‘We Are So Secretive’: How Nicole Dennis-Benn Depicts Working-Class Life
I always think about James Baldwin when I get asked that question, in that he said he loved America so much that he could criticize it. I feel the same way about Jamaica. I love my country. I do write the beauty of it, but I also don’t shy away from those issues that are the reasons I left to begin with — homophobia, classism, racism, displacement. I’m writing to hold up that mirror.
I want to talk a little bit about the use of Jamaican patois. Why did you decide to write in dialect?
We’re told in Jamaica not to use patois in public. It was so ingrained that, even now, I have to remember, like, “Oh yeah, I do have that language.” So this was kind of a rebellious act. As an artist, I have that power to say, “I’m going to put it back into my work, to preserve it.” I want to write authentic Jamaican characters, and I’m not going to write two Jamaican characters talking to each other without using our language.
Growing up, I never read characters who looked like me, who sounded like me. For me, it’s important to do this for another person, for another woman of color, another Jamaican to see that our people exist on the page. I tap into issues that could actually be anybody’s experiences, regardless of who they are, their culture, their race, their background: motherhood, sexuality, class and colorism. I want to tap into those things but actually use protagonists who actually look like me — queer, black, working-class Jamaicans.
What are the challenges of writing working-class characters?
We have so many great stories, but we are so secretive. Look at our young girls, for example — there are so many big issues that we are grappling with, but we’re not able to talk about them, because society respects our silences and shame more than our voices. Now, having this privilege to tell our stories, I’m telling the stories of my mother, my grandmother, the women around me and a society that was colonized, where we were taught to hate ourselves and the sound of our own voices. To know that I have this power, it’s like, “Let me actually tell those stories we were taught not to share with the world.”
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