We’ve been excited by Jendella Benson’s stories since we heard her read Kindle, which was published in the Book of Birmingham short story collection. Oh wow was our first response to the troublesome teens who were out dancing in clubs in Brum they maybe shouldn’t have been in… Oh and then there was a super short piece Jendella wrote for Gal-Dem about the confidence and swagger of youth (In defence of youthful arrogance - about that and way more besides). Near or actually perfect. You decide. Jendella has an unerring ability to capture moments just so and render them real and the mundane magical all at once. It’s an uncannily beautiful thing. Jendella Benson is a TedX speaker and editor for Black Ballad. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, BuzzFeed, MTV News UK, and The Huffington Post, among many others. Jendella’s first novel, Hope and Glory is published on April 7th and despite a crazy schedule that has included appearances on NBC and a what looks like a walking tour of South London bookshops, we exchanged emails…
OUTSIDELEFT: How much can you tell us about Hope & Glory without telling us too much about Hope & Glory?
JENDELLA BENSON: Hope & Glory starts off with a young woman, Glory, who returns to her hometown of Peckham, south London when her father dies. She’s been living in LA and according to her Instagram feed, she’s been “living her best life”. But when she returns to London she finds her family imploding. Her mother is on the verge of a breakdown, her young brother is in prison and her sister is stuck in a questionable marriage. That’s her welcome home party but she decides to stay in London and attempt to fix all of her family’s problems, in the way that young, twenty-somethings think they can (speaking as a once young twenty-something who thought she could). In the process of doing that she uncovers a family secret that introduces more problems that it helps solve and that’s where things get interesting.
OL: As you were writing it, constructing, engineering it, editing Hope & Glory, and your words tumble across the page… Where do you and your life stop. And leap into fiction? If at all or…
JENDELLA: The emotions in Hope & Glory are real, even if the people and events are completely fiction. In some ways there are pieces of me scattered throughout the book, buried in different characters and snatches of dialogue, but I don’t think they’re immediately recognisable as being me, any more than any other author’s fingerprints and unique point of view are evident in their work.
OL: As a younger writer, perhaps, and in much of your adult life, you’ve been surrounded by social media - while I know the book will have to succeed on a level, be marketed, globally beyond your reach, that in-person, indie south London bookshop tour I saw on social media was inspired. I loved it on so many levels… a post-capitalistic bow in a very conservative and capitalistic business?
JENDELLA: I can’t take credit for that – that was my publisher arranging everything, but it was a really fun experience. Growing up on the Internet it can be easy to have all your metrics skewed in one direction – platform reach, engagement, followers, that kind of thing – so it was refreshing to go out into the real world and reacquaint myself with the human side of things. That was how my love for books started, the libraries and the bookshops, so going there felt like, OK, I’m a real author now, with a real book in the real world. But also, just generally, I feel like book lovers are remembering why indies are so important post-lockdown and all that stuff. The experience of going into a bookshop with a friendly face who is ready to recommend or just talk about books is an unmatched experience. I’m glad that publishers are taking that seriously.
OL: In the business of books, I am currently getting some help from a champion of working class writers, and she has said, there is pressure from within the industry for working class writers to preoccupy themselves with a version of working class people, situations that the middle class mid-level managers in publishing consider ‘real’. Where are the working class employees in publishing? Question at last though… How was it for you?
JENDELLA: I’ve definitely read books that are by working class, black or other marginalised writers and you can almost see the ways that the work that has ticked the boxes that get the middle classes salivating. Dorothy Koomson said that when she was first writing, her work was rejected from some publishers because it just had black people, it didn’t talk about “the black experience” (or at least their interpretation of it). I think I was really fortunate in that my day job – working as head of editorial at Black Ballad – means that I’m in a sort of cocoon. I spend most of my days thinking about what black women like me and not like me want to read and talk about, so writing Hope & Glory, I was already kind of couched in that mindset and I think it definitely served me well. I know it’s not the case for everyone, but I felt really comfortable with the editors and publishers because they just got me and they got the book and there was never any suggestion of changing anything to make it more like what their vision of my story should be. The reality is though, that while you’re going through the editorial process, you’re getting a lot of positive feedback from people who aren’t necessarily the people who you wrote the book for. It’s amazing but I definitely got to the point where I was itching for it to go out to meet the real life readers so I could know if I had done it “right” and if my vision stayed intact from start to finish. Thankfully, early feedback has been really good. I feel genuinely blessed to have had such a good editorial team who didn’t project onto the book in that way that you hear some people in publishing do.
OL: It’s not really appropriate for me to ask about other writers you’ve read recently in case you don’t mention Raven Leilani…
JENDELLA: Ha! I think I’m definitely due another reading of Luster! I recently finished The Leviathan by Rosie Andrews which blew my mind. I always had this impression that I don’t like historical fiction for some reason, but this book is so immersive. The research and details and the way the story unfolds is really satisfying. I’m currently reading The Day I Fell Off My Island by Yvonne Bailey-Smith (who happens to be Zadie Smith’s mum) and I’m loving the dialogue in it. The Jamaican Patois sings off the page, it’s gorgeous, and I’m also reading Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness. It’s a book that I want to race through but at the same time I really want to savour each page, it’s a hard balance to strike.
OL: And of course, if you listen, what do you listen to when you write - we have to get this, give me and our readers some music tips…
JENDELLA: I never used to listen to music while writing, but now I find it helps me focus with so many distractions around and easily get into the zone. I make playlists based on what I’m writing, like a soundtrack to the world of the book. The playlist I have repeat for the next thing I’m working on has a lot of artists hailing from the Midlands like Jorja Smith and Pa Salieu. Jorja Smith featured a lot on the playlist I made for Hope & Glory as well.
OL: I’m really weirdly into parents, before I had a child I always thought parents, maybe inculcated by the ones I rebelled against, the ones I didn’t admire as a child, felt (what now feels woeful) that my Irish immigrant parents were almost aliens in my world, maybe it was that. Now I drive my daughter to school and we pass many schools on the way and many parents who’ve turned their children out all scrubbed up and so proudly and I love the parents! Heroic! I think you have small children to get going in the day, and toast crumbs to sweep away and so on. Laundry to do… How do you do it, how do you fit in everything, but not only that, the level you are operating at to write so beautifully, so incisively and so entertainingly - like every time I read something from you, you make me want to stop writing all together - I can only imagine your toast crumbs are tidied in an equally exemplary way…
JENDELLA: Thank you so much, and I bloody wish they were!!! I think I’ve made peace with the fact that as a parent, you can’t do everything perfectly, something gets sacrificed at some point. It’s also making peace with the fact that things take a lot longer because you have to stretch your time to fit around so many different obligations. Writing takes so long these days, I try not to get frustrated by it, but it really does take an age to get anything together that feels passable because as has been said a million times in a million different ways, the writing is in the re-writing, but that re-writing/editing process takes brain cells and concentration that children just monopolise. It’s hard to string together a coherent thought after spending an entire day trying to convince small people to get dressed, eat, put their shoes on, stop antagonising their sibling, etc. So where my tendency is to want everything in order all the time, I’ve had to learn to leave the living room in a mess otherwise I won’t have the energy to write, or maybe writing isn’t happening right now because I’m mentally drained and it’s not coming together. And then sometimes, when the kids are with Grandma and I have some time on the weekend, writing means that I don’t see people or socialise or whatever. Right now, I’m not reading as much as I’d like, or writing as much as I’d like because I’m doing lots of bits for Hope & Glory in the place of where I’d usually be reading or writing but rather than get frustrated or have unrealistic expectations, I’m just going with the flow and enjoying what I need to do. Everything has its time and place. I think we have this myth of the genius writer who is locked away in their study constantly writing greatness, but for most of us, that just isn’t possible. It happens in fits and bursts and in the in between moments. Lots of fragments and scraps between school runs and appointments and cooking dinner and bedtime.
OL: Where we came in, where outsideleft came in was when we saw you read your contribution to the Book of Birmingham short story collection. It was so teenage apt, we were totally wrapt I can imagine crazy, and mundane existences of the characters beyond the confines of a specific story. Short story collections are on an upswing commercially, viably and maybe from the reader perspective now a lot of people are finding themselves time poor in addition to all of life's other deprivations. Can you see yourself returning to the short story, or is that now too narrow a vehicle for the people you want to write to travel in? They need more space, more words. Or what?
JENDELLA: Oh, I’d love to return to the short story form, but in some ways, I actually find them harder to write. I envy the prolific short fiction writers because in some ways it reminds me of brain surgery, the cuts and slices have to be just so to stitch together something compelling and powerful within the restrictions. Hope & Glory and the next book I’m working on actually both started from mediocre short stories that, hopefully, grew into really good books. I have a bunch of other starting points that might be short stories, or they might be seeds of books, but it’s finding the time to develop them and see what’s happening in them.
OL: What about Birmingham, you are back here to talk about the book, can you talk a little about the event?
JENDELLA: It’s going to be an intimate conversation and Q&A hosted by Black Ballad’s CEO and co-founder Tobi Oredein. I’m imagining it almost like a girls’ night in type of vibe. I’m really looking forward to it, especially as I’m not in Birmingham nowhere near as much as I’d like to be, and I’m looking forward to getting back to the warmth and community that I always associate with my home city.
Hope and Glory is published by Orion Books on April 7th.