Black Trauma and The Absence of Joy in Nicole Dennis-Benn’s Here Comes the Sun

Here Comes the Sun is the debut novel of Jamaican writer Nicole Dennis-Benn and Sue’s Stokvel October Read. Here Comes the Sun is set in a fictional town, River Bank, in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Tourist companies and investors begin to encroach on River Bank devastating the livelihoods of the inhabitants of River Bank. At the centre of this particular story are three black women, a mother, and two daughters, weaving a story, through decades, of colonialism, dispossession, and tourism as neocolonialism in a new Jamaica that has not changed much at all.

Margot, the oldest daughter, works for a 5-star hotel in Montego Bay, rises through the ranks of the hotel by running a brothel in the hotel which exploits underage women to satiate the appetite of foreign men visiting the island including the owner of the hotel, Alphonso. Margot is also in a secret relationship with a woman, Verdene Moore. Having been outed years prior, Verdene is shunned by the River Bank community for being queer. In a strange turn of events, Margot weaponizes the general anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment to get rid of her competition at the hotel. This is not Margot’s only act of betrayal. Her story is a painful cautionary tale against black capitalism. Margot’s financial success comes at the expense of other young black women, and at the expense of her black community which is eventually overrun by tourist investors with her help.

Thandi, the youngest daughter, attends a private school in Montego Bay with the financial help of Margot and Alphonso. Thandi, a hard-working student attempts to better her chances at success by lightening her skin.

Delores, the mother, is an unkind and abrasive woman who sells Margot into prostitution but places her hope in Thandi to bring the family out of poverty.

The story highlights very important issues, tourism as neocolonialism, colourism, homophobia, capitalism and patriarchy. This is a brave book in many respects, but it leaves much unexplored. Nicole Dennis-Benn says this is a story about three women, but this is not completely accurate. Charles, Thandi’s lover and Verdene, Margot’s lover take up significant space in this book. Charles is interesting and authentic, Verdene, worldly and the centre of her own community’s attention. 345 pages hardly seem adequate to tell the stories of 5 characters. I wanted Nicole Dennis-Benn to dig deeper. I think I feel this way because this novel focuses on Black Trauma and exhibits the same dangers of a single story. The absence of joy in Here Comes the Sun does not emphasize the destruction, instead, it dehumanizes Margot, Thandi, and Delores. Who are Thandi’s friends? What are the conversations she has about her complexion with her friends? Black people are not made of pain alone. We are also made of joy. I am reminded of this line from the Merchant of Venice, “If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die?”

I am also biased because years ago I read Staceyann Chin’s memoir, The Other Side of Paradise. Similar to Here Comes the Sun, Chin tells the story of Jamaica beyond tourist-ridden beaches. The Other Side of Paradise did a much better job of telling a thousand stories without feeling shallow or leaving important conversations unexplored. Chin grounds this memoir, she is like a traveller, who introduces us to new places and people without dizzying us or leaving us yearning for more. There is an ease to the flow of different characters that is impossible in a novel. In a novel, characters must be included for a reason because they are fictional, but real life is more flexible, people simply exist, they come into our lives, and we don’t always have to ask, “Why you? Why here? Why now?” This gives the story an unforced depth and form that is lacking in Nicole Dennis-Benn’s debut novel.