In the Caribbean, the task of reclaiming one’s homeland is one that will continue for generations to come. It is challenge enough without the smear of homophobia. Jamaica is home to a number of LGBT writers who have stood up to tell their island’s stories — Marlon James and Stacyann Chin, for instance, but also the late Michelle Cliff. If anyone is poised to claim Cliff’s place in the canon of Caribbean literature, it’s Nicole Dennis-Benn.
The project of confronting post-colonial ghosts runs parallel to a family saga in her debut novel, “Here Comes the Sun.” As a single mother of two daughters, Delores struggles to get by selling souvenirs to passing tourists. As with all of Dennis-Benn’s characters, one job is not enough to survive.
Margot, Delores’ elder daughter, manages the Palm Star Resort, where she keeps careful watch over the staff and attends to the guests’ every need — minor or grand, carnal and otherwise. To Margot, it’s worth the humiliation in order to give her younger sister Thandi a better life.
Always the destiny of one child: to be the embodiment of all future achievements meant to lift the family out of systemic poverty. In this case, despite her love of art, Thandi is expected to become a doctor so that she may someday repay her mother and sister tenfold.
Like work, one dream is never enough to offer satisfaction. These women each possess an outward ambition that they hope overshadows their secret desires.
Margot cannot openly express her love for her neighbor Verdene, who has returned home from a forced exile in England. Despite her years abroad, Verdene’s neighbors have not forgotten her girlhood lesbian romance, and the dead dogs they leave in her yard are a threat of further violence.
Margot’s fear is rooted in the abuse she endured as a child and her painful desire to overcome her condition. She buries herself deeper in the closet, and her lust for power takes a sadistic turn.
Dennis-Benn sets these polarizing impulses at play against the landscape of her homeland. River Bank is the site of encroaching development, and this shantytown is destined to be cleared to create a resort. Without privacy or comfort, its inhabitants can neither retreat nor hide. This is a world surrounded by beaches and water where no one can swim, a metaphor that dooms these characters.
The cycle of violence cannot be broken. It’s a fate that Cliff explored throughout her work, and Dennis-Benn carries the torch for another generation. “Here Comes the Sun” is a crucial book that commands attention. May this brave storytelling shine a brighter path for those who follow.
Lauren LeBlanc is a freelance book editor and writer, as well as a senior nonfiction editor at Guernica magazine. A native New Orleanian, she now lives in Brooklyn.
Here Comes the Sun
By: Nicole Dennis-Benn.
Publisher: Liveright, 349 pages, $26.95.