by Danielle Jackson
Brooklyn-based Nicole Dennis-Benn calls her debut novel Here Comes the Sun a “love letter” to Jamaica. With vivid and intricate prose adorned by sensuous details and melodious dialogue, often in patios, the novel feels like a love letter, beautifully intimate and urgent. I read it twice. The first time, at a feverish pace over two days, I was taken by the story’s unexpected twists and turns. When I read it again, I took two weeks to fully appreciate the delicately drawn characters who form the core of the novel: four women born and raised on the island whose lives and longings unfold over the course of a rocky year in the 1990s.
Margot is an ambitious 30-year old employee at a popular resort in Montego Bay. Desperate to pay the private school tuition of her younger sister, Thandi, Margot performs sex work for the hotel’s wealthy, largely white male clientele in addition to her official job duties. She also secretly loves Verdene, a woman who has returned to Jamaica after living abroad. Because Margot is not out, and homosexuality is a sin in their community, they carry out their relationship under the cover of night, ever aware that taunts, violence, and murder could be their fate.
Margot’s mother Delores has long been complicit in her oldest daughter’s suffering. But she lives with the scars, shadows, and reverberations of her own pain:
‘Me was sixteen years old when ah had Margot. I was a young girl who neva know me lef’ foot from me right. Margot father was a man who all di children in di community used to call Uncle. Maybe because me was fat. I was big for a young girl an’ him did like that. When me got pregnant, my mother ask me is who’fa pickney. I tell her dat di pickney belongs to Uncle. She get so mad dat she beat me terrible. Everyt’ing after dat hurt.’
Thandi is an excellent student at an elite high school and the substance of the family’s dreams. She too has secrets and pain that confine her.
What’s rare about Here Comes the Sun is that it centers black women. The secrets we keep. Those we bury. The stories we tell ourselves; the bonds and pacts and compromises we make and break so that the secrets do not kill us. Dennis-Benn has given voice to these secrets and stories in a way that engages the reader and exorcises the shame. She shines a bright, blinding light on intergenerational trauma wrought of the colonial wound and the cycles of lovelessness, sexual exploitation, maternal hunger, and self-hatred that it has inflicted—from the perspective of the marginalized.
Jamaica, which is Dennis-Benn’s birthplace, is also a compelling character –a grounding force portrayed with an even hand. There are vivid details about its beaches and fertile countryside alongside an insider’s look at the raw darkness that lives at its edges, complicating and humanizing stilted, hollowed-out images of beauty and paradise.
I spoke with Dennis-Benn, a graduate of Cornell University and Sarah Lawrence College’s MFA program, whose work has appeared in ELLE, Electric Literature, Lenny Letter, and Kweli, about influences, her process in writing Here Comes the Sun, and what comes next.
Danielle Jackson: What was writing Here Comes the Sun like? How long did it take?
Nicole Dennis-Benn: I found it liberating. It took five years. I never workshopped the story in my MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College. I started the book in 2010, after a visit back home to Jamaica. Being there had opened up some raw emotions. I felt it necessary to write them down. I journaled my thoughts and feelings; and before I knew it, I had an outline for Here Comes the Sun.
DJ: One of my favorite things about the book is that Margot, Delores, and Thandi are so deliciously vivid on the page. Even minor characters like Jullette and Charles are complex and carefully drawn. Alice Walker has talked about her characters coming to her over time, inhabiting her mind almost like a series of visitations. How did your characters initially come to you?
NDB: The characters came to me fully formed. Thandi came to me first, followed by Margot, Delores, and Verdene. Thandi came to me as an embodiment of things that I’ve went through as that working-class, dark-skinned girl growing up in Jamaica. Margot came to me a couple years later when I became privy to the lives of disenfranchised women who exchanged sex for money in tourist areas for survival. But more than that Margot is my heroine, who defied all odds by any means necessary. Delores’s story resulted from interacting with and listening to the vendors at the craft-markets. We see them, but rarely do we know their daily struggle. Verdene Moore, like myself, is someone returning to her homeland, claiming a country that doesn’t claim her back, because of her sexuality.
DJ: So would it be accurate to describe your characters as extensions, or parts, of you?
NDB: All the characters are parts of me. I also take bits and pieces from people I’ve interacted with or whom I’ve known. Nora Ephron once said that writers are like pariahs, we take what we can use from our interactions with people. I will add that as a fiction writer, I leave most of it to my imagination.
DJ: Thandi’s struggle to accept herself in an environment that refuses, or even hates who she is, is timely and resonant. How can black women and girls learn to love themselves?
NDB: We’re so fragile as children, so it’s important that the messages of self-love start early. The real challenge is maintaining that self-love in a world that is quick to snatch it. In Here Comes the Sun, Thandi’s mother Delores never uttered those affirmations at home. Instead, she focused on practical things like making money, feeling there is no need to delude her daughters into thinking the world will accept them for who they are as black women. It’s hard to judge Delores for this given that it’s easier to relax our fists, put down our swords, and hunch our backs hoping it would at least be good as stools. But not many of us are ready to give up. We may not be able to completely obliterate the negative messages about our beauty, body-image, and self-worth that we get from the media and society as black women, but we can lessen their impact with positive affirmations—something as simple as buying our young girls books with black girls on the cover, or buying them dolls with their complexion and hair texture to play with. Or making sure to use words like “beautiful” and “attractive” when describing other dark-skinned black girls and women. Growing up, the word “pretty” was reserved for women and girls of a certain hue and with a certain hair length and hair texture. For example, in Jamaica, our Miss Jamaica Universe and Miss Jamaica World winners all had that hue. We can reverse that mindset by using those affirming adjectives to describe everyone, especially in the presence of our younger girls who are watching and listening to us. In Thandi’s case, not even her older sister Margot, who would give her soul for Thandi, could protect Thandi from the insecurities she struggled with as the only dark-skinned working class girl in her school. However, I believe that communicating with our young girls constantly about those warped messages of beauty and self-worth that the media and society give them, is essential.
DJ: I get the sense that there is an insistence in your novel, and in recent essays you’ve written and published, on placing black women and our stories at the center. I love and appreciate that. In Here Comes the Sun you excavate a lot of our pain, a lot of the darkness of our lives. Are you intentional about creating art that may be difficult, but that can also be a balm or a healing?
NDB: Yes, it’s intentional. I’ll refer to James Baldwin who says the role of an artist is to illuminate the darkness—as difficult as it may be—in order to create a better world. The healing comes with the dialogue the work incites—the changed attitudes toward a certain group when they are humanized on the page; the efforts to do something about certain issues. That’s the power in writing about the difficult things. Our silences won’t protect us, nor will it change the world…
Your subscription will keep Mosaic strong.
To read the second half of the Nicole Dennis-Benn interview subscribe today.