Author Nicole Dennis-Benn isn’t afraid to break taboos of the immigrant narrative
Nicole Dennis-Benn came to America 20 years ago from Kingston, Jamaica. Back home, she was depressed and struggling with her sexuality. She knew then that to be openly gay in Jamaica could result in her being socially ostracized, or even death.
Now, the 37-year-old sits in the open-plan apartment she shares with her wife, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the expanse of culture, race and sexuality on Brooklyn’s Fulton Street.
Dennis-Benn is one of the cutting-edge writers pioneering immigrant literature in the U.S today. Her novels take a clear look at the sacrifices immigrants make for the American dream. She was inspired by her own family’s struggle when they arrived here looking for opportunities. Like many before her, Dennis-Benn expected the U.S. to be a safe haven for a queer woman. Instead, she found it difficult to live freely.
“A lot of us immigrants come here thinking it’s a paradise,” she says. “A lot of the time we come here based on the lies we’re told by other immigrants who are struggling but too proud to say what the situation really is.”
Those lies are a big part of her new novel “Patsy,” which illuminates the trials faced by immigrant women arriving in America who find it not as advertised. Dennis-Benn’s fiction reads like today’s headlines, focusing heavily on themes such as motherhood, family, colorism, sexism and sexual identity in addition to immigration.
Her work challenges the stereotype of the “good immigrant” coming to America to escape hardships or persecution. She writes stories about people not usually found in books, especially mainstream novels — people like her.
“Patsy” is the story of a Jamaican woman who leaves her 5-year-old daughter behind to come to America and reunite with her secret lesbian lover. “Who does that? That’s like something a man would do,” Dennis-Benn says with a laugh.
“This is not the typical immigrant story,” she continues. “I wanted to show that sometimes women migrate for other reasons than to take care of their families.”
Dennis-Benn’s own experiences paved the way for the realistic narrative in “Patsy.”
On a recent walk through East Flatbush, pointing toward a spot where she and her wife were once verbally assaulted by a Jamaican man for holding hands, Dennis-Benn talked about nearly shelving her passion for writing to instead achieve a dream fed to her by America: a career in medicine.
She recalls her time at Caribbean Women’s Health facility on Parkside Avenue, where she worked in 2006, not too far from Flatbush Avenue and many of her scenes in “Patsy.” The health facility is no longer there, but the memories of what sparked her interest in telling the stories of immigrant women, many of them undocumented, lived on right there on Parkside.
“At the time I didn’t know I wanted to write stories just yet. But I always thought to myself if people really knew these immigrant stories about these women coming to this country, they will see most of them were helpless.”
When she met Julie Barer, her literary agent, Dennis-Benn asked Barer to help her make people care about these types of stories.
“She isn’t afraid to talk about women who don’t want to be mothers, even though society may expect them to relish that role,” Barer says. “She explores depression and shame and she talks about the challenges of coming to a land of opportunity where those opportunities are only available to some people.”
Dennis-Benn spends a lot of her time at Camille’s Jamaican restaurant on Flatbush Avenue, watching the people who have found themselves in a country with little opportunity for them to thrive. They appreciate the familiarity of home that they get while meeting up for food, she thinks. It is here, while eating, that some of her character-building takes place.
“Goat head soup,” she says, scooping up the thick liquid from the styrofoam cup with a spoon. “When I found out what it really was, I couldn’t believe it.” It is not really the head of a goat, she adds; it’s goat testicles.
Even on the peaceful, soup-filled days, Dennis-Benn is always conscious of the bigger picture — how hard it can be for immigrants to adjust to the reality of living and working in the United States. But the inclusion of lesbian and Caribbean characters in her novels, whose stories about depression, sex and mental health are often not told, is her way of giving them a voice and visibility.
“To this day,” she says, “I reflect on this girl in Jamaica who craved this literature, who craved to see herself represented on that page.”
Nicole Dennis-Benn is one of the authors featured in this year’s lineup for the Brooklyn Book Festival, which takes place Sept. 16-23.
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