Power of the pen
For years, Nicole Dennis-Benn would leave her day job and go home and write in secret.
Her wife insisted she choose between the two.
Ms Dennis-Benn, a Jamaican who was working as a public health researcher in New York, is glad she listened.
Her novel Here Comes the Sun was a New York Times notable book last year.
“Publishing my first novel was surreal,” the 35-year-old said. “I was a bit ashamed of writing. I thought I should be doing something more worthwhile. It warms my heart to know that my work is well received nationally and internationally. I wanted to tell the stories of Jamaican working-class women, a group that is often marginalised and invisible. So, it gives me great joy to know that people are open to receiving our untold stories.
“With the success of my debut novel, many of my friends and family now take me seriously as a writer. It’s quite rewarding to be doing something I’m passionate about and having the love and support from everyone who’s important to me.”
Here Comes the Sun tells the story of three generations of Jamaican women as they struggle with poverty, homophobia, classism and racism in the Caribbean nation.
“Yes, Jamaica is beautiful but there are real issues,” Ms Dennis-Benn said. “I wanted to tackle those in literature. I am hoping more people would read closely and process that and become more informed.
“Jamaica, like Bermuda, is a tourist economy. I was always aware of the discrepancies between the tourism industry and local communities. We would drive by signs on beaches warning us not to trespass unless we were staying at the affiliated hotel. Each time there would be a new hotel, bigger and more lavish, where land or homes used to be. Years later, when I returned as a visitor and stayed at a resort, I noticed that the only representation of Jamaican culture was through the lens of local artists they allowed on site.
“Even the food was watered down. One hotel clerk mentioned that most tourists would rather have their vacation in our beautiful country without seeing the people. I knew then that I had to tell the story of the people who didn’t get seen.”
She enrolled in the master’s programme at Sarah Lawrence College and got down to work.
By the time she graduated in 2012, she had the novel’s foundation in place.
Because she comes from a working-class Jamaican family, she was determined to “preserve [that] authenticity on the page”.
The novel’s main characters all speak patois; the dialect was heavily frowned upon at the secondary school she went to.
“If you spoke it, the teachers would take you aside and chastise you for being unladylike or uncultured,” she said. “We were taught to be ashamed of our dialect.”
She was more nervous about how Jamaicans would respond to the character Margot, a closet lesbian.
“Cultural norms don’t permit her to embrace her sexuality,” said Ms Dennis-Benn. “She would never come out as a lesbian.
“I wanted to weave that complexity. Margot is really responding to our culture which is highly homophobic.”
“When I did a reading in Jamaica in January, people said they loved Margot and loved her relationship with Verdene. That was really interesting to me.”
Ms Dennis-Benn kept her own sexuality a secret from her family. She was forced to come clean after her mother overheard a conversation she was having with another woman.
“I was outed by that really,” she said. “My mother said two women don’t talk to each other like that.”
It took her parents a long time to accept her; some family members still won’t talk to her.
“That was hurtful,” she said. “But the way I look at it, the family members who have accepted me mean a lot more to me than the ones who don’t.
“I would not change anything. I would not go back into the closet. I am happier being out as a lesbian, a writer and me myself.”
Ms Dennis-Benn kicks off a Caribbean reading tour at the Bermuda National Library tonight at 6pm.
Entry is free, but registration is requested: firstname.lastname@example.org or 295-2905.
• Learn more here: nicoledennisenn.com.
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