, I’ll put that on everybody’s list. As for what I’m reading now, I recently started Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, and I found his story so similar to mine. I wasn’t born a crime, but existing as a lesbian back home felt similar. I didn’t come out in Jamaica, but I felt like it was such a crime that I couldn’t identify to anyone. Going through his story and seeing how he navigated that with comedy—I found myself laughing along more than anything else. So that was a really nice way to take my mind off of other things. And I love Kiese Laymon’s Heavy. That one floored me. I was not prepared for that weight, the gravity in that book.

TM: It’s aptly named.

NDB: Yes! It was amazing. That’s another book with a motherhood aspect, where there’s another mother who tried her best; it was really interesting. I loved how he explored that relationship between this mother and son, and seeing her flaws. Because people usually look at mothers and they put them on this pedestal and don’t see them as human beings who have flaws, who have desires, who have dreams of their own. So I was really glad that he pared her down, he made us see the human being. That’s similar to what I wanted to do with Patsy—see the human being behind the woman, the person.

coverTM: Yeah. I love that. It really works in Patsy too. Similar to Margot in Here Comes the Sun—these women are so complicated and they make big, painful decisions that have consequences for so many people besides themselves. You’ve talked before about sometimes judging your own characters. There seems to be something inherently queer about these complex characters that challenge readers, and even the writer who is writing them, to question their own assumptions and biases and empathetic capacity. Because queerness seems rooted in this constant questioning and challenging of norms and values.

NDB: Exactly. Right. I’m so happy that you said that because I was just thinking about that myself. When you think about Patsy and Tru, I was skirting around these boxes that people were quick to put them in. Patsy, I would say she’s lesbian, but when you backtrack a little bit there’s also attraction to Barrington, there was attraction to Roy. So Patsy also dabbles, but her ultimate desire is for Claudette and before that Cicely. So what box do you put her in? Or do you put her in a box at all? Same with Tru. In terms of her sexuality, yes she’s attracted to Saskia, but she’s also attracted to Marlan. So again, the lines are very blurred in their attractions and their queerness and that’s what I wanted to do as well—to write around those boxes, the outside of them.

TM: I love that. That seems very queer to me and I love that. Finally, June is Pride Month, so it’s perfect timing for the release of a book with queer protagonists. I don’t know if that was intentional.

NDB: It was really supposed to be Mother’s Day at first.

TM: That makes sense too. Since it’s Pride month, what if anything, does Pride or the concept of Pride mean to you?

NDB: To me it means freedom. My first Pride in America was in New York City. It was the Summer of 2006. And it was an emotional journey for me because I stood there on the sidewalk—I didn’t march because I didn’t have any affiliations back then. So I stood on the sidewalk and I was in awe. Coming down the parade were police officers, fire fighters, nurses, doctors, and I thought, here I am, this girl from Jamaica, standing there saying oh my god, all these gay people existed!

I grew up in an island where you’re told to be wary of the funny people, that these people are not to be associated with. In your imagination you visualize who they are and what they look like, and I never thought I looked like a lesbian. I never thought that my next door neighbor could be a lesbian, or that my friend could be a gay man. I don’t know how to explain this, but it meant so much to me, seeing that there are so many different parts to who we are as far as gayness and queerness. We could be a police officer, we could be a doctor, we could be a lawyer. We are walking down in that parade together. It really touched me. So that’s really what pride means to me—saying to the world that we exist and we don’t have to look a certain way. We don’t have to have a certain profession. We can be anyone. We could be your paramedic. We could be the person that you’re tipping in the parking lot. We can be anyone. And that’s really what we’re saying to the world when we show our faces on that day and we march on those streets. Because you never know who could be watching, who is struggling with that themselves, and seeing us would say “Oh my god, that looks like me! I could be in this parade.” And that’s really what pride is.

is a writer and book critic based in Seattle. She is on Instagram @readrunsea, Twitter @sarahmariewrote, and blogs about books at Pages and Bones.

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