Nicole Dennis-Benn describes her debut novel, Here Comes the Sun (Norton, July), as “a love letter to Jamaica—my attempt to preserve her beauty by depicting her flaws.” The story of four women and their secrets, hopes, passions, crimes, and betrayals, it reveals that the Jamaica we think we know is also home to deep-seated struggles over race, beauty, and sexuality.
“I was always aware of the discrepancies between the tourism industry and local communities,” says Dennis-Benn. “In the early ’90s, my family and I would drive by signs on beaches warning us not to trespass unless we were staying at the lavish, affiliated hotels. Years later, when I returned as a visitor and stayed at a resort, I noticed the only representation of Jamaican culture was through the lens of local artists allowed on site. One hotel clerk mentioned most tourists would rather have their vacation without seeing the people. I knew then I had to tell the story of the people who didn’t get seen.”
She grew up in Kingston, always knowing she wanted to be a writer, “but lacking the courage, as I was the first person in my family to go to college and thought I should be a doctor or lawyer.” After earning a master’s in public health, Dennis-Benn was working as a researcher at Columbia University and writing at night. Her partner (and now wife) finally confronted her: “Who are you? Are you a writer or a researcher?” It was an easy answer. She got her M.F.A. from Sarah Lawrence and is now an adjunct lecturer at Baruch College in New York City.
While she’s looking forward to touring for her novel, embracing her new identity as an author is somewhat intimidating. “It’s a huge transition,” she says. “I love to read and am always going to bookstore readings. The idea that people would be coming to see me is surreal.”
Dennis-Benn will be on the “Big Authors Panel II” at the Library Journal Day of Dialogue, at the UIC Forum, 725 Roosevelt Rd., today, 2:45–3:45 p.m. Tomorrow, she’ll be speaking and signing ARCs at the AAP Author Librarians Lunch, and on Friday, she’ll be on the “Hot Fall Fiction 2016” panel, 12:15–12:45 p.m., at the Downtown Stage.
This article appeared in the May 11, 2016 edition of PW BEA Show Daily.