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Rejecting the Single Story: Nicole Dennis-Benn's Here Comes the Sun
Nicole Dennis-Benn’s debut novel Here Comes the Sun should come with a trigger warning. Despite the sunny, cheerful cover, these pages are filled with drought, desperation and desire – a scathing exposé on tourism. Channelling the spirit of Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie, Dennis-Benn pushes back against the danger of a single story. In Here Comes the Sun, she flips over the gleaming fish scales of Jamaica’s tourist industry and guts it without apology.
Since the novel's publication, Dennis-Benn has written on gender and identity in The New York Times and Elle Magazine (among others) but in Here Comes the Sun her pen is turned homeward, fictionalizing on a broader canvas the struggles that hit closest to home.
The characters and events in Here Comes the Sun may be unfamiliar to international audiences, but the local reader will easily find herself among the pages. It is an unfiltered testament to the resilience and lurid flexibility of those whose lives make the lie of Jamaica as paradise possible: the working class of the Jamaica tourism sector.
Dennis-Benn is no stranger to working class women. Here she transmutes her Vineyard Town upbringing with her mother and grandmother to the fictional River Bank, painting the lives of one conflicted family and the tragedies that shape them.
The story is told largely from the perspective of Margot, a hotel clerk by day and courtesan by night who wields her sexuality like a weapon. She is primarily concerned with the upward mobility of her younger sister Thandi, whose education at an elite high school she works hard to pay for. Thandi is forced to bear the pressure of being her family’s solution to poverty even though it means giving up her dreams of becoming an artist. Looming over the pair is matriarchal Delores, a craft market vendor and victim of harsh post-colonial realities who passes this social oppression on to both her daughters.
Here Comes the Sun features four unique narratives. Dennis-Benn deftly uses setting as a fifth main character and her attention to the details of Jamaican community living deploys a gritty realism that mocks the airbrushed beaches of tourism ads. As a result the pacing of the novel is rather slow, with frequent flashbacks and many musings, but this makes immersing oneself in the story that much easier as the novel winds its way through the treacherous roads of personal adversity. Like flint, her characters are sharpened by suffering. There is very little triumph to be found on these pages. Here, success is hard-won and bittersweet.
Emboldened by the objectivity of distance, Dennis-Benn unflinchingly chronicles the troubling reality of the Jamaican feminine experience. She furthers this discussion by giving glimpses of the taboo – Margot’s love affair with the out lesbian Verdene Moore. Dennis-Benn’s handling of their relationship is understandably delicate, dancing nimbly around author surrogacy and Jamaica’s homophobic climate. The result is an intimate and acutely human portrayal of an oft-ignored struggle, woven beautifully into the tapestry of the wider work.
Delores, Margot and Thandi are moulded by the tragedies of their youth in a seemingly never-ending cycle that will be unsettlingly familiar to a Jamaican audience. In light of recent events regarding the abuse of girls and women, the timing of this novel is especially crucial. Often the story of sexual abuse victims is narrow and oppressive. In her novel, Dennis-Benn attempts to expand their narrative.
Here Comes the Sun was released in the summer of 2016, soon to be followed by a flurry of social media backlash against the Caribbean gendered experience (Life in Leggings, Say Their Names), as well as the recent Moravian church sexual abuse accusations which rocked Jamaican society. Dennis-Benn provides a narrative that can start a public conversation on sexuality, identity, colourism and womanhood.
I would say the conversation has begun.
Title: Here Comes the Sun / Publisher: Liveright