Arts & Culture

Keeping Jamaica on the pages Keeping Jamaica on the pages

Sunday, June 16, 2019

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The accolades have been pouring in for Patsy, the latest written by Jamaican-born, USA-based author Nicole Dennis-Benn.

Amazon Books has named Patsy one of the best literature and fiction books of the month; Elle magazine placed it on its Best books of Summer list; National Public Radio (NPR) noted “Dennis-Benn isn't just a compassionate writer, she's also a courageous one, unafraid to address topics that too often go ignored”; BuzzFeed named it among its Most Anticipated Books of 2019; while Entertainment Weekly put Patsy among its 50 Most Anticipated Books of 2019.

For Dennis-Benn who grew up in the Vineyard Town community of the Corporate Area, the acknowledgement is nothing short of heady.

“Oh my goodness! it's always great when you have a book out and it is so well received. It's always a-wait-and see. For every writer there is that fine moment when you are creating. Writing is a very lonely process — it's just me and the computer usually and I'm telling these stories which I feel are important to me first and I see where the characters lead me and then after all of that now that's when I finally exhale as I am releasing them to the world and then wait to see how the world receives it,” she shared when the Jamaica Observer caught up with her in Denver, Colorado, one of the stops on a 14-city, US tour to promote the new work. Later this year she will be heading to the United Kingdom and South Africa to push Patsy.

Patsy tells the story of two women — Patsy and her daughter, Tru. Patsy, having never felt quite right as a mother and growing increasingly suffocated by the expectations of parenting, leaves Tru behind in Jamaica in search of freedom in New York — and to live with the woman she's yearned for since adolescence. But she soon realises that she's fled one kind of imprisonment for another, finding herself working as a nanny, caring for wealthy children. Meanwhile, Tru builds a faltering relationship with her father back in Jamaica, eventually winning over his approval by embracing the very tomboy qualities she's mocked for at school. But not a day goes by that she doesn't wonder where her own mother has gone, and why she doesn't write or call.

The setting of the work shifts constantly from Jamaica to New York and has some deep-seated Jamaican cultural nuances entrenched. For some writers there might be a concern as to whether or not an international audience will get the true meaning, but not for Dennis-Benn. She relies on her ability to weave complete stories and develop characters in their true and authentic state.

“The way I navigate that is by telling the story as authentic as possible. For me, personally, one of the biggest things when I am writing Jamaicans on the page is writing our language, Jamaican patois. So for readers not familiar with our culture and language I provide context for them to know what's being referenced, but also still have our dialect in dialogue, for Jamaicans who are reading to still hear themselves and also see themselves represented authentically on the page. One of the things I had to come to terms with growing up in Jamaica — going to St Andrew High School for Girls and being told our Jamaican dialect is a bad thing to be spoken in public — as an artist I'm kinda reclaiming that because that's our identity, so it's important to really write that properly,” she noted

That Jamaican reference is a recurring motif in her works and, according to the author she doesn't see that changing any time soon. She noted the importance of Jamaicans seeing themselves reflected in these works of art, be it film, music, and literature.

“When I was in school I never read books by people like me... who sounded like me, who looked like me. I never read stories about us at all. The stories that I read which attempted to document Jamaican life were usually caricatures written by white, British expats who lived on the island and were really observers from a far. So it's really important for me to write Jamaicans onto the page, especially the Jamaican working class women, because we don't see our stories, we are often marginalised. Growing up I knew so many of these women who held so many secrets, so many silences, now that I have the ability to write about these things and tell our untold stories it is important to me because our silences won't protect us,” she stated.

Her début work Here Comes the Sun, published in 2016, also received its fair share of fanfare. It won a Lambda Literary Award and she was a finalist for the New York Public Library's Young Lions Fiction Award, the National Book Critics' Circle John Leonard Award, and the Center for Fiction's First Novel Prize. That work also was hailed as

Best Book of the Year by outlets including NPR, the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Dallas Morning News, San Francisco Chronicle, BuzzFeed, and Vice.

Dennis-Benn noted that there are similarities in the ideas explored in both works.

“Both books touch on similar themes including women's bodies, classism, colourism, race, sexuality and gender, but the difference with Patsy is that I tackle motherhood even more. So it tackles more of the themes that Here Comes the Sun explored but through the lens of one particular woman — a reluctant mother. trying to find her place in the world.”

Pasty is fresh off the press, but there is no resting for Dennis-Benn. She is already half way through her third book. She is keeping the storyline close to her chest but did reveal that it is also set in Jamaica. She hopes that her Jamaican readers will look beyond the actions of her characters and examine what led them to do what they did, and walk away with some compassion after closing the pages of her novels.

“We are all human beings so there are times when I find myself judging my characters. So in Here Comes the Sun I judged Margot in the beginning. She is this prostitute who ends up commodifying the bodies of young girls. Patsy one the other hand, is a woman who abandons her five-year-old daughter. You are wondering who are these women who would do such ugly, horrible thing. In writing I had to put my judgements aside and go to the page with an open mind. That has taught me how to empathise, because it's not that they are bad people, they are just placed in bad situations. So what I want my readers to walk away with is empathy,” said Dennis-Benn.


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