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Bringing Home the Sun - Nicole Dennis-Benn's Book Party at Bookophilia
When Nicole Dennis-Benn did her first reading on her home island in June 2016 at the Calabash International Literary Festival in Treasure Beach, very few members of the audience had ever heard of her. Her debut novel Here Comes the Sun was on the cusp of publication, she was being noted as a writer to watch, but she was a largely unknown quantity. Six months later as she takes her seat at an intimate book party at Bookophilia in Liguanea, Kingston, Here Comes the Sun has been critically acclaimed, made its way to several Best Books of 2016 lists and Dennis-Benn has been proclaimed a literary star.
In her introduction, event organizer Latoya West-Blackwood of iPublish Consultancy reads the litany of accolades showered on Here Comes the Sun since its release and the number of magazines that have featured Dennis-Benn’s work. West-Blackwood began producing book parties at Bookophilia in 2016, the Dennis-Benn event is their most successful to date.
Dennis-Benn read three passages from Hear Comes the Sun, using each to introduce the three main characters of her novel. She begins the reading with a section featuring Tandy, a young girl with dreams of riches and enlightenment as she goes through the painful ritual of skin bleaching, a process of rubbing from head to toe with caustic chemicals and then being tightly wrapped in plastic wrap, to get away from the pain and scars of ugliness, because, well, even "God don't like ugly".
From there Dennis-Benn introduced the audience to Margo, Tandy's lighter-skinned older sister, who is a clerk but works part-time as a prostitute. It juxtaposes Margo's emotionless sex with a customer, with her longing for the tabooed touch of another woman.
Finally, the audience is introduced to Delores, mother to Margo and Tandy, a jaded woman who knows love has no place in life. The approach to life is the principle that ‘what will set you free is money’ and she attempts to impart this knowledge on her daughters.
Dennis-Benn's readings reveal a solid novel which explores some of the darker areas of Jamaican contemporary culture our approaches to race and sexuality, in many ways a hold over from our slavery and colonial legacies.
Through a series of questions first posed by West-Blackwood and then the audience, Dennis-Benn spoke about her journey as a writer as well as other experiences that shaped her approach and brought her to this work.
“Growing up I'm Jamaica, I never read books like this,” Dennis-Benn said. "I wanted desperately to open a book and see myself and see my mother's story and my grandmother's story."
Dennis-Benn also admitted that while writing the book, she struggled with allowing the lesbian affair between Margo and Vernice to have full expression as she was subconsciously censoring the book in fear of what a Jamaican audience would think. So far, her home audiences have been completely receptive to work.
"It was really my internalized homophobia. I'm an out lesbian, but I was forbidding Margo to have that relationship, because I've internalized a lot,” Dennis-Benn said.
The audience was also given a taste of Dennis-Benn's non-fiction through Michelle Serieux' reading of her Op-Ed piece in the New York Times 'A Woman Child in Jamaica'. Like the novel, the article continues to explore female sexuality in Jamaica, extending Dennis-Benn's conversation on a topic which clearly concerns her.
Dennis-Benn revealed that she somtimes imaged that a lone girl would one day discover Here Comes the Sun and it would speak to her in a way that she had needed to be spoken to a teenager in Jamaica. Having therefore produced the kind of book her young self would have wanted to and should have been reading, Dennis-Benn admits to being filled with gratitude the kind that some days can only be given full expression through tears.
"Some days I just want to bawl, that ugly bawl," Dennis-Benn said.
She made sure to point out however that the writers road to publication is often a rocky path lined with pitfalls and if one is not careful, dead drops.
"It's about falling down and getting back up. It really is a lot of rejection," Dennis-Benn said. She spoke about her first book where her first agent asked her to remove the Jamaican Creole, which resulted in an inauthentic book that is now buried under her bed.
Years later she wrote a new book and found an agent who believed in the work and happily it was a time after Marlon James had begun to get with the publication of his second novel, The Book of Night Women. Dennis-Benn admits that Book of Night Women and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God gave her permission to use Creole, and the result is that Dennis-Benn now has the keys to the literary kingdom.