An interview with Kevin Nance for The Chicago Tribune.
Most Americans think of Jamaica as an island paradise, full of beautiful resort hotels, white beaches, palm trees and icy tropical drinks. But for the Jamaicans who staff those resorts — such as Margot, the main character of “Here Comes the Sun,” Nicole Dennis-Benn’s highly anticipated fictional debut — that image is far from the whole story. Underneath its exotic facade, Jamaica is a society churning with barely acknowledged class divisions, economic inequality, sexism, internalized racism and rampant homophobia — all of which form the backdrop for the novel about three women struggling to survive against the odds.
Printers Row Journal recently caught up with Dennis-Benn, 34, for a phone interview as she was preparing to read in front of an audience at the Calabash Literary Festival, an annual event in her home country. Here’s an edited transcript of our chat.
Q: Have you read from your novel yet at Calabash?
A: Not yet. That will be at 7 p.m. tonight. I’m hoping for the best.
Q: The year that I was at Calabash, Junot Díaz read a piece that had a lot of sexual references. I was watching the audience, about half of which was having a great time, and the other half was looking on in a very stone-faced, disapproving way.
A: Oh my gosh!
Q: There seems to be a real divide among Jamaicans in terms of their comfort level with topics of sexuality.
A: Yeah. We’re a very Christian country, right? You do have the Rastafarians, but mostly it’s Christian. At the same time, girls are oversexualized. It’s quite a contradiction, and there’s a tug of war going on, an internal conflict that a lot of Jamaicans face, I feel.
Q: Then there’s the issue of homophobia. In 2013, Newsweek magazine published a list of the world’s top 12 most homophobic countries. Jamaica is No. number 7 on the listafter Nigeria, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia, India and Honduras. Certainly Jamaica has a reputation for being very homophobic, but I gather some Jamaicans feel it’s been overstated. What’s your sense of that?
A: I would say yes, it is homophobic. It depends on where you are, and what your class is. If you’re middle or upper class and highly educated, it’s not as bad. If you’re working class, that’s where it gets a little more complicated. I know there are people who say, “Let’s get over this conversation.” But to me, it’s a conversation we need to have still.
Q: You left Jamaica for the United States in …
A: In 1999, yes.
Q: Why did you leave?
A: I felt I had to leave because if I stayed … It’s a very beautiful island, right? I would never deny that. But I grew up working class, and I felt that if I stayed, I wouldn’t have the opportunities I would have in New York, for example. Here, I would have been stuck. I have friends here who graduate from high school and are forced to do jobs they don’t want. Upward mobility is a lot harder here. That’s the main reason why I left.
Q: It wasn’t so much the matter of homophobia as it was class and economic opportunity.
Q: I guess if you had to rank them, the issues in the book are No. number 1, class; No. number 2, homophobia; and No. number 3, “colorism” — how important skin color is among Jamaicans, which leads some dark-skinned people to lighten their skin through bleaching.
A: I would add identity to that list. In the book, Margot, who is working class, doesn’t acknowledge her homosexuality. She won’t accept a label like that. She is prostituting herself, but really the love of her life is a woman.
Q: Which brings her into conflict with her mother, Delores. It’s a very sad book — a tragic book, really. These three women in the story, their relationships are pretty much destroyed by all these negative forces bearing down on them.
A: Delores, yes, there’s a lot of desperation there. She tries so hard to survive. And seeing that inclination in Margot, well — Delores is absolutely the voice of post-colonial Jamaica, with all the old ways of thinking intact.
Q: Including a kind of internalized racism, which Margot herself is subject to. There’s a terrible moment in the book in which she speaks sharply to one of her employees, Sweetness. She says, “Yuh is nothing but a tar-black country girl wid not even a high school education. A girl wid nothing going for her but har long legs an’ big behind. Yuh t’ink anyone want to hear what yuh have to say?”
A: It’s so ingrained, you know? So Margot in that moment becomes Delores. These are things that Delores would have said to Margot. In the same breath, Margot wants so badly to save her sister Thandi from that fate, that legacy. And she does it the best way she knows how, given that these are the only opportunities she was provided with as this working class woman trying to survive.
Q: Thandi is the younger sister, and both Delores and Margot have placed so much hope and trust in her as the family’s best shot at upward mobility. But she disappoints them by falling in love with a young working-class man who can’t help lift her into the economic echelon that they want for her.
A: Yes. Another thing that Thandi struggles with is that she sees herself as this dark girl, and nobody likes a dark girl, right? It’s internalized racism. And she sees bleaching her skin as her way of access into society, into the ruling class.
Q: That’s something you hear about among African-Americans, but my sense is that in the United States, that issue of skin tone is fading somewhat.
A: Yes, that’s true, but it’s still a major issue in many parts of the world, including Africa and India, as well. Certainly it remains a problem in Jamaica.
Q: And yet I gather that in Jamaica, people are more or less taught not to speak openly, or deal in any direct way, about the kind of issues that you’re dealing with in “Here Comes the Sun.” You might talk about it privately with your friends, but not out in public. So you’re talking about things in this book that are very much taboo in Jamaican society.
A: We are socialized as a culture to be silent. So one of the things for me personally — even before I became a writer — was to ask, “Why aren’t we talking about this?” I used to get my family to talk about things that they had tried to cover up. And I think in my writing, it’s the same thing. Our national motto is “Out of many, one people.” That motto has been used for so many years to silence any conversation about racial, ethnic or economic disparities.
Q: There’s another phrase I always think about in relation to Jamaica, via Bob Marley, that also feels ironic in this context: “One love.”
A: Exactly! My goodness. Right.
Q: I always think, “Oh really? One love?”
A: Thank you so much for that. We always say that, but it’s not. It cannot be one love when so many of us are disenfranchised because of who we love.
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer and photographer whose work appears in the Washington Post, USA Today, Poets & Writers Magazine and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @KevinNance1.
Here Comes the Sun
By Nicole Dennis-Benn, Liveright, 336 pages, $26.95