We were thrilled to feature writer Nicole Y. Dennis-Benn as one of our craft talk authors at our memoir workshop on November 22, 2014. As our mentees focused on using significant places in their lives to develop their memoir writing, Nicole, who was born in Jamacia and lives in New York, spoke of her own experiences of leaving home, writing about home, and returning home – and the way her relationship with place has shaped her inner voice. With the help of her words, we were dazzled, moved, and motivated, and ready to conquer our own stories.
After the workshop, we were so grateful to get the chance to spend more time in her world and talk to her about writing mentors, nurturing her inner-voice, and her advice for young girls.
Girls Write Now: This year, our theme is Voice to Voice—celebrating the diversity of writerly voices, whether private, in intimate company, or in volume. How do you keep your inner-voice inspired while you write?
- Nicole Y. Dennis-Benn: It was Audre Lorde who said we should speak our truth “even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.” Whenever I feel myself being crippled by fear — whether it’s fear of offending others, fear that my stories won’t be read, or fear that my characters aren’t white male protagonists — I pause and reflect on why I’m writing in the first place. I reflect on the growing conviction inside me — one which was lodged there for a very long time; one that has continued to grow the more I experience and feel and remember. It’s a conviction to tell stories; not only mine, but others’ — to give voices to the voiceless. I write against a lot things, and in that, I find fuel to keep the fire going. It’s this fire that blights my fears. For if I have fear while writing, I would lose my characters, I would lose the story, I would lose my honesty. I would lose myself.
GWN: If you could voice your wishes for the girls on how to develop their writing and pursue their dreams, what would it be?
- NYDB: Stay true to that conviction to write. We all have stories to tell; however if you want to make it as a writer, not only do you have to be committed to honing your craft, but be willing to accept rejection. This is a highly subjective field, so it is important to learn not to take rejections personally or feel you need to alter or suppress your voice. This is easier said than done, believe me. I’ve had my share of rejections that left me questioning my decision to do this full time. But I found that writing is what I’d rather be doing; and rejections come with the territory.
GWN: If you could teach or remind your 17-year-old self something, what would it be?
- NYDB: That it gets better.
GWN: Do you have a mentor? Did you when you were a teen? Who and what makes that mentor special to you?
- NYDB: My mentor relationship came late in life. (And by late, I mean recently). A couple years ago in 2011 during my MFA program, I ventured to Washington DC to take a writing workshop at the Hurston Wright Foundation with author Marita Golden. I walked away with so much from that workshop, including the discipline to write a novel. Marita adopted me as her mentee. There was nothing formal. She saw something in me that she thought worthy of nurturing. It’s funny, because I always regarded myself as the black sheep—the least favored of any group of animated, enthusiastic, teacher’s pets due to my reserve. But when Marita saw something in my writing and demanded that I adjust my short-sighted vision to see it too, my perspective changed.
GWN: As part of a partnership with VIDA, we’re asking female authors about the books that helped spark the growth of their voices. Was there a particular book or author that had a significant impact on you as a teen girl? What do you remember reading in school? Do you think those books were representative of your own life experiences?
- NYDB: I didn’t exist in the books I had to read in high school. I was required to read Shakespeare, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, J.D.Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and others to pass the Caribbean Examination Council Exam (CXC) and A-Levels. I didn’t really see myself in any books by Caribbean authors either, many of whom sounded like clones of their British counterparts. Even the way in which they wrote their characters — merely as caricatures — the way a misinformed outsider might have regarded the people of the island, particularly the working class. Oh, and all those writers were males. It wasn’t until I came to the US that I was exposed to more books that spoke to me. I was exposed to Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, and Toni Morrison. I fell in love with Toni Morrison. It was the way in which she told her stories — with such unflinching honesty of the human experience, featuring strong black female protagonists. I have also been inspired by writers such as Jhumpa Lahiri, Edwidge Danticat, Jamaica Kincaid, Chimamanda Adichie — all of whom incorporate their cultural experiences into their stories. They gave me permission to do the same. Elizabeth Strout and Jennifer Egan are also on my list of brilliant writers whose books I must have around me at all times. But still, I hold dear that girl who never saw herself in the stories she depended on for escape. I write for her.
Nicole Y. Dennis-Benn is a Jamaican-born writer who received her BS in Nutrition from Cornell University, and a Masters of Public Health and Women Studies from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. But after years of working in public health, she decided to take the advice of an English professor who once said she ought to take her writing more seriously. She went back to school and received her Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) in Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College in 2012.
Nicole’s writing has won a 2014 Richard and Julie Logsdon Fiction Prize and has recently been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She’s a 2014 Lambda Foundation Emerging Writing Fellow and a recipient of a distinguished fellowship from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund for Women Writers, the Vermont Studio Center, and Kimbilio. Her work has been awarded Honorable Mention from the Hurston/Wright Foundation, and has appeared in Red Rock Review, Kweli Literary Journal, Mosaic, Ebony.com, and the Feminist Wire. She is the Founder and Director of Stuyvesant Writing Workshop in Brooklyn, and currently teaches Writing at CUNY.