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Tears under the sun

Set in Jamaica, Nicole Dennis-Benn’s brilliant debut is reminiscent of the work of Toni Morrison

Dennis-Benn cover

It took Here Comes the Sun author Nicole Dennis-Benn a long time to come out as a writer. So long, in fact, that Dennis-Benn not only obtained a bachelor’s degree in biology and nutrition when she emigrated to the United States from Jamaica in 1999, she followed it with a master’s degree in public health. And then she followed that by working for five years conducting public health research about HIV at Columbia University.

All that before Dennis-Benn, 34, could admit to herself and her loved ones that what she really was, was a writer. All that just to get to a debut novel that’s one of the most exciting, well-regarded books in a summer of towering releases that include Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad.

Dennis-Benn knows a little something about coming out — about courage and leaps of faith, about choosing joy and truth when such choices won’t necessarily please those closest to you. When she and her then-partner Emma Benn got married in Jamaica in 2012, a move that made national news because of the island nation’s reputation for hostility toward queer people, neither of their mothers attended the ceremony.

Dennis-Benn knows a little something about coming out — about courage and leaps of faith, about choosing joy and truth.

When it came to her professional life, Dennis-Benn felt this enormous pressure, one very common to the immigrant experience, of needing to pursue a career that would ensure the sort of class mobility that would’ve been out of reach had she remained in her childhood home of Vineyard Town, Jamaica. To her taxi driver father, “doctor” was a suitable career. But “writer”? Not so much. And so, as an adult, Dennis-Benn would come to Harlem, New York, after conducting research at Columbia. She would write just down the street from writer Audre Lorde’s childhood home.

“When I met [Emma], she said to me … ‘Are you a researcher or are you a writer?’ I had to make that decision then, because I was more passionate about writing,” Dennis-Benn said. “She forced me to look at that and not be scared, but go after it.”

So Dennis-Benn gave her up her secretive after-hours scribbling and entered the master of fine arts in writing program at Sarah Lawrence College. Everything came full circle when both Dennis-Benn and Benn’s mothers attended the recent Here Comes the Sun launch party at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn.

Though Dennis-Benn’s mother still refuses to allow the two women to stay together when they visit her in Jamaica — the couple usually stays in a hotel or a villa on the island, as she told The New York Times, “The thing that is so beautiful though, at my book launch … they both came. They were there sitting side by side, which was great,” Dennis-Benn said. “So it was like, at least at one point there’s an aspect of us that they’re both celebrating.”

The wrinkles and folds of Dennis-Benn’s own life and her experiences growing up in Jamaica are woven into the fabric of Here Comes the Sun. It’s a soul-stirring examination of the relationship between mothers and daughters told through the stories of three women: Margot, her younger sister Thandi, and their mother, Delores. Here Comes the Sun is an illustration of intergenerational trauma that’s been left to steep in a brew of colonialism, rape culture, and poverty.

A vicious, deadly riptide called Pregnant Heidi, which is said to be the spirit of a runaway slave who was impregnated by her captor, adds another layer of mystique. It’s not unlike the work of Toni Morrison and in Margot, we see commonalities with the character Maima from Danai Gurira’s Broadway play Eclipsed.

Margot works at a large resort owned by one of the richest British families on the island — and runs a prostitution ring with its owner. For both her and Delores, every morally dubious decision they make comes back to vaulting Thandi out of the book’s fictional town of River Bank and into the university.

“I wanted to use these characters for that specifically because sexual trauma is so prevalent among Jamaican women, but we don’t talk about it,” Dennis-Benn said. “And the perpetrators never get arrested or anything … there’s something happening where a lot are not even seeing their bodies as worthy. I wanted to tap into that because more and more friends, relatives open up eventually about this trauma … It’s always seen as the girl’s fault … I really wanted to show this. Holding up that mirror so that we can see as a society that this is a problem.”

“In one of [James Baldwin’s] essays he says that he loves America so much, he also has the right to criticize it, hoping it will change. I feel the same way about Jamaica.”

In Here Comes the Sun, all three women are survivors of sexual assault, living in a shack in River Bank. Divorced from historical context, the way Delores deals with the trauma of sexual violence, both her own, and her daughters, can seem almost barbaric. But we know there are cruelties black parents feel forced to subject their children to in the name of love, and in the name of protecting them from a hostile world, thanks to texts such as Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. In his letter to his teenage son, Coates named the source of those cruelties. He called it “the fear.”

I felt the fear in the visits to my Nana’s home in Philadelphia … I saw it in my own father, who loves you, who counsels you, who slipped me money to care for you. My father was so very afraid. I felt it in the sting of his black leather belt, which he applied with more anxiety than anger, my father who beat me as if someone might steal me away, because that is exactly what was happening all around us. Everyone had lost a child, somehow, to the streets, to jail, to drugs, to guns. It was said that these lost girls were sweet as honey and would not hurt a fly. It was said that these lost boys had just received a GED and had begun to turn their lives around. And now they were gone, and their legacy was a great fear.

The cruelties that stem out of The Fear are deeply gendered and classed. In the world of Here Comes the Sun, Delores’ main method of survival as an impoverished, dark-skinned black woman seems to be shoving experiences down and refusing to deal with them until she’s forced to tell her daughters how little society values them. In the Dennis-Benn’s novel, The Fear is colored by sex, which becomes clear in a chilling interaction between Thandi and her mother, Delores. Delores, in her Jamaican patois, is encouraging Thandi to turn in her boyfriend Charles, for whom there’s a $10,000 bounty. Charles is wanted for murder after attacking Thandi’s rapist and beating him senseless. The rapist died of a heart attack during the ambulance ride to the hospital following the fight:

Who yuh know really love a black girl for more than what’s between her legs? Yuh is a pretty black girl, but is my duty as yuh mother to teach yuh dese t’ings. Put somet’ing in yuh head. Chile, yuh know how much yuh coulda get? Ten thousand U.S. dollahs! Dat can tek yuh from here to eternity, pay fah yuh education an’ everyt’ing. Use yuh head, chile. Yuh can’t place more value on dis boy an’ his foolish love over money. If it mean so likkle to you, then you’ll lose everyt’ing. Membah dis, nobody love a black girl. Not even harself. Now get up an’ get yuh pay.”

Delores’ callousness toward her daughter, her dedication to ejecting her daughter from poverty, even at such a steep price, is a depiction of The Fear taken to extremes. But it reveals itself every day in the real world in less alarming ways, too. It’s present in the pointed, motherly microaggressions black mothers direct at daughters — in the way Dennis-Benn’s mother nitpicked at her.

“For me, it was more subtle than [Delores],” Dennis-Benn said. “She would say things more like ‘I’m weary,’ you know, of how I’m wearing my hair. When I came up to her saying that I wanted dreadlocks, for example, she panicked, because in her eyes that’s Rastafarianism. In our culture, at the time, that was looked down upon. For her own daughter to say that to her, she was the first one to tell me something, ‘No. Absolutely not.’

“She would say things like that or ‘make sure that you are matching right, because nobody else on the street is going to tell you that you’re not matching.’ Things like that, fortifies that. But in terms of what Delores did, that’s ultimate fiction there!”

Evident throughout Here Comes the Sun and the public choices she’s made in her life is Dennis-Benn’s conflicted relationship with her homeland, which resembles the sort of relationship you might have with family you love, but don’t always like.

“Yes, I love the fact that it’s my homeland,” said Dennis-Benn. “I even wanted to get married there, because it was important to me that that part of my identity be acknowledged in my new chapter. But … I wanted to criticize its ills as well, because even though I love it so much, I want to preserve its beauty by depicting the ugliness that people just brush over, for the sake of tourism.”

She thinks of author James Baldwin.

“[He] wrote about America,” she said. “In one of his essays he says that he loves America so much, he also has the right to criticize it, hoping it will change. I feel the same way about Jamaica.”

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.