Nicole Dennis-Benn Wants to Tell You a Secret
Author: William Johnson
September 27, 2020
“Lambda Literary has been such an integral part of queer literature…” – Author Nicole Dennis-Benn
Are you aware of all of Lambda Literary’s dynamic programming?
As Lambda Literary embarks on its fall fundraising campaign, we want to make sure that our community of stakeholders has a clear understanding of our multifaceted work. To that end, celebrated novelist Nicole Dennis-Benn generously offered to answer some questions about her experience with Lambda Literary.
Nicole Dennis-Benn is the author of two novels, Here Comes the Sun and the bestselling Patsy. Her lush writing centers women grappling with unrepentant passions, queer and otherwise, and their often oversized dreams. Full of complex characters that eschew simple virtue but radiate humanity, her novels are a testament to the power of compassionate storytelling. She is a 2014 Emerging LGBTQ Voices Fellow and has won two Lambda Literary Awards. She is a participating author in Lambda’s LGBTQ Writers in Schools program and looks forward to being a faculty member (a homecoming of sorts) for the 2021 Writer’s Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices.
It was so great to be in a community of other queer writers. Prior to that, I’d never been in a room full of queer writers. I’d been in other workshops, but none were like the experience I had at Lambda where we were given permission as queer writers to write our own narratives. It was truly empowering.
And soon you are coming back as a faculty member. The circle of life! Is there any general guidance you give to budding writers?
Yes. I always tell young writers to stay true to themselves. It’s so easy to be dissuaded in this industry. So easy to believe our stories don’t matter—especially as black writers. Add woman and queer to that, and that’s three strikes. Rejection is a part of the game. Take them in stride and keep writing the stories that matter to you. Lambda has championed my intersectionality—granting me my very first fellowship to my very first award. Had I changed my stories because I was worried about how they’d be perceived with black queer women protagonists, I would not have had the gift of being a part of the Lambda family and touching the lives of others like me.
You previously had a career in public health, which I find fascinating. Were there any interesting work experiences in your public health life that influenced your writing practice?
Yes. I was a health educator, outreach coordinator, and project manager for HIV research in my past life. However, I knew then that I could not really reach people the way I wanted with the work I was doing. Writing gave me a louder voice. I value my public health experience because I learned a lot from my interaction with the people I came across and incorporate a lot of what I learned and my experiences into my fiction. I don’t think I would be the writer I am today without my public health background. It made me more empathetic to people’s internal and external struggles, and super aware of all the factors—from systematic to situational—that can impact the lives of others and their loved ones.
As a participating author in Lambda Literary’s Writers in Schools Program, what surprised you about your visits to NYC public schools?
I was absolutely delighted by how much high school students value my works. I’ve sat in many classrooms thus far with this program and am often fascinated by how many students identify with my characters and how many more felt empowered to come out to me while I sign their books!
You have won two Lambda Literary Awards. Can you tell me what was going through your mind as you walked across the stage to receive that award for Here Comes the Sun?
Oh man, I had just taken off my brand new shoes because it started to pinch my little toe. My wife was holding my purse. When I heard my name I believe I must have shouted, “Holy shit! I won!” I had an out of body experience. In that brief, magical moment, I shoved my feet back into my hot pink stilettos and strode across the stage to get my award. My wife still had my purse, which held my written speech that I wrote in case I won. I left it behind in a hurry to get on the stage. I had no idea it would’ve happened. Prior to that first Lambda win, I had never won anything in my whole life.
I’m so glad I won, because my second thought in that moment was that now my work will be more visible to readers who crave stories like mine. I think about how lonely I was during my coming out process and how important it was for me to read and know that I wasn’t alone. As an author, the most rewarding thing as a Lambda winner is hearing readers say, “Thank you for writing us and our experiences on the page.”
So this interview is part of a wider campaign to raise vital funds for Lambda Literary’s programming. You have been a wonderful cheerleader for this organization. Why do you feel it is important for folks to support Lambda?
It’s absolutely necessary for people to support an organization like Lambda. Lambda Literary has been such an integral part of queer literature. The lives of queer youths (and even their allies) depend on our stories. One of my favorite James Baldwin quotes is, “We think we are alone in a particular struggle until we open a book.” Lambda not only makes queer literature visible to many, but have programs like Lambda in Schools where queer teens can feel safe and empowered and a fellowship that supports the talent and aspirations of emerging queer writers.
Lastly, can you tell me a secret? Who are some writers or books that folks might be surprised that you love? Mine is Jackie Collins’ Hollywood Wives and I am not sorry.
In college, I was a big E Lynn Harris fan. I devoured all his books. I loved how he wrote about closeted gay jocks. I also loved the Lesbian Erotica series. More than the steamy sex, I was in awe of two women openly loving each other.