AUGUST 7, 2016
IN HER HIGHLY ANTICIPATED debut, Here Comes the Sun, Jamaican-born novelist Nicole Dennis-Benn pulls the curtains back on paradise. Set in and around the resort town of Montego Bay, the story centers on a family of three women — mother Delores, older sister Margot, and 15-year-old Thandi — whose lives have been shaped by the tourism industry and by Jamaica’s legacy of colonialism. Delores sells souvenirs to foreign visitors, and Margot works at a high-end “all-inclusive” hotel but makes her real money after hours by sleeping with guests. These indomitable women sacrifice so that Thandi, a promising student, might have a chance at college and a better life. While the sisters struggle for survival, they also wrestle with their own hearts. Thandi loves a poor village boy her family would deem unsuitable and Margot harbors a secret love for another woman.
Dennis-Benn left Jamaica at 17-years-old to attend Cornell University, and subsequently began a career in public health before earning her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. She now lives in Brooklyn, New York, and teaches writing. In Here Come the Sun, Dennis-Benn has crafted a haunting, unforgettable story that is both a tribute to and critique of her home country. She delves fearlessly into matters of class and race, exploitation and opportunity, sexuality and yearning. Above all, the novel explores what people will do to themselves — and each other — in the name of love.
NINA REVOYR: How was this story born for you? What led you to write it?
NICOLE DENNIS-BENN: It was born out of love for my country. I returned to Jamaica after being away for a long time and realized that I had a lot of unresolved feelings. I resented the reasons why I felt I needed to leave the island in the first place. The best way I know how to express myself is in storytelling; so I began to write down my thoughts during my visit, which ended up being the outline for Here Comes the Sun.
In the United States we have this idea of equal opportunity — the belief (however simplistic) that a young person from a low-income background can achieve success if she has access to a great school, etc. Does such opportunity, or even the idea of it, exist in Jamaica?
Upward mobility in Jamaica is extremely difficult, which is why a lot of working-class Jamaicans leave. Education is highly valued, but it isn’t free. Also, opportunities are scarcer. Many Jamaicans — artists, writers, professionals — leave for better opportunities abroad. However, this brain drain is not seen as a problem for the government: after tourism, remittance is the country’s largest revenue.
Two of the main female characters — Margot and Verdene — are involved in a secret love affair. Jamaica is not known to be an LGBT-friendly place. What is the reception thus far to this aspect of your novel?
So far I have been getting positive feedback. I read at Calabash Literary Festival in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica, to a mostly Jamaican audience and I believe that many Jamaicans are connecting with other themes in the book — identity, class, race, love, belonging. As a writer, I’m content with readers connecting to the human experience. My hope is that people will see Margot and Verdene’s relationship as beautiful. Margot finds herself, but for reasons she cannot control, she loses herself too. This is something that anyone who has ever experienced love and loss can identify with. As individuals — regardless of who we are and where we’re from — we’re socialized to respect fear more than our own hearts. It materializes into shame when we feel we’ve veered away from what is expected of us. Once we overcome those restrictions, we’ll realize that we are free — free to love, free to be, and most importantly, free to change.
Delores and Margot make choices that are tough and sometimes seemingly heartless. Yet it’s clear that they’re driven in part by fear, as well by memories of their own suffering. What were the challenges of creating these characters — especially Margot?
If I were to choose which characters I love the most, I’d say Delores and Margot. I love them because their heartlessness comes from a genuine place — a love for Thandi, the youngest daughter, and their ruthless determination to save her from the legacy of self-loathing and defeat they both experienced as working-class women. I struggled with Margot in the beginning, because she challenged me to write outside of my comfort zone. She makes some decisions. In a recent essay I wrote, “[Margot’s] story is one of great sacrifice, giving up her body so that her younger sister can thrive and do better: one of villainy, commodifying the bodies of other young girls; and one of hope, taking the risk to express her desire for another woman.” All the above were things I had to work through during the creative process. Margot helped me to tell an important story. I wanted visibility for women in our culture, specifically working-class women. Most feel invisible, pushed to the margins of society and silenced. Even with rape, incest, and violence against women remaining prevalent in Jamaica, the focus tends to be on other issues. I wanted to delve into the lives of these three women as a way to parallel the exploitation of the land with the exploitation of the female body — Margot being both the slave and the captain of this ship.
Thandi puts herself through all kinds of heartbreaking cosmetic torture in an effort to lighten her skin. Are the dynamics of colorism in Jamaica — a majority black country — similar to what they are in the United States?
They’re two different beasts with similar roots. Colorism is mostly between people of a similar race. Colorism is more hurtful to me because it comes from people who look like me, people who place worthiness on a false hierarchy of skin shade. Colorism is deeply tied to class in Jamaica: for decades the ruling class tended to be light-skinned, the working class dark-skinned. Subsequently, many dark-skinned working-class girls — like my character, Thandi — and even working-class boys spend money they don’t have to bleach their skin. Classism and “complexionism” are still very sensitive topics in Jamaica.
In your novel sex is easy to quantify, put a price tag on, and sell. Love is much more difficult. The two characters who seem able to step into love most easily are also the outsiders — Charles, the working-class boy who loves Thandi, and Verdene, the out lesbian. Is there a relationship between their outsider status and their seeming comfort with themselves — and with others?
Verdene and Charles are definitely the only ones in the novel who are not afraid to love, and love deeply. I do think that being on the outside has taught them compassion for others. In life it’s often those who’ve known ostracism who are more inclined to be sensitive to others.
Thandi, in addition to being a good student in an exclusive school, is also a budding artist. This interest is discouraged by her mother and sister who see artistic pursuits as distracting. What is the place of art in communities like River Bank (or, for that matter, in any low-income area) where daily survival is the primary focus?
For someone like Thandi, who is poor and has been given the opportunity to attend an elite school, it only makes sense to her family that she make the best of it. This part of the story is somewhat similar to mine — I, too, was given such an opportunity and was the first in my family to attend college. I studied medicine, thinking this career path would make my family proud, although I always wanted to write. This is very common. Regardless of class and, dare I say, culture, we’re taught to believe that professional degrees are more worthy. However, you’d find that many of Jamaica’s established artists and writers are upper-class, because such pressure to attain upward mobility is not as pressing. What is deemed as a luxury for the working class is a profitable pastime for those with means and connections.
In the craft markets you can find poorer artists, many of whom have created masterpieces with their hands. They never went to Edna Manley (one of the top art colleges in Jamaica) to learn or polish their skills, because education isn’t free and many poor Jamaicans end up dropping out of school way too early to apply for tertiary education. They end up learning trades on their own to survive. Usually, tourists are the largest consumers of their artwork. You’d never find their works in the National Gallery, where I personally think they belong.
Before you went to an MFA program, you received a master’s in public health and worked in the field. How has that experience informed your writing?
My public health background definitely informs my writing. I always write with these questions in mind: What am I writing against? And how will it contribute to the greater good? As an artist I have a lot more freedom to explore ways of telling stories without sounding didactic in my approach. Nevertheless, my hope is that the reader will walk away with something of significance about the people and places I write about.
What conversation or change do you hope your novel will spark — both in Jamaica and in the United States?
My novel explores universal themes of love, identity, sexuality, and belonging. My hope is that everyone can identify with elements of the story, regardless of who they are and where they’re from. Ultimately, I hope my novel will get people talking and thinking. Readers have mentioned that they identify with the classism and struggle for upward mobility in the novel. They also identify with the reality of displacement. The only difference is my setting. Jamaica is certainly a paradise in its beauty and the hearts of the people. It’s a place where my childhood memories are buried and where my family still resides. But there are struggles that I wanted to bring to the forefront — struggles born out of the pain of our colonized history. I wanted to open up dialogues about racial, ethnic, and class disparities on the island, which have been silenced by our motto, “Out of Many One People.” I also wanted to reveal, through the lens of my characters, the exploitation of our island by the tourism industry to repay our debt. Where does that leave the people, particularly the poor and working class who are the staff and service people behind the fantasy, which isn’t profiting them? I’ll quote one reader here when she stated, “At least I had the option of escaping, unlike the characters.” And to that I will say, me too.