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'This Is No Paradise': Author Explores The Side Of Jamaica Tourists Don't See

Nicole Dennis-Benn grew up in Kingston, Jamaica. She now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and teaches  writing for the City University of New York.
Jason Berger
Courtesy of W.W. Norton & Company
Nicole Dennis-Benn grew up in Kingston, Jamaica. She now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and teaches writing for the City University of New York.

Nicole Dennis-Benn's debut novel takes readers to a Jamaica that tourists rarely visit. "This is no paradise. At least not for us," she writes.

The characters in Here Comes the Sun are working-class women. They struggle with money, sexuality and the pressures of tourism squeezing their small community of River Bank.

"When tourism became the bread and butter for the island's economy, the developers and government alike became ravenous, indifferent," Dennis-Benn tells NPR's Ari Shapiro. "In retaliation, people stole concrete bricks and cement and zinc from the new developments to rebuild homes in other places."

Dennis-Benn says she remembers driving along the coast with her mother, who'd note whenever a public beach closed thanks to a new private resort. She says it's "a mystery" to her what happens to people who get pushed out of their homes by new developments.

The author moved to the U.S. from Jamaica at the age of 17. "Moving away from it, I love it even more, for sure," she says. "But also, now I have the ability to also look at it with this analytical gaze as well."

Interview Highlights

On whether she could have written this novel if she had stayed in Jamaica

No, not at all. ... Because writing was a luxury. That's how I saw it growing up, so that's why I was pre-med throughout my entire undergraduate career at Cornell. Because we're told to be a doctor, lawyer, engineer, and that way we can get our family out of poverty. ... I definitely would not have been a writer there.

And also, I would not have the mentality to critique, because I think being away from Jamaica gave me that insight. One thing that saddens me sometimes is there is a level of complacency that happens when we stay on the island — because when you have no power, there's nothing that you can do about it. You just go to work, you accept things as they are.

On homophobia and misogyny in Jamaica

Growing up, little girls are over-sexualized, especially by older men, and no one talks about this. But they are willing to look at ... a man having sex with a man, or a woman having sex with a woman as something that's demonic. Right? Growing up, it fascinated me, but now it angers me — because I feel like so many of our girls are ignored. They have no voice. When they get molested or raped, the perpetrators are never caught. They can walk around freely — but a known gay man or a known gay woman could be raped or attacked.

On when she decided to come out

I came out after I came [to the United States at age 17]. I only came out to one friend in high school. She looked at me like ... What's going on with you? Are you sure? This is ridiculous. But here, when I started living in New York and got more comfortable with my surroundings, that's when I decided to come out to my parents.

On whether she could have lived as an out lesbian in Jamaica

No, absolutely not ... even in 2016. ... I grew up working class, but going back to Jamaica I would have been in the upper-middle class, right? And I would have been comfortable. I would have been living there comfortably in a gated community, I probably would have been protected.

But for me ... I would not be happy hiding, right? It's one thing to be comfortable in my home, in my gated community, as a lesbian with my wife, right? But it's another thing to feel like I have to almost be asexual at work and in the streets of Kingston. That to me is like a "Jekyll and Hyde" that I'm not willing to play mentally. ...

The majority of the population is so Christian, so homophobic, and even if people aren't running after you with a machete, or with stones, they're giving you the looks, they're giving you the cold shoulder, and to me that's more detrimental. Perhaps because I'm a sensitive person, but I couldn't deal with that.

On how the novel has been received in Jamaica

I'm actually surprised, it's very positive. ... and I am really honored by that. ... People say, "Oh, my gosh, I totally went through that," and they'll come up to me after readings, or send me emails that they went through it, and they've never seen it written about before, and really thanking me for putting that out there.

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