To get a sense of a writer’s artistic and moral ethos, look no further than her sources of inspiration. “There were a lot of books that I was reading while I was writing Homebodies,” recalls Tembe Denton-Hurst. A few notable titles included Thick by Tressie McMillan Cottom, Training School for Negro Girls by Camille Acker, Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires, and Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn. “There are so many Black women whose work inspired me,” she says. “They showed me what was possible on the page.”
As a current writer at New York Magazine’s The Strategist, Denton-Hurst has made her first foray into the literary world with her debut novel Homebodies. Inspired by events from her own life, the story is about Mickey Hayward, a twenty-something journalist who unexpectedly gets laid off from her media job. Rather than sticking around in New York, she returns home to Maryland to figure out her next move.
“When I was laid off at the end of 2019 from my job,” says Denton-Hurst, “I felt very knocked off my path.” Being that she’s a Virgo, this sudden change took a toll. But unlike Mickey, she began a job—at New York Magazine—shortly after. “I didn’t miss a beat,” she says. “There’s no world where I could’ve done what Mickey did, but I identified with those emotions and thought other people could relate, too.”
Below, Denton-Hurst speaks to ELLE.com about her debut, the different ways that Black women are expected to perform, and why she hopes that her work will make its way into your group chat conversations.
What was happening in your life when you decided to write Homebodies?
I was in Nicole Dennis-Benn’s writing workshop and needed to turn something in. We had to write five pages and this is what began to pour out. I imagined it being a short story, but Nicole said, “No, this is a novel.”
I always love to see which quotes authors preface their books with. Why did you choose “We work. Lord do black girls and black women work,” by Tressie McMillan Cottom?
Initially, the working title for Homebodies was Women Working, so this quote is the guiding principle of the book. Obviously, there’s the actual physical work, but then there’s also the emotional work that Mickey does in all of the roles that she inhabits. As a Black woman, she feels so invisible—both to herself and to the institution that she’s given herself over to. There’s something very heartbreaking about that. She’s so lonely. As women in this industry, we can agree that we give so much of ourselves to the work, to the job, and to the industry as a whole. And I wanted to think about the ways that Black women perform labor on every level, whether that’s in the workplace or in their personal lives.
Speaking of Black women performing at work, your recent essay on The Cut, “It Doesn’t Matter If We Behave,” is in line with this very topic. How’s the response been since it was published?
It’s been incredible and very unexpected. I hoped that people would like it, but I didn’t think that they would respond in the way that they did. I got so many messages from people who were like, “I feel so seen by this and I’m talking to my friends about it in the group chat.” I was just like, “Whoa,” because the group chat is such a sacred place. And it’s interesting because Mickey goes through something very similar in the book. So I’m like, “Did I just manifest this?” I think there’s something to be said for the work that inspires intimate conversations between people, especially Black women. The idea that this is happening in the group chat is the highest honor. I love the idea that my writing is inspiring closed-door conversations, especially among the women that I’m writing towards.
You also say in the essay that instead of going to therapy, you wrote a novel. How did this writing process serve as a method of healing for you at the time?
It allowed me to revisit emotions and then talk about them on the page in a really honest way. I remember the first time when I was at my new job and my editor asked me to do something. I got so anxious. I was like, “Oh my God. They’re gonna fire me. They hate me here.” It was only in those moments that I recognized that I had not confronted some of the feelings that I had leaving my past job. Especially because I didn’t choose that. I hadn’t fully processed that rejection because I was already sitting in another seat. So I was able to let Mickey break down and spiral out and be upset. That was really validating for me.
I love those moments that show her just eating and watching TV all day.
It was really important that we got to see Mickey’s interiority. Black women don’t often get the opportunity to take up that much space on the page, or anywhere. And here’s a Black woman who’s by herself in these quiet moments and she’s just still. She doesn’t know what she’s doing. She’s lost. There’s no direction. I wanted to be able to show that because we never see it. They want us to always be working. I think they want Black women to always be working. I wanted her to be like deeply human.
You mentioned that you were a Virgo. What sign do you think Mickey would be?
Sagittarius sun, Virgo moon, Gemini rising, and Leo venus—because she likes attention and needs to be seen.
The book isn’t just about her professional life; there’s also a love story that’s intertwined in the narrative. Why was this an important element to include?
I wanted to talk about lesbian love. I wanted to show the women that are in my life and the women that exist in my sphere in a way that I haven’t seen on the page. I don’t often see studs or masc women in the things that I’m reading. I wanted to center that. And that’s also the object of Mickey’s desire. I wanted the love to be queer and I wanted it to be Black. I wanted it to be very unashamedly that. And it’s not a fantasy world because that’s my real life. My fiancée is a woman. I’m surrounded by female energy day in and day out. I wanted to bring that world to the page in a way that I hadn’t seen before. That was really, really important for me to do.
If you were to turn Homebodies into a limited series or movie, who would you cast as Mickey?
She has to be plus-sized. I feel like Precious Lee would eat. I’ve never seen her in an acting role, but she’s Mickey in my mind.
How are you feeling now that the book is finally being released into the world?
I’m a ball of anxious energy. I’m very excited, but at the same time, it’s such a vulnerable thing to do. It’s more permanent than an article and I’m also fighting for space in a very saturated arena of people who are also writing very brilliant, interesting, and impressive things. It’s kind of a mind-fuck. But I’m excited to talk to people about it. I’m looking forward to that part of it.
I think the conversations that come from this book will be so rich, especially amongst Black women.
That goes back to those group chat conversations that we were talking about earlier. I’ve even had a few booksellers reach out to me since they’ve gotten the early copies and been like, “Oh my God, girl you wrote my life.” That is such a feat. Even if the book doesn’t sell a million copies, that, to me, is a big success.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Juliana Ukiomogbe is the Assistant Editor at ELLE. Her work has previously appeared in Interview, i-D, Teen Vogue, Nylon, and more.