Le Jardin - podcast littéraire

Faire entendre sa voix : rencontre avec la romancière jamaïcaine Nicole DENNIS-BENN - interview bilingue FR-ENG

October 07, 2022 François-Xavier ROBERT Season 2 Episode 22
Le Jardin - podcast littéraire
Faire entendre sa voix : rencontre avec la romancière jamaïcaine Nicole DENNIS-BENN - interview bilingue FR-ENG
Show Notes Transcript

“Mes histoires doivent aider le lecteur à transcender sa propre compréhension du monde, à se mettre dans la peau de quelqu’un d’autre, et à voir ce que c’est que d’être cette autre personne.”

écrit sur la classe ouvrière jamaïcaine, sur l’immigration, sur la réinvention de soi, sur l’identité sexuelle ou de genre, sur la vie d’une femme lesbienne, sur la maternité…L’autrice, née en Jamaïque, qui a émigré, construit sa vie aux États-Unis d’Amérique, et, rencontré un succès bien mérité avec ses deux premiers romans, possède une plume d’une grand fluidité et développe une langue très vivante, qui lui permettent de traiter de toutes ces thématiques, et bien d’autres encore, de manière très naturelle et en donnant envie de plonger dans l’univers de ses personnages.
Je l’ai rencontrée lors du Festival America de Vincennes qui fêtait ses 20 ans cette année.
La voix française du doublage est celle de Meropi MORFOULI.

Un version originale 100% en anglais est disponible à la fin de la version doublée, pour l’écouter, rendez-vous directement à la 27e minute.
The original version of this interview, a fully english one, is available, go directly to 27:10.


“I was always reading, so I wrote my own stories. I thought it was a fun activity! But when I migrated to the United States at 17, I was really homesick. Writing actually became a comfort to me. I started writing poetry, I started writing longhand…just anything that will come to my journal.”

“I am writing for myself first and foremost. I am writing books I would have wanted to read.”

“I think teaching writing is like writing which is why I opted to do it.”

“It is very useful to know the rules, before you break them!”

“I wanted to see all myselves on the page: I am a lesbian, dark-skinned working-class Jamaican woman. And I wanted to see that!”

“What is the American Dream? It does not exist. It is a fantasy.”


2016 : Here Comes the Sun / Rends-moi fière, Éditions de l’Aube, traduit par Benoîte Dauvergne
2019 : Patsy / 2022 : Si le soleil se dérobe, Éditions de l'Aube, traduit par Benoîte Dauvergne

C'est le vingt-deuxième épisode du podcast littéraire LE JARDIN.
Si vous l'avez aimé, partagez ce podcast avec vos amis, laissez un commentaire (ou une note) svp.
Rendez-vous pour le prochain épisode !


Conception et interview : François-Xavier ROBERT
Doublage voix française : Meropi MORFOULI
Musique d’intro : chants d’oiseaux et morceau “Roboto” mixé par Julien Haurant
Extrait d’intro : Plastic flowers par Electronic-Senses, from Pixabay
Court extrait musical : Kingston, Music by Krishnananda108 from Pixabay


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Merci d'écouter le podcast littéraire Le Jardin !

[00:00:00.370] - François-Xavier ROBERT
Bonjour, Nicole Dennis-Benn. I'm very happy to welcome you to this podcast today.

[00:00:06.910] - Nicole Dennis-Benn
Thanks for having me.

[00:00:08.420] - François-Xavier ROBERT
Here we are in Vincennes for the festival called America, and let me just briefly introduce you to our listeners. So, Nicole Dennis-Benn, you are from Jamaica. You are born and raised in Jamaica.

[00:00:23.470] - Nicole Dennis-Benn

[00:00:24.070] - François-Xavier ROBERT
But now you live in the United States of America?

 [00:00:27.430] - Nicole Dennis-Benn

 [00:00:28.270] - François-Xavier ROBERT
You are teaching creative writing in Princeton university. We will talk about this later. You live in Brooklyn?

[00:00:39.130] - Nicole Dennis-Benn
Yes, with my wife and two boys, two sons.

 [00:00:42.840] - François-Xavier ROBERT
Perfect. I have the right information. But most of all, you are the successful writer of two novels. So in 2016, the first one was called : "Here Comes the sun". The French title is "Rends-moi fière", and in 2019, the new book is called "Patsy". The French translation is "Si le soleil se dérobe" and it has been published this year here in France.

[00:01:14.600] - Nicole Dennis-Benn
Beautiful translation, by the way.

[00:01:17.510] - François-Xavier ROBERT
So in France, your editor is les Éditions de l'Aube, and the translator is Benoîte Dauvergne. 

[00:01:28.950] - Nicole Dennis-Benn

[00:01:29.890] - François-Xavier ROBERT
So my first question would be, why did you start writing? What was the impetus?

[00:01:41.800] - Nicole Dennis-Benn
First of all, I started writing in high school. I doubled it in writing stories. I was a reader, a big reader. I read Sweet Valley Twins; The Baby-Sitters Club; books by Nancy Drew. So I was always reading and so I would write my own stories. So it was really fun. I thought it was a fun activity. But when I migrated to the United States at 17, I was really homesick, and writing actually became a comfort to me. I started writing poetry. I started writing longhand, just anything that would come to mind in my journal. And that was how I was able to keep some sense of self and be less lonely. So that's when I started writing seriously, I thought. But I showed no one. It was just me writing for myself, just to cure my homesickness. And I wrote secretly throughout college, throughout graduate school, throughout a career in public health, and until I met my wife, who was then my girlfriend, and she saw that I was writing in secrets. And she said to me: "Nicole, are you a writer or a researcher? You seem more like you're a writer, so why don't you take it seriously?" And that was a real challenge to me because, first of all, I'm an immigrant. So as an immigrant, being a doctor is important. Doctor, lawyer, engineer, those are the careers. And so it was hard for me to wrap my mind around writing. Who makes money from writing? Could it be a career? I knew none of that. And so my wife encouraged me. She said, well, do you know MSA programs, masters in Fine Arts. And I had no idea. So I took a leap of faith. I got myself into writing workshops, and then I applied and got in, and that was something that was important to me because I'm like, wow, after all these years, I couldn't believe that I'm finally doing something I love. And I ran with it.

[00:03:51.630] - François-Xavier ROBERT
And with all what you have already written from this early stage until the day you decided to write a book, could you use all this material you have accumulated so far?

[00:04:07.410] - Nicole Dennis-Benn
Yes, good question. When I started writing, honestly, I started grabbing from what I know, as Tony Morrison says, to write what you know. And I started writing about the women I grew up with. I started writing about the community, I started writing about the people, working-class Jamaicans. And I thought it was important to put our stories out there because I grew up respecting shame, saying, don't talk about your business in public, make sure to keep our family secrets secrets. And so I think I'll start writing against that, but also incorporating us as a people on the page. And then, of course, most of my storylines and plots are definitely fiction. I just build my imagination around the people who I imagine on the page, who are loosely based on people I've seen or known, or sometimes I would walk in the streets and I kind of sometimes imagine what somebody's life would be like, and I just dump it on the page and so it just became something bigger than I imagined it to be. So I love having these ideas. And one of the things that stood out to me, especially as I was writing "Here Comes the sun", which was my first novel, it was about the tourism industry and displacing working class Jamaicans.

[00:05:26.350] - Nicole Dennis-Benn
And I thought to myself, I wanted to write a story about that, because, again, we don't talk about that. People see Jamaica as paradise, which it is. It's beautiful, and I encourage anyone to visit. It's just that sometimes the people who are working at the background, they get dismissed. So these are working class grooms, who are the maids, the desk clerks, the people who clean the floors, all these things. People are ignored and displaced out of their own communities. And I wanted to shed light on that. In addition to that, writing about women's sexuality and, saying, parallel in that, the exploitation of the land itself for the exploitation of women's bodies, and, of course, opening up our post colonial scars, as you call it. I know I said a lot in terms of ideas to put on that page, but I did it in a way where I could speak through my characters. Not in a direct way, but in a way, I can speak through my characters; in a way I can express my dissatisfaction with home. And I felt safe enough being away from home to write about home, because I could look back with a critical lens and have the confidence to now talk about it in my novels.

[00:06:42.950] - Nicole Dennis-Benn
Same with "Patsy", my second novel. I wanted to tap into immigration and motherhood. And that was my way to do it. Once again. Without beating a reader over the head. But helping them to understand what it's like to be a woman who wants to leave her family behind. A woman who does not want to be a mother. A woman who is also queer. Who wants to come to the United States to have a romance with a woman she loves. But feeling that this is the freedom to do it. This is a place where she will be uploaded, mobile, but being let down in huge ways. And then I wanted to document what it's like to be the child of someone, a child who was left behind. So I have Tru, that secondary character, what it's like for her to be questioning her mother's abandonment. So those are the things that when I'm writing, I'm like, okay, what am I writing against? Why am I writing? And keep reminding myself that, over and over again, as I go through the books. Because sometimes novels can be so huge, and sometimes you just want to give up.

[00:07:45.760] - Nicole Dennis-Benn
But these are the questions I have to ask myself to continue going: "why am I writing? What am I writing for? And most importantly, for me, what is the story about?". Because sometimes it could be: "I'm a great writer. I could probably write with language, and it's language". But for me, my stories have to be about something. It has to help the reader to transcend their own understanding of the world, to step inside somebody else's shoes and see what it's like to be that person.

 [00:08:19.230] - François-Xavier ROBERT
Yeah. And it's true that your books are very rich. There are a lot of topics. Like, in the second one, "Patsy", you've got immigration, you've got a queer woman trying to reinvent herself in another country. You've got the working class Jamaica, the American Dream...There are a lot of different things in this novel. So who are you writing for, who is the reader you want to talk to?

 [00:08:56.670] - Nicole Dennis-Benn
Very good question. I'm writing for myself, first and foremost. I'm writing books that I would have wanted to read. I mentioned that I'm a big reader, and I remember wanting to see myself in books, hear myself in books in terms of my accent, the way I speak for a very long time, that did not happen. And so I want to now write for myself. But also, I can imagine that young girl who was like me growing up in Jamaica, where most of the books that we read weren't written by us. They were written by people coming, spending the day, and maybe just writing about a Jamaica that they think exists. And so I want to touch her or him, a little girl, a little boy who wants to write, say, Well, I have the power to tell my own story as well. See, this author is doing it. I can as well. And so I often think about that and then on the larger scope, hoping that, yes, I can also inspire or touch the lives of other people who are reading the books, because I talk about themes that you don't have to be Jamaican or woman or queer to get it, to understand it. Everybody has fallen in love. Some people experience love or lost, grief, acceptance, and also questioning identity. And so when they see that on the page, they'll realize: "oh, I've been there!", regardless of who the characters are. And so that's how my work come off.

 [00:10:38.340] - François-Xavier ROBERT
I've read that you allow yourself to use the Jamaican patois.

 [00:10:43.880] - Nicole Dennis-Benn

 [00:10:44.440] - François-Xavier ROBERT
And that was something important for you. Can you tell us more about this point?

 [00:10:49.240] - Nicole Dennis-Benn
Definitely. I want to write truly about who Jamaicans are. Once again, specifically working class Jamaicans. Two Jamaicans would not be talking to each other unobserved, using standard English. We'll slip into our patois. I wanted to stay true to that. And so I was so happy when the French translator Benoîte Dauvergne kept that, and I was really happy about that because one of the worries with maintaining identity in language is that you would hear people say, well, it's not translatable, and that is devastating to the author. But at the same time, I don't want to lose that. I want to actually be as authentic as possible.

[00:11:37.540] - François-Xavier ROBERT
One point we mentioned in the beginning was that you are teaching creative writing.

[00:11:42.570] - Nicole Dennis-Benn

[00:11:43.040] - François-Xavier ROBERT
And it's something that it's developing in France, here, but it's not so well known, it's very new. So I'd like to know more about it. Is it influencing you? You are teaching, so of course you have many techniques. And how does it work? Is it like a circle? Like you are teaching, but then people teach you too?

 [00:12:13.730] - Nicole Dennis-Benn
I think teaching is like writing, which is why I opted to do it. I don't think I could have remained in public health and write. I mean, yes, some people have to do it to pay the bills. For me, teaching writing is important because it helps my craft. So I'm teaching my students, and sometimes my students teach me as well, in terms of craft. And it also helps you to still stay in the mindset of a writer. It's so easy to go off into the world and not touch the work. I feel like my teaching writing challenges me to sit with the work because sometimes I'll be speaking, for example, about some elements of craft and I'll be thinking: "oh, we all make the same mistakes". There are things that we want to find out in our own writing. There are things, sentence structure, that sometimes I'll tell my students and then I remember: "oh, it's important to remember all of that". But I also tell my students it's important to also break the rules, because that's when the story really comes forward, when you dare to break the rules. But it's really helpful to know the rules first before you break them.

[00:13:25.880] - Nicole Dennis-Benn
So keeping that in mind, it's always a great reminder when I'm teaching it to also remind myself to do these things. So I enjoy it. I really love teaching as much as I love writing. Yeah, it's one of the fun activities, seeing young students just come alive. Because another thing that I look for in my classrooms in college is that I look for those kids who are doing other things that their parents want them to do. "Engineer", I remember myself, I was a young premed student, and all I needed was encouragement. I needed somebody to say: "you're a great writer"; "how about you continue doing this?". And the truth is, one professor did tell me that in college, and I didn't listen to him because, like I said, I just couldn't think or couldn't perceive doing anything with writing if I'm going to be a doctor. I was like, oh, how does that work? And not knowing any writer...So I serve as a mentor for my students. Anyone wanting that help to get into writing themselves and saying it's possible, it's really possible for showing that to them as well.

[00:14:39.520] - François-Xavier ROBERT
You mentioned the term "author mindset" before. I like that expression. In your life is there a writer's routine? Do you have a "perfect day" as a writer? What's a "perfect day" in your experience?

[00:14:59.370] - Nicole Dennis-Benn
When you can sit and write forever! And then write good scenes, that you won't delete afterwards. I don't think any writer really has a perfect routine. Let me say I attempt to wake up early in the morning at 04:00 A.m.. That's because I'm a mother. And so my sons, they tend to wake up around 7:30. So I try to get as much in as possible between waking up, making coffee, sitting down, trying to motivate myself to write, knowing that this is my quiet time and I can think and write, and that's a perfect day. It doesn't happen all the time. Sometimes I oversleep. Sometimes my sons wake up as early as I wake up. So I'll be off at 04:00 A.m., and then next thing I know, one is crying at 4:30, and that's it, because they're not going back to sleep. And so after I accept that this is not going to be a perfect day, and try my best to balance the two. One thing I have now is: my wife and I have a babysitter come in, and I utilize her help. So I'll sit in in my private office space and write, and try to write as much as possible during that time, knowing that, well, this is the only time slot I get from 10:00 a.m. to 06:00 p.m. I write as much as possible, but not every day is a good writing day.

[00:16:29.540] - Nicole Dennis-Benn
So accepting that but back to the question, why am I writing? When I start thinking about that question, I motivate myself to finish the project, knowing that this is important and yes, life happens, but I can write around it. And so that's what I'm learning.

[00:16:48.400] - François-Xavier ROBERT
So we already talked about some of the themes in your books. One, of course, very important thing I'd like to discuss with you is the lesbian visibility, the lesbian life. Because it's true that lesbians are not so visible even in the LGBTQ community. We talk a lot about gay, but sometimes lesbian are a little bit aside. So was it important for you?

[00:17:22.630] - Nicole Dennis-Benn
Definitely. It was definitely important. It was as important as writing working class Jamaicans on the page, because that's a part of my identity as well. And as a reader who wanted to see myself on the page, I wanted to see all myselves on the page. So lesbian, dark skinned, working class Jamaican woman, I wanted to see that. So of course, there are going to be characters who represent that for me. I also wanted to play around with the fact that we're queer or lesbians, also gay, but we also have a whole story, a whole life besides that. So if you notice most of my stories, the process is not driven by that, by them being lesbians or queer, I should say, because Patsy wouldn't call herself a lesbian, neither would Margo in "Here Comes the sun". It's a whole complication with the language in terms of how my characters would identify. But I wanted the central story to be about what they have to do to survive, be it in Jamaica or be it in the United States. And so that's really where the crux of the story is. But it just happened to be queer. But it's important for that visibility because I do want the readers to come to the page and say: "wow, I exist on the page. I feel less alone in the world".

[00:18:55.240] - François-Xavier ROBERT
There's another thing. Yesterday I was at the debate here about immigration, and so I was very interested about the notion of the so-called "American Dream". That dream that only the second generation of immigrants can live, or maybe the third generation, depending, of course, on the family history. But can you talk to us a little bit about that.

 [00:19:23.210] - Nicole Dennis-Benn
Leaving the American Dream? What is that? What is the American Dream? Ta-Nehisi Coates, who is actually here at the festival, wrote a brilliant essay about that. And I remember circling that. What is the American dream? It does not exist. It's a fantasy. It's really a fantasy. And a lot of immigrants buy into that fantasy, then realizing very quickly it does not exist. Very subjective as well. And so for me, I had to write true to that. So sitting down to write "Patsy", for example, I wanted to document what it's like for an immigrant. So, yes, come to America and realize, oh, my gosh, the racism that she's experiencing, she has already experienced it in Jamaica. Classism colorism is all in America as well, and also homophobia as well. But for her to actually come into that, I have to give her, actually describe it in a way where not only is parts of finding it, but the reader is also finding it out as well, because there are probably some people still to this day who may believe that the "American Dream" exists. Right. But, what it's like actually for a woman who's not as educated, who is coming from a working class position, who is dreaming of this American Dream, but it's so unattainable to her. So what is that like? And I thought Patsy ended up seeing what the American nightmare is like. I just had a panel. For some people, it's an American nightmare where you're coming, but you realize you're on the margins of society. If you don't have the right color, if you don't have the right financial status, the right class, the right gender, all these things, you can still exist on the margins. And so, really, first of all, who is an American and what is the American Dream? It's still a very ambiguous term, and it's just so frightening to know how many people still cling to it and then just drive themselves insane because they can't attain it. It's like chasing a ghost or chasing some elusive thing and realizing then crashing at the end of the day, realizing "I'm a failure". And that's really what happened with Barrington in "Patsy" when he left off of the subway platform, because he said he's half of a man. And I wanted to play around with that: first, masculinity, men growing up in society feeling that they have to be able to provide and be strong. And what happens to a man crushed by the American nightmare? He's defeated and it unfortunately left to his death. But it made Patsy realize something. It made her realize: "I came to America to live!". I did not come to die. And in terms of her living, it's more, once again, how she finds her own personal joy, it has nothing to do anymore with the "American Dream". It all has to do with her personal joy, what she desires. And Barrington was there in the book to help her to get to that point.

[00:22:48.390] - François-Xavier ROBERT
Maybe the last thing we can talk about today is motherhood, because I know it's very important. Patsy abandoned her or his baby, Tru...

 [00:23:11.030] - Nicole Dennis-Benn
You'll be right either way, because, probably, if Tru were in this interview, Tru would say that I'm sure I'm neither girl or boy. I'm Tru! Right, exactly. But for the sake of language, I thought, oh, yes, Patsy left her daughter behind who was five years old, and she left her daughter Tru, behind because she felt she didn't have anything to give to Tru. She felt she was so depleted, so defeated, that she couldn't even look her daughter in the eye. And that was something that I wanted to show. In addition to that, she didn't feel like she had the ability to be a mother. And Patsy really didn't wante a child, but she didn't have a choice, unfortunately, to have an abortion. She ended up still raising Tru, but realizing there was no connection, there was no maternal instinct. And so all of that contributed to her running. She fled, which, as far as you think, oh, that's an easy way out, leaving. But it turns out that this actually haunted Patsy for a long time. Even though she thought, oh, America is going to make me happy, Cicely is going to make me happy, it's still like her depression loomed large as she tried to navigate the United States.

[00:24:31.700] - Nicole Dennis-Benn
And I wanted to express that on the one hand, people might say, oh, Patsy is terrible, but I really wanted to explore, what is that for a woman wanting that freedom and thinking, I'm not what society expects me to be. I refuse to be put in a box. Not because I'm a woman means I want to be a mother. And Patsy in her own way, was expressing this. She couldn't verbalize it, she couldn't tell anyone. And I wanted to write that story because there are women out there who feel that same way. Some of them may not even have children. And when people ask them, when are you going to have a baby? And they have to force an answer or, kind of like navigate that awkward moment, it's Patsy for those women to come to the page and say, oh, yeah, I've thought that not so bad, right? I mean, some may not have gone through the whole extent of leaving a child behind, but at least seeing this play out, like, what if there's a woman who definitely never wanted this and ultimately she comes into herself, but then realizing, of course, it was a little too late to mother Tru.

[00:25:46.750] - Nicole Dennis-Benn
But one thing she gave Tru was freedom in a letter that she wrote and was very honest, saying: "now, I want to set you free", meaning that she's setting her free from the generational trauma that she was running away from as well, so that Tru can now start her life or "their" life with a clean slate. I'm not feeling as defeated to having their defeat dictate how they're going to live. And so that's what I wanted to tap into with motherhood aspect of Patsi and showing that another thing that Mama G did. See what Patsy did to Tru? Because Mama G, Patsy'mother, left Patsy for the church. She did not leave physically, she left mentally and emotionally. She was more into worship and worshiping her cross and the Jesus figurines than seeing the needs of her own daughter. And Patsy from a very young age, she didn't feel like she was worthy and she wasn't even worthy of her mother's love. And somehow as she grew into a woman and became a mother herself, the same thing happened. And so I wanted to also show that generational trauma and where the mentality actually came from, at least in my book, the scene was planted then where Patsy wasn't mothered.

[00:27:07.590] - Nicole Dennis-Benn
So how can you be a mother if you have never been mothered? You definitely have to work extra hard to do it. I've also spoken to individuals who became parents and they would say someone confessed that they probably had terrible fathers or terrible mothers and they have to find something within themselves to say I'm not them, I'm going to love my child. In my book, Patsy didn't have that strength to do that, so she fled. But she still gave Tru the ability to say: "it stops with me, it stops with us, you can move forward". And if Tru ever becomes a parent, I'm going to say they are not going to be stuck in that continuation of that. That was a lot. 

[00:28:10.770] - François-Xavier ROBERT
I am afraid that we have to stop soon our interview. So the very last question I like to ask you is, I'm always asking the same question in this podcast, is: if there's someone who wants to start writing, or has never written before, do you have any advice for that person? 

[00:28:33.230] - Nicole Dennis-Benn
A great question. I would say read as much as possible. That's really where I got my confidence, my way with words, by reading Toni Morrison. I looked at Tony Morrison for me as a great mentor in my head, because this is all her prose, the way she writes to women on the page and taps into their sexuality. I got permission from Toni Morrison. Zora Neale Hurston, who wrote dialect in her dialogue, gave me the permission to write patois. And so, if you notice, for me, reading definitely helped a lot with my writing. And so I would say to any writer who wants to be a writer, yes, you're a writer, even if you have not touched the pen to the paper, I would say to any writer or writer to read a lot and it will take you far away.

[00:29:32.210] - François-Xavier ROBERT
That's a very good advice and You can start with the novels of Nicole Dennis-Benn.

[00:29:37.910] - Nicole Dennis-Benn
Thank you. Yes, absolutely.

[00:29:39.990] - François-Xavier ROBERT
Thank you again.

 [00:29:41.300] - Nicole Dennis-Benn
Yes, it was a pleasure. These are great question