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A Brilliant New Novel Shows All The Different Things A Woman Is

Books

Talking with Nicole Dennis-Benn about 'Patsy,' immigration, queerness, and the importance of writing about women's sexuality

In Nicole Dennis-Benn's second novel, Patsy, the narrative voice switches back and forth between two women, mother and daughter, whose lives are being lived far apart, but who share more than just a connection of blood: They share the experience of being marginalized, of being outcast, of being different and unappreciated for that difference.

Dennis-Benn (whose first novel, Here Comes the Sun, is also a must-read) brings readers into the world of Patsy, mother to five-year-old Tru and proud new possessor of a highly coveted visitor's visa to America. Patsy has longed to leave behind Jamaica and seek out her childhood best friend, Cicely, who lives in New York; leaving Tru behind isn't Patsy's objective, but it is an obstacle Patsy is willing to overcome. This separation is not, of course, the only obstacle Patsy—and Tru—face. They both deal with the ramifications of abandonment: Tru's been left by her mother, yes, but Patsy faces the disappearance of her dream of the future. More than that, both mother and daughter struggle with the often arbitrary rules imposed upon them by society and family, come to terms with their sexuality and identity, and must figure out how to be themselves in a world that has long made clear that it doesn't care about the identity of people like them.

And yet, for all the weight of these topics—immigration, mental health, motherhood, queerness, women's sexuality—there is no point in which Patsy doesn't resonate with warmth as it offers real insight into the plight of America's undocumented immigrants, an understanding of the difficulties of growing up queer in Jamaica, and defies the idea that all women are—or aspire to be—maternal in one specific way. It is not a book about ideas, it is a book about people, in all their challenging, ecstatic, messy glory.

Below, I speak with Dennis-Benn about Patsy, what most Americans don't understand about immigration, and the importance of writing about women's sexuality.

How did Patsy come into being—both the novel and the character?
Patsy has always been with me. But, conceptually, Patsy came to me when I was in the subway station, and there were all these immigrants around me, and they were just going about their business. And I looked around and I saw above our heads all the ads saying, you know, "Come to Jamaica"; or, "Escape to the Caribbean." And I just found it so ironic; here we were on this train hustling to our various jobs, and meanwhile, there is this escape, and it is actually where we had escaped from to come to this place, a fantasy that was sold to us.

And in thinking about that and wondering what versions of themselves they took to America, what versions of themselves they left behind, that was when Patsy started talking to me in terms of me visually imagining a woman on this train, going to work as a nanny on the Upper West Side, contemplating what was her life before then. And what's her secret? What are her wants? And that became its own life, the life of this woman who just took me in all sorts of directions.

Women are told, in so many ways, what's supposed to make us happy, what's supposed to make us fulfilled, and what we are supposed to do to be happy and fulfilled, but one of the things that Patsy makes clear is that there is no monolithic way for a woman—and specifically a mother—to feel.
In all honesty, while I was writing Patsy, the challenging part of writing the character of who Patsy was, is that I found myself judging her, which is interesting because that means that I also have internalized what society told me a woman should be. And so what I actually realized was, Patsy is really this woman who doesn't feel the role of motherhood fits her. And for her to say to herself, I'm actually going to leave and abandon my child, that was a move I really danced around for a long time before actually writing it on the page.

And, actually, it was when I accepted that, and when I accepted Patsy's decision to do that, that's when I could go deeper into that character in terms of who she is as a woman and who she desires to be, and actually respecting that. A thing that society tells us is that once you're a mother, every other part of you dies. And I wanted to write against that. There is still desire. There is still youth. There are still all these different things a woman is. Not just that role. And so I wanted to really incorporate that into the narrative without being didactic.

Beyond the way women who have children can be reduced to being only mothers, what you bring to Patsy is another means society has of dehumanizing women, namely the way that, specifically, immigrant women who come to America, and sometimes leave children behind in their home countries, are also seen reductively; they become saints and martyrs, and we're told not to see their humanity apart from their roles as caregivers.
That's another thing that entered my mind when I started writing Patsy; observing these nannies throughout the city, and seeing that, yes, they do care for the children, but they have lives of their own. I wanted to write that complexity on the page. Patsy has so many things going on in addition to the fact that, yes, she loves her job—though there's guilt associated with that, given that she left that child behind. I wanted to explore her internal conflicts, and that was really important to me.

Patsy is suffering, and that's a part of it, but that's not the entirety of who she is. And it would be a disservice to be so reductive about any of her experiences in America; there's no magic way out of her problems—happiness is hard to find.
Patsy felt like she had nothing to offer Tru [in Jamaica], coming to America for [Patsy] would be going to the place that fulfills her with what she thought she lacked back home. And so when she came here, she met that disappointment. I also was writing about immigrants—especially the Jamaicans I grew up around—who'd come here before they even knew what America looked like. They'd sent letters and pictures, and some of them would be posing around two-story houses, saying, "This is my house," and "America is beautiful," and we believed it. And then coming here and realizing, Oh, where is that big house you showed in that picture? And so that fantasy is sold to us, and I wanted to really unpack that.

So much of what this novel does is recontextualize our ideas of success and, particularly, success in America as an immigrant, as a woman of color. What do you think people born in America don't understand about what it means to come here without having the appropriate visa? I think the average American understands almost nothing.
It's non-existent. And I know, personally, my wife is an American, and she had no idea, even me describing what a Green Card is and how you have to actually apply for citizenship after having the Green Card. She didn't have a clue about that. And I realize too that tons of Americans also don't understand that process. It's kind of like the college application, where it's a really intense process. And then, you are right here after getting that nice vacation visa, that nice six weeks or six months, and a lot of people think, You know, I'm here now. I want to just survive. And they're not understanding that we need more than just those visiting papers, we need actual documentation.

It is such essential information, and if fiction is a vehicle for people to have access to it, that's wonderful.
I wanted also to explore situations like when [Patsy] has to get paid under the table, and then has to go to the emergency room, as opposed to a real doctor, because there's no health insurance.

Patsy is not just about Patsy; the experience of her daughter, Tru, is also a key part of the narrative, as their perspectives shift back and forth. That technique highlighted their bond but also showed their independence from one another. It showed the pain in their situations, but also the liberation.
I feel like the story, even though, yes, parts of it are tragic in [Patsy's] abandonment [of Tru], I think it is a redemption story as well, in that there is this epiphany of, I'm not too different from this person who I have grown to resent. One thing I wanted was for Tru to have that epiphany. I really wanted her to find out for herself, as opposed to being told.

Every single character in this book, no matter how different from one another, it's like you can see them and see their whole history at once.
I try so hard to do that, because one thing is that I know for a fact is that there are characters who I'm going to be frustrated with, but giving them that backstory, having them have the complexity to me is important as a writer. Because human beings, we are complex, so I wouldn't want anyone to look at this as one-dimensional. I know I'm giving these characters multiple facets, giving them the reasons for the decisions or how they're acting.

I wanted to talk a little bit about how you write about sex in this book...
Oh my gosh, yes!

There's so much about Patsy's sexuality in this book; she's obviously someone who has endured sexual trauma, and trauma in so many ways, and so has so much repression. But she is moving forward in a way that's so beautiful and so hopeful. When you were saying that you think of this novel as a redemption narrative, I think that applies so much to Patsy's sexuality and sexual experiences, the realization that we shouldn't have shame attached to our sexuality.
That was really important for me to write into the narrative. When I was a young reader, I never saw women owning sexuality in literary fiction. I wanted to write that, saying, no, we are human; we are sexual beings, and it's really important that we have that be a part of our narrative without putting us in certain boxes on the bookshelf. It was actually Toni Morrison who gave me that license to write women's sexuality that way, incorporating all of our complexities.

There was a part of me reading Patsy that reminded me of when I first read Sula.
Right! Sula had the same impact on me when I first read it, and I vowed afterwards I would always write women's sexuality.

In the novel's acknowledgments, you credit the writers that came before you, like Toni Morrison and also Zora Neale Hurston. Patsy reminded me of the first time I read Their Eyes Were Watching God, because writing in dialect was so essential to that reading experience [as it is with Patsy].
It was Zora who gave me that license to write the dialect.

Language isn't just how we speak, it's how we think, and so if that wasn't present on the page, then it just doesn't allow us to get as fully into the characters.
And it's so interesting because I was always told not to speak patois growing up in Jamaica. In schools, we were forbidden to speak it, like it's a backwards language. And, even in the book, Tru speaks standard English because of the schools she's going to. That's how it is at the elite high schools [in Jamaica], we're taught not to speak patois. Imagine going back home having to switch on and off when you can speak it. [And at home, my family] would be offended that I spoke standard English to them, because [patois is] our first language, and to be told not to use it is like erasing our identity, because language is identity. I felt, as an artist, I want to reclaim it and put it back in my dialogue.

Do you have any idea of what happens with Patsy and Tru after the book ends?
I know that they'll definitely still transform their relationship, because there are so many missed years. But, in my mind, it ultimately ends up as two women seeing each other as women for the first time. It took me a long time to see my mother as a person, I usually only see her as "mommy." So when you realize that mothers are human beings as well, I think that's really when we feel most enlightened, when there's an epiphany, like, Oh, okay. I can begin this forgiveness process. And so that's what I wish for Tru, ultimately.

Patsy is available for purchase, here.

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