Transcript: Nicole Dennis-Benn and Dr. Jen Gunter

This is a transcript of Recommended Season 5 Episode 1.

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This episode is sponsored by The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett.

Jenn

You’re listening to Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. From childhood favorites to classics, to new and forthcoming reads, you’ll hear how the people who make books happen have been influenced by the ones they’ve read.

Today, author Nicole Dennis-Benn has chosen The Yellow House by Sarah Broom, and Dr. Jen Gunter has chosen Watership Down by Richard Adams.

Jenn

Nicole Dennis-Benn is the author of the novels PATSY and HERE COMES THE SUN, which won the Lambda Literary Award, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Award, the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, and the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, and was longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Elle, Ebony, Electric Literature, Mosaic, Lenny Letter, and Catapult, among others, and is included in the anthologies Well-Read Black Girl, Can We All Be Feminists?, and The Good Immigrant: 26 Writers Reflect on America. Dennis-Benn is a Lecturer in the Creative Writing Program at Princeton University and Kowold Visiting Faculty in City College’s MFA Program. Born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, Dennis-Benn is a graduate of Cornell University and holds a Master of Public Health from the University of Michigan and an MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. She lives with her wife in Brooklyn, New York.

GUEST 1

Hi, my name is Nicole Dennis-Benn and the book I’m recommending is the The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom.

The Yellow House is Sarah’s memoir about growing up in New Orleans. This is in the sixties, the seventies, the eighties; growing up in her parents house, the house that was actually there from the beginning from family members living inside this house, calling it their own. And also the community around them as well. And then how the city New Orleans has evolved since then, and how home has actually shifted for this particular narrator. And I find it really fascinating in how she takes us on this journey in this place she called home that’s now regarding as a tourist center worldwide. So I really enjoyed reading this book.

I got The Yellow House initially when I was in conversation with the author herself, it was a galley that I received; I didn’t hear about The Yellow House prior to that. And so once I started reading it I couldn’t stop, I couldn’t put it down because I connected to it personally as well, coming from a similar place that’s now regarded as a tourist attraction, but really a place I still call home; just like Sarah calls New Orleans home.

The connection was actually made by the persons who wanted to interview both of us as authors who have these stories about places that we call home; but also on another personal level, identifying as queer authors telling stories. And so it was on that capacity where we were being interviewed and I had to read her book and in reading that book I realized, wow, we have more in common than I previously would have thought; and so that was really what captivated me.

Friends who come over, friends who I know they’re from New Orleans as well or they’re looking for memoirs or they’re looking for something to read for the Summer that’s really when I’ll say, well there’s a book coming out in August I think you guys would enjoy. And that’s really how I start promoting the book. And also I noticed that a lot of people gravitate towards that and wanting to see this place in a new light because when we think about New Orleans we think about Mardi Gras, we think about just the parties and all these surface things; but really when I’m reading this story seeing the history of the place, seeing how the people interact with that place. It’s really fascinating.

Because see when I’m writing about Jamaica the same thing, how people perceive Jamaica as a tourist place, and then getting into the complexities of the people behind that fantasy. That really is something that I like telling and I tend to gravitate towards stories like that as well.

You think you know a place and then you read actually about that place from somebody who has lived there, who was born and raised there, who have seen that place in a completely different light. And so I think for me the selling point with this book New Orleans; is that place, that place that we look to as the happy-go-lucky Mardi Gras. At least I did, I’m not sure if anybody else. But when of course when Katrina happened it was that place we looked at as, oh my gosh so tragic, what happened; and I really craved the perception of those individuals who yes, they were displaced, but also the ones who remained. And for me to not be getting this insight from this author in this memoir who goes back into the history of New Orleans, tracing her family line to current; I find that refreshing and I think anybody who appreciates New Orleans will appreciate a memoir like this one.

I also love that she touches on colorism as well. Tthis is a story written by an African-American here. My stories are written about Jamaicans, Jamaicans in the country and at the end of the day grappling with the same thing. And I find that really interesting to know that yes, here there’s that… the shadeism is there as well. There are conversations about the author’s mother who has lighter skin and how she perceives herself as opposed to women who are darker skinned than her. And reading that chapter a little and I’m like, man, we’re definitely not different; and I think what this book accomplishes as any good book is forcing readers, holding a mirror up to readers showing us that we’re all not different. Yes, your problem might be writing about a particular culture or particular race or particular community, but at the end of the day we are all connected; and so I think in terms of these universal themes or them coming across in the book, I realize that it’s a solid book that would be a classic, I think.

I think at this stage people are here for the honesty and I think there’s definitely an evolution in the truths that people are craving; especially now in these times when what’s going on in the media and everything that’s being covered up, I feel that now there’s a transformation in our society where we want the truth, we want to see things multi-layered and so I think now we have… there’s more room for these kinds of stories to come out.
Unfortunately we had to wait this long but no, the door is being cracked. I won’t go as far as saying it’s wide wide open but it’s been cracked and I’m grateful for that, for sure.

The other book that comes to mind is Heavy by Kiese Laymon. Laymon, I think I’m mispronouncing his name. That’s another book that spoke to me as well. Here’s this coming of age memoir or story but is… really his memoir; this boy growing up in rural Mississippi, being raised by a single mother and just seeing the struggle, the burdens of growing up black in America. He talks about his body and coming of age into his sexuality and to himself as a black man in this country. That’s another narrative that to me was a eye-opener personally. Not that I didn’t know those stories before, but the way how it was written, the truths and the honesty in expressing those things that you never see people really express that well. I felt like that was really something to commend in my opinion. This unflinching reality, like he didn’t… that’s the push or even the… wanting to tell these stories in that honest, honest way as opposed to covering up or using language to hide true emotions. I really like books that yes, language might be there yes, but the truths coming out, the brutal honesty behind it.
I tend to read books outside of my genre, outside of fiction, so I love poetry for example and memoirs. I don’t know why, I just love the voice, I gravitate to a good voice and a good story regardless of the genre. I find myself reading lot of memoirs lately, Sarah Broom’s The Yellow House included, and it’s just me as reading just to read. Not for any inspiration or anything.

At the end of the day, if I have my writer hat on all the time I might not read as widely given that I’m very specific in what I read while I’m writing. But when I’m not writing I also take that hat off and try to read as much as possible.

So when I’m writing I really… fiction for sure. So Toni Morrison is my go-to author, just the way how she gives permission to write the complexities of her stories; the language, the poetry in that. Also love having with me Elizabeth Strout as well, who… she writes about place like none other, like no other writer ever encountered. In terms of how she… for Olive Kitteridge for example, to me was just brilliant. And then of course Zora Neale Hurston with the dialect, permission to use our dialect; and seeing other authors like that, like her does really well. So those are the writers I keep around me, or the books I keep around me while I’m writing, for sure.

JENN

That was Nicole Dennis-Benn, recommending The Yellow House by Sarah Broom. Her novel, Patsy, is published by Liveright and is available wherever books are sold. You can follow her on Twitter at @ndennis_benn.

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This episode is sponsored by Circe by Madeline Miller.

JENN

DR. JEN GUNTER, MD is an obstetrician and gynecologist with nearly three decades of experience as a vulvar and vaginal diseases expert. Known as the Gray Lady’s gynecologist, she writes two regular columns for The New York Times called “The Cycle” and “You Asked”, and has written for a broad range of outlets, including USA Today, Cosmopolitan, SELF, The Cut, and many more. An ELLE Magazine Woman to Watch, Dr. Jen is the star of a CBC series called Jensplaining. Her new book The Vagina Bible is a factual, fun-filled, and inclusive journey that debunks the myths around vaginal health and will educate and empower readers.

GUEST 2

My name is Dr. Jen Gunter, and Watership Down is my recommended.
Watership Down is about a band of ragtag rabbits that leave their warren because there is danger coming and about all the adventures and life lessons they learn on the way before establishing a new warren.
I found it in our cottage. We had a summer home in Canada, and my mother had bought I think for herself to read probably some time after it came out. She liked to buy books that were on the most recommended lists. She didn’t like it, couldn’t get into it, and so it was just laying around the cottage. I had probably exhausted all of the Harlequin romances that were around, and so I picked it up.

I was probably around 9 or 10, maybe 11 at the most, but around that age.
I couldn’t put it down. I think I probably didn’t go to the beach for two days. I think I probably stayed holed up in the cottage reading it, and I loved fantasy, and so this combined fantasy but animals and all kinds of amazing lessons about climate change and friendship and working together, and the stories were just so amazing. I also loved Greek mythology, and there’s also all the tales of rabbits of yore in there as well. It really hit all my sweet spots.

I have reread Watership Down when I’ve been feeling sad or unhappy, and it’s like an old friend, and the characters … They’re just so wonderful. They lift me up. A couple of years ago, I reread it because I forced my son to read it. He loves fantasy as well, and he needed to do a book report on something, and I kept badgering him to read Watership Down. Then finally, he read it, and then he was like, “Why didn’t you tell me to read this sooner?” and I was like, “Ugh.” So we actually have many discussions about Watership Down, the two of us.

Once I discovered a new author, I would look for every book they had written and be on the lookout for new books. I tried to get through The Plague Dogs, and I couldn’t. I could not get through the second or third chapter, and the same with Shardik, and so I kind of left it at that. I thought, “If the only book you have written that I can read, and maybe other people could’ve read Richard Adams’s other books, is Watership Down,” I’m totally okay with that, because it’s the best book I’ve ever read.

I think all the messages really do, the friendship and working together and everybody has something to contribute and things are not always what they seem. Certainly the messages about a dictatorship are still very valid, military style leadership, and what that can do. Also, climate change, the rabbits had to leave their warren because their climate was going to be changed by man. I guess the only part of the book that doesn’t hold up is the lack of female characters. The does are really there as breeders and so that’s a little bit disappointing, but you also have to look at the era in which a book was written, and it was a different time, I guess. The only disappointing thing is that the female characters really add very little, except their ability to have rabbit babies.

I knew I wanted to be a doctor pretty early on. I had a pretty big interaction with the healthcare system when I was 11. I ruptured my spleen skateboarding and had a lot of hospitalization related to that. Then as a result of that, they found out I had kidney disease. I had to have a kidney removed. It was a summer of being in the hospital a lot and having major surgery and all kinds of invasive testing and that really actually fascinated me. I just was fascinated by all of it. That is what I think made me want to become a physician, that initial interaction with the medical system and just being so fascinated by the science of it all.

Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, you have to have a story that interests people. With nonfiction, the story is true. With fiction, I guess you hope it touches people in ways that feel true to them. I think the idea about making people interested and wanting to turn the pages would be what I think I learned from reading good fiction, about trying to help me then write better nonfiction.

I mean if it’s not interesting, and it doesn’t make you say laugh or feel sad, it doesn’t give you an emotion, I think that it’s just too sterile. I don’t mean playing on emotions in cruel ways, but you have to draw people in, you have to draw your reader in, you have to make it interesting.

I do love fantasy and Greek mythology. I just finished reading Song of Achilles. Oh my gosh, and so I have the next book. I haven’t opened that yet. I have a lot of travel coming up, so I’m saving that for a long plane ride, and so yeah. So Song of Achilles, loved that. I just finished rereading Lord of the Rings, because I took my son to New Zealand to see a bunch of the sets from the movies. We wanted to be up on all our minutia before we were there.

In fact, I had, something sad happened a few months ago, and I was lying on my bed, feeling really sad. He came into my room with our old copy of The Hobbit, the beautiful picture book. He sat down and opened it and started to read to me from The Hobbit. He read to me every night, a chapter from the hobbit. That was just amazing medicine.

I loved The Chronicles of Narnia, and I used to save up my money and take the bus, maybe like a dime, to go downtown. When I first discovered it, I thought, “What is this? Oh my gosh, I have to get the next one.” I would save up my money and take the bus and go downtown and buy the next book. Then I didn’t know that CS Lewis had died. When I got the last book, and I realized he had died, because I’d never really read the biography part at the end, I think, I always cry. I still remember crying that there were not going to be any more Narnia books. I was devastated.

When people build worlds like that, that you really want to be part of that, I mean that’s something else. I think I got that from Song of Achilles or Watership Down or Lord of the Rings or Narnia. I really felt like I was in that world.

I guess what I would say about Watership Down is don’t base whether you should read the book on the movies or the Netflix series about it. It’s interesting. Whenever I tweet about Watership Down, because I swear I’m like the biggest fan girl … I’m always telling people, “Have you read this book?” I think people are always struck by the violence in the movie and in the Netflix series and I think there’s probably been some other screen versions of it too for TV or whatever. There is obviously violence in it but not more so than any fantasy novel, and probably less in many ways. It’s certainly not graphic, right? I have no recollection of real graphic violence. I would say if you’re afraid to read it because you think it’s graphic violence, it’s not. I think that it’s been changed in many ways to try to be made more commercial, but I don’t think you can change something that’s perfect, so you should read the book.

JENN

That was Dr. Jen Gunter, recommending Watership Down by Richard Adams. Her book The Vagina Bible, published by Citadel, is available wherever books are sold. You can follow her on Twitter @DrJenGunter.

Coming up this season, we’ll hear from other writers including Tamsyn Muir, Keah Brown, Jen Wang, and Kekla Magoon, so stay tuned!

Thanks again to today’s sponsors for making Recommended possible. If you like what you’re hearing, please do drop by on Apple Podcasts to leave us a rating or a review. We’re always happy to see the feedback, and reviews help other bookish listeners find our show. You can find shownotes, including titles mentioned, at Bookriot.com/recommended, and you can email us feedback, personal favorites, and suggestions at recommended@bookriot.com.

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