Author Nicole Dennis Benn Talks About Jamaica, Homophobia and Her Love for Brooklyn
“Listen, Ladies” talks to Nicole Dennis Benn, author of Here Comes the Sun and first bookclub pick. The interview has been condensed and edited.
Listen, Ladies (LL) : This is the Listen Ladies podcast reporting from Brooklyn. We’re here with Nicole Dennis Benn, author of our very first virtual book club pick, Here Comes the Sun. Hi Nicole!
Nicole Dennis Benn (NB): Hi! Thank you for having me!
LL: So, first of all, Here Comes the Sun is based in Jamaica which is where you’re from. Uh, and what does Jamaica mean to you? How does sort of your upbringing impact your life, why did you decide to come to America?
NB: A very good question. To me, Jamaica means home, um, you know, I left home in 1999, when I was 17, to come here for college. But it’s so interesting because it always shows up in my work, and I actually think I use writing to go back home because I can’t live there physically because of the race, class, homophobia that’s there, but in my writing, I feel like I can always reminisce and go back to the place where, you know, my fondest memories take me back to. In addition to that, I mean, even though Jamaica is such a beautiful country, I also highlight some of the issues that I actually left behind there, which is really important for me in my work as an artist, and so, in terms of what it means to me, I have a love-hate relationship, really, just to be honest with you. I really do love it because that’s where my childhood memories are, but kind of hate the reasons why I had to leave in the first place, and so really that’s where I’m at right now, you know, as a writer.
LL: I’d like to hear a little bit more, if you wouldn’t mind kind of expanding on why you did have to leave Jamaica—
NB: I left, first of all, I was accepted into a very elite high school for girls in Kingston, Jamaica. And that was actually my first brush with classism and colorism on that island. I always kind of, of course, growing up into my house, so you know, my mother would say, you know, I’m beautiful as a dark-skinned black girl…But when I was in the school, existing among these girls who were, you know, the daughters of ambassadors, lawyers, doctors—they’re also fairer skin, and some would separate themselves at the lunch tables. And so you can’t really sit with certain girls if you don’t have the right hair, the right skin shade, the right eye-color. And so that was my first glimpse at that, and what it felt like…So I always felt like I had to change myself to fit in, and even though, you know, genetics plays a huge part in the lightness of your skin, it was actually really frustrating. And so I went back home and told my mother, you know, “Mommy, I don’t think I’m pretty enough,” and she would always tell me the opposite, but at the same time, I saw how society was treating these other girls who look a certain way. You know, they were the girls who actually moved up as Ms. Universe or Ms. Jamaica. And so as a dark-skinned black girl, I’m like, “Well, what about girls that look like me?”
And so, in my mind, I was internalizing the fact that, well, if I don’t look like them, I’m a nobody. And in addition to that, the classism and colorism, was the fact that I was coming out to myself as a lesbian—feeling that I was the only one on the island who ever felt that way, and feeling like, oh my goodness, something has to give, because I was growing up in a Christian household, I was going to a Christian school and I came out to my best friend partially, by saying “Oh I have a crush on Janet Jackson,” and she looked at me like I grew two heads, and that was the time when I made the decision that I would never mention this again, but somehow I’d have to get out of this country. Because upward mobility is so hard there, so coming to America was like, I’m going to use that cliché, “Land of the Free,” and I know America has its issues with race and also class and all of these different things happening, gender, and all of these things that Jamaica has, but here, for some reason, I feel like it was an easier move in terms of who I want to be as a woman, as a grown up. So in terms of upward mobility, I went to Cornell.
LL: Go Big Red!
NB: Exactly! You also went. You know, got my Masters degree afterwards in public health, and was able to work as a researcher living in this beautiful borough of Brooklyn, and meeting my wife who said to me, “You know, I think you’re really a writer…” And even still having that ability to getting to my MFA program at Sarah Lawrence, and be that writer I always wanted to be. Had I stayed in Jamaica, none of this would’ve been possible, and so that’s why I still value coming here, to this country, though it’s bittersweet.
LL: We were talking a little bit before about Cornell, and it being a little bit of a culture shock. Could you talk about what that was like, going from Jamaica to Ithaca?
NB: Yeah, so I, first of all, when I was sold on Cornell, a group of people from Cornell had come to my school, St. Andrew High School, because, you know, this is a high school that sort of operates as a magnet, a magnet high school here in the states, so all these people would come from Wesleyan, from Cornell, from Vassar, and I somehow latched onto Cornell, because they showed us pictures of fall, of autumn—
NB: And saying “Oh you guys will fit in here.”
LL: Being from Los Angeles, I also was like—“The leaves change color?!”
NB: Exactly! I was so in love with those sepia colors, and so I was, I said to myself, you know what, when I come to America, I want to actually go to Cornell.
NB: And so I worked hard, and when I got into Cornell it was totally opposite. You know, winter—I faced winter, it was a harsh winter. The skies did not look like this in our Brooklyn, sunny city right now in the summer, but it looked like, it was gray. And you know, for me, I picked up my phone, calling my mother saying, “I want to come home.” And she’s like “Absolutely not.”
LL: I’d love to maybe start getting into the book
LL: Yeah! Here Comes the Sun is your debut novel. So why don’t we start out by you telling us a little bit about how that story came to be, how you decided to develop it, um, and what was sort of the process to that becoming a novel, and your first one?
NB: Yes! So Here Comes the Sun follows the lives of three women, living in a fictional town called Riverbank on the outskirts of Montego Bay…It’s a mother and her two daughters, it taps into identity, race, class sexuality, and this placement on the island, which the world sells to us as a paradise. And so as a writer, I wanted to actually write the other side of that paradise, in terms of who are the people behind that fantasy? And growing up working class Jamaican myself, I think it was really important for me to put that in there…In terms of what incited me to start the book, I went back to Jamaica in 2010, and this is after five-year self-imposed exile from the country, I was running from those things I mentioned earlier in the interview, and when my wife, who’s American, would notice that I’d speak to her, but I’d never mention my family, I’d never mention home. So she asked me, “So can you take me back to Jamaica? You know, I notice that you’re avoiding this.” But given that our relationship was becoming so serious, she felt like there was a missing piece.
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