How Nicole Dennis-Benn Paid the Bills While She Wrote the Books


Mike Gardner (Medium) interviews Nicole Dennis-Benn (Here Comes the Sun) about her trajectory from her childhood in Kingston, Jamaica to her present position teaching writing at Princeton University. Here are a few excerpts:

Nicole Dennis-Benn’s debut novel, Here Comes the Sun, was one of NPR’s Best Books of 2016. Before earning her MFA in creative writing, Dennis-Benn worked in public health. She now teaches writing at Princeton University. Her novel Patsy will be out in June 2019. Here’s how she made ends meet.

Medium: Growing up, what did going to work look like?

Nicole Dennis-Benn: I grew up in a working-class community in Kingston, Jamaica. People there are teachers and hotel clerks, police officers or handypeople. It was service work, never anything they really liked. Nobody ever talked about passions — it was always what they had to do to survive. I saw my mother and grandmother going to work in the morning, coming home in the evening, then cooking dinner. That was my first experience seeing what I had to do if I wanted to eat well.

What was expected of you?

Working-class girls like myself had to study chemistry, biology, physics to make it to college and get a name-brand career like lawyer or engineer. I was smart, I was the eldest — it was on me to pull up my family. So when I went to college in New York, I [was expected to] study medicine. Medicine was going to make us upwardly mobile. I wanted to study English literature and creative writing, but I couldn’t afford to think like that. I remember thinking, “You have to be a certain class to really dream the way you wanna dream.” [. . .]

Were you writing?

I was a newly arrived immigrant desperate to talk to somebody, and I didn’t have anybody to talk to. My accent was thick. I felt out of place. The one thing I could turn to was writing my thoughts in a journal.

I loved reading and realized that I could write as well. My English professor said, “You have a talent. You should look at this more seriously.” I was like, “No, I’m really in this for medicine.” [. . .]

Were you writing at Cornell?

Even though I was majoring in medicine, I lived in a house of 10 artists and thought of myself as a poet. I would write poems in the margins of my science textbooks, recite poems at open-mic nights. They were really bad, but they nurtured me as an artist.

While I was at Cornell, Toni Morrison came to campus. I’d desperately wanted to see her since high school. She spoke adamantly about giving yourself time to create and then protecting that space. I remember wanting to be her, but I didn’t have any idea to go about doing what she was doing. [. . .]

Is there any advice you can give someone who may be in the same situation now?

Work to pay the bills, if that’s what you need to survive. And if you have to work, carve a little time and protect it. It doesn’t have to be a 10-hour slot. It could just be 30 minutes. Toni Morrison taught me that. She was an editor for a long time and did the majority of her work on the subway trains.

For full interview, go to

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