Set Fire to the Rain

I learned a ton in journalism school that I often sprinkle into my blog posts — much more than the curriculum promised. For example, I finally recognized why, as a kid, I always asked the million questions that annoyed my family. I was and always will be a curious person, which is a direct reflection of my passion for school and learning. I’m grateful to have realized it’s possible to make a career focused on asking questions and discovery.

Another realization I had that wasn’t directly taught in lectures or in textbooks but by my professors through on-the-job training is that writing and reporting without bias is impossible. No matter how hard we try, our experiences always find a way to creep into the things we feel and by extension what we say and write. Even the profession itself has bias. If you’re a journalist, that means you care about people, storytelling, and the truth. Those feelings catalyze bias too.

This is basically a long way for me to get to my main point here: Bias reflects our opinions of and experiences with books too. I’d wanted to read Here Comes the Sun for quite some time. I mean, look at that cover. It’s gorgeous — though don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s a sunny read. It tells stories of disenfranchised and disadvantaged yet strong women living in a world most of us could never imagine. It’s a book to which someone like me — a former journalist, a curious cat, and a storyteller — would be drawn.

But if we are constantly being influenced by our surroundings, then my initial opinions of this book stemmed from the four walls of my apartment and constant news reports of the COVID-19 pandemic, which coincided with my start to this book. My emotions have been on the most intense and terrifying roller coaster, and every time I picked up this novel, its hopelessness engulfed me. At times, I thought about not finishing it. Once I realized, though, that my personal experience in the present was affecting my experience with the novel, I could appreciate it for all it was professing: This world has suffering so great and people have to make choices so tough that they can’t be comprehended.

Here Comes the Sun

Jamaica is much more than majestic resorts for foreign tourists. That’s exactly what Nicole Dennis-Benn communicates in her 2016 novel about four Jamaican women trying to overcome impossible obstacles involving poverty and expectations to obtain some level of contentment and freedom.

Margot, at 30, differs greatly from other women her age. She’s never been married or had kids but rather works at what many misconstrue as a fancy and well-paying job at one of the resorts. She stashes away money in the hopes that her younger sister, Thandi, will be spared from the tortuous life that’s been bestowed upon Margot by circumstance, reality, and her own mother, a life where selling your body is the only way to escape the desperation around you. She’s also recently developed feelings for a woman — something explicitly forbidden and demonized by her community.

In the midst of Margot’s turmoil and anguish, Thandi has discovered greater hopes and dreams than what her sister and their mother, Delores, have for her. A local boy has infatuated her as have visions of an artistic future and bleaching her skin to meet unfair societal expectations. The pressure that her family has placed on her — that she and her success are what will save them — continuously takes its toll on a young girl who has her own demons to confront.

These women plus Margot’s lover constantly feel like they’re at a crossroads, and every decision can and likely will be the wrong one. Meanwhile, greedy white hoteliers’ ambitions for a new resort threaten to completely uproot them from the lives they know and leave them with nothing, which makes them question what — both physically and emotionally — they’ve ever possessed, if anything.

Sounds quite hopeless and depressing, right? Now do you understand why I felt my own anguish while reading it? Finishing this book though was a necessity because of the power Dennis-Benn conveys in a story that must be told. If feeling so overwhelmed by the hopelessness that the characters feel isn’t power, then I don’t know what is.

“When she wakes up, there is silence, as though the day has held its breath.” — Here Comes the Sun

And Here Comes the Sun derives its authority from its authenticity. Born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, Dennis-Benn writes directly from the voice of her background. Quite literally too because the characters speak in Jamaican Patois, which can be difficult at times to read but gives agency to Dennis-Benn as an author and to the characters as the conduit to tell this story. She doesn’t translate to make reading easier for white privileged readers; she relays the narrative through the exact voices, accents, and language that live it every day.

Authenticity also stems from the complexity that defines the characters, their morals, and their experiences. None of the four women in this novel have straight-forward voices or feelings. Margot, for example, sells her body for money, which seems like a sacrifice — both by her mother and for sister — but she also starts a prostitution ring with one of the sleaziest characters in the book. Her actions, once they involve young girls, clearly bring her morals into question. Is her greed inching into her decision-making? Do we give her the benefit of the doubt because of her circumstance and her own misgivings about her actions?

“But there’s no character in Dennis-Benn’s novel that’s anything less than complex, multifaceted, and breathtakingly real,” writes NPR’s Michael Schaub of Margot. “That’s part of what makes Here Comes the Sun one of the most stunningly beautiful novels in recent years.”

Thandi too really wants to discover herself and live her own life but grapples with contradictory decisions. Wanting to be a lighter shade of black to fill a very narrow mold of beauty belies her desires to just be Thandi and not the person who everyone expects her to be. These women constantly contradict themselves, as well as society’s expectations of them, proving the most hopeless perhaps have the widest range of color — far from black and white.

“Nobody love a black girl. Not even herself.” — Here Comes the Sun

The novel’s complexities equate to the complex feelings I had while reading it, and I imagine Dennis-Benn had that intention so that we could feel an ounce of what the characters experience and suffer through every day. Although I have a inkling that Dennis-Benn didn’t imagine her readers would be so heavily influenced by social distancing like I was, which only amplified my feelings.

Recognizing Here Comes the Sun‘s poignancy and the beauty of the writing and story, though, allowed me to overcome my emotions to discover a novel truly worth reading. Spoiler alert: There isn’t really a happy ending, and the complexities never simplify. These truths make the book an incredibly honest portrayal of the human experience, which only adds to its allure.


6 thoughts on “Set Fire to the Rain

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