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A land not so free
Nicole Dennis-Benn talks about her new novel, which follows an undocumented immigrant's pursuit of the American dream, and the irony in the way people perceive the United States as a land of opportunity
Special to The Globe and Mail

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Saturday, September 14, 2019 – Page R11

Literary critic and a juror for the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize

Nicole Dennis-Benn's debut novel, Here Comes the Sun (Liveright), exposed the harsh reality behind Jamaica's image as an island paradise. Her second novel, Patsy, flips the script to interrogate the United States' reputation as a land of opportunity. Patsy, an undocumented immigrant, has abandoned her daughter in Jamaica to follow her best friend and lover to the U.S. She is in hot pursuit of the American dream. The Globe and Mail talks to Nicole Dennis-Benn about immigration in the United States, homophobia in Jamaica and the irony of islanders perceiving the U.S. as the land of the free.

How did the character of Patsy come to you? How did she evolve?

Patsy came to me as a woman writing letters home to her mother. At the time, I was teaching at the College of Staten Island and I had to get up early and commute by subway. I would be sitting with all these immigrants, Trinidadians and Jamaicans, hearing their accents. They were wearing uniforms. It was getting to be winter and advertisements started coming up on the subway for vacations at Sandals. These ads ran above our heads as we were travelling and I was struck by the irony of all of us immigrants here in the U.S. struggling to make ends meet, while all these ads were encouraging people to go to the countries we fled.

Patsy was a woman I imagined travelling with me as she went to work on the Upper East Side. For some reason, she wouldn't leave me alone. At that time, I was pushing out my first novel, Here Comes the Sun.

Why do you think she stayed with you?

I've never seen the lives of working-class immigrants documented on the page. Patsy is a woman running away from poverty, from motherhood, wanting to love the way she loves. She is reinventing herself, trying to find her place in the world. She's not like me, who came to America for school. She has no degrees, no documentation. These immigrants exist as nameless and faceless in a country where they have no social-security number.

The book feels especially timely.

Could you comment on Donald Trump's immigration policy?

The only thing I'd say is that the government has never been kind to immigrants without documentation, regardless of the administration.

This current administration is just more vocal.

In your novels, you represent the physical world so vividly. But I feel as though it is the hidden emotions of individuals and the atmosphere of a place that you most powerfully bring to life.

I tell my students that when you are writing characters, you eat and sleep with them. You have to walk around the block with them and see it through their eyes. For Patsy, I had to imagine what it would be like to catch the flu and have to wait in emergency because you have no health insurance. I had to think about where to store your money if you have no bank account. I had to imagine coming to a place that was a fantasy and the disappointment of seeing the reality.

You've said you thought about being a writer but you didn't think you could do it.

I was a big reader: Sweet Valley High, The Baby-Sitter's Club, Nancy Drew. But I did not see myself in literature. In high school, I was writing stories about blond girls and white picket fences. When I immigrated to America, I started writing down my feelings, just being lonely. That was how I got inside Patsy's head. Once in America, I was reading James Baldwin and Alice Walker and Toni Morrison and I wanted to do what they did. My professor at Cornell liked my essays and he said I should major in English. But I told him I just couldn't do that. I was in premed. The expectation was I had to have a good career.

I understand that you heard Toni Morrison speak at Cornell. What was that like? Also, how did you feel about her passing?

At the time, I took everything for granted. So I didn't really appreciate how huge she was, although I had her book Beloved which I had stolen from the library in high school. The event was sold out and so I had to stand out in the hall. I could hear her telling about the importance of staying true to yourself. I wish I had understood then how important it was to at least get my book signed.

I took it hard when she passed away. It was like a relative who had died. Toni Morrison brought me to literature. She showed me the complex lives of workingclass black women. She gave me licence to write about them.

One of the reasons black women's writing is so rich is because of the high degree of intersectionality. In the case of Patsy, she is black in a Eurocentric world, female in a male-dominated world, working class in a capitalist society and lesbian in a straight world. How are you able to manage these elements so seamlessly in your writing?

Somehow I was able to tap into all these elements of my own experience - black, female, working class, lesbian - and write them as truly as possible. All of these things are truly me and I am putting them into a Patsy or a Margot (from Here Comes the Sun).

How did you decide to use Jamaican language in the story? And why is the language so important to Jamaican people?

I am really adamant about putting our language back in our literature. Because growing up we were always made to feel ashamed of it. The language debates are still going on where, even now, one person in Parliament - I won't mention their name - is saying kids in school should be speaking standard English. Another is saying that so many kids are from rural Jamaica, they should be allowed to learn in a language they understand.

We shouldn't diminish and dismiss our own language. Like James Baldwin says, language is identity. Growing up, the poet Louise Bennett (Miss Lou) always used our language. That was her way of telling us that our language was us. She left the island and moved to Toronto when the language debates broke out. Now on TVJ [Television Jamaica] people like Simone Clarke and Dahlia Harris are speaking patois, reclaiming our language. In dialogue I have my characters speak in our dialect. To me, two Jamaicans, particularly working-class Jamaicans, would not be speaking standard English to one another straight through, unobserved.

In the novel, you celebrate the love between Patsy and Cecily. But the story also constitutes a harsh critique of Jamaican intolerance. I am a little afraid for you.

Every time I am writing about homophobia in Jamaica, I am holding my breath. But I can't not speak about it. In the 1990s, there were so many stories of men being brutalized because they were gay or of lesbians being raped.

When I went home on visits, I went to parties with upper-class LGBTQ people who, unlike the working-class gays, had the means to hide. The little girl in me is still working class and I still see things through that lens. Yes, there are changes happening. Yes, Jamaica had its first Gay Pride parade. But the conversation about homophobia has to shift to classism. If I go to the Calabash festival, the organizers can say, "Nicole and Emma (my wife), come and stay with me." But it is a completely different scenario for poor, young LGBTQ individuals, many of whom are rejected by their families and are living in the streets.

In Patsy, Jamaicans see the U.S. as the land of the free, which historically speaking, seems ironic.

America is sold to the world as a paradise. What people see is this beautiful portrayal of this white, upper-middle-class life. But there is also deep racism here. Writing Patsy, I had to incorporate my feelings about the fact that the place looks nothing like it does in the movie Breakfast at Tiffany's. I had to incorporate that reality into Patsy's experience. When she sees a white woman on the street fearing black men and (at the same time) talking about vacationing in Jamaica, she wonders, "Doesn't that white woman realize Jamaica is full of black men?" I wanted to point out these ironies.

In a way, I wanted to create a dialogue with African-Americans.

There would be no place for me here if it weren't for writers like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and James Baldwin. Even so, we are still not free.

Associated Graphic

Nicole Dennis-Benn, seen in New York in May, says Toni Morrison 'showed me the complex lives of working-class black women.'


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