Colourism, sexuality and immigration - Nicole Dennis-Benn shares how her latest book challenges societal norms
Bestselling American author, Jodi Picoult describes her as an exquisite writer, so the assumption is justified, however, Nicole dispels it when I meet her to chat about her book while she’s on her book tour in South Africa.
She never thought of writing as a career when she first started inscribing book chapters in her journals.
She was a public health researcher doing HIV research at Colombia University prior to becoming a published author of two books, her debut novel, Here Comes the Sun and her latest release, Patsy.
Fellow author Candice Carey-Williams labels her newest book as a blissful read which "explores in such a textured, taut way what in love is gained, and what or who is left behind".
It was Nicole's wife who was the first to affirm her talent for the literary arts and suggested she enroll for a Master of Fine Arts.
This was the first step that the Jamaican-born author took towards creating a career that she hopes will eventually emulate that of acclaimed author, Toni Morrison.
She started off her writing career as a freshman (first year) teacher at the College of Staten Island in New York where she taught writing. It was a daunting time for Nicole who was used to the fact-based field of medicine.
“I switched careers. It was so scary. With art, it’s so subjective because people either love or hate you so I knew I was going to shaky ground. But the yearning I had helped me put all my energy into my writing and luckily Here Comes the Sun did well and opened doors for Patsy,” Nicole says.
At this time, she had already started writing Here Comes the Sun, oblivious of the imminent success of the would-be-novel which ignites conversation (and reform) around pivotal issues of our time such as racism, sexism, colourism, displacement, child trafficking, abandonment and immigration.
Patsy is a story of a mother who struggles to give and find love in various relationships in her life, including those with her daughter, mother and best friend.
She never wanted a child so when she was pregnant with her daughter, Tru, and contemplated having an abortion, Patsy's staunch Christian mother threatened to have her thrown in jail as abortion is illegal in Jamaica and an abomination to the church.
Inopportunely, neither the pregnancy nor the arrival of the newborn cemented a bond between the regretful mother and daughter.
Early in the book, Patsy’s struggle with love and rejection is laid bare when Nicole writes:
Truth be told, she (Patsy) never loved her daughter like she’s supposed to, or like her daughter loves her. Tru’s love for her – an unconditional love that Patsy didn’t earn or deserve – seems unfair. Everything Patsy does or says to Tru is taken with wide-eyed acceptance. Sometimes Patsy finds herself wanting to crush the image of herself that she sees at the center of her daughter’s eye.
Patsy leaves her country of birth, Jamaica, just as Nicole did, to live in the US in search of a better life and in the hopes of reconnecting with her best friend and secret lover, Cicely – a character who introduces the contentious issues of colourism, sexuality and classism to the already weighty novel.
We’re taken on a journey that’s often topsy-turvy until Patsy has her proverbial ‘aha moment’ following a short-lived, yet tragic, encounter with another immigrant.
A turning point for Patsy, Nicole describes the moment as one which “forces her (Patsy) to seek herself and navigate America in a different way… it forces her to redirect her energy in the best way that she can.”
Perhaps this new novel is about unrequited love, I suggest to Nicole in a fragile attempt to package the various moments in the book into a genre.
Though reluctant to place her books in any category, Nicole explains the sort of love one can expect to encounter in the life of the protagonist, Patsy.
“It’s interesting that the book tackles the heartbreak of when a mother doesn’t want you (as her child). Unrequited love is seen in claiming a country that doesn’t claim you back, this is the heartbreak of every working-class or marginalized person in a country. It is also the heartbreak of an immigrant in a new country who feels they are there for betterment, but no one wants them there. It’s the kind of heartbreak that permeates all of us,” she says.
Nicole has poured a lot of herself into the characters in her book.
She recollects how she used to love her home country, Jamaica and never quite felt accepted and coming out as a black lesbian in a country where someone like her was "dismissed".
When she moved to the US, she still faced diverse prejudices and living in a female body was still a problem.
For those longing to connect with a woman on a path of discovery and travel with her on a passionate, fiery and unapologetically honest voyage, Patsy is a superb book to read.
Just like Patsy did, it is highly likely that you’ll awaken to the reality that your struggles are not isolated and circumvent culture and geography.
Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn is published by Oneworld and distributed in South Africa by Jonathan Ball Publishers. RRP: R325.
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