In this radiant, highly anticipated debut, a cast of unforgettable women battle for independence while a maelstrom of change threatens their Jamaican village.Capturing the distinct rhythms of Jamaican life and dialect, Nicole Dennis- Benn pens a tender hymn to a world hidden among pristine beaches and the wide expanse of turquoise seas. At an opulent resort in Montego Bay, Margot hustles to send her younger sister, Thandi, to school. Taught as a girl to trade her sexuality for survival, Margot is ruthlessly determined to shield Thandi from the same fate. When plans for a new hotel threaten their village, Margot sees not only an opportunity for her own financial independence but also perhaps a chance to admit a shocking secret: her forbidden love for another woman. As they face the impending destruction of their community, each woman—fighting to balance the burdens she shoulders with the freedom she craves—must confront long-hidden scars. From a much-heralded new writer, Here Comes the Sun offers a dramatic glimpse into a vibrant, passionate world most outsiders see simply as paradise.
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|Publisher:||Liveright Publishing Corporation|
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Here Comes The Sun
By Nicole Dennis-Benn
Liveright Publishing CorporationCopyright © 2016 Nicole Dennis-Benn
All rights reserved.
The long hours margot works at the hotel are never documented. Her real work is not in answering the telephones that ring off the hook, or writing up delinquent housekeepers for sleeping on the beds and watching TV when they're supposed to be cleaning. Her real work is after hours when everyone has bid their goodbyes and piled up in the white Corollas — robot taxis — at the massive gate of the resort, which will take them home to their shabby neighborhoods, away from the fantasy they help create about a country where they are as important as washed-up seaweed.
Margot has been employee of the month for several months in a row, because she was the first to arrive and the last to leave. And for good reason. Requests are called in, not in conversational tones but in code that only Margot knows in case anyone is listening on the line. "Ackee" means he wants to taste her down there. Foreign men love that. "Banana" means he wants her to suck him off. "Sundae" means he intends to be kinky — anything goes. Of course they know she's in business, because she makes sure to slip them a wink on the first day of their arrival. Flattered, they initiate conversation. Margot flirts, reading their stray glances, which almost always land and linger between her exposed cleavage. That is Margot's cue for a forward invitation. She goes to the employee restroom to freshen up, spray perfume between her breasts, and powder her face before sauntering to the client's room. She undresses for the client, whose main goal is usually to satisfy a deep curiosity that he never had the balls to satiate with the women in his own country. Like a black woman's breasts, for instance. Many of these men want to know the shape of them; the nipples, whether or not they are the same color as tar pressed on the heels of their leather shoes from the paved roads in Europe or America; or if black nipples have in them the richness of topsoil after a thorough rain shower. They want to touch. And she lets them. Their eyes widen like children ogling baby frogs for the first time, careful to hold them so they don't spring from their grasp. She doesn't see it as demeaning. She sees it as merely satisfying the curiosity of foreigners; foreigners who pay her good money to be their personal tour guide on the island of her body. Margot stashes the money in her purse when she's done and hurries home. By then the robot taxis are scarce, so she walks into town and waves for one there. She has long ago rid herself of any feelings of disgust. She used to stay back and shower in the clients' rooms, scrubbing every part of her until her skin was raw. These days she goes straight home and falls asleep with the smell of semen sunken in her pores. Replacing the disgust is a liquid hope that settles inside her chest and fills her with purpose. She rolls over in the bed she shares with her sister knowing that one day she won't have to do this. That one day Thandi will make everything better.
But until then, she must work.
On this night she looks both ways to see if the coast is clear. The hotel maids have all left, and so have management and most hotel staff. The concierge, Paul, is the only one working. Since it's almost midnight, the night front desk clerks, Abby and Joseph, take turns resting on the sofa in the office. Margot doesn't pass their desk when she exits the hotel. She exits from the side by the pool, surprised to see Paul outside smoking a cigarette.
"Good night, Margot," Paul says with a slight bow. He's always polite, so polite that Margot wonders what he knows. She wonders if he hides his contempt behind that poise. Does he whisper to the other concierges that he sees her leave the hotel late at night? Does he tell them that he has caught her on more than one occasion adjusting her blouse and skirt after coming out of a guest's room? Such occurrences would have helped the man to put two and two together, but then again, he's not so bright. And for this, Margot is grateful.
Outside, the night is cool. The stars are sprinkled across the sky like grains of salt. The chirps of crickets in the bougainvillea bushes follow behind her like gossip, their hissing sounds deafening. She walks to the street, thankful for the anonymity the darkness provides. In town, the regular taxi drivers are there: Maxi, Dexter, Potty, Alistair. Maxi jingles his keys first. It's a sign to the other drivers that he'll be the one to take her. "Whappen, sweetness?" Margot blows him a kiss. They grew up together and attended the same basic school, primary school, and secondary school. Maxi dropped out of secondary school, embraced Rastafarianism, and started referring to himself as "I an' I." He smokes ganja all day and by night he's a taxi driver and a dealer to the tourists who are adventurous enough to go looking for ganja in the town.
"Wha g'wan, Maxi?" She settles in the front seat of the taxi. The smell of peeled oranges and smoke greets her. She begins to wonder if the scent will stick. But then again, she has her own scent.
"Me deh yah." Maxi starts the ignition. His dreadlocks are a thick, matted pile on his head. He tells her about his two children, whom she always inquires about for the sake of conversation that doesn't involve flirtation. One of them just started primary school and the other one is just starting basic school. They're from two different mothers, women Margot also grew up with. Women she no longer associates with because of their small minds and quickness to judge. "So she t'ink she is big shot now, eh, working in di hotel. Look pon har, nuh. Thirty years old an' no man, no children. Har pumpum mussi dry up. Can't even come down from har trone fi fuck right. She t'ink she too nice."
"When yuh g'wan get yuh own car, Margot?" Maxi asks. "Ah hear seh di hotel pay good, good money."
Margot leans back on the leather seat and breathes in the pungent smells. "Soon." She looks out the window. Although it's pitch-black, she can tell she's passing by the sea. For a moment she wants to give her thoughts freedom to roam in this dark, in this uncertainty.
"How soon?" Maxi asks.
"What? Yuh dat desperate to go out of business?" She smiles at him — it's a slow, easy smile; her first real one all day. Her job entails a conscious movement of the jaw, a curve of the mouth to reveal teeth, all teeth — a distraction from the eyes, which never hold the same enthusiasm, but are practiced all the same to maintain eye contact with guests. "It's a wonderful day at Palm Star Resort, how may I help you?" aGood morning, sir." "Yes, ma'am, let me get that for you." "No, sir, we don't offer a direct shuttle to Kingston, but there's one to Ocho Rios." "May I help you with anything else, ma'am?" "Your shuttle is outside waiting on you, sir." "You have a good day, now. I'm here if you need anything. No problem."
"We jus' haffi stop meeting like this. Dat's all," Maxi says.
Margot returns her attention outside. "As soon as Thandi gets through school. Yuh know how dat goes."
Maxi chuckles softly. When she looks at him, she sees the flash of his teeth, which seem luminous in the dark. "Yuh know how dat goes." He mimics her.
"What's di mattah with you, Maxi?"
He uses one hand to smooth the mustache over his wide mouth. In school all her friends had crushes on him. They thought he looked like Bob Marley, with the naps in his head that grew longer and longer, his peanut-brown skin, and his rebel ways. Once he told a teacher that she was ignorant for believing Christopher Columbus discovered Jamaica. "Wha' 'bout di indigenous people who were here first?" He was always book-smart, using words no one had ever heard used in everyday conversations: indigenous, inequality, uprising, revolution, mental slavery. He skipped classes to read books about Marcus Garvey, telling anyone who would listen that real history was in those books. The principal, Mr. Rhone, a high yellow man from St. Elizabeth, grew concerned about Maxi's rebelliousness, fearing it might influence other students, and expelled him. Maxi hadn't been back to school since. Had he not filled his head with rubbish about freedom and Africa, he would've been a doctor, a lawyer, a politician, or some other big shot by now, since he had certainly been the smartest boy in school. Margot doesn't want the same thing to happen to her sister. Like Maxi, Thandi is book-smart. She has the potential to be somebody. Margot has to make sure that Thandi doesn't ruin it for herself.
"Yuh put too much pressure pon di poor chile. Why yuh don't focus on your own dreams?"
"My dream is for my sister to be successful."
"And what's her dream?"
"Yuh eva ask har?"
"Maxi, what's with all dis talk?"
"Jus' saying if yuh eva ask yuh sista what is her dreams. Yuh so set on pushing her. One day di bottom aggo drop out."
"Max, stop wid dis foolishness. Unlike certain people I know, Thandi 'ave ambition."
"Certain people." Maxi grimaces. Again he runs his hand over his faint mustache. "I an' I did know weh me want long ago. An' it didn't have nothing to do wid weh dem teach inna school. Dem creating robots outta our children, Margot. Is di white man's philosophy dem learning. What about our heritage and culture?" He kisses his teeth. "Ah Babylon business dem ah fill up di children's minds wid. Yuh sista, Thandi, is a sweet girl. She know har book. But as ah say, when pot boil too long di wata dry out an' di bottom aggo drop out."
Margot holds a hand to his face like a stop sign. "Ah t'ink we done wid dis convahsation."
They fall into the hum of the silence. Maxi begins to whistle as he concentrates on the dark road ahead of them. Only the white lines are visible, and Margot tries to count them to calm herself. Of course she has dreams. She has always had dreams. Her dream is to get away as far as possible from here. Maybe America, England, or someplace where she can reinvent herself. Become someone new and uninhibited; a place where she can indulge the desires she has resisted for so long. The hotel actually doesn't pay much, but this Margot cannot say to anyone. She dresses nicely to go to work, her dove-gray uniform carefully pressed, each pleat carefully aligned; her hair straightened and combed into a neat bun, not a strand out of place except for the baby hairs slicked down with gel around the edges to give the impression of good hair; and her makeup meticulously perfect, enough powder to make her seem lighter than she is; a glorified servant. Maybe that's how Alphonso — her white Jamaican boss — sees her. A glorified servant. As heir to his father's Wellington empire — which includes coffee farms, rum estates, and properties all over the island, from Portland to Westmoreland, including Palm Star Resort — he was nice enough to keep her aboard after firing everyone else that his father, the late Reginald Wellington Senior, had hired. At first she despised herself for letting him touch her. But then she despised herself for the pride that made her believe she had a choice. What she got from it (and continues to get from it) was better than scrubbing floors. She didn't want to lose this opportunity. All she wanted in the beginning was to be exposed to other worlds, anything that could take her out of this squalor and give her a chance to get away from Delores and the memory of what her mother had done to her.
Maxi nudges Margot on the elbow. "How yuh push up yuh mouth suh? Relax, man." He smirks and she looks away, trying to resist.
"Yuh so dedicated to yuh duties as big sistah," Maxi says. "Ah find it very honorable. Jah know." He reaches over and touches her knee with his hand. He leaves it there. She takes his hand and moves it. Fifteen years ago, when she briefly dated him in high school, this would've sent waves throughout her anatomy. Now it doesn't feel the same. No other touch feels the same.
When Maxi approaches the foot of the hill, Margot tells him to stop the car. "Ah can walk from here," she says. Maxi squints through the dark as though trying to see what's out there. "Yuh sure? Why yuh always mek me stop here? Me know weh yuh live. Why not just mek me drop yuh there?"
"Maxi, I'll be fine from here." She takes out the money and gives it to him. He reluctantly takes it from her, glancing once more at the pitch-black in front of them. Margot waits until his car drives off and his headlights disappear. The darkness claims her, encircles her with black walls that eventually open up into a path for her to walk through. She takes a few steps, aware of one foot in front of the other; of the strangeness creeping up her spine, wrapping itself around her belly, shooting up into her chest. The scent of the bougainvilleas that line the fence is like a sweet embrace. The darkness becomes a friendly accomplice. Yet, the familiar apprehension ambushes her: Can she be seen? She looks over her shoulder and contemplates the distance it would take for her to walk to her house from here. A good mile. She stands in front of the bright pink house that emerges from the shadows. It seems to glow in the dark. As though on cue, a woman appears on the veranda, wearing a white nightgown. The nightgown blows gently in the light breeze that rustles the leaves of the plants and trees in the yard, and carries a faint scent of patchouli toward Margot. From where she stands, the woman appears to be sailing toward her like an angel, the nightgown hugging her womanly curves. And Margot sails toward her, no longer cognizant of the steps taken over the cobblestone path or the fears hammering inside her chest. When she arrives at the foot of the steps, she looks up into the face of the woman; into those eyes that hold her gaze steady. She can never get them out of her mind, for they're the only ones that see her. Really see her — not her figure or the nakedness she so willingly offers to strangers, but something else — something fragile, raw, defenseless. The kind of bareness that makes her shiver under the woman's observation. Margot swallows the urge to tell her this. But not here. Not now. No words are exchanged between them. No words are needed. Verdene Moore lets her inside.
At Old Fort Craft Park, Delores links arms with the flush-faced men in floral shirts who are too polite to decline and the women in broad straw hats whose thin lips freeze in frightened smiles. Before the tourists pass Delores's stall, she listens to the prices the other hagglers quote them — prices that make the tourists politely decline and walk away. So by the time they get to Delores — the last stall in the market — she's ready to pounce, just like she does at Falmouth Market on Tuesdays as soon as the ship docks. The tourists hesitate, as they always do, probably startled by the big black woman with bulging eyes and flared nostrils. Her current victims are a middle-age couple.
"Me have nuff nuff nice t'ings fah you an' yuh husband. Come dis way, sweetie pie."
Delores pulls the woman's hand gently. The man follows behind his wife, both hands clutching the big camera around his neck as if he's afraid someone will snatch it.
To set them at ease, Delores confides in them: "Oh, lawd ah mercy," she says, fanning herself with an old Jamaica Observer. "Dis rhaatid heat is no joke. Yuh know I been standin' in it all day? Bwoy, t'ings haa'd."
She wipes the sweat that pours down her face, one eye on them. It's more nervousness than the heat, because things are slow and Delores needs the money. She observes the woman scrutinizing the jewelry — the drop earrings made of wood, the beaded necklaces, anklets, and bracelets — the only things in the stall that Delores makes. "Dat one would be nice wid yuh dress," Delores says when the woman picks up a necklace. But the woman only responds with a grimace, gently putting down the item, then moving on to the next. Delores continues to fan. Normally the Americans are chatty, gullible. Delores never usually has to work so hard with them, for their politeness makes them benevolent, apologetic to a fault. But this couple must be a different breed. Maybe Delores is wrong, maybe they're from somewhere else. But only the American tourists dress like they're going on a safari, especially the men, with their clogs, khaki apparel, and binocular-looking cameras.
Excerpted from Here Comes The Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn. Copyright © 2016 Nicole Dennis-Benn. Excerpted by permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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.
August 9, 2016