Nicole Dennis-Benn has spent much of her life navigating impossible divides.
Born and raised in Vineyard Town – a working-class community in the Kingston and St.Andrew area of Jamaica – and attending the fairly well-off St. Andrew’s High School for Girls, she understood well the class divide between her and many of the other girls in her class. When she was passed up for praise but never punishment in school, she reckoned herself a victim of colorism. She eventually migrated to New York to live with her father at 17, and had to cope with being a minority for the first time – a Black woman in predominantly non-Black spaces. She had to wrestle with ‘the correct career path’ of an immigrant – working in medicine, law, or engineering – and her passions for literature and writing. Finally, she was forced to interrogate her sexuality, yet she was armed with nothing but feelings and a limited vocabulary, grossly inefficient to verbalize her burgeoning sapphic desires.
The critically acclaimed author of ‘Here Comes the Sun’ and ‘Patsy’ found her emancipation from these liminal spaces in literature. She found comfort in the works of James Baldwin and Audrey Lorde, among others, while finding bastion at her university’s library. Today she is a two-time Lambda Literary Award winner, New York Times Editor’s Choice author, and has had her work featured in countless outlets, celebrated countless times. Her work is important, not just to the fans who write to her celebrating her poignant characterisation of complex Jamaican women, but also for her. “My writing brought me home,” she states as a matter of fact. “I had fallen in love with my country again. ‘Here Comes The Sun’ helped me to heal. I had to write that book in order to write the other book, in order to grow.”
Her debut novel ‘Here Comes The Sun’ is the final contradiction she navigates. It’s a breath of fresh air and an exhale. It’s both fiction and, in place, auto-biographical. “Through [characters] Thandi and Margot, I was able to say things I wasn’t able to say when I was [in Jamaica],” she explains. “The lives of these two women paint a picture of Jamaica hardly seen unless you know where to look,” she continues. “It depicts the bare underside of tourism – the backbone of the country’s economy, but often parasitical.” In the novel, workers are preyed upon by greedy employers and entitled tourists alike. Black skin, despite its luster and beauty, is scorned and traded for upwards mobility. The focus on femininity takes center stage. Male gazes are hostile. There’s a sanctuary in sisterhood and in love between women. It’s laid bare in text, and Nicole hammered the point home in our interview. “Here Comes The Sun is a love letter to Jamaica,” she starts. “Yes it’s shining a light on a lot of things we tend to look away from, but it’s also my way of saying, ‘Look, a huge part of me didn’t want to leave the island but this, I had to leave.’ [I wanted to] show a reflection of how the poor are treated, how they have to fight for survival, how they have to fight for the land that our ancestors give us. We’re not able to own the hotels, we’re not able to own our own beaches, we’re not able to own our own bodies. I wanted to delve into that without being didactic.”
The dialogue in the book is written in Jamaican patois. There was no other way to tell this story, she says. “I didn’t water it down for anybody. I wanted to preserve our language,” Nicole explains. Within the context of identity, she found calls to publish the book with standard English dialogue to be offensive. “We were pressured for a long time to use the Queen’s English to appear more respectable, more educated, more cultured,” she states, explaining the linguistic dynamics of her home island. “We were bleaching ourselves, we were bleaching our language. We were erasing ourselves by swallowing our tongue.”
Nicole Dennis-Benn has made waves for non-literary reasons as well. She and her partner tied the knot in 2012, but decided to have an additional ceremony in Jamaica despite the country’s well-publicized anti-homosexual stance. By her account, it was perfect, if a bit more public than she envisioned. She knew it was a big deal, but nothing could have prepared her for both the reception and the kindness of strangers.
It’s kindness she pays forward. It comes through in ‘Here Comes the Sun.’ It comes through in ‘Patsy.’ It will no doubt come through in the next novel she’s hard at work on. “I want to write stories that little girl me would have loved to read. I would have loved to see experiences that I was having in a book.”