Jendella Benson on Black Womanhood and Debut Novel ‘Hope & Glory’ – WWD

Jendella Benson is getting used to juggling several things at the same time.

She is the head of editorial at Black Ballad, a leading digital media platform and membership community for Black women, a mother of two, and an author, with her debut novel “Hope & Glory” set to be released in April.

“It’s a novel that is about a young woman called Glory who returns home,” Benson says via Zoom from her home in Croydon, south of London.

“She’s out in L.A. living her life, having a great time, and then what basically happens is that her dad dies and she has to return back to London. Quite abruptly and when she returns back, she finds her family in complete chaos. Her mom is on the verge of a breakdown. Her brother is in prison, her sister’s in an unhappy marriage. So she decides that she’s going to try and fix things and as she tries to fix things, she uncovers secrets about her family that she didn’t know, which could potentially blow everything up.”

The Birmingham-raised, British Nigerian Benson says she started writing as she entered what she called “a quarter-life crisis,” and it just happened that she was approached by an editor from a publishing house around the same time.

“I was kind of where Glory was at when I started. You’re trying to decide what you’re doing, where you’re going and how you want to be in the world.”

But she stresses that “the entire thing is fictional,” even if “the emotions are from a real place.”

‘Hope and Glory’ by Jendella Benson
Courtesy Photo

On the whole, she says the book is about empathy, family and the idea of reunion, and it reflects the impact immigration had on generations of family, and “how we survive and how we relate to our parents who have been through things that we might not have reference points for.”

“I wanted to see a family that I knew and I recognized on the page, to create a story that other women like me would read and recognize and kind of connect with, and to speak about family because I think sometimes family can be seen as a cage for us to escape from. But my family was my safe haven because outside of the home, that’s where the racism and the bullying were.

“I wanted to kind of do something that would, I guess, celebrate family but not try and make it like all rose-tinted and perfect because families aren’t like that. They are complicated, fractured and problematic. But for many of us, they’re still home,” she says.

Benson reveals the book deal wouldn’t have come to fruition without four years of experience in writing and editing at Black Ballad, which was founded as a blog by Tobi Oredein and Bola Awoniyi in 2014. It was relaunched in 2017 and now has more than 1,000 paying members who support the site’s operations.

“Tobi often felt that she was pigeonholed as a Black woman to only write about race issues, or only write about the more negative or hard parts of life, but she wanted to create a space where Black women can write about whatever they want and read about whatever they want,” Benson explains.

Black Ballad allows Black writers — predominantly from the U.K., but also from Africa, the Caribbean and America — to express freely about every facet of life, “creating this kaleidoscopic picture of what it means to be a Black woman.”

“People want to come for the nuances and the joy, but also to find out how to navigate being a Black woman in the workplace, as well as wanting to read about nostalgic kinds of things from their childhood,” Benson says.

Love life is also a big topic at Black Ballad. A recent commission, for example, explored how interracial couples deal with wedding traditions. The answer, according to Benson, is to find that fine balance between respecting heritage and personal preference.

The platform also explores cross-culture parenting and motherhood with a podcast series.

“That does not just include Black and white, or Black and Asian. It’s also even within Black cultures, because not every Black culture is the same. If you’re a Nigerian marrying a Ghanaian, there’s also a cross-cultural exchange,” she explains.

Jendella Benson

Jendella Benson
Tols Abeni/Courtesy of Jendella Benson

When it comes to cultural exchange, Benson thinks there is no other better place than London, where she can have authentic Japanese sushi and West African cuisine in the same neighborhood.

Her top three places to go for great African food in London are Café Spice, Plantain Kitchen and The Flygerians in Peckham, where she lived for many years and where her novel is set.

Her favorite Black-owned fashion labels include Kai Collective, Bespoke Binny, Daily Paper and Al Malala Jewelry, which specialize in affordable, African-inspired styles.

“Al Malala takes in parts of our heritage from the African diaspora and makes it a bit more modern, mixing with other influences as well. I really like their stuff,” she says.

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