A first-time novelist blossoms in Brooklyn
Nicole Dennis-Benn, 35, Bed-Stuy
Here Comes the Sun, Nicole Dennis-Benn’s acclaimed debut novel, details something close to her heart: women’s struggles in Jamaica, the island she left at age 17. The scribe says NYC inspired her to trade one version of the American Dream (a budding career in public health) for her calling as a writer.
Your debut reveals a side of Jamaica that tourists don’t usually see. How did you approach the topic?
I didn’t start Here Comes the Sun until going back home in 2010. I was in a self-imposed exile after coming out to my parents and not feeling welcome. My partner, who’s now my wife, said to me, “How is it that you never talk about your background, your identity?” It wasn’t until bringing her back to Jamaica that everything I’d been running away from up until that point came back.
How did you end up in the U.S.?
My dad left Jamaica in 1983. I saw him through letters and barrels of gifts he would send. Fast-forward to high school: I was very depressed. I just crashed one day. My mother picked up the phone, called my dad and said, “I think she’d be better off living with you in America.” They bought a one-way ticket, and that was it.
Has your idea of “home” changed?
At this point, home is where I make it. I still call Jamaica home. That’s where I was born; that’s where my childhood memories are. But Brooklyn is where I’m a new woman. This is where I have my anchor now.
When did you first feel like a real New Yorker?
In 2012, my wife and I got our bikes and started riding around Brooklyn and Manhattan. There was no fear, and we knew the streets so well. The Nicole who came here as a teenager in 1999 would not have been riding through the streets like that.
Now I have a platform, and I see all these things happening to immigrants, who, like myself, had come for more. [They’re] being told, “No, you don’t belong there.” In my quiet moments I say to myself, “I’m a real New Yorker, I’ve had this journey from Hempstead, Long Island, to Brooklyn. Now I’m the woman that I’ve always wanted to be, but there’s more work to do.”
What do you miss most about Jamaica?
The food. The people. Just hearing the sounds. I walk down Fulton Street [in Brooklyn] and then take that left to Nostrand Avenue and just walk down Nostrand; you hear Jamaicans. There’s a man on Lincoln Place and Nostrand. There’s a woman on Caton Avenue who sells her juices and oils, like the women did in the markets back home. They bring me back home without me having to buy a $400 ticket.—Heather Corcoran