Nicole Dennis-Benn had to fall in love in order to come home.
The Kingston, Jamaica, native left her family at 17 for Cornell University, went on to earn a master of fine arts at Sarah Lawrence University and never looked back. Until she met her wife, Dr. Emma Benn.
“It was a self-imposed exile,” says the author of “Here Comes the Sun,” (Liveright, $26.95), who appears Sunday at Miami Book Fair. “I came to the U.S. and came out to my family. I didn’t want to return to Jamaica because of the class divide, knowing upward mobility was tough. I wanted to stay here. But then I met my wife, and she wanted to go there. So we went in 2010 and stayed in a hotel because my mother wouldn’t let us stay at the house as a couple.”
That hotel trip ignited the idea that became “Here Comes the Sun,” a furious, devastating novel about four women negotiating racism, classism, colorism and homophobia in Jamaica. Older sister Margot works at a Montego Bay establishment similar to the place Dennis-Benn stayed, the sort of cool, luxurious, thousand-count-sheet resort that shuts out the grinding poverty outside its gates.
Margot’s main job occurs in the beds of the guests, but she submits to her work with hope of a better life for her smart younger sister Thandi. The plan: Thandi will become a doctor and rescue Margot and their mother, the embittered Delores, from crippling poverty before the swarm of hotels overtakes their ramshackle neighborhood.
But Thandi, who attends a private school Margot pays for, has an entirely different set of fears and worries: She’s trying to bleach her skin lighter, desperate for acceptance and validation. Margot, meanwhile, has another secret: She’s fallen in love with another woman, the outcast Verdene, and must prevent anyone from finding out. If the neighbors know, she would lose her job — or worse.
The book began with Thandi and grew from there, Dennis-Benn says from her home in Brooklyn.
“A lot of emotions resurfaced,” she says now about that vacation (she and her wife ended up getting married in the first lesbian wedding in Jamaica in 2012; Dennis-Benn wrote about the experience in Ebony magazine). “Thandi, this young girl suffering from feeling unworthy because of her darker complexion in this elite atmosphere — I experienced that. All this was coming back to me. Thandi was born from that journey. Interacting with working-class Jamaicans, I saw the performance they were giving and then going home to nothing. I thought, ‘I need to write about this.’”
Thandi’s self loathing is an emotion the author understands all too well.
“I grew up feeling less than beautiful,” Dennis-Benn says. “I grew up in a black country so colonized that if you didn’t look like you could be half European, you’re not beautiful. You can see that in Miss Universe and Miss World pageants. Dark-skinned girls, we’re good to be on the track and field but not the central stage. And so bleaching happens. Boys do it as well. And it’s not vanity — people have been telling us we’re nobodies if we don’t have a certain complexion. It even happens here in America. I see women on Flatbush Avenue who are doing it. I heard one woman say — and I put this in the book — ‘Who wants to be black in this place?’”
Yet Thandi isn’t the only character for whom Dennis-Benn has great empathy, even when her characters are less than admirable. Margot, who was sexually exploited as a child, excels at luring other young women into prostitution. Delores, whose own past was full of shame, doesn’t hesitate to remind her daughters just how worthless they are (“Nobody love a black girl,” she tells Thandi).
And yet Dennis-Benn still feels compassion for her. Delores, she says, is actually offering her own twisted sort of comfort in being honest about how hard their lives will be.
“I’m attached to all my characters,” Dennis-Benn says, “but when I was writing Delores, I found myself even more emotional. Her voice is the post colonial voice. The things she says are echoed throughout our culture by our great grandmothers, our grandmothers and our mothers. ... This is a woman who developed this anger against the world, and it comes off in her mothering. She’s telling her daughters, ‘Society is not going to treat you any better, so let me give you the hard end of this stick so you’re not surprised.’”
“Here Comes the Sun” also deals with the realities of homophobia in Jamaica. Because the country needs tourism, “they try to minimize reports,” Dennis-Benn says, “but you can’t walk hand in hand in Montego Bay or on the streets of Kingston.” Still, she hopes the novel resonates with a message.
“I do want people to walk away from the book knowing as human beings we all do things to survive. Bad things aren’t born out of thin air,” she says. “Some things we can’t change, but we do have the power to change other things.”
Meet the author
Who: Nicole Dennis-Benn
When: 11 a.m. Nov. 20
Where: Room 8303, Miami Dade College, 300 NE Second Ave., Miami