Inner Joy for the Holiday Season

When I worked at a health clinic eight years ago as an outreach coordinator, I met a middle-age woman who made a lasting impression on me. Cherubic with a round face and body, and pleasantly mild-mannered, it was hard to write her off as just another public health case when her son was admitted in the hospital yet again. The woman's eleven year old son had chronic asthma that doctors suspected was a result of his living environment. Concerned, the doctors at Kings County wanted an investigation done on the family's living situation. I had to make my way to this woman's apartment as the asthma outreach coordinator. From what I understood then, there could be repercussions if a parent's living situation was found to exacerbate the child's chronic asthma despite doctor's warning. But what I understand now, is that if an alternative is not given, then how fair are these repercussions? And what's the use of a public health intervention without such alternatives in place for those who cannot afford any better?

It was mid-December, 2006. The steel gray sky threatened snow. Lots of it. As I walked the long, dimly lit corridor of the building, I heard the sounds of life behind those grim doors: Babies crying, music seeping under doors and into the hallways like the smells of cooking, people talking over noisy television that carried their favorite daytime talk-shows. Life was contained within these hallways.

Somehow it turned out that I was the only one who showed up at the apartment. I rang the doorbell and waited on the welcome mat that said "Home Sweet Home", spying a door with bullet holes across from where I stood. This was in the projects, in a place I would come to know as Brownsville, Brooklyn. I was fresh out of graduate school in Michigan and new to New York. I was also new as a city worker. I knew nothing about Brownsville. I knew nothing about the projects. And I knew nothing about what I would walk into when the woman opened that door to let me into the apartment. Ceiling, furniture, light fixtures, uneven floorboards, kitchen---all were infested with cockroaches. They fell from the ceiling like the peeling paint; and the woman, seemingly oblivious or just used to it, offered me water from a glass. Perhaps she thought that my twitching came from some form of neurotic spasms and not from roaches crawling out of every crevice inside the apartment, landing like ninjas on the coffee table and couch. Her welcoming demeanor, like that of many of the low income homes I visited during my tenure as an outreach coordinator, struck me as tragic. Because though those individuals might have been aware of my and my colleagues' discomfort, I could tell that they tried hard to make up for it by offering us something to eat or drink. Of course, as strangers, we stood in the middle of their space, ominous figures with our city ID's, capable of casting shadows of judgement on things they had no power to change. So in those moments, it seemed as though they went out of their way to remind us of their humanity. And ours.

My new case gestured toward the couch for me to sit, again, as though oblivious to her situation. "Least you can do is make yourself comfortable," she said, coughing. Her cough then subsided into a low wheezing. I politely insisted on standing. She watched as I clumsily pulled out my brochures on asthma and handed them to her, eager to get out of the apartment. I had planned to write a report for her to get on an expedited list for low income families that live in poor conditions. But my feet could not move fast enough. As I got closer to the door, a Christmas tree caught my eyes. I was so distracted with dodging cockroaches that I didn't notice the tree, about six feet, standing there, glowing as though all the light we lacked on that dull day had been trapped within its pines.

"This is nice," I said, not really sure why I stopped. I guess being new to New York City--a place known for its fast-pace and stoicism, there was something about seeing a Christmas tree inside someone's home. In fact, I was reminded of Home. At the time I was running away for many reasons; and being inside of that roach infested apartment, staring at that Christmas tree, brought me back. The woman's face transformed as though I had uttered the possibility of her living in the Governor's mansion until she got her situation sorted out. She lifted a chubby hand to her chest and smiled. "Thank you."

"You decorated it yourself?" I asked, feeling myself relax in her presence.

"Yes." Her eyes fell to the floor as if finally, searching the crevices of the parquet floors for the fallen roaches. "Despite everything, I make the best of every situation," she said. "I decorate our Christmas tree and the apartment, because I won't let NYCHA take my joy. They don't do shit around here, but I won't let them take my joy." Her eyes met mine again. "I hope you have a Christmas tree."

I told her no. I didn't have one, because at the time, I was single and living in a cramped space with two roommates. At the time I was also depressed, because I felt so disconnected and discombobulated in this new city. But this woman reminded me of something I thought I had lost: Internal joy. Somehow she kept hers despite her situation.

"Go buy a Christmas tree," she said. "Do it for yourself."

"I have no one to celebrate Christmas with, so what's the use?" I said.

"Do it for yourself," she repeated. "Joy comes when we find it within ourselves."

That day, I left with more joy and optimism than when I entered that building and stood in the grim hallway. I didn't buy a Christmas tree then. I didn't buy one the year after or the year after that. Finally when I bought one, it was one of those dwarf trees from Kmart that came with decorations and lights already attached.

This is the first year that I actually ever decorated a Christmas tree. This is the first year that I have ever been mindful of creating and sustaining my own joy as I diligently placed each and every decoration on the pine branches. And as I stood back, gazing up at the tree in my living room, I realized that the woman was right: Joy comes when we find it within ourselves. I exhaled thinking about the bursts of joys I've had in my life: Marriage to an amazing woman; and this year alone gave me even more to be grateful for--two Pushcart Prize nominations for my fiction, writing fellowships, job offers to lecture at various colleges and organizations, starting my own business, and much much more. But before all those things, there were moments, journeys I had to make. I might have gotten my share of lousy dates and rejection letters and jobs that made me question my purpose; but in those moments were the joys of living. Each and every one of those moments served its purpose; each one prepared me for other moments, other opportunities. God gives us little blessings to see what we do with them; for then S(H)e decides if we'd be ready for the big ones. As we walk towards our goals and dreams, we must not forget to be mindful of the beauty of each moment. It was this woman, a stranger, who made me realize that I should treasure the journey, pay attention to the flowers and the trees in the garden on my way, and let the joy within light my path.

When I stood back and gazed at my Christmas tree last night, I remembered that woman in the Brownsville projects. I never saw her again. I didn't know what ever became of her. I left the job shortly afterward (and eventually, public health altogether to pursue writing), and so I lost touch. But I will always be grateful for what she offered me that day. An offer that I did not resist. And just like she offered me light, I wish the universe has returned the favor.

Nicole Y. Dennis-Benn



Art by Ruud van Empel

This whole month I have been following the reactions to the Mike Brown and Eric Garner cases. It has been an emotional roller-coaster, watching, waiting, aware of my own breath as I watch Eric Garner struggle on national tv over and over again, pleading "I CAN'T BREATHE!" I sat for the most part in disbelief, pondering the cruelty and callousness of individuals who take advantage of their power; individuals whose jobs are to protect. But these individuals have taken it upon themselves to kill without much thought. Though the victims were not angels, their lives were still valuable.

As valuable as the lives of black women...

For before there was Eric Garner, there was Gwen Carr, his mother. I will continue to support the cause for justice. However, as I chant "Black Lives Matter" in the streets with millions, I want to take the time and emphasize the fact that black women matter too. Too many times we are on the forefront of fighting for the lives of black men. However, our girls are suffering too. Our breaths have been snatched from us for the sake of our brothers. On World AIDS Day, we were in the troughs of protest against the police for killing these black men; but unknown to many, AIDS is a disease that is disproportionately killing heterosexual Black women. Like the police are disproportionately killing Black men. But no one advocates for black women. No one weeps for her. Who weeps for her when she doesn't even know how to weep for herself? Who weeps for her when she's too busy weeping for her sons and husbands and brothers in the streets? She is the mule of the world. Not even black men with their tunnel visions see her, respect her, or deem her worthy of standing up for and protecting.

So as this Black Lives Matter protest continues, I find myself highly conflicted. As Black Women, we are taught to be self-less. We were also taught to be silent, swallowing our own burdens and secrets and hurts, because "God only gives you what you can handle...and what doesn't kill you will only make you stronger...turn the other cheek." Our mothers and women figures in our lives policed us into abiding by these rules. They tell us that we should be ashamed of ourselves for daring to love the way we want and live the lives we want without first thinking of others and how it would impact them. Others tell us that we have to turn one cheek if a black man wronged us, because we would be a disgrace to the race if we dare utter our truths. Think of Anita Hill. Think about how she was persecuted in the public for daring to speak up against a powerful black man who sexually harrassed her. Recently, model and actress, Beverley Johnson uttered the same sentiment when she told Vanity Fair why it took her so long to disclose that comedian, Bill Cosby drugged her with the intent to take advantage of her three decades ago. Too many times black women bear the brunt of it all, and are often bullied into silence.

This gender policing also trickles into our personal lives as well. It is why a lot of black women don't venture outside of the race to date or even come out as lesbians. They fear that untraditional love and affection would reflect badly on the race; for remember, they are the mules...the mothers, the rocks. And God forbid they become "selfish" and do what they want to do with their own lives. The weaker ones among us stay imprisoned by these guidelines and watch from a dark space as others move on without them. They eat their sorrows, trying to stuff big black holes of regret with food, becoming large like buildings and furniture--inanimate objects that are seen and not heard. Some drink it, hoping for faster results and good numbing. A lot more max out credit cards on things they hope would do the trick. For their pain isn't cheap. In church, they cling to a shred of light inside their prison cells, humming, hoping and praying for the day of judgement to come and ease them from their burdens; their "duties".

Moreover, you see these black women in the streets chanting. It's what their churches and organizations and soroities and neighbors and so-and-so whose son passed away tell them to do. It's what they do, because as mules, they have to be the ones pulling the entire black race forward with their teeth gripping the chains. But had you been a step closer, you might recoginze the glistening in the eyes, sharp like blades. You might soon realize that the weeping and chanting are for the dead alright. For the bodies and the lives of black girls that go unnoticed. They slip through the cracks on the ground, mere shadows, for everyone to walk on. One of these days the black woman will stop in the middle of the street in protest. She will walk in the middle of traffic with her hands up and sit down. Amidst the car horns and screams and shouts and abuse, she will hug herself tightly, finally acknowledging that she's tired. That she is worthy. That she is human.

This is my dream as a black feminist. Though I am all for the cause of protesting against the wrongful killings of black men, I hope to see solidarity among sisters; and most importantly, I wish to see a blatant display of selfishness that says, "If I can't breathe, then how will I be able to give you air, muchless demand your oxygen over mine?"

Nicole Y. Dennis-Benn

Check out my interview with Girls Write Now here! "Staying true to that Conviction to Write"

So honored to be featured by Girls Write Now as one of the most impressive craft talk authors!!!!! Check out my interview here! "Staying true to that Conviction to Write":



Just Write.

In a city full of writers all wanting the same goal, it’s imperative to respect and cherish your journey. You may get dissuaded along the way, but your biggest defiance yet is to sit silently inside yourself. Stay true to the stories that have kept you awake. Don’t worry about other writers. To each his/her own. The stories you want to tell are inside you, nestled inside memory, emotion, confusion, or simply, imagination rooted deep inside a place you rarely understand or can explain. You allow that internal force to move your pen. Open up all channels to let them run wild without care for structure, grammar, audience. Let them haunt your waking moments. As a writer you cannot be afraid to sit with things, whether good or bad. Your demons, whatever they are, exist for various reasons. Let them roam, for they are a part of you. Yes, I dare say the very word we’ve been taught to rebuke, compartmentalize, forget. By "demons", I mean tapping into your deepest, darkest self. This will allow you to write with honesty. You will un-apologetically stir those same raw emotions from readers who thought they too had compartmentalized, forgotten, and rebuked those feelings or experiences.

Write the things you know, not the things taught to you or shoved down your throat. Write the visceral things you have felt, experienced, witnessed, lived. I encounter too many writers for instance, who write the way the old white British men wrote—the ones whose words scrawled across our textbooks, especially if you are a writer from the British Caribbean. Those Caribbean writers would later recount how their first characters were white. And male. This happens in other places too, not just the Caribbean. Nigerian author, Chimamanda Adichie admits that she was once guilty of this as a novice writer. Junot Diaz recounted in a recent New York Times article that the literature in his MFA program at Cornell was dominated by mostly white males, some dead, some alive yet clutching pens that will forever be immortalized. I too had to learn this given that I grew up reading books that weren’t about me or my experiences. However, it was Toni Morrison who once said that you have to write the stories you want to read. And in this city of writers, all panting forward for the biggest agents and literary journals and publishers, be assured that someone out there—be it someone who may not be all the above—will pick up your story, read it, and be inspired by it.

Brilliant works are never written in one sitting. If someone utters such nonsense, then perhaps they’re lying. Or perhaps they might not be as brilliant. For Writers, good ones, tend to be humble. And for good reason. Because there is vulnerability in writing. Writing means you have to crack yourself open and expose yourself to the world. Each sentence, each word, is a labor of love, written with great care, handed over in blind faith of trust. Like new mothers we hold writing dare, clutched close to our hearts, too close, as to prevent them from being mangled, misinterpreted, destroyed by the world. But then we learn to let go, though still attached, forever pregnant with hopes that they will end up in good hands. Not many people can walk the earth exposed and not blush. Not when every blemish is visible to be scrutinized, stared at. Even if one thinks nakedness is the most empowering and beautiful thing. Gazes are subjective. The best bet is to try your best, put your heart and soul into writing, revise carefully, and send it out into the world. Be grateful and humble by the ability to even have a voice in the first place.

A voice. Not many are given voices. As a writer, your duty is to give a voice to the voiceless. Let this be your motivation. Every time you stare at the blank screen or blank page, terrified to write, crippled by what others might think, or crushed by a rejection letter; know that someone out there needs to hear what you have to say. Someone out there needs to know that they’re not alone in a personal struggle. Someone out there needs to see themselves, their stories in books. Let your stories empower them. Just Write.

About Stuyvesant Writers Workshop:

Stuyvesant Writing Workshop understands that writing is lonely, and that every writer needs a safe space to share their work, have it critiqued by other serious writers, and discuss authors whose stories inspire them or whose techniques they can learn from. The workshop is geared towards the working professional who has always wanted to write, but never seems to have the time; the storyteller searching for a voice; the writer who would love an opportunity to form community outside the coffee shop in the neighborhood without having to venture to Park Slope or South Brooklyn. The workshop is facilitated by yours truly!

Stuyvesant Writing Workshop is affordable with four sessions for a total of $250. Classes run from June 24th- July 15th. Tuesday evenings, 6:30pm-8:30pm. To register, please email stuyvesantwriters@gmail.com. Like Stuyvesant Writing Workshop on Facebook. Or follow us on twitter at @StuyvesantW.



Stuyvesant Writing Workshop- Facilitated by me!

I am facilitating a four week intensive writing workshop in Bedstuy, Brooklyn every Tuesday evening from 6:30pm-8:30pm, starting June 24th- July 15th. Please pass this on to anyone who might be interested!!If you are an aspiring writer, now is the time to pull out your pen, join me, and write! Click on the Flier below to see the details.



Paul Blackwood.


These words meant to seem supportive are the most detrimental. For imagine being acknowledged, accepted, and dismissed in one sentence. One sentence alone that has the potential to shove you back inside that box where you couldn’t breathe. It’s those very words that butter you up as a loved one; but put you down for being you. Every time I hear those words I cringe. It’s only human to hurt, to feel the pressure of guilt pressed firmly against your ribcage where your heart is supposed to be. Because when your support system—family members or friends—tell you that you’re OK, just not how you love, it is a slow devastation. Subtle in nature, because it eats at you, though they might say that it’s uttered in love. Only those who you love have that power to assuage you tenderly, lovingly while they snap your neck. So when we hear “I love you, just not your lifestyle,” the pain is so subtle that you barely feel it.

Not until you vow to keep your sexual identity and expression to yourself by omitting certain life events, hiding your spouse, showing up to family events alone, compromising yourself for their sake, does the pain materialize; slips sideways under the breasts where it becomes sorrow. You begin to feel robbed of something you cannot quite explain;enraged by the insoluble compound rising in your throat; embittered by the displays of the affections around you, the acknowledgements of your other achievements—just not that other thing, yes that thing, the don’t-you-dare-bring-it-up-or-else-you-won’t-be-invited-or-ever-meet-your-nieces-and-nephews-thing; the—I-hope-your-novels-don’t-disgrace-us-or-reveal-too-much-about-that thing.

And then there’s the word “Lifestyle”. This misnomer is even more harmful, because it brings to mind choice, luxury, style that can be tried on, taken off, altered. The word should be LIFE. For being gay is my identity. It’s a part of who I am. Just as I am woman, black, and Jamaican. Therefore, when my identity is trivialized as a lifestyle, I implode. When I hear “I love you, just not your lifestyle”, I quickly discern that the person is telling me without really telling me that only part of me is OK. That they refuse to accept the whole; and thus does not see me as a human, but a severed being, freakishly existing outside of a circus.

I consider myself lucky in the way I choose to get my anger out. I grab my pen and write. Others self-destruct, for the rage is too much to carry alone. It’s too heavy to walk with, putting one foot before the other; and even daring to reach out to find love. For when your identity has been challenged and dismissed so often, it fucks with you. It fucks with your perceptions. When you are made to feel invisible, it makes you hate yourself and thus empties it on others—all that baggage. And their weak backs are often too worn to carry all your weight, all your baggage, because like you they have been weighed down by their own baggage too. So one day, everything snaps. And just like that you’re alone—just like those people wanted. The ones who sweetly cooed “I’m praying for you to change. You know I love you, just not your…” And all you can say to them. And all you should say to them is, “Fuck you!”

Because at the end of the day it’s your life. You should never compromise for anyone. I know you’ve all heard that cliché. But living it and saying it are two different things, especially when identities get scorched, mangled by the dragon flames of religion and society and yes, that comfort of good ole familial affection and acceptance. But sometimes good things harm you. There’s a Jamaican saying “Wah sweet nanny goat aggo run him belly.” Basically, it’s saying to just be careful of the vices you use to make yourself feel good. Be careful of that family member or friend who keeps putting you down under the sweet disguise of affection and tolerance.

It’s only human to feel that pinch of a nerve when we are denied and dismissed. But it’s also human to mourn, to say our goodbyes to those people gently—as gently as a stroke, a whisper, a kiss on the forehead or cheek—and walk away knowing that your choice to let go and move on is done in love. For YOU. ~Nicole


Kara Walker's Exhibit at Domino Sugar Factory

I went to see the Sugar Sphinx, Kara Walker’s exhibit in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It was hard not to marvel at the sugar babies made of molasses and carrying weave baskets of crystallized sugar; their miniature build creating large shadows of melting beneath them. Visitors stepped into these puddles as they peered inside these baskets, their shoes carrying footprints through the entire factory, unknowingly. For those who have these lived experiences of our ancestors still soaring in our blood, we know these footsteps are indelible, sticky, meant to create a trail however long.

Then we get to the Sphinx itself. A magnificent mammy-esque figure perched on all fours in the nude like a lioness resting. Her stark whiteness glows in the factory; her mammoth image, divine. I was drawn to this figure, her features; her fists tightly coiled as though angry; her eyes staring off into the distance at something we, as her viewers, failed to grasp. All she wore was a head-scarf tied the way my great-grandmother used to tie her scarf, knotted in the front; and her face said it all with the emotions suppressed, restrained under that calm exterior as people snapped pictures and snatched molecules of sugar into their lungs.

It was quite jarring at first to see many people so fascinated with the Sphinx’s magnanimous derriere, snapping pictures and carrying on conversations; their miniature heads seemingly sandwiched between her enhanced butt cheeks and vulva. White people, mostly, with their cameras gazed up into the sacred space where the Sphinx reclined on curled toes. It was then that I thought about Kara Walker’s intent. Her decision to have this naked, mammoth black woman to be gazed at, marveled at that way. The shaming and objectifying that we as black women are subjected to, used to. Of course, I admire Walker’s effort to drag everyone—black, white, asian, Hispanic, whatever the backgrounds—into this conversation of race. Of course I see how this large Sphinx could be that elephant in the room, the one whose presence is inevitable, forcing you to look, to gaze up into its face. “I dare you,” she says, her eyes meeting yours.

And now you see. Now you make sense of the message implicit in her stoic face. For how can she be ignored now? How can one’s gaze be averted? The question of power arises. Now in this space, this figure has the power to snatch people from their reality and bring them back to the reality of slavery—to the stories and images of those very workers who ploughed through cane-fields to deliver the sweetness to their tables. How bitter the taste when they look down and see the blood trailing their footsteps. ~Nicole