By Natalie Tousignant, Guest Writer
Author and former Manhattan College professor Nicole Dennis-Benn returned to campus Oct. 6th as the second author of this semester’s Major Author Reading Series hosted by the English Department. Her novel “Here Comes the Sun” was published this summer and has been widely received with critical acclaim, becoming a New York Times Editors’ Choice and earning her a spot on the shortlist for the 2016 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize.
Dennis-Benn was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, but moved to the United States for college. She later returned to Jamaica to visit her family and journaled as she re-experienced her island, this time in a new way. Her journal became the foundation of the book, a complicated fiction about the underbelly of Jamaica which non-natives see as a beachy paradise.
“It’s not a paradise,” Dennis- Benn told the room of listeners. She explained that she wants her readers and listeners to see Jamaica in a more authentic way, to “see the real side of Jamaica, see the working class.”
Through the main characters in the novel, Margot and her sister Thandi and their mother, Delores, Dennis- Benn demonstrates just how Jamaicans construct a paradise of their island to present to tourists.
She uses that inauthenticity to create a dichotomy between the illusion Jamaicans have created for tourism and the real, and rather harsh, way Jamaicans see their home island and thus, how they see themselves.
The first scene Dennis-Benn read to the audience was a perfect depiction of the self-hatred she described as prevalent among the Jamaican people. In the scene, Thandi, the younger sister, is going through the painful process of having her skin bleached so she can appear less black.
“This goes deeper than vanity,” Dennis-Benn said. “Thandi seeing ugliness in her blackness is something that’s prevalent in Jamaica.” It is a direct response to the inadequacy many Jamaicans feel because of their skin color. Thandi says to Dolores in the book, “I don’t want to be black any longer…I am the darkest at school. People either make fun of me or they ignore me.”
This resistance to blackness has a history behind it. The character of Dolores tells her daughter, “Nobody love a black girl. Not even harself.” Dennis-Benn says this is an example of “post-colonial scars talking.”
English professor Adam Koehler PHD, noted the prevalence of that same theme throughout the novel, saying that the two main characters, “show us the realities and repercussions of what it means to live in the wake of colonial forces.”
Dennis-Benn shows us the effects of these colonial forces in many ways. The work that Margot, the older sister, is forced to do—both as an ineffectual member of a hotel staff and as a sex worker—demonstrates the exploitation she as a Jamaican woman must endure to survive and reveals a history of menial and degrading work Jamaicans have been forced into by the economic effects of colonial power. “Margot uses what she knows and does what she has to do to survive. This is a story of survival” Dennis-Benn said.
“[The novel] is a brave story at the heart of which is the relationship between two sisters, one of whom makes great sacrifices for the other” Koehler said.
Margot and Thandi, Dennis-Benn says, are “voices for issues in Jamaica.” Citing the sexualization of young girls and the silencing of sexual violence, Dennis-Benn told the audience that Jamaica’s attitude toward sexuality is problematic. For example, she said, while a homosexual person may be harassed on the island, a pedophile is likely not to be. Through Margot, Dennis-Benn creates a character who offers a narrative from the perspective of both a gay Jamaican woman and of a sex worker. She presents readers with the argument that perhaps homosexuality is not the most pressing issue on the island, or even the most important issue related to sex.
Though Dennis-Benn does not pull any punches in writing about Jamaica, she calls this book a “love letter to Jamaica.” She said she wrote this book “out of love” and that even though she has always embraced Jamaica as her country, [she] never felt Jamaica claimed [her] back.”
She said that Jamaica itself is a character in the novel who, like the other protagonists, “depicts her beauty and her ugliness.” And in all of the characters, Dennis-Benn told the audience, she “wanted to create rounded, complex characters instead of caricatures” which female protagonists can often turn into in novels.
Junior Kat Daly was especially excited to hear about Jamaica from Dennis-Benn’s perspective since she visited the island last year. “I went to Jamaica last year through our school’s LOVE program and I’m going back this winter,” Daly said. “It meant a lot to her hear story.”
Junior Leeza Rivkin was overjoyed to see Dennis-Benn again after being in her one of her writing classes at Manhattan College two years ago. “She deserves all the success that she’s accomplished so far,” Rivkin said. “She was the coolest professor ever, so inspirational and such a talented writer.”
“We were lucky to have her teaching for us and we’re lucky to be able to have her read tonight” Koehler said on the night of her reading. “It truly is an honor to have Nicole make herself and her work available for us.”