We first encountered author Jendella Benson reading her short story Kindling - about teenage girls in Lozells in Birmingham, UK. She was reading at the launch of the 'Book of Birmingham' anthology from Comma Press. Oh man, we were mesmerized by that story! Meanwhile, in between working on her novel and appearing on TV and radio, Jendella is also a contributing editor at Tobi Oredein's online magazine, Black Ballad, a Black, British, female led title, packed with quality cultural affairs. You should read it, you should subscribe. It's changing things...
OUTSIDELEFT: We first encountered you at the Birmingham literary festival. You were reading at the launch of the Book of Birmingham anthology. Your story, Kindling, the way you wrote it, the way you read it, I was so immersed I almost drowned - I was holding my breath - hoping all would be okay... Everyone should read it. There's that time in lives when we find ourselves speaking a language we don't understand. We're speaking language and we don't know how it's used... (that is actually a question about that, about your girls, about your story...)
Jendella: Haha. Thank you so much! I really enjoyed working on Kindling but I wasn’t sure anyone would ‘get it’. When you’re writing about these very particular experiences, from a very particular point in time or point of view, sometimes it feels like people are going to read it and think “…and so?” I’ve had that before actually, when I’ve written something and sent it to someone to read and they’re like, “What was the point of that?” So I’m glad that Kindling resonates beyond me.
OUTSIDELEFT: And their courage...
Jendella: The strange (and exciting) thing about writing is when people pick up things from your characters or stories that you didn’t consciously try to put there but then you’re like, “Oh yeah! Actually I can see what you’re saying.” I wrote the characters in Kindling as a kind of tribute to the girls I knew in college and who I thought I was too, and I guess yeah, we walked the earth like we were invincible and I admire that naive kind of arrogance that you have as a teen before life grinds you down.
OUTSIDELEFT: Have you read the rest of the book? Any favourites?
Jendella: I’ve been pick and mixing from the book because I’ve been writing another thing and I can’t read too much when I’m writing. But I’m looking forward to reading it from start to finish over the Christmas period.
OUTSIDELEFT: Did you have your new baby yet?
Jendella: Not yet! End of the year, arriving with a bang (metaphorical, hopefully). I’m ready to go though (I say now…)
OUTSIDELEFT: You're from Birmingham, do you get back here much?
Jendella: Not enough! My mum passed this year and now my dad and my brother are in London, but I’ve got loads of close friends still in Birmingham. I thought about moving back when I had my first son but I didn’t think seriously enough about it to do it.
OUTSIDELEFT: What do you miss most about the place?
Jendella: Birmingham is so laid back compared to London. I just miss that openness and the human connection. London is very goal-orientated, you have make plans with people months in advance to get anything done. You live in the same city as family and friends and will only see them a couple of times a year. It’s very easy to feel disconnected from humanity apart from when it comes to road rage and getting angry at strangers for taking too long to swipe their Oyster on the Underground. Birmingham feels much more grounded and community focused.
OUTSIDELEFT: Can we talk about music? Am I missing anything you can recommend? I do everything to music, I think. But not so much British music I think. American. Jamila Woods, why is she not big here?
Jendella: I’m not familiar with Jamila Woods, although I do recognise the name. I’m going to shamelessly plug someone I know, because I genuinely love her music – Lumi HD, she’s from Birmingham too! Her music features on a few of my mood playlists.
OUTSIDELEFT: What about influences on your writing? Do you listen to music while you write?
Jendella: I can’t listen to music while I’m actually writing, I’m too easily distracted. I can’t even really read much when I’m writing which is almost counter intuitive, I have to kind of put myself into tunnel vision mode and make myself a bit miserable as I’m forced to write myself out of the tunnel. Not recommended but if I give myself too much space for fun I’ll never get stuff done. But I do have musical playlists that I listen to in between writing sessions. So I’ll make a soundtrack for whatever I’m working on to keep myself in that headspace, so when I sit down to actually write I’m not trying to conjure up a starting place, ideas have been churning around in my head for however many hours before I sit down to start typing. I can’t read while I’m writing, but I’ll always read in between drafts to remind myself what good writing actually feels like. I also get inspiration from films and TV shows too, but just any kind of storytelling – podcasts are a big one actually! I don’t write crime fiction but I love a good true crime podcast, or any kind of real life storytelling on everything from folklore and myths to weird internet culture stuff. Even if the themes have nothing to do with what I’m writing, just listening to the ways that stories are constructed for podcast/radio is really interesting.
OUTSIDELEFT: You do so much. I mean, how do you manage that? Mum, filmmaker, writer, podcaster, blogger, photographer, the Black Ballad newsletter... When/how do you sleep? Are you good at that? Sleeping?
Jendella: I don’t do everything all at once! A lesson hard-learned. I haven’t done much visual (filmmaking, photography) for a while to be honest. The last year has been focused on writing and my duties as contributing editor at Black Ballad. Mainly because of childcare issues/motherhood priorities, but I think – especially for generations who are growing up with the instant nature of the internet – there’s this pressure to do everything all at once and to constantly be doing something and having something new to show for oneself every other week, so I just do what I can, when I can and whatever makes the most sense at the time. Right now focusing on writing makes the most sense just in terms of practicality so that’s where my focus has been, but I can’t wait to get back to the other stuff. I’m always up for trying something new anyway.
OUTSIDELEFT: If you weren't a filmmaker, writer, podcaster, blogger, photographer...What do you think you'd be? Do you know where you're going? Did you know when you were growing up? Did you grow up in a creative household...? Is there an area of your work you prefer? If it's writing do you think about developing a show along the lines of, and I feel awful for mentioning, Love (with Gus and Mickie), Issa Rae's Insecure, Fleabag... There's room right, for a tv show with real people... maybe working class voices... I guess when I saw Burning An Illusion recently, the working classness alone was a relief. Although when I heard the panel discussion someone described the movie as phallocentric. I'd never actually heard that word before and I am old and have forgotten a lot of words, but I'd know if I'd known that one. And really mainly I wanted to know what Cassie McFarlane felt about carrying 90% of every scene, often in confined spaces. She was exceptionally great.
Jendella: I think I might be a therapist or a teacher or something. A couple of years ago during an existential crisis I thought about retraining to be a therapist and during that moment straight out of university when you’re trying to justify the last three years of your life, I did apply for a few roles within education as an arts technician or assistant. I don’t know where I’m going, but I stopped making concrete plans soon after uni (the disillusionment of graduating during a recession!) and my personal motto is “Do what works until it no longer works…then do something else!” My parents weren’t creative by profession but in general they were. My dad used to draw pictures of cars and aeroplanes to entertain us and he’d build these Lego projects with us. He also plays the guitar and would just strum it and make up melodies and stuff. My mum had a super technical and intelligent mind, but she was an amazing creative when it came to clothes. She used to make clothes for herself and me growing up and she did millenary courses and was known in our church for the amazing hats that she made herself. But the most important thing – that a lot of my friends from similar backgrounds still find extraordinary – is that my parents let me pursue a creative degree. I wasn’t expected to do law or medicine or engineering or any of the typical things expected of children whose parents came here for education, security and advancement. They gave me the space to stumble through and I’m truly grateful to them for that. When I was growing up the first thing I wanted to be was an author, then it went journalist, news anchor, war correspondent, graphic designer, photographer, and now I’m here writing again. I don’t really prefer one thing, I think certain ideas lend themselves best to certain medium and I just go with whatever works best. Nothing’s really ruled out, which I guess is why I’ve done a bunch of different things at one point or the other.
OUTSIDELEFT: What's next for Jendella... And what are you looking forward to in 2019...
Jendella: Well hopefully, next is my novel. I’m still revising it at the minute, but I’m actually very excited to have finished an actual book’s worth of words. We’ll see what happens with it though…
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