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Writing My Way Through a Dark Tunnel: A Conversation with Nicole Dennis-Benn

by on July 20, 2016

Nicole Dennis-Benn’s searing debut novel Here Comes the Sun explores the relationships among three Jamaican woman: Margot, who works at the front desk of a Montego Bay resort; her mother, Delores, a charismatic vendor at a tourist market stall; and Thandi, her fifteen-year old half sister, a brilliant high school student who both women work overtime to financially support. When construction begins on a nearby luxury hotel goes into development, Margot seizes the opportunity to achieve financial independence for herself  once and for all. NPR hailed it as “one of the most stunningly beautiful novels in recent years” and the book has been listed on summer reading lists for The New York Times, the BBC, and Elle. Nicole Dennis-Benn spoke via email to Brendan Dowling on July 18, 2016.

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Public Libraries Online: At the center of Here Comes the Sun is Margot, who’s keenly perceptive about the power structures around her and driven by protecting her sister. How did you arrive at her as the protagonist of your story?

Nicole Dennis-Benn: At first I was apprehensive about Margot. But once I gave in, she took over the whole story. Margot’s character teaches me as a writer to let go and give control to the characters; that I should trust them, because they will lead me to different places, sometimes dark; but nonetheless, changes my perspective on the world.

PLO: The three main characters all struggle with weighty topics like classism and complexionism. What were the challenges of writing so honestly about these subjects?

NDB: What I enjoy about the writing process is the purging. It’s liberating knowing that I am giving voices to those, particularly working class women, who are often overlooked, marginalized. The only challenge, perhaps, is opening the sutures of unhealed wounds.

It’s painful, but will never heal properly if we continue to pretend it’s not there. Sort of like racism in America.

PLOMargo’s fifteen year-old sister, Thandi, yearns to be an artist and at one point is advised by her art teacher that her drawings should give him “a better understanding”of her and that she should “go deeper [and] reveal more of” herself. Is writing a similar self-revealing act for you?

NDB: Yes, it is. That’s why I value it so much. I usually end up writing my way through a dark tunnel, discovering myself in the process. There are times when I surprise myself with information I never knew I stored since childhood. I guess that’s what it means, in the literal sense, to be a human sponge as an artist. We absorb so much—knowing and unknowingly—then wring ourselves dry in our works. It’s a cyclical process.

PLOAll of the characters are drawn with so much empathy, so that even when we don’t like their actions, we understand what motivates them. How did you avoid turning the so-called “villains” of the novel into caricature?

NDB: I love all my characters. One of the most important elements of craft, which is hardly spoken about (or taught), is loving the people on the page as writers. We have to love them in order to tap into their humanity, their complexities. If we judge them the way society might judge them, then how are we enlightening the conversation as writers? How are we challenging others to look at the world and people differently?

PLOThe New York Times praised your book as “deceptively well-constructed, with slow and painful reveals right through the end.” What was your writing process like in order to get such a tightly paced plot? Did you outline the novel or were there discoveries you made along the way?

NDB: Both. I made outlines. I did about two drafts of outlines. I have a very analytical mind, so I made diagrams with arrows. That’s where my public health research scientist training comes in—I guess—making visuals portraying direct and indirect impact. However, there were times when the characters took me in a completely different direction and I had to go with the flow. I realized later on that the plot resembled the concept I had in my head all along. I knew the story I wanted to tell. I knew the characters that I wanted to tell it. So all I needed to do was trust that my subconscious would take control in times of doubt.

PLOYou have a background as a research scientist. Has your scientific training had any impact on your writing style or approach to writing?

NDB: Certainly! With my public health training I never look at the world without weighing or assessing how knowledge and awareness can contribute to the greater good, change people’s attitude. I have more freedom as a writer to show certain things without being didactic. Though I write fiction, my stories must take place in the “real world”. Even if I don’t intend on writing the “real world”, it seeps in because I am a product of it; an active participant in it. I do case studies everyday by virtue of living and listening to people.

PLOThe novel dives into the lives of working-class Jamaicans who work at luxury resorts, people who are most likely invisible to the tourists.  What has the reaction been from Jamaican readers to your novel, especially since it exposes such a hidden part of Jamaican culture?

NDB: They love it. I’m learning that through my characters I’ve allowed Jamaicans to see themselves reflected on the page; I’ve allowed them to hear the things they couldn’t bring themselves to say out loud. I’m truly honored by this since Here Comes the Sun is a love letter to Jamaica.

PLOWhat authors have been influential to you?

NDB: There are many, but off the top of my head I can think of Toni Morrison, Paule Marshall, Zora Neale Hurston, and Edwidge Danticat. They give me permission to write the stories I want to write with complex characters, particularly complex female characters. Also, Zora Neale Hurston preserved dialect for the sake of authenticity in her work—something that comes up when reading my work. I use Jamaican patois in dialogue because the people I write about would not be speaking Standard English unobserved. Hurston gave me the courage to do that.

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