Review: “‘Patsy’ Upends the Stereotypes of Immigrant and Gay Fiction”


Chelsey Johnson (The New York Times) reviews Nicole Dennis-Benn’s Patsy:

The first scar to appear in “Patsy” is on Roy, the estranged father of the titular protagonist’s child. It’s a “long, nasty” mark, visible on the back of his right hand as he laughs and strokes his chin, skeptical of Patsy’s claim that her planned stealth emigration from Jamaica to the United States is for the child’s sake. “Dis is about you. Not our daughter,” he says, and he’s correct. To the issuing visa officer, 5-year-old Tru is the irreplaceable asset that will pull Patsy back home, the ultimate collateral — but the force of Patsy’s desperate desire for romantic love and autonomy overrides her maternal impulse. At the book’s outset, she leaves Jamaica knowing she will never return, and the lie she tells Tru — “I promise I’ll be back fah you” — will alter the course of her life for the next decade.


Patsy bears her own indelible scar: ropy branches on her abdomen. So does Cicely, the idealized friend and lover to whom she’s fleeing in Brooklyn, who hides the slash above her eyebrow with makeup. And years later, teenage Tru has accrued a netting of scars on her upper thigh. Nicole Dennis-Benn carefully unspools the stories behind each wound over the long course of this richly imagined novel, her second; their provenances emerge gradually, piece by piece, the way a person’s story of trauma emerges only with time and trust. Without giving those stories away, I’ll simply say that this subtle motif beautifully illustrates how the characters are connected to one another by love, desire and violence, and how they bear those histories permanently, both within and on their bodies.

One of the novel’s finest achievements is how vividly and insistently the body shapes not just character but plot. Emotionally astute and gifted at math, Patsy inhabits a body that is female, dark-skinned and queer. In Jamaica, this means she can hold an administrative government job, but has to contend with wrenchingly early sexualization, no reproductive autonomy, the vicious colonial legacy of colorism and the persistent threat of gender violence. In New York, on the other hand, where she’s allowed more agency and sexual freedom, her only economic recourse is to join the undocumented caretaking class, serving the white bourgeoisie for whom Jamaica is little more than a resort destination.

“Patsy” turns away from the tourism economy that drove Dennis-Benn’s debut novel, “Here Comes the Sun,” and toward the Jamaica of Jamaicans. Patsy’s home turf, Pennyfield, is a working-class neighborhood rife with old-timers, kids playing soccer with makeshift balls, cockfights, dance parties, zinc roofs and wire fences that mean the neighbors always know each other’s business. The windows are all barred, but in Patsy’s case, danger often comes from within the house, not outside. Cruelty entwines with care everywhere, from Kingston to Brooklyn; no one is either purely good or purely villainous, whether a gang leader or a stepparent or Patsy herself.


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