In the last five days I have driven a little over a thousand miles in a rented Toyota Camry with my two daughters and a large carton of Goldfish crackers. This trip seemed like a good idea when I planned it, but as the date of our departure approached it began to appear increasingly quixotic. For one, the nominal purpose of the trip was to make an author appearance at a book club that I had agreed to visit when I lived in the Bay Area, where it was to be held, and not in Oregon, where I now live. Moreover, the trip was not planned as a straight line. It takes about 10 hours to drive directly from Portland to the Bay Area, but I added several hours to the trip by planning to stop in the town of Alturas, California, to visit my deceased grandparents in the cemetery and spend the night in a historic hotel. (In addition to being quixotic, the trip also seemed like metatextual cuteness, since I had written an entire book about a woman who drives to rural California with a small child in the backseat; it was as if I had decided to insert autobiography where there had been none, and prove my Goodreads detractors correct that the book is artless.)
I decided that the trip was only going to work if I employed all of the tricks that were not available to the book’s protagonist, or to my own parents, who spent a lot of my childhood driving me around in the backseat of a car. I set up an iPad for the older child, a backup tablet for the younger child, positioned the Goldfish carton so that both could reach down into its maw, and for myself downloaded an audiobook of Pride and Prejudice, which I realized I had never read despite knowing its plot from various film properties.
The first leg of the trip was supposed to take around six and a half hours. As the road began to incline up toward the snow-dusted trees of the Willamette pass, Jane got sick (Mrs. Bennett made her go to Netherfield without the carriage), and I stopped to pee on an embankment in sight of the car. I drove white-knuckled and 18 miles an hour over the packed snow at the pass, the soothing voice of Rosamund Pike nudging me onward. We stopped to give thanks and pee at a gas station in Chemult at twilight, which was the advent of Mr. Collins, and he delivered his ill-fated proposal to Elizabeth as we passed the turnoff for Crater Lake with the last bit of pink in the sky. We stopped to pee again in Merrill, and the children crowded in a gas station bathroom with me while I devised an impromptu sanitary napkin out of paper towels and wondered what the Bennett girls did in these moments. Between Ambrose and Hackamore, after Bingley decamped for London without warning, we hit an owl.
At one point in the drive my older daughter, who was watching Cinderella, asked if I was listening to a story too, and I said I was. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Cinderella, and I groaned when I heard the voice of the advisor from the backseat, surveying the array of uglies at the ball: “There must be one who’d make a suitable mother…err a suitable wife!” he says. There are so many moments in the raising of girls where the available cultural materials seem sorely wanting. But then I realized that I was listening to essentially the same story, and that it was probably single-handedly responsible for turning an experience that is objectively unpleasant—long car travel with children in sparsely populated country in the early winter dark—into one of the best times I have had in recent memory.
That first night we sat outside the Niles Hotel in twenty-degree weather waiting to be let in, the only guests in a drafty century-old building with period furnishings, and then the girls cozied up together in an ancient bed, and I re-read Of Human Bondage, which I had brought as my physical book. I wondered what was happening with Lizzie and Darcy and Bingley and Jane. I knew what would happen at the end of the book but I could hardly wait to get back into the car to listen to it.
I don’t know if it was the novelty of the trip—Portland to Alturas, Alturas to Petaluma, Petaluma to Oakland to Davis, Davis to San Francisco to Menlo Park—or the iPad, or Pride and Prejudice, but something has encouraged all of us to rise to the occasion this week. As we passed familiar sights I was glad we made the trip: the life-size religious tableaux set up by the In Search of Truth cult in Canby, California, the long-awaited McDonald’s in Burney, the glory of Shasta rising up on a clear winter day. My beloved aunt died in October and I found myself wanting to call and tell her about the things that we saw in her hometown. The importance of aunts is a theme in Pride and Prejudice; aunts as confidants and sources of wisdom. When I was younger my aunt let me smoke in her backyard and tell her my adventures.
This week in the car stands in stark contrast to the last week I spent alone in the company of my children, which was when we moved to Portland at the end of July. The move has turned out to be the best possible thing for our family, but that week, when it was hot and we were in a new city with no furniture and nothing to do, was one of the worst weeks I can remember. My most vivid memory from that time is chasing a 22-month-old around a Fred Meyer grocery store, sobbing on the phone with my former Primary Care Practitioner in San Francisco, with whom I have always had a very cordial and impersonal relationship, to see if there was anything she could prescribe me to get through this experience (she reluctantly but kindly prescribed me Prozac, which I failed to pick up from my HMO before we were switched over to a PPO, and for all I know is still sitting there in a pigeonhole marked K).
The move is one of the reasons I feel as though I haven’t read anything this year. But as in every year, I did read things. Before we moved I read The Revisioners and Women Talking and Lanny and Heavy and The Unpassing, all of which made me weep for different reasons. I read The Parisian and The Old Drift, which are both long and wonderful and address history and which I envied for their beauty and complexity and verve. I know I read other things, but the spring is a blur of thinking about whether to move and discussing the particulars of the move and preparing for the move and then doing the move itself.
Post-move, when my children started camp and daycare and I was alone in the empty house with a number of home improvement projects and a book project I lacked the wherewithal to do, I opened a box of galleys I had previously felt too burned-out and defeated to read. I read Normal People and felt like the raw edges of the preceding weeks smoothed over. I read The Altruists. I went to the library and got a library card and read Loving Day on the porch and on the bed my poor husband put together by himself after going to a new job and coming home to find me crying after a day at the indoor playground. These books helped me feel pleasure in things again.
When I was settled enough to get to work, I read The Smartest Guys in the Room. I purchased and read the “Women of Enron” issue of Playboy, a real object that exists and was produced by our society. I tried to remember the excellent things I had already read for this project, back before moving consumed everything. Before we moved I had read The Oil and the Glory at a table of the Ingleside branch of the SFPL, and an anthology called Working for Oil. At the library of the beautiful Morrison Reading Room at UC Berkeley I read The Oil Road. (It occurs to me now that I am trying to write a book that combines what all these authors know about extractive industries and business culture and imperialism with what Jane Austen knew about the women of her acquaintance sitting together in a room, and I am still not sure how to do this.)
When I adjusted to the fact of our new city, when we got a bookshelf and a dresser, I could look back and see clearly how anxious and unhappy I had been for a lot of the last year. Oddly, work trips, which seemed like a pain in the ass at the time of their planning and execution, were some of the moments that I remembered most fondly, and they were lonely and strange times. In May I traveled to Miami for a work thing and sat at a restaurant alone reading Cities of Salt in the sea breeze, glowing with happiness at the luxury of solitude and an immersive novel. Over two solo road trips to Los Angeles, also for book stuff, I listened to the entirety of Oil!, finishing it just before hitting the In ‘n Out burger at Kettleman City on the way to San Francisco. In Los Angeles I sat at a bar and read The Sea, The Sea for the hundredth time.
Every book that I’ve managed to finish since we moved feels like it helped me regain my equilibrium in some crucial way. Before Halloween, I read Chimerica, which is a book that sounds slightly batshit (it has a talking giant lemur who is the subject of a court case) and turns out to be one of the smartest fictional engagements with the American legal system that I’ve ever read. I read Perfect Tunes with a whiskey sour my husband made me, the children asleep in bed, and I felt young and happy. I read American War on the plane to California to see my aunt for the last time. After Halloween—which since having children marks the start of a period that lasts until mid-January and during which I don’t get anything done due to holiday obligations and inevitable winter illness—I lay on the couch reading In the Dream House at nearly one go while my children watched shit on the iPad and my husband made our dinner in the toaster oven (we were at this time living out of the dining room). It feels peculiar to have such a singularly enjoyable reading experience from a book that arises from someone else’s pain, but that’s one major paradox of reading, and Carmen Maria Machado is so talented that it is pure pleasure to be in that swiftly-moving book. I read Giving up the Ghost, which is also pure pleasure rooted in someone’s pain, Hilary Mantel with her treacherous endometrial cells and her subtly idiosyncratic prose. I read How Much of These Hills is Gold, which is gorgeous and close to my heart because it is about a quixotic trip through California, undertaken for family and personal reasons.
I never canceled the book club thing in California I think because I wanted to tell myself that moving to Oregon would be just like moving to another neighborhood, and that I would continue to be able to access my family and friends and the landscapes of California with total ease. This road trip has made it clear that it is not the case. There’s the distance, which is vast but surmountable; more than that I’m realizing how difficult it is to visit your grown-up friends when you have children in tow. This is a trip where I’m seeing very few friends, despite my breezy assurances when we moved that “I’ll come back all the time.” This realization is one in a series of recalibrating lessons, but I’m in a better frame of mind lately to receive it. I’m typing this at two in the morning in my grandmother’s house in the Bay Area, and my children are sleeping, and they have been such good girls, and I have been such a comparatively calm and pleasant mother to them on our strange road trip, maybe because it was one I conceived of and undertook entirely on my own steam, or maybe it was because Pride and Prejudice made me happy. Tomorrow we will start the long drive back home; I downloaded Sense and Sensibility to ease the way.
This year for me seemed sure to be defined by the publication, in May, of my first book, which disrupted absolutely everything around it, like a bowling ball dropped onto a spring mattress in one of those 1990s commercials. In this metaphor, the mattress is my life. The bowling ball is a bowling ball. It crashed down. I quit my day job; I lost my mind; I obsessed for months over how to most effectively present as an author; I changed writing and eating and travel habits; I met a thousand people I’d never met before. Reading, too, was altered.
Going on tour gave me hours in transit to spend with books. On airplanes, I read Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, which was laser-focused, jaw-dropping, exquisite, and Normal People by Sally Rooney, which was so sexy and engaging I wanted to scream. (Reading Conversations with Friends at home afterward, I felt the exact same way.) On trains, I read The Affairs of the Falcóns, Melissa Rivero’s claustrophobic, pitch-perfect debut novel, and Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, Patrick Radden Keefe’s deep dive into the IRA. I read The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden in a hotel room and then had strange, vivid dreams about magicians all night. I finished Women Talking by Miriam Toews on the subway and wept so hard that my face lotion ran into my eyes and made them burn.
I read books to review and books to blurb. I read books I’d avoided while writing my debut (Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor, which turned out wider, wilder, and more experimental than I’d dreamed) and books I hope might inform future work (The Reckonings by Lacy M. Johnson, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon). I even read a book about books: Before and After the Book Deal by Courtney Maum, which was the invaluable publishing guide I wish I’d had in 2018 or in 2017, or had been issued to me in the hospital when I was born.
In the midst of real-life challenges—political horrors, personal reckonings—books gave solace. They contained and named our daily pains; they showed how hard it can be to be alive, and how beautiful, too, how precious, how strange. Nicole Chung’s memoir, All You Can Ever Know, shared the most tender and aching truths about family. Sarah DeLappe’s play, The Wolves, captured the raw, vicious experience of girlhood and of growing up. Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel Eileen, with its vomiting, shitting, and completely captivating narrator, exposed the brutality of the body. Ling Ma’s novel, Severance, shed new light on late capitalism. Two romance series I gobbled up this year, Alyssa Cole’s Reluctant Royals and Melonie Johnson’s Sometimes in Love, advanced visions of a better, fairer, and sexier world, where everyone might find their happily ever after.
Finally, I read Emily Oster’s Expecting Better and Cribsheet, because I got pregnant in 2019. The year then redefined itself, making a fetus, a heartbeat, and folic acid supplements the most disruptive things in my life by far. A first baby—nothing to stress or obsess about there, right? No bowling-ball-like upheaval? And I can anticipate that 2020, with an infant, will offer plenty of time for more reading? How wonderful.
Each year begins with a post-midnight call from my parents. I expect such a call this coming year, but it will be sans one parent. Perhaps when my father calls, my grieving mind will play one of those mean tricks it’s been playing since March, and for a hopeful half-second I’ll wait for Mom to come on the line with her buoyant voice full of new year’s wishes.
Last January, she wished that all my hopes and dreams surrounding my forthcoming short story collection would become real for me. She knew that my hopes and dreams—the ones that don’t involve my family members alive and prospering—are all tied up in the books I’m writing. This also means, by extension, all my hopes and dreams are tied to the books I’m reading. And what greater signifier of our eventual end is there than a TBR pile? How it mocks and taunts. How its very existence is a reminder that reading all the books one desires to read is a project no human can even possibly come close to completing.
When I think of the books I read this year, I can’t help but think of the books my mother never got a chance to read. I think of the shifting stack of books on her nightstand. I believe they are still there as if in memorial to her reading life. My mother loved the prolific romance novelist, Beverly Jenkins. Surely there were many of her novels my mother missed. I’ve never read a romance novel, know little of the genre, but after my mother passed, I took a Beverly Jenkins novel from my parents’ basement shelf, to read, but also as something tangible of her to hold since I can no longer hold her hand, but I have yet to open it.
For Christmas last year, my father bought my mother Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, but in her illness, I don’t believe she ever got a chance to read it. And there is my own book that I taunted her with in galley form. Look it exists! Hold it, but please don’t read! I didn’t want her to see the typos of the galley, to have to turn the inferior flimsy paper. The pictures are blurry in the galley and would, I knew, look better in the finished copy. I was in the midst of making small, but consequential sentence-level changes. My child had put on his clothes, but he had not yet washed his face nor combed his hair.
The final version, I told her, would be here in a few weeks. She didn’t have a few weeks. Yes, Ma, many good things did happen with my book, many of those dreams did become true, but because you are not here it all means less. I wonder if she would have enjoyed my book. She would have complained about the profanity. She would have smirked, and shaken her head at the book’s fantastical conceits and said, I don’t know where you get this wild imagination. It’s not so wild though. I want an imagination so wild it conjures her at will. That’s the sort of fantasy life afforded only to the characters in the stories we tell.
Speaking of the stories we tell, I’ve been telling myself and others that I was reading Ocean Vuong’s excellent novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous before and after my mother passed. In my recollection, as my mother faded I was comforted by the relationship between Little Dog, the main character, and his mother. I have strong memories of sitting on my bed the morning after my mother’s passing using the poetry of the prose to heal my grief-scarred mind. That memory can’t possibly be true. I picked up Vuong’s book at the AWP conference more than a week after my mother died. What’s true though is how beautifully at peace the novel made me feel when I had little but the tumult of sadness.
I don’t keep a log of my reading and haven’t for many years; though I did in the years I tried and failed to read one hundred books. I will forget some. Others, possibly belong to the previous year. My TBR pile grows. But I’m ending the year as I began it, with Maurice Ruffin’s We Cast a Shadow. I read it out of excitement and anticipation early in the year and now, I read it as a professor eager to share a good book with his students. I bought my niece a copy of Lilliam Rivera’s Dealing in Dreams so we could read together. And we traded e-mails about the plot twists, the characters and the general joys of the narrative. Similarly, my son and I read Jason Reynolds’s Look Both Ways and found ourselves lost in laughter. Alongside my wife, I ready Kiese Laymon’s Heavy—honesty in black, carefully laid.
Because short stories make my world go around: Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man (begun in 2018, I believe); Ivelisse Rodriguez’s Love War Stories; Camille Acker’s Training School for Negro Girls; Bryan Washington’s Lot; Mickey Hess’s The Novelist and the Rapper (also his A Guest in the House of Hip-Hop) and ZZ Packer’s Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. Poetry likewise makes my world revolve, but in the opposite direction: Kwame Dawes’s City of Bones; Jericho Brown’s world-shaking The Tradition; Nicole Sealey’s Ordinary Beast; Reginald Dwayne Betts’s Felon and his earlier Bastards of the Reagan Era (the cover of Felon is white and Bastards is black, and the books are like that, night and day; read them together and watch a whole world build around you). I read the autobiographies of William Wells Brown, a formerly enslaved man who went on to write several slave narratives, and I wept for the pressure white supremacy and the peculiar institution put on an individual, the way it made him write his tragedies as comedy to entertain indifferent white people. Jess Row’s White Flights redefined many of my assumptions about how race works in white fiction.
I served as a judge for the Tournament of Books and read Heidi Sopinka’s The Dictionary of Animal Languages, Lydia Kiesling’s Golden State, Michael Odaajte’s Warlight and Oyinkan Braithwaite’s (hilarious) My Sister the Serial Killer. When Toni Morrison passed in the summer, I was reading her essay collection, The Source of Self-Regard, and like nearly each time I’ve read a work by Morrison, I left elevated by the intellect of the author. This time though I also left with a great sadness—my mother was gone and the woman who is a literary mother to so many of us had likewise left the earth.
I’ve read far less this year than I typically do. Not by choice, really, but by circumstances. There just didn’t seem to be enough time, but when is it ever enough time to read all of what one sets forth to read? So, the little reading I did get to do really stuck with me. Maybe what they say about less is more is true.
Kiese Laymon’s memoir, Heavy, was beautiful devastation in prose. I raged, I thought, I cried. I read it all on one cold Saturday, devoting the day to those words, taking my time to feel all it does so masterfully. Alicia Elliott’s A Mind Spread Out on the Ground and Jaquira Díaz’s Ordinary Girls were another set of memoirs that were everything to me. Each one I set aside a full day to read. These writers demanded such time and attention from me, and I am glad I made time for them.
I read the New Directions reissue of Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann’s 1971 novel Malina. A very strange book, an oddly composed and written book, but one that is deeply moving for how it represents obsession and how those we love the most can hurt us the most. I am hooked on Bachmann and all I look forward to in 2020 is reading more of her work.
I encountered essays and reviews by Tobi Haslett and I am downright obsessed. Haslett’s fabulously incisive and bitingly spot-on analysis of contemporary literature and art production I can read for days.
Took the time to reread books that continue to awe and inspire me like Jamaica Kincaid’s My Brother; the poems, plays, and essays collected in Assotto Saint’s unfortunately out of print Spells of a Voodoo Doll; Justin Torres’s We the Animals; and Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse.
The Grave on the Wall by Brandon Shimoda gave me a poetic and stunning memoir about his search to find out more about his grandfather who lived through Japanese internment in the United States. I continue to recommend this book to everyone and anyone.
Jess Row’s White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination is an impressive book of literary criticism, cultural analysis, and memoir that raises many important questions about whiteness and literature in the United States. My mind is still reeling and working through all the ideas it generates.
One book that I will never forget from this year is Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval. A marvelously written—innovative in its use of research—and just an all-around radical book we all should be reading. It’s a book that gave me genuine hope this year.
Not enough reading for me this year, but what little I did has left its lasting impression and a multitude of stunning writers to continue reading on into 2020, and beyond.
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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?
NDB: 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.
TM: 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.