Nicole Dennis-Benn knows that activism can be a dirty word. “It has such a negative connotation to so many people. But, you don’t have to be marching around with your fist in the air; activism can be very subtle. And that’s what I love about fiction, it’s not didactic. It opens up people’s eyes to individuals, it allows them to be voyeurs and they are changed by it.”
It is impossible to read Dennis-Benn’s debut novel, Here Comes the Sun, and not be changed. The book traces the stories of four Jamaican women fighting for selfhood and love in a country that is built upon their exploitation. Margot works at a luxury resort by day and, by night, sells her sexual services to the white male tourists who frequent the hotel. As a result of Margot’s choices, Thandi, her younger sister, is able to go to an elite high school where she can get a “proper” education, but she is isolated from her peers, who see her as too black and too poor. Delores, their mother, barely scrapes by selling her wares to tourists outside the hotels. Verdene, Margot’s secret love, has returned to Jamaica after being chased out by her community when she was discovered having sex with a woman.
Here Comes the Sun is beautiful and unsparing in its critique of the tourism industry and the ways in which racism, sexual violence, and homophobia warp the lives of the characters. It is a meditation on the possibility of hope and intimacy in the face of great adversity. It is also a rare opportunity to see marginalized voices at the center of a story, and Dennis-Benn takes care to give each character their full and nuanced humanity.
I spoke with Dennis-Benn over the phone about the transformative power of language, writing the books you want to read, and how breaking silences can save your life. —Amy Gall
The Barnes & Noble Review: What was the impetus for this book?
Nicole Dennis-Benn: I didn’t conceive of the idea for the book until I returned to Jamaica in 2010 and all these old feelings came up. I thought, I need to do something with that feeling. It was, mostly the Thandi story at first.
Thandi was a working-class student, and she did well and was given this opportunity to study in an elite school. Similarly, I grew up in Kingston, which was a working-class community, and then I went to an elite high school, and suddenly I was with girls who were the daughters of doctors and lawyers. It was like night and day. So finding myself and finding my identity was a struggle. And that’s when I started looking at myself as this darker-skinned girl, feeling ugly and stuck in comparison to my lighter-skinned peers, who were regarded as beautiful and had all this access that I didn’t have.
But, then I returned again in 2012 for my wedding, and I was exposed to a whole new world of the tourist industry and saw girls who were prostituting themselves out to these wealthy male tourists, and that was how Margot started talking to me. One of the girls I talked to said to me, “This is what pays my rent, this is what sends me to school.” She was doing it for survival. I couldn’t judge her for that. I said, let me make this into a story, instead. Writing fiction is how I deal with the world.
BNR: What was the research process like for this book?
NDB: I spoke to just one girl who was doing sex work, but in terms of other people working at the hotel, I spoke to hotel clerks, cleaners, landscapers. And then I would read excerpts of the book to them and they loved it. What was most rewarding to me was that they did not judge Margot. It was apparent that she was having sex with men to supplement her income because she wasn’t making much money at a hotel, so when it was presented to them that way, they understood and related. That felt really good.
BNR: That was one of the most beautiful things, to me, about the book. You gave such a full and nuanced humanity to people who are so often ignored or disregarded.
NDB: That’s why it’s so important to write from where we are. A lot of literature out of Jamaica is written by individuals who are from an upper class, so when you see working-class people on the page, they are usually caricatures. And I wanted to see myself on the page as a fully rounded out character. As Toni Morrison says, “You write the books you want to read.” So, I wrote those people because those people are my family, those people are me.
BNR: Speaking of which, has your family read the book?
NDB: They have. My mother, who is my most important reader, surprised me. She really loved it. At first I was worried because Margot is gay, and I thought she would only see that and dismiss the book. And she liked Margot and she even said to me, “I don’t like the way Margot is treating Verdene.” She could see their relationship as an actual relationship.
BNR: I know very little about North American Free Trade Agreement, but I assumed you chose to set the novel in the mid-’90s in part because of that agreement.
NDB: Yes, I chose the ’90s because that was when the tourism boom happened. At the time, the country was just finding out that our former prime minister, Michael Manley, owed the IMF billions of dollars, and people were scurrying around trying to figure out how to repay it. Tourism was one of the solutions. We also started importing more than exporting, and a lot of farmers suffered from that because they could no longer sell their own crops. So the poor became even poorer and the wealthier became even wealthier. When the resorts came people were also displaced to make room for hotels. All the fishing villages disappeared, and with them even more jobs. So, you have these beautiful, white, expansive beaches, but the people are gone. And it’s still happening.
BNR: All of the women in the book are subject to some form of sexual violence and shaming. Since the novel takes place in the mid-’90s, has the culture or legislation around sexual violence changed at all for the better?
NDB: Not at all. In Jamaica, the men who commit those crimes rarely get arrested. Women’s and girls’ bodies are looked at as unworthy, so there’s no accountability. In fact, a crime was committed two weeks ago where a three-year-old girl was raped and murdered, and the community members knew who did it and they were not telling the police. There was pressure from the police to turn this man in, but in our culture if you’re the informer and you talk to the police about anything, you’re looked down upon and shunned. Ultimately someone did turn him in, but these guys never get long-term prison sentences. And he will probably only get jail time because he murdered the girl, not because he raped her. The sad part is, I posted about it on Facebook and asked if there were any organizations in Jamaica that can help with this, and no one knew anything. That’s why I wanted to touch on that in Here Comes the Sun especially. That someone like Clover [who raped one of the main characters] can be walking around free and unbothered, but Verdene, a lesbian, is a witch and totally ostracized.
BNR: The relationship between Verdene and Margot is a central part of the book. How has the treatment of the LGBTQ community in Jamaica changed since the mid-’90s?
NDB: In the ’90s there were a lot of acts of violence, especially against men who were found to be gay. They would be murdered or would just disappear. Women would be raped. To be honest with you, it hasn’t changed. What has changed is the silence. The more we rely on tourism, the more fearful people become to speak out. Even the LGBTQ organizations in Jamaica are saying, “We’re fine now, don’t worry about us,” because a lot of foreigners were saying they weren’t going to come to Jamaica because of the homophobia, which just makes it worse for Jamaicans. It became “Close your mouth and don’t get in the way of us getting foreign money.” So you probably won’t hear the news stories any more because they are working hard to cover that up.
But, it’s also about class. If you are in the upper-class society, you are insulated. Everyone can know that you are a lesbian and gay person because you have the means to separate yourself. But working-class individuals live in such close proximity to each other, your neighbor knows everything that is going on, they can see into your gate, who is coming in, who is leaving, it’s much harder to hide.
BNR: Did you draw on your own experiences with your sexuality for the book?
NDB: I did. Margot really fought her attraction to Verdene. She couldn’t bring herself to admit it. She would never call herself a lesbian. And that’s something that is ingrained in the culture. Loving someone of the same gender is hard, because we’ve internalized so much hatred, it’s hard to let go of all that. For me it took years to get past it. It took coming to the U.S., for one, and realizing I can’t keep looking over my shoulder all the time. I couldn’t live that way. I had to let go of a lot of things. For me, thank goodness I had therapy, Margot doesn’t have that.
BNR: How did the character of Verdene come to you?
NDB: Verdene, more than anyone, was actually me speaking to me, saying, “You’re claiming a country” that does not claim you back. Verdene comes back to Jamaica from England and can leave if she wants to, but she stays because that’s where she was born and raised, and Margot is representative of that, too. She knew Margot, they grew up together, and she is in love with her, but still, the town and Jamaica itself don’t see her as worthy. I’ve done interviews with other out gay artists from Jamaica, and we’ve talked about how our country doesn’t want anything to do with us. Yes, they like us now because we are doing well, but we had to come to America for a reason. And it’s hard to deal with, it’s a homesickness that never goes away.
BNR: You went back to Jamaica for your wedding. How did you make that decision?
NDB: My wife is African American, so I got married in my wife’s country. But, then I thought, what about me, my whole identity is forgotten by my getting married in the United States. So, I decided we’d have the reception in Jamaica because I wanted Jamaica to be a part of our love. But we knew the only way we could do it is if it was in secret and no one would know. We didn’t expect the Jamaican media would get ahold of the story and leak it. And the reporting was very homophobic. And the news had comments sections, and so my wife and I would read the most horrible comments by people who were absolutely enraged and offended by our love. That was what prompted me to write my own story, which was picked up by Ebony and NPR, because I wanted to tell the truth. I wanted to give us both our humanity. We are two women in love, we aren’t witches.
BNR: You delved into such dark stuff: colonialism, sexual violence, etc. What did you do for self-care while writing this book?
NDB: I did a lot of journaling and talking to other people during this time. But also, not to be clichéd, I found writing this book to be a great purging, it was more healing than anything else. And it’s even more healing now that the book is being received the way it is. A lot of people at readings are coming up to me and saying, “Thank you, you said everything I’ve always wanted to say.” It really touches me that my story is speaking for those who never had a voice, who never knew they could speak that way.
BNR: You once told me that when you’re writing you have to be careful about what you read because you don’t want other books to influence your writing in the wrong way. What were you reading when you wrote this book?
NDB: I was reading a lot. Toni Morrison, Paule Marshall, Edwidge Danticat. I didn’t want the women I was writing about to fall flat on the page, I wanted them to have a roundedness, so I wanted to see how those authors tackled characterization. I read Elizabeth Strout, who wrote Olive Kitteridge, and she has this sense of place that I loved, she made New England a character in and of itself, and I wanted to do that in my book with Riverbank. Zora Neale Hurston I loved because of the way she used dialect. I toyed with the idea of doing my entire book in dialect instead of having an English narrator, but I’m not that courageous yet. Maybe with another book!
BNR: What is your favorite thing about language?
NDB: Language is transformative. Audre Lorde had this beautiful essay, “Transforming Silence into Language and Action,” and she says when we hold certain things in, that’s what really eats us up. I agree. Our silences need to be spoken. If they aren’t spoken, they can’t protect us. And that was what was so healing about Here Comes the Sun. I spoke it, and there’s no taking it back. You can’t unhear it.