In Conversation with Jendella Benson

There’s a new wave of African British writers that has been pulling me toward their stories of the African diaspora, similar to the Caribbean diaspora stories that have been published for decades. Debut author Jendella Benson is no stranger to the public eye: she’s been writing, filming, photographing, and speaking during her career and her latest jump into being a published author of a fiction novel seems well deserved.

Hope and Glory follows the life of Glory Akíndélé who returns home to London for her father’s funeral. She’s been gone so long and has been out-of-touch with them, that she’s on the outskirts emotionally. She discovers a family secret and becomes determined to unravel it, but there’s much more to this missing person than she’s ready to admit. She has to admit that her absence has contributed to the family’s hardships.

Jendella Benson is the Head of Editorial at Black Ballard, a digital platform for Black British women and she also hosts the podcast Black Ballard Presents: The Survival Guide. She has written for numerous publications, including The Sunday Times STYLE Magazine, Metro Online and Independent Voices. She’s also a sought-after speaker, making appearances as a TEDx speaker and at various universities and conferences.

I’m very honored to have Jendella here with me to discuss her debut novel Hope and Glory. Below is our conversation.  

Tricia: Welcome to In Conversation Jendella! Thanks so much for joining me and congrats on the release of your debut novel, Hope and Glory. How has this experience been for you thus far?

Jendella: Thank you so much for having me! The experience of publishing a book has been surprisingly more emotional than I thought it would be. There have been some really surreal, mountaintop moments, but then there is also the work of promoting a book, which is actual hard work too. Another author told me that it’s wrong to look at publication day as the finish line – which is so tempting to do – because it’s the start of a whole new journey. So yeah, it’s been a dream come true but also like having another full-time job on top of my day job as Head of Editorial at Black Ballad and also being a mom too!

Tricia: I can definitely relate to the juggling act that’s needed to achieve all the things are needed! I wanted to start with, I think almost every culture has its taboo subjects that are the foundation secrets are built upon. And I felt in Hope and Glory, the secret is deeper than a missing person, it’s about the extreme sacrifice this family made and the role cultural expectations played in the decision. Why did you choose this topic to be the focus of your debut novel?

Jendella: Yes, it’s exactly that! I think as second-generation children, we can look at our parents who immigrated from their homelands in a very two-dimensional way. We can often turn them into heroes who did this amazing thing for themselves and us, and kind of put everything they are and have done onto a pedestal. Or we grow up and see all their flaws and the mistakes that they’ve made and be very critical of that. I know I’ve definitely made the mistake of jumping from the first to the second, but when I became a mother, I felt like I had unlocked a different level of understanding with my own mother. Her decisions do not track exactly with Celeste’s (Glory’s mom) in the book, but I guess growing up and thinking more deeply about what it means to leave everyone you know and your entire support system to come to this new country, which is in some ways so hostile to you, and then to try and survive and thrive with little resources and a diminished support system made me want to write about it. 

Tricia: When the secret of the missing person is uncovered, I found myself as a reader trying to internalize and visualize how life as an immigrant could bring me to an acceptance that this was the best course of action. What do you want readers to take away from this circumstance in their understanding of the immigrant experience for Nigerians in Britain?

Jendella: I think I just want people to have more empathy. You never know what burdens people are carrying or what battles they’ve had to fight to stand in front you and present as whole a person as they can be in that moment. That goes for all immigrants, but also all people in general.

Tricia: You address anxiety and post-partum depression head-on, and it helped me to understand Celeste’s struggles and Faith’s protectiveness of her mother. In your book, culturally I got the sense that these topics are not discussed often, if at all. In reality, is this the case and has there been any change toward more openness on mental health within families and communities?

Jendella: It’s not spoken about all! I suffered from postpartum depression, and it wasn’t until I went through it that my mom and one of my aunties was like, “I had that too.” It’s really one of those things that when you experience it you find yourself let into this secret club of women who have had the same experience but have not spoken about it openly. I spoke with a friend who had experienced a miscarriage and while she was grieving the same thing happened. So many older women who she had grown up around opened up and told her they had miscarried and what got them through, but if we hadn’t have had those experiences, we would have never have known it had happened to people so close to us.

I think with my generation and onwards, there is more of an openness. I think social media has definitely helped with that. Being able to find people who are going through or have been through similar [situations] and are talking about it openly without shame can encourage you to do so too. I think we are more prepared to have the hard conversations with our elders who might not want to talk so openly about these things, and I know for a fact a lot of us are trying to keep that dialogue open with our peers and any younger people we have in our lives as well.

Tricia: At the wake early in the book it becomes evident that Faith is held in higher esteem by the elder women in the family’s community because she followed the culture’s rules per se, while Glory did the opposite. This concept of going against the norm comes up again with Lara, who was allowed to pursue an art degree. What do you think this mindset communicates about Nigerian cultural standards of success and expectation?

Jendella: Nigeria is a beautiful place but can also be a very hard place to survive. The country has such a large population and I think the sheer number of people can necessitate a strong ambition to succeed, because you can see people succeeding but also failing to incredible degrees. And then there is a more communal mentality, because your success is not just your success, it is your parents’, your grandparents’, your wider family’s success. In Nigeria and in many other African countries and also other parts of the world, this is quite practically seen in the financial remittances that the diaspora send back home to help out. Because of political mismanagement, there is no real welfare system to fall back on. The welfare system is your community. So, success is very important, it means a lot, not just in terms of psychically – because we are a loud and proud people! – but also practically.

Now tie that into the knowledge that our parents have sacrificed so much for us to have better opportunities than we would have had otherwise, there can be a guilt that forces you to conform. Some willingly conform, as Faith does, others begrudgingly do so or outright rebel. 

Tricia: The situation where immigrant families are sometimes forced to send their children to live with white families due to economic hardship, how prevalent did you find this to be in Nigerian immigrant families?

Jendella: It was a common thing to do from the 1960s up until the early 2000s. It is now illegal to make these arrangements without the state being formally involved, so if it does still happen, it’s impossible to put numbers to how prevalent it is. But it was something that was fairly common and openly done during that period due to the practicalities of working as an immigrant in Britain. You would work long hours or be in school full-time and you would either not have the time or money to care for your children in the way that you’d like, or even the housing you had access to wouldn’t be fit for a family. If you were still in Nigeria, the wider community would fill that gap, but in Britain it wasn’t possible to have that community, so you had to basically outsource it.

Tricia: I also wondered at the strength of cultural norms that can extend so far outside of an immigrant’s homeland. The fact that Celeste felt she couldn’t defy her husband because he felt disgraced by one of the children, is very profound. Can you comment about this dynamic and the depth of cultural influence to control decisions and actions even in a new country?

Jendelle: Identity is very important, especially when you are in a new environment. Some people find comfort in clinging to their cultural identity with both hands and refusing to let go. It can be a way of guarding against a lot of the challenges and hardships you face in a new place as you are affirming who you are and the values that you hold. It can also be an emotional comfort in the sense of familiarity and clinging to an idea of home that isn’t physically present. Also, a lot of us are conditioned culturally and find it hard to understand or see no reason why we should let go of those influences, especially if our values still align. Then there’s also the fact that, as a new immigrant, already your community is greatly diminished, if letting go of cultural expectations and norms could have the potential to diminish that even further, that could be absolutely terrifying.

But saying all that, we are all culturally conditioned in some capacity. Many of us think that this is just the way things are and it takes someone from outside coming in to show us that there are different ways. I don’t think Celeste would have seen herself as being controlled, and more like she was stuck between a rock and a hard place and making a pragmatic decision that would hopefully end well for everyone.

Tricia: I see similarities in systemic racism within the law and prison system in Britain and what has been happening for decades in the U.S. How important was it to you to address these issues, especially Glory’s brother Victor’s plight, in your first novel?

Jendella: It was important to me because it’s real and we don’t talk about it enough and people don’t realise how prevalent it is in this country. Just recently, a group of young boys were sentenced to lengthy prison terms for reasons that you would find hard to believe if it was fiction. It’s a subject that is close to home because of experiences of people close to me, but it just shouldn’t be something that you only know about when someone you know goes through it. It is a gross miscarriage of justice and the fight against it goes on.

Tricia: We’ve all heard the term ‘fake it til you make it’ but in Glory’s case she was faking it to the point where she was hating it, and her family suffered from her absence while she set out to make it. How much pressure do you feel immigrant children are under to be successful by their immigrant communities as well as larger society?

Jendella: I think there is definitely a pressure from their family, as mentioned before, and I think there is also the implicit expectation from wider society that you need to be a “good immigrant” to make your presence in the country worthwhile. But I also think there is a pressure we put on ourselves to live up to those expectations of our community, to make the sacrifice of those that have gone before us worth it, and to prove any negative stereotypes or expectations from a racist society wrong. I think the pressure is both internal and external.

Tricia: Julian for me was the personification of many of the societal disadvantages that plague Black men in Britain, and I found his character enlightening and articulate. Why did Hope and Glory need a Julian in the narrative?

Jendella: Because Julians exist! I know many Julians, and I love the fact that people have said to me “I love Julian, he reminded me of this guy I know!” I also wanted a character who could challenge Glory, open up her mind in some ways while still understanding and being there for her when she needed someone, and while this could have come from a girlfriend, I really wanted some positive male energy around her as well, given her dad has died and her brother is away in prison.

Tricia: Now that your first novel is out in the world, do you feel that Hope and Glory has fulfilled the goals you set when you first started writing it?

Jendella: First of all, I wanted people to read Hope and Glory and see a version of London and people that they recognise accurately presented. Second, I wanted to open space for cross-generational empathy within my community and thirdly, I wanted people who might not be so familiar with the world in the book to read and recognise the universality of our experiences. And of course, I wanted people to enjoy and feel a connection with the characters. The feedback I’ve had so far suggests that I’ve reached those goals, so I’m pleased.

Tricia: Jendella, thank you so much for joining me and for your time. I wish you continued success and I look forward to your next novel.

Jendella: Thank you for your thoughtful questions!

You can read my review of Hope and Glory, be sure to follow Jendella Benson on Instagram, Twitter, or find out more on her work from her website. Be sure to check out Jendella’s tour of Peckham which is where Hope and Glory is set.

Photo courtesy Tols Abeni.

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