Nicole Dennis-Benn: Interview


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.

Nicole Dennis-Benn. photo credit: Marcia E. Wilson/WideVision Photography
Nicole Dennis-Benn. photo credit: Marcia E. Wilson/WideVision Photography

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. Again, 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.

DJ: Were there challenges in mining this kind of deep, dark territory for you? Perhaps in your own self-care as you are creating this work?
NDB: Writing it was liberating enough.

DJ: I also loved the dialogue.  The Jamaican Patois is never italicized or footnoted in the text. (There is a line when Jullette says to Thandi, “Yuh can’t even talk patwa no more” that I really liked.) Was this a deliberate choice?
NDB: Yes, it was. My characters are working class Jamaicans. Therefore, I wanted to stay true to them. That is how we speak to each other. Patois is our first language; English is our second language. We are discouraged from speaking patois in schools, because it is deemed as uncultured. As a result, many Jamaicans grow weary of the very language our ancestors spoke, becoming ashamed of it, self-conscious when we break into it. Language is an essential part of identity; so to tell a group of people not to speak their language is the first step in annihilating our voice. We are socialized to loathe our language as much as we are socialized to loathe our African features and dark skin and hair. Such are the indelible scars of colonialism. I depicted this struggle in Thandi’s character.

I never saw a need to write patois in italics or add footnotes. The dialogue challenges readers to slow down and pay close attention to the phonetics and context. Whenever I’m reading works by authors such as Junot Diaz, who does the same thing by inserting Spanish in dialogue, I walk away from their works with so much more when I read that way. Dialect immerses the reader further into the world of the characters on the page.

DJ: I enjoyed the conversation you had with Marlon James in OUT Magazine about being gay Jamaican writers. I am reminded of other Jamaican writers and thinkers who have helped me to see another dimension of blackness and therefore myself. How would you describe Jamaica’s literary tradition? Who else should we be reading?
NDB: To be honest I was not exposed to Jamaican literature until late in life. I loved Louise Bennett, aka Miss Lou, while growing up, but that was the only Jamaican storyteller I knew of back then. In high school I was assigned books by British and American authors. If there were prominent writers on the island, I imagined them as elusive figures that lived in the hills or mountains, white; their foreign accents or studied patois a testament to extended vacations turned anthropological research. For I never saw myself and my people in the literature. I discovered Waiting in Vain by Colin Channer in my sophomore year of college. In a similar manner, I stumbled upon Marlon James’ Book of Night Women, Lorna Goodison’s and Olive Senior’s works in graduate school. I enjoyed them, because they were far removed from what I describe as the colonizer’s gaze—stories that seem to scrutinize black Jamaican characters, particularly the working class, rendering them as caricatures. I must admit that I recently discovered Michelle Cliff from her obituary in The New York Times three weeks before my book launch and began reading her. I was angry when I looked up from the pages and realized that it was too late—that as my book enters the world, she left it. But what she left with me was even greater than the conversations I wish we had. She left her legacy. No longer can I be angry that her books weren’t required reading in schools back home, or that I knew more about her partner, Adrienne Rich, than I knew about her—my fellow country-woman who also happened to be lesbian. It’s surely not too late to read; and definitely not too late to change the system in our schools to ensure that we give Jamaican children books to read by us. To establish a solid literary tradition in Jamaica, we must start with our youths.

DJ: A lot of the critics in large, mainstream publications like the New York Times and NPR focus so much on Jamaica, and how you upend the notion of it as a tourist utopia. Meanwhile, I noticed black audiences having emotional, visceral responses to seeing their humanity depicted compassionately in your pages. There is a tension there, for me, that made me want to understand more about who you are writing for. Do you want to educate elite and white audiences? Hold a mirror up to black or working class folks to show us our beauty? Is it all of the above?
NDB: It is all the above. My book was written as a love letter to Jamaica; but my intent was for every reader—regardless of their background, race, class, sexuality, ethnicity—to take something from my book. Black women are connecting to it, because most of us know that pain intimately—the internalized hatred that becomes self-loathing; we still wear those scars. I wanted them to see themselves on the page, particularly the younger generation of black girls. But others will connect to my book, because of the human experience depicted in one’s quest for belonging, identity, love, sexual and financial freedom; and survival under the looming shadow of displacement—not only in Jamaica, but anywhere else in the world—be it Bedstuy, Southern California, or Bali.

DJ: What are you reading now?
NDB: I’m a book polygamist—I tend to read multiple books at once. Currently I’m reading Chigozie Obioma’s stunning debut novel, The Fisherman, Michelle Cliff’s No Telephone to Heaven, and James Baldwin’s, Go Tell It on the Mountain.

DJ: Were books and storytelling an important part of your childhood? If so, what did you love to read? When did you decide that you are a writer?
NDB: Books were an important part of my childhood. I read them to escape. My mother fueled my desire for reading by carrying books home for me to read—from Nancy Drew to Sweet Valley Twins—I was always engaged in a story. As I got older I began to write my own stories, mostly with characters similar to those in the books I read. My protagonists lived in places that had snow, though at the time I’d never experienced snow—certainly not in Kingston, Jamaica where I grew up! What was missing in the books I devoured was me and my culture. I had no reference for that. I never knew how to turn the pen inward until I began to crave reading books with characters like myself. Not that I didn’t connect to the human experience of friendship, love, identity, sexuality, loss, betrayal, etc., written about by the authors I read—I just wanted to see a reflection of me on those crisp white pages and identify with the nuisances of being a working class Jamaican girl in Kingston. The seed to write my own stories was planted then. But it remained dormant for many years. I thought the only way to please my family and achieve success was by becoming a doctor. It’s really a struggle with many young immigrants and first-generation college students. There is tremendous pressure to fulfill our parents’ vision of the “American Dream”. So I focused on that, shuffling my feet while balancing the weight of text books and expectations on my shoulders. Fortunately, I finally found the courage to pursue writing as a career.

DJ: What’s next? What are you working on now?
NDB: I’m working on my second novel. This story is set in both New York City and Jamaica.

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