Author Interview: Nicole Dennis-Benn

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Kelsey Norris interviews Nicole Dennis-Benn for Libro.fm:

Expertly evoking the jittery streets of New York and the languid rhythms of Jamaica, Patsy weaves between the lives of Patsy and Tru in vignettes spanning more than a decade as mother and daughter ultimately find a way back to one another. We spoke with author Nicole Dennis-Benn about her inspiration, representation in narration, and more.

When Patsy gets her long-coveted visa to America, it comes after years of yearning to leave Pennyfield, the beautiful but impoverished Jamaican town where she was raised. More than anything, Patsy wishes to be reunited with her oldest friend, Cicely, whose letters arrive from New York steeped in the promise of a happier life and the possible rekindling of their young love. But Patsy’s plans don’t include her overzealous, evangelical mother—or even her five-year-old daughter, Tru.

Beating with the pulse of a long-withheld confession, Patsy gives voice to a woman who looks to America for the opportunity to choose herself first—not to give a better life to her family back home. Patsy leaves Tru behind in a defiant act of self-preservation, hoping for a new start. But when Patsy arrives in Brooklyn, America is not as Cicely’s treasured letters described; to survive as an undocumented immigrant, she is forced to work as a bathroom attendant and nanny. Meanwhile, Tru builds a faltering relationship with her father back in Jamaica, grappling with her own questions of identity and sexuality.

Please tell us a little bit about what inspired you to write this book and how this story took shape for you.  I’ve always been inspired to tell the story of the Jamaican working class, especially our women. These are the women I came from. I was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica. My mother was a secretary, my grandmother cleaned restrooms at a dental school, and my great-grandmother was a helper who sold produce at the markets as a side hustle. When my great-grandmother was a young mother, she left my grandmother in the country to come to town in Kingston to work.

Growing up, I never saw myself or these women depicted on the page. I was a precocious child who liked to listen to grown-folk business, and the stories I overheard were more visceral and immediate than the books I was given to read, which were predominantly white and British. I came of age with those stories I overheard from my family and our community that were swapped as gossip, but underneath that were the souls and humanity of my people. I aspire to write our untold stories as women in a society that silenced us, robbed us of our choices, ownership of our bodies, and made us ashamed of our own voices. I wanted to write in defiance of oppression.

In two sentences or less, what’s something that might surprise Libro.fm listeners about your audiobook? For Patsy’s audiobook, I was given more agency. I handpicked Sharon Gordon, a Jamaican actress, to narrate. I wanted somebody who could embody Jamaicans and Patsy herself. I’m very particular about getting the cadence of our language right and there’s nobody better to narrate than a Jamaican. Not that I didn’t enjoy the narration of Here Comes the Sun, which was narrated by Trinidadian actress, Bahni Turpin. I loved it! It’s just that there is something revolutionary about writing in the very language that I was told never to speak while growing up, and to then have another Jamaican read what’s ours out loud. [. . .]

For full interview and audio, go to https://blog.libro.fm/author-interview-nicole-dennis-benn/

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