LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Nicole Dennis-Benn's new novel "Patsy" follows its title character on a journey that starts in Jamaica, where Patsy is overwhelmed by her need for something more.
NICOLE DENNIS-BENN: Her desire in life is to find a place in the world, so she does this by coming to America, the place that was sold to her as a fantasy. And when she comes here, she actually leaves her 5-year-old daughter Tru behind.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Patsy goes to New York, looking for opportunity and to reunite with her friend and secret lover Cicely, who is settled there. But the question of what kind of woman leaves a child for herself haunts the novel. WEEKEND EDITION books editor Barrie Hardymon talked with Nicole Dennis-Benn about that question and the sacrifices we all make to find ourselves.
BARRIE HARDYMON, BYLINE: It's such a fascinating beginning to the story because she's really going for herself. Many women are often told that they have to do things for their family, for their...
HARDYMON: ...Child, for other people. But all the things - freedom, this reconnection with Cicely - these are all things that are about her.
DENNIS-BENN: Exactly. And I wanted to really put that out there, given that men do it all the time, right? But the minute that Patsy desires to do this, you know, I know the judgments would actually be - start to fester. You know, me, myself - had my own judgments writing the character. But then, of course, letting go of that and letting Patsy show us this other side, you know, of who we can be as women and also the interior lives of women who actually don't feel the way the world wants them to feel. You know, as girls, we're taught motherhood is something to aspire to. You know, she's actually, you know, saying to herself that she's not able to fulfill that role properly.
HARDYMON: This is a sort of a dual narrative because at home in Jamaica, Tru is growing up at the same time, obviously, and living with her father and dealing with her feelings of abandonment. And it's particularly interesting 'cause both mother and daughter in this story - both Patsy and Tru - are dealing with identities that are not really considered acceptable in Jamaica.
HARDYMON: Patsy has these relationships with women. Tru is gender nonconforming. There's...
HARDYMON: ...A real - there's a particular tragedy in the loss of this particular mother to this particular child.
DENNIS-BENN: Right. You know, usually, when the child gets left behind in Jamaica - it happens all the time. You know, the parents come here to America and, you know, send money, send food back home in barrels. And the child is told to be grateful because, you know, yes, it's for the best of the family. But in my story, Tru hasn't heard from her mother in a good 10 years. You know, she's basically abandoned. And it was important for me to tell her side of the story, coming into herself as a gender non-conforming queer person back home. You know, and I said that very carefully as well because Tru - in the book, if you notice, Tru doesn't really have the language for that. She just knows that she's not inside that box that people want to put her in. And like her mother, in a world that is quick to define who they are, they're trying to define themselves first.
HARDYMON: One of the things that's interesting about the way that Tru is experiencing her gender in Jamaica is that it is acknowledged. It's not OK, but it's not totally ignored either.
HARDYMON: And I wondered what your experience was as a gay woman growing up in Jamaica.
DENNIS-BENN: Yeah, I was not out in Jamaica at all. I came out to myself by the end of high school, so I was 16, 17 at that time. I felt like I was the only lesbian in Jamaica. I did not feel like I fit in. And also, my family was in the church, so it was kind of hard. Even if I came out, it wouldn't have been easy for me and my family then. They - I told one girlfriend in high school, and she looked at me like I had grown two horns on my head. But coming to America, that was actually where I met a lot of other Jamaican lesbians. And this was online.
DENNIS-BENN: I did not know that they existed.
HARDYMON: They were here all along (laughter).
DENNIS-BENN: Right, they were there all along. And I'm like, wow. You guys exist. Where were you when I was in high school?
HARDYMON: When in your adult life did you feel like you had found a place that you were comfortable in your identity?
DENNIS-BENN: So I had just moved to Brooklyn. I, you know, graduated from grad school. And I was surrounded by all these lesbians. And I found that while it was so freeing to own that part of myself - because for a long time, I didn't notice that I had internalized the homophobia that I grew up with. You know, I was afraid to commit in that sense to women fully without thinking - like, having that guilty feeling. Like, oh, my God, am I doing the right thing? In fact, I even went to therapy.
HARDYMON: Oh, goodness.
DENNIS-BENN: And I said to the therapist, can you change me? You know, my mother gave me an ultimatum - either change or she doesn't accept me to come back home.
DENNIS-BENN: And the therapist basically just looked at me, saying, there's nothing I can do. Like, that's not something you can change. It's who you are. And that was the best message I'd ever heard. I just walked out of that office a changed woman. I'm like, no, I'm owning this. There's nothing wrong with me.
HARDYMON: I wonder - I - because your characters are so - they're so - they're almost cinematic. I've always - I think of your books as these women are walking around on the pages (laughter).
DENNIS-BENN: Oh, I love it.
HARDYMON: And I wonder, how much did that moment, where you said, this is who I am; it's OK to be who I am. Did that coincide with your - how did that affect your writing?
DENNIS-BENN: A lot. I could not write properly until I owned every aspect of my identity - my identity as a lesbian woman, my identity as a black woman, my identity as a Jamaican woman, an immigrant, then also a working-class Jamaican woman...
HARDYMON: Right, right.
DENNIS-BENN: ...You know, because for a long time, I was so ashamed of those identities. You know, I went to high school in Kingston - St. Andrew High School for Girls - which was this elite high school. And none of my friends then - or who I thought were friends - knew where I lived.
DENNIS-BENN: You know, even being here, existing in America, for example, there was a time when I'm like, oh, my gosh, you know, I have an accent. So I was not able to - I felt I couldn't fit in. So all those parts of me that I was ashamed of - I had to let go of that shame. I went - once I'd let go of that shame and I owned who I was, that was when the stories just started flowing.
HARDYMON: Nicole Dennis-Benn is the author of "Patsy."
Thank you so much.
DENNIS-BENN: Thank you so much for having me.
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