Last month, we interviewed the New York Times bestselling author, Nicole Dennis-Benn about her book Here Comes the Sun, which featured in our June 2020 collection, Section 28 – stories from the LGBTQI+ community in parts of the world where their identity is criminalised.
As well as asking Nicole to answer some specific questions about the context of her debut novel, we also invited Nicole to read a passage from the narrative, one that encapsulated the very essence of the story and its premise. You’ll find this moving reading towards the end of the piece, where, if you haven’t already, you’ll be able to purchase a copy of Here Comes the Sun directly from our diverse bookstore.
Ok, so first up, we featured Here Comes the Sun as part of our Heady Mix Section 28 collection – stories that focus on LGBTQI+ communities in parts of the world where their identity is still criminalised. And so, why did you think it was important that people in the relatively liberal West are made more aware of countries like Jamaica, where there is obviously still a huge amount of progress to made in attitudes towards the gay community?
“So it’s interesting because when I sat down to write Here Comes the Sun, as with Patsy, my second novel, I wasn’t really thinking about what I need to teach the West, it was more like the stories that are inside of me, the stories that I wanted to express. So, before I write sometimes, I would ask myself, what am I writing against? And with Here Comes the Sun it came to me because I went back home and I was reminded of the things that I was running away from. We mentioned homophobia, but mostly it was classism, it was colourism. Those two things more than homophobia where the things that haunted me, because as a Black woman, I was claiming a country that did not claim me back as a Black working-class Jamaican woman.
I was never gay on the island so I didn’t personally face those repercussions of being out and gay, but I knew the stories, but at the same time being gay definitely wasn’t something that would make me want to leave the country. It was mostly because I was hurt by the discrimination that faced Black people who look like me. A dance teacher who, for example, who would beat dark girls like me because of our skin, and unlike lighter-skinned girls we wouldn’t show the red marks, you know?
And so when I returned, Here Comes the Sun came back as an idea, looking at the tourism industry and seeing how much it exploits our country and its people, and realising that they [the government] don’t care about us. They never cared about making sure working-class Jamaicans achieve anything, right? There are so many barriers, educational barriers, financial barriers, all those kinds of things that they would overlook, but yet still having us be the face of tourism, having us help them build that fantasy. And that was really what I was writing against with Here Comes the Sun.
And so the relationship between the two women in your story was that almost secondary?
Verdene and Margot’s story-line, loving each other as two women just happened to be a part of the story. But one thing for me being a Jamaican lesbian woman is representation. I still find it important that I utilise my main protagonists that way, because I think about that young girl reading books, wanting to see herself and never seeing her reflection in there.
As a working-class Jamaican, lesbian woman, I’ve always wanted to see all those things and I never saw them.
To a Jamaican audience then, a diverse and representative story such as Here Comes the Sun must have still been quite shocking?
I remember one of the critiques of the book when it first came out; a group of women were sitting discussing the book and one older Jamaican woman said, “oh my God, this Nicole Dennis-Benn is crazy, how dare her think that lesbians exist in our country!”
I was shocked. It occurred to me then that we are completely invisible, as lesbian, gay, trans or non-binary individuals, to a certain part of society. And I think it was also a generational thing, this was an older Jamaican woman, but I’m sure there are young folks who probably think the same way, from certain parts, you know?
You’ve mentioned your characters, and the life they live in Jamaica, and this disparity between the tourists who visit and the people who actually live on the island, is that something you were conscious to whilst growing up?
Yeah. I was always aware of it growing up. There were times when I’d be driving to accompany my mother to the North Coast and I’d see them, the hotels, the beautiful resorts. I wouldn’t knock any tourist for wanting to come to the island, explore the beaches, all those things because Jamaica is beautiful. But the one thing that I was always aware of, and I started resenting was the fact that we had to start paying for our own beaches. And we had to pay for being in certain restaurants and areas because we weren’t as highly regarded as tourists.
The government would say, we’re paving the roads because we want it to look nice for the tourists driving from the airport, they’ll see beauty, but I’m like, wait, why not pave the roads for the rest of the people who are living on the island, who need to drive on those roads or walk on those sidewalks?
So for a Western audience, or people who maybe don’t recognise the characters in the book, but maybe recognise themselves as the tourists instead, how do you hope that message will resonate?
I would say come to Jamaica, but be more aware of interacting with the individuals there, making sure that you see them because we all want to be seen, we all want to be regarded as human beings. And it’s one thing to come with your family, enjoy the country, enjoy the island, the beach and all that, but never interact with the people in a real way. Just talking to someone, making eye contact goes a long way.
I always describe the Delores as the voice for post-colonial scars. She’s the one who had internalised all that self-loathing as this Black woman, existing in a country that disregards her as a Black woman, or as a Black person, a working-class woman. And so, she has now hardened because of it, telling her two daughters that nobody loves a Black girl, not even herself, that’s something she really understood.
We’ll invite you to read your chosen passage now please Nicole, could you tell us which particular extract you’ve chosen?
Well, the first thing that came to mind was Delores, that monologue when she was talking to Thandi about turning Charles in, and that within itself explains who Delores is. So here goes:
Our great thanks to Nicole Dennis-Benn for taking the time to speak with us, and sharing her story and the context behind Here Comes the Sun. If you’ve enjoyed the interview and the recordings, and you haven’t yet purchased her debut novel, then you can do so via our brand new diverse bookstore.
A note on the reading: you’ll hear in Nicole’s video that the text she is reading from is written in the phonics of the Jamaican dialect. For the purposes of accessibility, the subtitles are different to the original, however, if you’d like to read the book in the way it was intended, head to our diverse bookstore where you can purchase Here Comes the Sun.
And since the Here Comes the Sun also tackles themes of social mobility and migration, revisiting the story now, during our Windrush theme, also makes this discussion a particularly poignant one.