Jamaican author explores poverty, sexuality, more at SHU

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SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Themes of self-identity and Caribbean culture took center stage as Jamaican author Nicole Dennis-Benn discussed her award-winning novel “Here Comes the Sun” as part of the writer lecture series hosted by the Seton Hall University Department of Africana Studies on Wednesday, April 11, at the university.

For her novel, Dennis-Benn won a Lambda Literary Award and was also named a finalist for the 2016 National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Award, the 2017 New York Public Library Young Lions Award, Texas Library Association 2017 Lariat, the 2016 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and the Dublin Literary Award.

“Here Comes the Sun,” set in Montego Bay, Jamaica, tells the story of a mother and her older daughter who rely on the tourism industry to survive financially and provide the means for the younger daughter to attend a prestigious Catholic school in the hope that she will have the opportunity to pursue a medical career. To set the stage for the audience discussion, Dennis-Benn read three excerpts from the story to give background on each of the main characters.

Though the novel is fictional, Dennis-Benn drew on her personal upbringing to paint the picture of the realities of working-class women in an economy that relies heavily on tourism. One storyline follows the older daughter, who adds to her meager resort pay by trading sexual favors for money.

“Jamaica is sold to the world as a paradise, but we have more to sell than Usain Bolt and Bob Marley. We saw the tourists and we give them the world, and then we go home to nothing,” Dennis-Benn said at the event. “I wanted to humanize characters like Margot who have to supplement their income with prostitution.”

In her book Dennis-Benn also addresses the colorism that exists in Caribbean culture, evidenced by one of the characters utilizing skin-bleaching products so that she can gradually lighten her skin, hoping to become more accepted in her new school.

“As darker-skinned Jamaicans, we were taught to fear the sun, so it is ironic that the title of the book announces the arrival of the sun,” she said. “Darker-skinned Jamaicans do not feel valued or that their lives matter unless they are light like the ruling class. I feel like every time I write, I am writing against something.”

Dennis-Benn left Jamaica to attend college in the United States, and graduated from Cornell University in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in biology and nutritional sciences. She then obtained a master’s degree in public health from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. After deciding to pursue her true passion for writing, Dennis-Benn earned an M.F.A. degree from Sarah Lawrence College in 2012.

“The characters in this novel opened the eyes of many Jamaicans. I get emails from Jamaicans all the time now who identify with the characters. I am writing for change. As a writer, I want people to start talking and having a dialogue and getting something brewing,” the author said in response to an audience member’s query about what compels her to write. “Growing up, I was taught to dismiss a piece of my identity because Jamaicans were taught to speak the Queen’s English as a result of colonialism. I write to take my culture and my identity back. As Bob Marley said, ‘we are mentally enslaved.’”

Similar to one of the characters in the novel, Dennis-Benn was not interested in a medical career and only pursued studies in the field to appease her family. She encourages others faced with the same dilemma to forge their own paths.

“Study what you enjoy, college is supposed to be an experience. Most undergraduates don’t understand that, especially those, who like me, are first-generation college students,” she said in a recent email to the News-Record. “Like the character Thandi, I was supposed to be a doctor and pull my family out of poverty.”

The novel also explores themes of sexuality and homophobia; one of the main female characters is secretly in love with a woman but societal rules forbid her from openly expressing her feelings. By acknowledging this unspoken law in her book, Dennis-Benn has created her own idea of what it means to represent Jamaica in a positive light.

“I think I’m doing really well by my own standards. When I first published, I really wanted to be accepted by the Jamaican literati and culture as a whole,” she told the News-Record. “I realize I’m no Miss Jamaica, and I’m certainly not an ‘ideal’ ambassador, being an out lesbian and a writer willing to challenge certain things in our culture. Today, I’m quite happy and comfortable riding the waves in my own ocean.”

Dennis-Benn’s lecture is one of a series developed by the Africana studies department at SHU to expose the university and surrounding community to writers of the African diaspora.

“When I assumed the chair of Africana studies, I started the writer lecture series as a means to expose students to works across the spectrum but primarily by those of African descent,” department chairwoman Simone James-Alexander said in a recent phone interview with the News-Record. The series has included poetry, novels, performances of traditional Brazilian capoeira poetry — it is a wide range of anything that has to do with African descent.

“I believe that students identify with Nicole Dennis-Benn because she writes outside of the box and writes about sexuality, and she challenges the status quo,” James-Alexander continued. “I am trying to promote a sense of transnationalism, so that the focus is not on where you are born or what your background is. Even though it’s a woman’s text, it is appealing to anyone struggling with identity issues.”

Photos by Shanee Frazier