On She Goes

Bookmarked: Nicole Dennis-Benn on the Toll of Tourism

On how tourism often synonymizes women’s bodies with the lands they’re on.

Bani Amor
Bani Amor
February 21, 2018
Story hero image

In Nicole Dennis-Benn’s novel, Here Comes the Sun, women from the fictive town of River Bank, Jamaica, step out from the tourist brochures and take up the page. In travel culture and mainstream media at large, outside voices are privileged over native ones. As a result, the lands they survey are seen as an island paradise/shithole country binary—leaving little room for nuance in between. But Dennis-Benn’s novel tells the complex story of what it means to be a “destination.” The story centers on Margot, a hotel worker who hustles to support her mother and sister, and to create a future for her and her sometimes-girlfriend, Verdene. When rumors that River Bank’s residents might be displaced in favor of a new resort circulate, Margot sees an opportunity for upward mobility by relentlessly pursuing a long-overdue promotion at any cost. In doing so, she risks her community finding out who she spends her nights away with, her family finding out how she makes the money she hides beneath her mattress, and her lover finding out the lengths she’s gone to reach success. In my talk with the author, we discussed breaking through the superficiality of travel writing, breathing life into her working-class Jamaican women characters, and how tourism often synonymizes women’s bodies with the lands they’re on. Her novel shows us that no woman is an island. 

Nicole Dennis-Benn.
photo by Kwesi Abbensetts

Here Comes the Sun centers around a family of women, two of whom depend on the tourism industry in Jamaica to support the third family member. This dependency on the tourism industry and how each woman relates to it really drives the story. What made you want to focus so much on tourism, and why in Jamaica?

Tourism is our country’s bread and butter. I wanted to depict the ways in which we, as Jamaicans, are exploited by it. As a writer who was born and raised there, I questioned this exploitation with my pen, weaving in the misinformation we’ve gotten for generations about ourselves as working-class Blacks in the country—messages that made us question our worth and what we deserve. Of course, it’s easy for others—wealthy Europeans who build these castle-like resorts—to steal a beautiful country from a people who are already defeated by colonialism. It’s my responsibility as a writer to hold this mirror up before my people and enable the right dialogue to lead us back to ourselves.

Laborers in tourism are all but invisible in the industry’s public image, including travel media, when they’re not exploited as part of the brand itself and depicted as smiling and willing handmaids. I wonder what your entry point was into characters like Margot, Kensington, and John-John. Did you draw from personal experience, conduct research, or tackle this another way? What was your process like?

All the above. Rarely do I write without some form of lived experience. I’ve benefited indirectly from the Margots and Deloreses, Kensingtons, and John-Johns. They are the working-class faces behind the fantasy erected for a booming tourism industry. They were my family. When I began to write the book, I interviewed workers in the hotel industry—mostly the ones I encountered where I stayed while visiting the country after I left it. They became trusted readers and listeners.

Narratives of tourism, fictive or not, tend to be bound to positive spins and happy endings. Here Comes the Sun, however, is devastating as hell. Did you intend to pierce the exterior of this superficial escapism, or was the tourism aspect more of an add-on to the story you wanted to tell?

My intent was definitely to pierce the exterior of this superficial realm. I wanted the people behind the fantasy to be seen and heard. I wanted their stories, our stories, to be told. I often tell people that I’m not a happy-ending writer. I leave that to fairy tales. My readers are grown. They can handle it. If not, I’d challenge them to look in their own backyards and tell me if it’s a fairy tale.

Nicole Dennis-Benn.
photo by Ozier Muhammad

The displacement of struggling locals due to tourism expansion is a theme that quietly runs throughout the book, a reflection of the reality for coastal residents in places like Jamaica and other Caribbean countries. Did any of those real-life struggles inspire this book in any way?  

We hear the stories of such displacements, then they disappear out of the news. I often wonder what happens to those displaced people. So I invented this world where my imagination took me along on their various journeys. I gave them depth and breadth to speak their struggle with being pushed to the margins of society and expected to disappear.

Both sexual violence and sex tourism are inescapable realities for the girls and women of River Bank, who seem to suffer in tandem with the land they’re on, to the point that they ring synonymous:

“Margot was astonished by how the wealthy in Jamaica live, how for them the island is really paradisea woman who offers herself without guile, her back arched in the hills and mountains, belly toward the sun.”  

In another chapter, she has sex with “foreigners who pay her good money to be their personal tour guide on the island of her body.” At various other points in the book women must waive their agency for tourism to prosper, though in the end they have more taken from them than they will ever see in return. Do you believe that that is the nature of this industry, or were you trying to communicate something else?

In my book, there is a parallel between the exploitation of the land by tourism and the exploitation of women’s bodies. When we begin to think about agency and who has ownership of a country, it begins to feel like the same conversation. For women’s bodies are often territories of invasion and political pawns—be it in a third-world country or a first-world country.

We hear the stories of such displacements, then they disappear out of the news. I often wonder what happens to those displaced people.

Margot engages in survival sex work partly so that she can afford to live in a wealthy community with the woman she loves, Verdene, who is greatly maligned by most people in River Bank. In setting out to write a novel about lesbians in Jamaica, were there tropes you wanted to avoid, or times that were either challenging or exciting for you?

To be clear, I never set out to write about lesbians in Jamaica, but a novel about working-class Jamaican women. I wanted visibility for women in our culture, specifically working-class women. Most feel invisible, pushed to the margins of society and silenced. While rape, incest, and violence against women remain prevalent in Jamaica, the focus tends to be on other issues that exclude them. I never recalled reading complex stories about Jamaican working-class women. Toni Morrison says to write the books I want to read, so I wrote the story I wanted to read. I wanted to highlight the desperation inherent in poverty—the will to survive by any means necessary. Margot’s case is more complex—upward mobility in Jamaica is extremely difficult, which is why a lot of working-class Jamaicans leave. But Margot stays and fights for her sister, Thandi. However, the ability to love anyone is something Margot struggles with.  Her fear/shame in loving Verdene Moore is warranted given the homophobic culture. I wanted to write this nuanced relationship between the two women, which is influenced by the larger social context, including class. Margot’s resistance is about survival, but her hope is tangled with a bigger dream for upward mobility, which really doesn’t have Verdene Moore, or anyone for that matter, written in the equation besides Margot herself.