The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2023

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JUNE 2023 Issue
Books In Conversation

Tembe Denton-Hurst with Naomi Elias

Tembe Denton-Hurst
(Harper, 2023)

In her debut novel, Homebodies, Tembe Denton-Hurst—a staff writer at New York Magazine’s The Strategist who covers beauty and books—explores the way a layoff can either spell death or rebirth. The book’s protagonist, Mickey Hayward, is a Black lesbian described as “always simmering at a low boil.” She’s a staff writer covering the beauty beat at Wave, a fictional New York-based publication that, in a pattern reminiscent of real women-oriented publications, was acquired by a media conglomerate interested in capitalizing on feminism by turning it into an aesthetic; their desired readership is “the kind of women who referred to themselves as girls,” and they engage in the kind of cloying posturing that will be immediately familiar to anyone who has worked at publications with similar modus operandi and similarly paltry diversity statistics. When Mickey’s career at the magazine is suddenly undercut by her resident white girlboss, she finds herself at her lowest professional and personal point and decides to pen an inflammatory open letter expressing her discontent with the state of digital media and the way Black women like her have been bending like acrobats to fit in.

The novel explores the fallout from Mickey’s letter (which eventually goes mega-viral) but also, crucially, her inner life. Homebodies is a journey through her experience of failure, alienation, and rage as she comes to realize something many people learn too late: work will not love you back. Running parallel, there’s an actual love line dedicated to exploring the competing attentions of her current (Lex) and former (Tee) flames, women whose love for her forces her to do the kind of self-reflection people lie in therapy to avoid.

I spoke with the Denton-Hurst over the phone in April and she opened up about the joys of writing a slice of life story about a queer Black woman, her interest in character over plot, and how music informs her writing.

Naomi Elias (Rail): You refer to Homebodies as “the book I had to write before I wrote anything else.” Can you explain what you meant by that?

Denton-Hurst: I think it will probably be the book that most closely resembles my own experiences. I wrote what I knew most intimately, which was this journey of wanting something, fighting for something really hard, and having it taken away from me. My story is very different from Mickey’s ultimately and I didn't have the same path as her, but I understood her mindset, especially in the beginning.

Rail: In the novel Mickey makes a joke post-firing about how she wouldn’t write a tell-all media memoir, a genre young female writers are encouraged to churn out. You could have also written one because, as you're saying, some of the experiences mirror your own. Is there a reason you went to fiction, and what elasticity or freedom did literary fiction as a genre give you that memoir couldn't?

Denton-Hurst: The form of memoir has never been all that compelling to me so it wasn't really interesting to me to write. Beyond that, I think that in fiction, you can tell the truth, but you don't have to necessarily tell your truth. I had a lot of freedom in writing fiction. It gave me permission to have Mickey do a lot of things that I never did in real life. The real life version of it is more boring. When I got laid off, I had another job six weeks later. My severance didn't even have the time to run out because I was already in my next role. I gave Mickey the permission to have a very messy, windy journey to do something, to be daring in a way that I never dared to be and to be bold in a way that I never felt I could be, which was fun for me.

Rail: With how fraught the digital media landscape has been recently what was interesting to you about exploring the severance period?

Denton-Hurst: It's just such a weird space of time. You have something of a safety net, but you're also not safe because it's such a short period. There's not really a lot of guidance for what to do once you get laid off. Everyone's like, "Get back to it. Try to figure it out.” Do you go freelance? Do you do this? Do you do that? It's a very vulnerable time, especially because it's against your will. You didn't choose to leave; you were forced out. I wanted to give Mickey the opportunity to not do any of those things and to just spiral out and be sad about it and be overwhelmed and stare into the abyss a little.

Rail: When you were first working on this book at a writing workshop it was only five pages and you started with the scene in the supermarket when Mickey and her first love see each other again after a long time. How did that scene crack this novel open?

Denton-Hurst: I’ve always wanted to write a love story so I was excited about this idea that she comes home and she's in the same place at the same time as this person who she cares about, but almost had to teach herself not to care about anymore, and they see each other again—opening up what that looks like for the both of them. That ultimately wasn't what the story ended up being about, but that was what was exciting to me in the very beginnings of it. It really became about Mickey's journey and her figuring out herself and her life but that is definitely not how I imagined it when I first started it.

Rail: What helped change the direction?

Denton-Hurst: Mickey as a character just became unwieldy. In telling her story, I realized there was a lot that she had to say and there was a lot that had to be explored. As much as I was really in love with Tee and Mickey as a concept, Mickey's interior life felt very rich for me so I couldn't not explore it.

Rail: I think it’s fair to say Homebodies is a character study. As a writer what did you enjoy about formulating a character-driven rather than plot-driven novel?

Denton-Hurst: All of my favorite things that I read and watch are very character driven more than plot driven. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn, definitely Love Life season two on HBO Max, that's such a brilliant piece of television. I really, really love it. It nails so much about modern love and being a modern person and figuring it all out, and it encapsulates this very specific second coming of age that I really like exploring. The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell, in which her main character is examining her life based upon the grief of her brother's passing and things happen but it's about her life and the surrealness of the grief. It's really beautifully done. Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson. What else? I would say Training School for Negro Girls, which is short stories of these women who are living in DC, very slice of life. They're about these small moments on these characters’ journeys that I think ultimately do change them, but we don't necessarily get to see the result of that change or the things that came before that, and in some ways, I feel like Homebodies is doing something similar. It's capturing the beginning of Mickey transforming and we don't exactly know what's on the other side of that. We know what came before and what led her to where she is at that moment, but we don't necessarily get to see the effects of her being a new person.

I'm fascinated with people's internal conflicts or the way they handle big moments in their life. I wanted to write something that reflected that, and beyond that, I wanted to explore a young Black woman's interiority. I really wanted to write that because I wasn't reading that.

Rail: It's really important to Mickey’s story that she's Black, obviously, that plays a role in her firing, but also it's rare to have a queer Black character and queer romance as a big part of the book. Could you talk about the importance of those two significant relationships in her life? What sort of story did you want to tell and why was that important to you?

Denton-Hurst: I wanted to show the ordinariness of queerness. The story is about Mickey, who is this person navigating her world who happens to be Black and happens to be queer. I'm not trying to make a point in any way. It was like, this is how her life looks because that's how my life looks. I live my life every single day and I'm a lesbian and I'm engaged to a woman and that's just how my life looks, so I wanted to show not a true reflection, but a reflection of Mickey's world and her interiority and the world that she'd built for herself, and that included those two love stories. I wanted to give people the opportunity to sit inside of her head and move through that portion of her life.

It was significant because love and the way that people see you and the way that people view you, has a huge impact on the way that you see yourself. Mickey is learning how to see herself and become less invisible both to herself and to the people around her. She had to confront the very first people who made her feel seen, which I would say is her dad and Tee, and by examining those relationships or re-engaging those relationships in new ways as an older person, as a different person, she was able to learn some new things about herself and make some different decisions.

And as far as Lex, they meet each other when they're very young in their early twenties and they're in this relationship, and at that point, they faced tumultuousness, but nothing to the extent where Mickey is no longer the person that Lex fell in love with, or she's seeing the writing on the wall. They'd spent so much time filling in the cracks for one another that when Mickey realizes there's some cracks that she has to fill in on her own, it alienates her in that relationship. I think that that is a universal thing. Some relationships can't withstand change and can't withstand that deep self-growth and can't withstand that level of upheaval, and I wanted to explore that. They just happened to be gay because I'm gay and that's what I wanted to write about. I love reading lesbian love and queer love on the page. Anytime there's that type of theme in a book, I'm always very excited because it's closer to my own life. I wanted to write about an experience that was not my actual happenings, but a lived experience that was similar to mine and to the people that are around me.

Rail: Throughout the novel you name specific musical artists Mickey is listening to at home, in the car, etc. so that in the end, the reader can make a Mickey-inspired playlist. What was behind the way you incorporated music into the book?

Denton-Hurst: It was just about adding realism to her life. If you are a young Black twenty-something living in New York, you'll be like, yeah, that makes sense. A lot of them also are just my favorite artists and the things that I was listening to while I was writing. When I was building Mickey as a character, I started to look around, imagine her world, and I saw every piece of it. I started to be able to build a map of how she would've been experiencing the world sonically as she was getting older. Her listening to Jill Scott— I listened to Jill Scott as a kid— but I'm like, “Well, her mom spent time in Philly in that neo soul scene and that's something that's a part of the book so it only makes sense that Mickey would've had Jill Scott as a constant companion throughout her life.” And so many other young Black girls and Black boys have had Jill Scott as a companion through their life. So to me, it makes sense that she would love that. Summer Walker, classic. Everybody listens to that. Cleo Sol. I love music so I was like, “What kind of person is Mickey?” It was fun to think through her music taste.

Rail: Are there any other tricks or tools you use to help build your character? What were you doing to make her a distinct or believable person?

Denton-Hurst: I talked to my friends a lot about her. I talk about my characters as if they're real people. I'm like, “okay, so what do we think? Mickey is doing X, Y, and Z and how do we feel like she would react to this?” And we talk about it at length. I'll sit there and voice record and voice note and just be deep in working through all the different paths she could take, thinking about all the ways that she must feel at a given moment. All the things that she's saying and all the things that she might not be saying, and why she's carrying all these things with her at one time, and the things that she's allowing herself to set down, or moments when she'll be selfish and moments when she'll be self-aware or when she wouldn't be self-aware because how could she be? I've definitely analyzed and psychoanalyzed all of my friends' lives so it's only natural for me to do that with characters. It's a way that I do things in real life so I apply that to the page.

Rail: You wrote a very specific novel about a Black woman writer in digital media but, like your essay for The Cut, “It Doesn’t Matter If We Behave,” which relayed your personal experiences navigating respectability politics, it’s emblematic of the experiences of Black women in the working world at large. In terms of the reaction to your article in The Cut, I saw Black women, not only those working in media but even for example my friend who is a lawyer, sharing it on social media. What did you think of the response to that article, and when the book comes out, how do you think other women will respond who are not necessarily in digital media, but feel like this is an example of everything they’ve gone through in America, in a capitalist system, et cetera, and you being able to say “we” proudly representing that. How do you feel about the responsibility of using the royal or inclusive “we” when writing about Black women?

Denton-Hurst: I think that our experiences, because the system is applied to us in a certain one-size-fits-all way, tend to be fairly similar as a result. We're all human so it only makes sense that we are all experiencing some similarities across the spectrum when we're faced with a certain pressure. We've been trained to be the collective “we” so I don't really know how to speak about us in any other way. We're grouped together whether we like it or not, and so we might as well try to figure out how we're going to get along or find some commonalities and figure out how we’re going to talk about this.

The types of things that I seek to write and will continue to write, has a lot to do with putting my vulnerability on display as a human being, and being a Black woman is part of that for me. I’m hoping that Black women resonate with that. I know that I'm writing to them specifically because I'm talking about things that we maybe don't talk about so openly—the modern pain that we experience and the subtlety of that. It isn't the overt racist things or overt slights as much as it is the ways that we're policing ourselves or the ways that these things are taking really heavy mental tolls on us as women. I'm writing for myself in some ways, in a lot of ways, and I think it ultimately ends up resonating with the collective because I don't see myself as separated from it. I write with them in mind.


Naomi Elias

Naomi Elias is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared online and in print at a variety of publications including New York Magazine, Nylon, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2023

All Issues