Setting as Character: Nicole Dennis-Benn talks Here Comes the Sun, Life, and her Writing Process with Deidre Robinson, Fiction '18
“[S]tartling and deeply memorable” are the words used by The New York Times to describe the debut novel of Sarah Lawrence M.F.A. alum and author Nicole Dennis-Benn. Those are the words I’d use to describe the much-anticipated colloquium reading and discussion with the novelist of Here Comes the Sun. Set in a fictional town near the tourist attraction that is Montego Bay, Jamaica, Here Comes the Sun eloquently expresses the ideals of a postcolonial culture that has often been described as beautiful, yet homophobic even for the native Dennis-Benn. As she read three excerpts from her novel, Mrs. Dennis-Benn covered the varying ideologies of colorism, classism, and homophobia that comprise the themes of her work. Captivating the audience of current M.F.A. students and faculty alike, she ventured to describe the inspiration behind her work, and how that inspired her writing process as she works on her next book.
With some coaxing from her partner, Nicole Dennis-Benn began to write about the things that mattered to her upon her return to Jamaica a few years ago, after a self-imposed exile upon coming out to friends and family. From journal entries came the character, Thandi, who wants to be an artist, but the family has other plans. This character highlights the issues of colorism while Margot, a hotel worker by day and prostitute by night to make ends meet, was born from a need to highlight the plight of hotel workers that are used as modern day shills to perpetuate the fantasy sold to the tourists who flock in droves to Jamaica’s beautiful shores. Delores, the mother of Thandi and Margot, represents the older generational ideals that the fictional town set on the island represents as the setting.
Citing influences including Junot Diaz, Edwidge Danticat, and Zora Neale Hurston, Nicole Dennis-Benn shared the importance of keeping authentic dialogue and language, which many have expressed to her their appreciation in doing so. Here Comes the Sun began with outlines that fell away as the characters and novel began taking shape. During her talk, she discussed how to tell the story that’s true to you, and how not to shy away from what haunts you. In her writing, she worked first with character development, then saw where the story took her. As she reached the revision stage, the details were worked out in layers to make the story and characters pop off the page.
Mrs. Dennis-Benn also divulged that she keeps pictures of Jamaica in her den when writing to be fully immersed in the culture. It is these same pictures that she keeps in mind when crafting her next novel. In addition, she carves out time to write down any ideas, scenes, and prompts for character development by utilizing her time on public transportation wisely. By making writing her priority, Nicole Dennis-Benn takes her train writing, and, eventually, heads to her den of solitude to produce what is sure to be another heralded piece of literature.