Womanism 2.1 Tembe Denton-Hurst
by Juliet Cangelosi·
Interviewed by Juliet Cangelosi
I first encountered the heroine of Tembe Denton-Hurst’s Homebodies in her article for The Cut, It Doesn’t Matter if We Behave. There was a line that stood out to me about the novel’s main character, Mickey—I gave her the permission not to get back up the way most of us have to. I promptly pre-ordered the book ahead of its date.
When it arrived at my doorstep, I pored through its pages, following the patient emotional journey that unfolds within Mickey’s interior world. Upon finishing (would recommend), I closed the book on the New York City of Mickey’s fictional world and took a train to Queens. It’s not often you get to finish a book and then sit down with the author.
Surrounded by tall, pink stacks of freshly-printed copies of her debut novel, I caught up with Denton-Hurst on the release of her latest work and the people and process that got her here.
Hi, thank you for being here. To start off, tell me a bit about yourself.
I’m Tembe Denton-Hurst. I’m the author of Homebodies. I’m a writer at The Strategist and cat mom.
Where did it all start for you? What first drew you to writing?
I’ve been writing since I was young. When other kids would be outside playing—I really do not like outdoor activities—I would just be reading, writing. I would spend hours specifically writing in this orange composition notebook. I would decorate it with stickers, like the Lisa Frank ones, and just write stories all day. I kind of would escape into these worlds that I was designing and it was fun because, maybe it’s the Virgo, I was so excited to control all of the things. That’s kind of where it started for me and then I wrote a lot of fan fiction in high school, so there’s that.
But then for a while I felt like I couldn’t write anything longform especially in the fiction space. I felt like I was locked into occasionally writing a good paragraph because I was in college doing my master’s. I was writing so much for other stuff that fiction felt very far away for me. I graduated college, did an internship at Pop Sugar, got hired there, started working editorial, and things kind of spiraled from there as far as getting deeper into the writer/journalist space.
On the writing for myself front, Covid hit, and before that, I was like, I really want to start writing again, and my partner, she bought me a writing class. She was like, this is my investment in you and your dreams. I ended up starting my book in that writing workshop. That’s kind of like, beginning to now.
Do you remember one of the first stories that you wrote?
Oh absolutely. It was about these two twins—I think it was Ava and Sarah. But they were in love with this boy named Booker. Why? I do not know. But yeah, they were both in love with the same boy. And I was like, the drama. From 8 years old. I also used to be really into anime and manga when I was young. I went through an “I wanna draw” phase and I would make these little comics [with] lots of printer paper that I would fold in half and make my own little books.
Since we were talking about the origin of Homebodies, I wanted to ask, why do you feel like it was important for you to write Homebodies? It started out as a short story in this class— what compelled you to take it a step further and see it all the way through?
A lot of it had to do with Nicole Dennis-Benn who was the teacher of that course. She was like, I feel like this is a novel— this is not a short story. And I was like, I can’t disappoint one of my literary heroes [laughs]. I also just wanted to write something more full-length. I didn’t know exactly what it was. Once I started getting into the thick of it, I realized Homebodies was the story I needed to write before I wrote anything else, to work out what it meant to be a young Black woman trying to exist in this digital space. I really wanted to write this young twenty-something exploration story that I felt was really important because it wasn’t something I was seeing a ton of.
Since I started writing it, there have been a lot of Black coming-of-age books that came out and there were some that did exist when I started writing. But I knew I wanted to do it a bit differently, so it was important for me to be able to tell that story.
What was it that you felt like you wanted to do differently?
I really wanted to tell this story without this deep engagement with whiteness, whether that was romantically or just mentally/emotionally. A lot of other books I’ve read deal a lot with Black coming-of-age but with the specter of whiteness always pressing upon the main character. And Mickey goes through that in some ways in the sense that she deals with a lot of casual racism in her industry, but it’s not the point. I didn’t really want to make any points— I just wanted to write about a very ordinary Black girl who wasn’t necessarily particularly excellent in one direction or another. She’s just very normal.
Was this your first time doing a full-length? I’m also very curious what the process of writing looked like, having never done it before.
It’s interesting because people who I’ve spoken to that have written multiple novels are like, it’s different every time, but you’re always also starting from square one, so you never really know or learn how to write a novel. I think you learn how to better tell stories and how to better guide your reader through a specific experience. I think when you’re good at it, you’re like, I’m doing this intentionally and I know this is going to make you cry because I designed it that way, when you get to be masterful at commanding the pen. But I think every story is different. You just kind of feel it out and that’s what I did with Homebodies. I didn’t always know what was going to happen next. With the other things that I’m working on now, I have a better sense because the first idea comes to me sort of fully formed. I don’t necessarily know the last scene but I’m like, I have a sense of these things that need to happen.
Homebodies was a little bit different because I was just kind of building as I went. It was sort of like being in a dark room and then the light coming on. I think it’s more character study than it is plot driven. I feel like the emotional center is really what appears to me first and then I work my way out from there. Writing the book was really me trying to understand the character and getting to know her. Everything else kind of flowed naturally from that point.
You started this during the pandemic and went through a similar experience [to Mickey] of getting laid off. Was the process of writing this story for another character therapeutic in any way? What did you figure out on the other side of that?
I think Mickey allowed me to understand, at least for myself, there’s no one way to do life and being perfect doesn’t always serve you. I think I held myself and in some ways still hold myself to this high level of expectation around ways to live, ways to act, ways to do things, ways that the other people around me should act and exist. It was important for me to do something outside of that. Having Mickey do that, it’s helpful I think, because it changes the way that I see myself. It allows me to understand there is no one way to do it and even if I’m doing the best I can, not be so hard on myself if I don’t feel like I’m reaching that all the time. [It was] definitely healing in that way. And also it was nice to imagine this space away where she just goes and does nothing for weeks on end because that wasn’t my reality. I very quickly got a new job, very quickly jumped back into everything else and I didn’t make her do that, which was nice.
I want to talk about the article you wrote for The Cut. Just the title “It Doesn’t Matter if We Behave,” seemed to catch people’s eye and resonate with them, almost give them permission right away. In that article, you mentioned when you were starting your professional career, you were hesitant to wear your nails in a certain way and sort of used that as an entry point for talking about how one might change themselves or make themselves smaller to be palatable in a professional environment. Have you changed at all in how you think about this notion of professionalism compared to the beginning of your career and is there anything you might go back and do differently?
I don’t know if I would go back and do anything differently except for maybe speak up more, especially on my own behalf. I could speak up on behalf of the collective and be like, “I think we shouldn’t be talking about hair in this way” or something like that and using that as my expertise in a sense. But I think that I would probably advocate for myself specifically more often, because I didn’t know how to do that. I knew how to be vocal when it didn’t have to do with me directly. I think fighting for what I deserved or fighting for what I needed for myself felt like a very foreign concept to me and it was much scarier to do. I think it’s easy to hide behind the collective in a sense because there’s no personal cost to me if it doesn’t work out. If anything, I’m like, “We shouldn’t write this in the story,” and the story doesn’t go well, then it’s like, oh well, that’s on the company.
When it comes to me, I’m nervous. Are you gonna retaliate? Are you gonna treat me differently? Am I gonna be locked out of opportunities? Am I gonna stop being in meetings? There are all these different things that are very material realities that I was afraid of happening if I was to speak up or move in a certain kind of way because a lot of those things are not provable. And that’s kind of something that I wanted to explore in Homebodies as well was, there are all these little [things that] compound on Mickey and become this burden that she’s carrying and this overwhelming thing that she’s always contending with but it’s not necessarily a civil rights violation. It’s not so egregious that she can’t always say, “This is what happened to me.” There’s always another perspective that can invalidate the way that she feels or the way that she sees a situation. There’s also a chorus of people who are like, “No, I think you’re being a little bit dramatic,” or whatever it is. I would do it a little bit differently in the sense of not constantly, in some ways, gaslighting myself about what I believe to be happening or what I believe to be true.
That standard of conforming can follow people in so many ways both internally and externally, not just in professional environments, but in your world and in your experience, especially for Black women and women of color. I think in Homebodies, Mickey definitely has that journey of trying to figure out who she is and what she wants among so many other perceived expectations from other people, her own expectations of who she thinks she’s supposed to be. I’m curious more broadly than just the professionalism piece, how do you deal with perceived expectations as well as the pressure you might have on yourself internally? How do you stay connected to your gut?
I think my expectations for myself in some ways outstrip what everybody else could even put on me. It’s still its own kind of prison I suppose. I mean, my dad is definitely someone who had very high expectations of me when I was young and I really internalized that. He was like, you can do anything, you’re so gifted, you’re so talented, you’re so this, you’re so that. And I was like, oh, yeah I am. I’m constantly holding myself against this perceived standard until it really became my own, and then I was like, ok, now I’m going to surpass that. It’s interesting to now see him engage with my ambition because he’s like, you’re ok. You’re doing a good job. Relax—you don’t have to be so hard on yourself. And I’m like, but, how did I get here? I understand from his perspective as a parent in your late twenties, you’re like, I want my child to achieve and maybe touch dreams that I couldn’t have touched because I needed someone to tell me “keep going” or “you can do it.” But you’re young so you don’t have an idea about that so it just becomes intrinsic to the way you see yourself. I think it’s hard to disentangle your gut from the early learnings that you have.
Trusting your gut— I think it’s a process. For me I have to get out of my head and get into my body. A lot of times for me that’s like working out or walking, being really active and physical so that I can shake it all up and get really present because I think when I’m present I’m able to work through the things. And being patient with myself. I need to be patient in order to arrive at an answer. When I make decisions very quickly or out of anger or out of any emotion, it’s not that I necessarily regret them so much as that I’m often afforded more clarity over time. For me, with my gut, I have to just sit with it.
I can’t even imagine how much blood, sweat, and tears has to go into starting and finishing a novel and seeing it all the way through. Were there moments for you where you had that internal struggle? How did you continue to trust your gut throughout this process of putting out your first novel?
I don’t know if I trusted my gut— I trusted my people. I trusted my community. I think one of my best decisions are the people I surround myself with. And I’m very intentional about the way that I’ve crafted that because I’m always questioning it and throughout nobody has ever wavered to be like, you can’t do this or maybe you shouldn’t. I’m not beating any odds in my friends’ minds. There’s people who are like, “Yeah and nobody believed in me…” Everyone believes in me. Even when I’m like, “I don’t know, guys,” they’re like, “Girl, you got it. Girl, you’re good. Girl, this is gonna work. It’s gonna happen. You’re gonna achieve this.”
There’s no one who tells me no. I tell them my biggest dreams and they’re like, “That sounds like something that you can do.” When it comes to making choices, I try to trust my gut and make decisions based upon what feels right to me in that moment with the information that I have, but really it’s my community that continues to keep me grounded and reminds me of who I am both in the wider world and in my private life.
I wanna cry— I love what you just said so much. Wow. And I love how quick you were to be like, I didn’t trust my gut— I trust my people— because I feel like maybe there’s some sort of pressure that people feel sometimes to be like, “I did this myself” or something. Sometimes it takes people seeing you before you can really see yourself.
I have a question I wanted to ask you because I think another thing that tends to be a theme in Homebodies is the friends that Mickey surrounds herself with, especially Scottie and Jasmine. They’re just kind of there for her no matter what— they’re definitely the biggest constants for her. I was wondering about the role that type of support has played in your own life both inside and outside of your career.
One of the biggest ways that I separated myself from Mickey is that in my head I’m Jasmine and Scottie to Mickey in a sense. I allowed her to make no good decisions. In some ways I feel like I’m yelling at her like, “Mickey, this is what you have to do!” For me that’s emblematic to the way I am as a friend in the sense that I’m not holding you to a standard of a achievement, I’m holding you to accountability to yourself and helping you be a stakeholder in your own life and being like, is this aligning for the goals? Is this aligning with the things that you want for yourself? Is this aligning with you working at your highest good? I wanted to give her friends that are asking her those questions in different ways. One is showing her the truth consistently and the other one is like, well, you know that you’re great, this is how we get there.
My friends definitely function that way for me in real life. In some ways I think I’m inspired by Mickey’s stubbornness and desire to do whatever the fuck she wants despite the fact that everyone is telling her she’s being insane. She’s like, “I don’t care. I’m literally gonna do what I think is best.” And I’m inspired by that because I’m definitely a victim of the court of opinion, not the public opinion, but the opinion of my friends in the sense that I’m like, what do I do y’all? What do I eat for lunch? Sometimes I can be very indecisive, or when I do make a choice I want validation in that choice because I think if it works out, it seemed like a good idea to everyone at the time. It’s kind of a double-edged type of thing where having good community or people who you trust, you have to not over rely on their opinions. But I’ve learned that they’re going to love me no matter what I do and if I make a choice for myself, I’m the one who has to live with that and they’re the ones who just have to support me in that.
But it was nice to have Mickey be that very unapologetically, like, I'm doing what I want. I'm not listening to what anyone has to say. The friends were really important though because I think that your friends are, in a lot of ways, your mirrors. Mickey has a lot of mirrors in the book, but those are very important mirrors for her because they're always reflecting back to her the version of herself that she needs to see the most.
I don't know, there's something really beautiful about friendship because they don't owe you anything, but they give you so much. Generally your friends, they're sticking by you because they wanna do that with you. To me it's very beautiful because it's so voluntary.
Like it's extremely voluntary and I love that.
Yeah, it's just love. I love friendship. I'm obsessed with it. I love talking about it. It's my favorite.
Thinking more broadly, you have your first novel out. What compels you to tell stories?
I'm compelled by— it just feels necessary. It's not just because it's things that don't exist yet, but I think I have an interesting way of looking at the world and I'm excited to translate my worldview in different mediums in a way that makes people feel seen and feel heard. Just to show, sometimes, the mundanity of a life that they don't often see represented on the page. I’ve recently been doing a lot of pride panels and it was interesting because a question that's always gonna come up is the role of queerness in the work. It's kind of hard for me to answer that question because for me, the role of queerness in the work is just: it exists. There is nothing more to it.
Her being a lesbian is not like, even though it's being marketed in like, “best books for pride” or whatever, I'm like, it really has nothing to do with anything. The book is actually not about her being a lesbian. That's just part of what's happening with her. It's also not about, you know, racism in the workplace. That's just what she's experiencing. It's about her journey to loving herself and seeing herself and you know, losing her identity and trying to figure out who she is on the other side of that and if she's made the right choices about the things she's attached herself to.
All of that is things that I think are universal in a lot of ways and also very specific. I wanted to talk about it in a way that was very relatable to Black women because I think that we don't really get too many stories about Black women's interiority where they're just struggling. And not in a way that's like, here's the material circumstances bearing down upon me. Like, you know, “and then the roof fell in and we don't have any money for that! And then there's no food in the house! And we don't have no money for that either!” Or like, she wasn't at the beginning of some mythical quest, you know, to find her ancestry and like she meets somebody in the grocery store and it's actually, you know, her long lost slave master’s great uncle. I just didn't wanna engage with any of that.
I just kind of wanna tell a quiet story— it's very loud for Mickey. It feels very overwhelming for her, but quiet in the sense that a whole lot is not about to happen. She's just gonna be kind of sad.
I feel like we go through those periods in our lives and they never feel worthy of a story. But to me that is a very story worthy moment. Not because it's exciting, but because it's real. I wanted to give people the permission to have that period of feeling like, nothing is gonna come of this. Making bad decisions, doing things that people don't really agree with— I wanted to say, it's okay to do that, especially as a Black woman. It's okay to fall away from a standard or to not achieve or to be disappointed or to not do something well, or not to meet everyone's expectation or your own expectation.
It's okay to not know what you are. It's also okay to be doing that at 28. You don't have to have that figured out at any age. You're allowed to reinvent yourself or not even go through the process of reinvention. It's okay to not grow for six weeks. I wanted to kind of push back against that.
So I was compelled to do that. I was compelled to tell a story that was real because I haven't read that yet. If I did a good job at it, I don't really know. But that was the intention. That was what I wanted to do.
What stories are important for you to tell?
Stories that are important for me to tell are stories about Black women, Black queer women, who are very much so just existing and showing up and not always doing the best they can, and are maybe not that special and in some ways mediocre. It's pushing very, very hard against this idea of them having to be excellent or having to be so unique or particularly strong or extremely resilient. I'm sure I'm gonna have resilient characters, strong characters, but strong because they fought for that and not because it's innate to their existence. You know, there's no innate character traits that I'm assigning them.
I want them to behave badly in a lot of ways. I love writing about wild women—not necessarily wild, like, oh, now she's dancing on a table— but wild in the fact that she's bucking convention. Wild in the fact that she's not gonna play by anybody's rules. She's pushing back against that. I feel like I'm choosing intentionally different parts of the story to hone in on. Because I'm like, why don't we ever talk about that? That's the stuff that I wanna be writing about. Why aren't we focusing on this?
I think it's easy to write a story of redemption and overcoming because it's a very specific kind of satisfying journey. It's different to write about the waiting that comes before that. And so, yeah, people finished the book, so I guess it was interesting enough to carry them to that point.
If people wanna find out more about what's next for you or follow along with your writing or anything like that, where can they learn more?
The inside of my brain? I guess you could follow me on Instagram. I'm not really good at sharing my writing process. I've been like talking to friends—I'm like, you gotta kind of just get to know me in real life. Like DM me and ask me a question.
I don't know. I think I'm still kind of learning to understand that now that this [book] exists outside of me and people are reading it and like, multiple people are reading it, that people might be curious about me writing more things.
For now I'm just like, you gotta ask me in real life, are you writing anything next? I'd be like, yep, I am.
Okay, great. So come find you.
Yeah. Come find me.
Transcript by Juliet Cangelosi