Coming Out as a Writer

by Nicole Dennis-Benn

My father left Jamaica when I was three. We were practically strangers until he suggested I live with him in America while attending college.

In the U.S. — my new country, my new home — writing became a necessity for my survival. I wrote in journals, scribbling poetry to pacify my homesickness. I liked to imagine the words floating on water, carrying me back home. Writing helped me navigate the complicated relationship I had with home and, most importantly, with myself — each identity in conflict with the other. I wrote to make sense of it all.

I took classes at Nassau Community College because my father wanted me to acclimate while he kept close watch. I obliged. He was very protective that way, although he was hardly around.

Most days I was left with my stepmother, whose searing side-glances incited me to keep to myself. At nights, their loud quarrels kept me awake and I would reach for my pen and journal for comfort. My stepmother didn’t like me: she viewed me as my father’s illegitimate daughter. One day — a day I will never forget — she rummaged through my suitcase and found my journal. She read everything I wrote and used it as ammunition.

Yuh dawta is a sodomite! she screamed at my father. We putting up ah sodomite in we house! Lawd Jesus, she’s crosses!

Panicked, I could only act on instinct — I denied it. And my father, who gave me the benefit of the doubt, perhaps out of guilt from leaving me for so many years before, defended me. I learned then that my words couldn’t protect me — in fact, that they could hurt me. The next day I ripped each page out of my journal and threw it all away in an empty parking lot behind our building.

I didn’t have the luxury to fail. When I transferred to Cornell, I focused on pursuing goals that I thought would both redeem me and help me to achieve success in my new country. I was a straight-A student with a burden, an obligation — I had to become a doctor. I felt I owed my parents that much.

But night after night in the hushed silence of Uris library, studying for a biochemistry or human anatomy exam, I contemplated changing my major. What if I was just in search of an easy way out? What if I declared English as a major with a creative writing minor and then grew to hate it since it might begin to feel like work?

I could hear the long sigh of winter outside. I knew instinctively that my desire to write threatened to disturb the peace, disrupting the plan intended for me ever since I was a baby — destined to be a beacon of hope, a role model for my younger siblings, a trophy of triumph for my parents.

After getting my master’s at the University of Michigan’s public health program, I still had no direction. But at least I had gained status among my people. I moved to Brooklyn and found myself a part of a group of young Jamaican professionals — lawyers, doctors, engineers, directors of nonprofits, architects, CEOs — the types of Jamaicans whose inspirational stories of success might have earned them an interview with Ian Boyin (Jamaica’s Oprah Winfrey) or a feature profile in The Jamaican Gleaner, which my mother would cut out and post on the refrigerator as an example for us. One day dat g’wan be you!

Yet, from the rooftop parties in Fort Greene, the Empire State Building visible among a sea of lights below, I turned away from my humble beginning in Hempstead, Long Island, and Vineyard Town, Kingston. I readily reached for long-stemmed glasses of red wine, and when asked what I do, I’d pause before saying, “I’m a researcher at Columbia.”

This seemingly simple decision — the turning of my back on my truth and my past — was unsettling. By the end of the night I’d be exhausted, numb to the accomplishments I paraded like carnival costumes hiding the true me.

I started a blog with the alias Grace Jones. I chose the name because of my admiration for the fierce icon, whose boldness and courage to be herself defied Jamaican cultural norms. The blog garnered a huge following. I was soon reminded how soothing writing could be. I was in my element, doing what felt most natural to me. People enjoyed reading my musings about life and would inquire about my book. They wanted to know if I had one and if so, where could they get it. Although I was flattered, I was also terrified and depressed. Out of nowhere came an expectation I was unable to ignore with good conscience.

I was plagued by insecurities of calling myself a writer because I wasn’t published. But for some reason, perhaps the confidence I gained from having a well-read blog, I changed my response when people asked me what I did.

I’m a writer, I’d say.

Really? Nice. What do you write?

Stories?

Do you have a book?

I was highly aware of the gaze regarding me with what I imagined as pity when I shook my head and confessed to having a blog — a gaze reserved for mumbling homeless people on the trains.

I watched with interest as my peers navigated their own paths, carved their self-made identities. They talked of brownstones they had to renovate, trips to Brazil. They swapped business cards easily and spoke with plain dictions enabling them to fit into any world they inhabited. With Wharton or Harvard MBA degrees or Morgan Stanley executive positions, they had the potential to return home and make a difference, to build castles on hills and remain indifferent, drunk with the good wine — full bodied and complex with the alluring scent of status and belonging.

I got rid of Grace Jones and decided to apply to PhD programs in public health. I had no desire for a PhD; I just thought I needed it. When I met my wife everything changed. She herself was in a rigorous doctoral program at Columbia and couldn’t see how someone could just apply to a PhD program without a sense of urgency and direction. You have to want it,” she said to me, her eyes tired from late nights studying for her qualifiers. You don’t want this. You’re using it to hide. Why don’t you apply to an MFA program? If you’re a writer, then write.

My spirit rose to meet the challenge.

I enrolled in small workshops around Brooklyn before eventually applying to an MFA program. Unlike any other applications I had done for school in the past, this one meant a lot. I didn’t know how much it meant to me until I was rejected from a couple of programs and wait-listed by the only program I ever wanted to get into. I initially thought the wait-list letter was a rejection and cried — my first real cry in years, a decade. Not since I left Jamaica, ridden by homesickness, had I cried like that. My wife took the letter and read it. It says you’re on the top of the wait-list! That means there is a high probability you’ll get in. Leave it to my biostatistician wife to incorporate probability into any situation.

Fortunately, I was later accepted into the program. I knew, as I’ve always known, that I didn’t have the luxury to fail. So I worked extra hard.

But before I could begin to accept the rejection that comes with being a writer or begin to write freely, I had to welcome myself — including the part of me that I threw in the trash can behind my father’s building years before. I had to face life’s other rejections head-on — the rejection that comes with being the daughter of the other woman; the rejection that comes with being from a working-class background; the rejection that comes with being a darker-skinned Jamaican; the rejection that comes with being an immigrant; the rejection that comes with being a woman; the rejection that comes with being black in America; the rejection that comes with being lesbian; the rejection that comes with veering away from tradition to pursue my passion; the rejection that comes with finally having the courage to embrace my truths.

Nicole Dennis-Benn was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica. She is a graduate of Cornell University and has an MPH from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. She has been awarded fellowships from Macdowell Colony, Hedgebrook, Lambda, Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Hurston/Wright, and Sewanee Writers’ Conference. She lives with her wife in Brooklyn, New York. Here Comes the Sun is her first novel.

 

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