Nicole Dennis-Benn’s debut novel, Here Comes the Sun, was one of NPR’s Best Books of 2016. Before earning her MFA in creative writing, Dennis-Benn worked in public health. She now teaches writing at Princeton University. Her novel Patsy will be out in June 2019. Here’s how she made ends meet.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Medium: Growing up, what did going to work look like?
Nicole Dennis-Benn: I grew up in a working-class community in Kingston, Jamaica. People there are teachers and hotel clerks, police officers or handypeople. It was service work, never anything they really liked. Nobody ever talked about passions — it was always what they had to do to survive. I saw my mother and grandmother going to work in the morning, coming home in the evening, then cooking dinner. That was my first experience seeing what I had to do if I wanted to eat well.
What was expected of you?
Working-class girls like myself had to study chemistry, biology, physics to make it to college and get a name-brand career like lawyer or engineer. I was smart, I was the eldest — it was on me to pull up my family. So when I went to college in New York, I [was expected to] study medicine. Medicine was going to make us upwardly mobile. I wanted to study English literature and creative writing, but I couldn’t afford to think like that. I remember thinking, “You have to be a certain class to really dream the way you wanna dream.”
What was your impression of what a creative career looked like?
I never thought an artist or writer could look like me, could talk like me, or anything like that. Most of the books that came in on the boats were definitely not Caribbean. I read Sweet Valley Twins and Sweet Valley High and actually started identifying with having blond hair and blue eyes, existing in California. It wasn’t until the tail end of high school that I saw a Toni Morrison book in the library. That was the first time I saw a black woman with dreadlocks who wrote a book. And I was really curious about that.
The rent was like $600. I only ate grapes and cheap ramen noodles. I’d go out with anybody who asked me on a date just to eat something.
You came to college in the United States?
I spent two years at Nassau County College [in Long Island] and then transferred to Cornell. My dad thought having me start at Nassau would give me the opportunity to adjust to the U.S. I had a work-study job as a chemistry lab cleaner and one in the library. The lab job gave me the chance to be out of the house I wanted so badly to be out of, but it was the library that I really loved. I was able to pretend I was shelving books while I really stood reading them — James Baldwin, Alice Walker, and, of course, Toni Morrison.
Were you writing?
I was a newly arrived immigrant desperate to talk to somebody, and I didn’t have anybody to talk to. My accent was thick. I felt out of place. The one thing I could turn to was writing my thoughts in a journal.
I loved reading and realized that I could write as well. My English professor said, “You have a talent. You should look at this more seriously.” I was like, “No, I’m really in this for medicine.”
What jobs did you work at Cornell?
I worked evenings at the gym, cleaning the machines. But I was majoring in nutritional sciences, which had me volunteering with a community organization providing help for people with HIV. People could come and get food or meds. Whenever anyone came in, I was curious about them. I would make up stories about how they got here, but I never wrote them down. That curiosity stayed with me for a long time. I still wanted to write, but I didn’t know how to get there. But I loved public health, so I used that experience to get into an MPH program.
Were you writing at Cornell?
Even though I was majoring in medicine, I lived in a house of 10 artists and thought of myself as a poet. I would write poems in the margins of my science textbooks, recite poems at open-mic nights. They were really bad, but they nurtured me as an artist.
While I was at Cornell, Toni Morrison came to campus. I’d desperately wanted to see her since high school. She spoke adamantly about giving yourself time to create and then protecting that space. I remember wanting to be her, but I didn’t have any idea to go about doing what she was doing.
What did you do after you got your MPH?
I was the outreach coordinator at a Caribbean women’s health association [in Brooklyn]. Immigrant women could come for maternal health, HIV screening, whatever they needed. That job didn’t pay anything. I remember thinking to myself, “This is what my MPH got me?” Then the woman who ran the organization took off with all the funds, and I got a job with Department of Health. They put me on the ground in the Bronx and Brooklyn, telling bodega owners to carry 1% milk in communities where the owners knew their clients didn’t drink 1% milk.
They also sent me into the homes of new mothers, teaching them how to breastfeed or telling them what they ought to be doing with their babies. Something didn’t feel right about that, like I was imposing on the lives of these immigrants. But when I sat down and took off my DOH hat, they would tell me their life stories. I was wowed. I didn’t know at the time, but this is what I wanted to do in terms of writing. But I had no way of channeling that, putting it on paper.
One of the women I lived with would sit in the living room, kind of in meditation, and say, “I’m preparing for my greatness.” I used to hate her for that.
How were you surviving in New York with grad school debt and public service jobs?
I lived in a basement in Sunset Park with three other girls. The landlord charged us $300 in cash. He had his washer and dryer down there, so he would still come down, even when we were undressed, just to do his laundry. It was really horrible, but we couldn’t afford anything else. The DOH job paid better, and I moved to Bed-Stuy, still with three other girls, but this time it was a real room. The rent was like $600. I only ate grapes and cheap ramen noodles. I’d go out with anybody who asked me on a date just to eat something. I know it’s so bad now, but…
What did your writing practice look like?
One day I ended up just not going to work, because I couldn’t take the bodega walking anymore. It was a very horrible decision, because I lost that job and was denied unemployment. For three months, I was just in my room doing nothing and being sad about it. At the time, I didn’t have anybody who understood who I was, where I was coming from. I desperately just wanted to talk about that. It was the era when MySpace and these other blogs started popping up, so I would put essays from my journal up on a blog. People started following — I didn’t even realize how much people loved the blog until I took it down.
One of the women I lived with proclaimed herself a writer. We’d have deep conversations about Audre Lorde, about writers and writing. But she would literally sit in the living room, kind of in meditation, and say, “I’m preparing for my greatness.” I used to hate her for that. In my room, I said, “You know what? Let me see if I can actually write this story.” Looking through my journals and poetry, I realized I had material that I could turn into stories. I would pull them out each day and edit them in my own way.
Were you able to find another job?
A friend from my MPH program helped me land a job at Columbia, working with HIV-positive men between the ages of 18 and 25. They were a hard-to-reach population, and Columbia wanted someone with my training to get these men to do surveys. In my public health work, these men just existed as data, but meeting them in person to collect their information, I got to know their stories. I started looking into a PhD in public health. I met my wife working at Columbia too. I knew she did performance poetry, so one night, wanting to impress, I let her see me working on one of my stories. When she read it, she told me, “I think this is more than a hobby. You should pursue this.”
How did you do that?
My wife told me about MFAs, so I started looking for writing workshops around the city. I went to Sackett Street and this other workshop run by the Audre Lorde Project for queer women of color. Then I applied and got into an MFA program at Sarah Lawrence and went there full-time while continuing to work part-time at Columbia.
Did you stay at the Columbia job after your MFA?
There was no way I wanted to go back to public health. I’d thought the MFA was going to be the end of doing jobs that I didn’t want. [But I didn’t have] teaching experience, so I had to really hustle, and even then, I needed someone to help get me in the door. The first adjunct job that opened up was an English composition class. I took the job seriously, and another job opened, and another.
Adjuncting was not enough to pay the rent and eat. My wife, now an assistant professor, was helping with the majority of the finances. I thought that wasn’t fair, so I ended up starting my own writing workshop in my living room, one morning a week. [The students] were just working people who felt they had a story and wanted a safe space to tell it, like the people I had been meeting in my MPH work. I reached out to organizations around Bed-Stuy and charged $250, and these working professionals like me actually came. I was adjuncting two to three times a week, and the workshop met once a week. That gave me three days to write. I was still struggling, but that’s how I was able to finish the book [Here Comes the Sun].
What does your workweek look like now that have published and are teaching?
Now I have freedom and some security. On the three days a week I’m not teaching, I protect my art and preserve my space, like Toni Morrison said. I show up to the computer because I’m getting paid on my writing. It’s not like I’m walking bodegas again or doing something I don’t like.
Is there any advice you can give someone who may be in the same situation now?
Work to pay the bills, if that’s what you need to survive. And if you have to work, carve a little time and protect it. It doesn’t have to be a 10-hour slot. It could just be 30 minutes. Toni Morrison taught me that. She was an editor for a long time and did the majority of her work on the subway trains.
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