Inspired by the works of Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, when she was still coming out to herself, Nicole Dennis-Benn in Here Comes the Sun, has, like her heroines, written a bold glimpse into the lives and minds of women who love women.
Here Comes the Sun is a novel about working-class Jamaican women living in a fictional town called Riverbank on the outskirts of Montego Bay. In interviews, Dennis-Benn has said she wanted to write about the other side of the Jamaican paradise we are sold in glossy holiday brochures. A paradox, if you will, beyond the escapism of Jamaica’s endless white beaches and blue-jade sea, Dennis-Benn’s unflinching novel captures its underbelly. A multi-layered, stark reality, in which Dennis-Benn shares, “this side of our story—; the desperation of those locals willing to give their bodies for this month’s rent or light bill or school fee; the lengths they have to go to hide their same-sex attractions; the motivation to bleach their skin; the reliance they have on tourists to make “Every t’ing Irie”. (www.islandoutpost.com)
Peeling away the fantasy façade to reveal an uncomfortable intersection of poverty and tourism may read like there is no love lost between Dennis-Benn and Jamaica. But Here Comes the Sun is a love letter to her country, with Dennis-Benn hoping to “preserve her beauty by depicting her flaws”. One such flaw is Jamaica’s treatment of the LGBTIQ+ community which we see through Margot, who is undoubtedly the star of the book, and her secret relationship with Verdene. It is a difficult love that they experience, first in the struggles of Margot accepting who she is and secondly the hateful climate in which they exist. Dennis-Benn admits her writing is her “best method of activism”, a podium for those “who have no voice, no platform, and no community … my character Margot in Here Comes the Sun is a working-class Jamaican woman who cannot express her love for another woman”. (www.out.com)
There’s a lot to unpack in Dennis-Benn’s 345-page novel with themes covering classism, poverty, identity, racism, homophobia, colourism and the long-lasting effects of colonialism on the thoughts and behaviour of the islanders. However, Dennis-Benn deftly weaves this tale with a rhythmic style spattered with Jamaican patois; the island’s holiday tempo juxtaposed with the realism of its people. It wasn’t easy for Dennis-Benn to write the novel, harbouring, what she describes, is a “love/hate relationship” with Jamaica, as she explained about why she left the country in 1999:
“I couldn’t have written about Jamaica had I stayed. I was never out in Jamaica but having these feelings for other women left me feeling isolated, knowing if I acted on them, I couldn’t be sure of the repercussions.” (www.out.com)
In Jamaica, same-sex relationships are illegal and punishable with imprisonment, though female same-sex encounters are not explicitly outlawed. There are no discrimination protections in the legal code, transgender people are not allowed to change their gender in Jamaica and foreign same-sex marriages are recognised only. On being her country’s treatment of the LGBTIQ+ community, Dennis-Benn says:
“I’m lucky to know Jamaicans who are OK with my sexuality — although some are not comfortable having their tolerance made public. One’s survival as a gay Jamaican is contingent upon social class, which determines where you live, the type of agency you have in the workforce, and the resources you have at your disposal. The majority of working-class gays, lesbians, and transgender individuals face a great deal of stigma; their jobs, social standing, and, in some cases, their very lives could be in jeopardy. Many have to leave their communities to feel safe. And many more have to choose between remaining in the closet or leaving the country. My hope is that the Jamaican government will begin to value the LGBT community’s invaluable contributions to the arts, education, and culture and work harder to ensure their safety and rights.” (www.out.com)
Here Comes the Sun won tonnes of accolades including the Lambda Literary Award which champions LGBTQ books and authors. Dennis-Benn’s novel appeared in Section 28 – Heady Mix’s collection about the LGBTQIA+ community in parts of the world where their identity is criminalised.