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Working-class people need to be seen, says Jamaican-born writer Nicole Dennis-Benn

Nicole Dennis-Benn says she never could have become a writer if she had stayed in Jamaica -- that took living in the U.S. and encouragement from her wife. But returning to the land of her birth, she was confronted with all of the things she had run away from, yet also with the desire to tell the real stories of the people behind the fantasy. Dennis-Benn gives her Brief But Spectacular take.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now to another in our Brief But Spectacular series, where we ask people about their passions.

    Tonight, Jamaican-born writer Nicole Dennis-Benn. Her award-winning novel, "Here Comes the Sun," was named a best book of the year by The New York Times.

  • Nicole Dennis-Benn:

    I was raised in a working-class family in a town called Vineyard Town, Kingston 3, in Jamaica.

    Growing up working-class, there was this expectation that you would be the one to make it in your family, you know, first-generation college student. I was pre-med at Cornell, thinking that I was going to go to medical school.

    However, I wasn't passionate about that, you know? And what was really plaguing me was the fact that I wanted to be a writer. It wasn't until meeting my wife, who challenged me. She said, are you a writer or are you a researcher?

    Had I lived in Jamaica, I could not have been a writer. I would be — first of all, I wouldn't be courageous to challenge the issues that I challenge in my work, you know, especially homophobia, sexualization of our young girls, race, class, socioeconomic disparities.

    Being here in America gave me that opportunity. I didn't come out. I was found out. My mother discovered — well, overheard a conversation I had on the phone with another woman. And I had no idea that she was even present in the house.

    And so, after the conversation ended, she approached me and she said, "You know, Nicole, was that a woman on the phone?"

    And I said, "Yes."

    And she said, "Well, you know, two women don't speak like that to each other."

    I had spent my whole undergraduate career trying to please her and my father, being premed. So, here was that one thing that I had no control over. And so, when that happened, I was devastated.

    When I met my partner in 2008, she said she wanted to go to Jamaica just to see that part of me. I took her back home in 2010. And we actually spent a great time. It was at a resort, because we couldn't have stayed with my parents, given the obvious — for obvious reasons.

    And it was then that all the things that I was running away from came back to me, the classism, the complexionism, the homophobia.

    One of the most memorable experiences there was interacting with a waiter at the resort. And, at first, he was speaking to me as like he was British, but thinking that I was a tourist. I knew the class he's from because I'm of that same class, right?

    So it wasn't until he found out that I was Jamaican that the mask came off. I reflected on the fact that we were socialized to be performers, to be ambassadors for our country. We were responsible for selling the fantasy.

    I actually wanted to show the people behind the fantasy. Who are these waiters serving us the resort? Who are the maids making our beds? Who are the hotel clerks, the JUTA bus drivers? Those are the people who are often neglected, often invisible, the working-class Jamaicans.

    And so I wanted their lives, especially our working-class women, to be out there. People need to be seen. I wanted to show that. I wanted to document that, right, so that, next time, the next person who comes to the island can actually see us, as well as the beauty of our country.

    My name is Nicole Dennis-Benn, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on writing untold stories.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you can watch additional Brief But Spectacular episodes on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.

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