An interview with John Williams for The New York Times.
Nicole Dennis-Benn’s debut novel, “Here Comes the Sun,” is about Margot, a young woman in Jamaica coming to terms with her sexuality and dealing with the encroachment of tourism on her village. Ms. Dennis-Benn, who left Jamaica at 17 to go to college and received her bachelor’s degree from Cornell University, discussed the book in an email interview and the effect she hopes it will have on visitors to her home country. Edited excerpts from the conversation are below.
What role do you think literature can play in teaching cultures about each other?
While writing “Here Comes the Sun,” I wanted readers to see the other side of paradise; I wanted them to see the real people behind the fantasy life advertised in commercials. Next time a reader visits any place — be it Jamaica or Thailand or India — perhaps now they might be more inclined to venture outside the gates of the resort.
How often do you go back to Jamaica?
I try to go back at least once or twice a year with my wife, who is from the United States. Since I’m not welcome to stay with my family in the company of my wife, we stay in hotels while in Kingston and in villas on the coasts. Despite the complicated relationship with my family, I do get to see them, although not as much as before. I also hang out with old friends, who accept my wife and me as we are.
Was your experience of the tourism industry there secondhand, or did you work in it?
It was secondhand. Although I never worked in the industry, I was pretty close to it. My family and I took regular trips to the north coast because my mother had gotten a job as a customs officer and worked some weekends in Montego Bay. I was mesmerized by how different the island looked in tourist areas, a stark contrast to Kingston.
Margot struggles with her community’s thoughts about her sexuality. Do you see her as an autobiographical character?
Margot is not autobiographical, but her yearning for a better life is definitely something I’ve felt while living in Jamaica. Through Margot I conquered many of the wounds I experienced as a working-class Jamaican — chief among them the yearning to own a piece of paradise, although instinctively knowing that paradise doesn’t belong to us. This particular hurt — yearning for something you can’t have because of your social class — is even more viscerally felt than the lack of acceptance of my sexuality.
How has your family in Jamaica reacted to the book?
My mother is very concerned about how I’ve portrayed Jamaica. This lends to a larger issue that I’ve struggled with as a writer: the pressure to play the role of ambassador. I constantly have to remind myself — and my mother — that I have an obligation to my creative process, which I must preserve in order to tell stories about a people — in the case of “Here Comes the Sun,” working-class women — whose lives are rarely reflected on the page with depth, compassion, honesty and respect.