Nicole Dennis-Benn’s debut novel Here Comes the Sun opens with the stirring words, “God Nuh Like Ugly.” The melding of Jamaican Patois and English establishes an immediate authenticity, as does the disturbing discovery that ugly is synonymous with the blackness of one’s skin. The experience of reading this is akin to encountering Toni Morrison’s unflinching gaze upon the Antebellum South where she set her novel, Beloved. However, Dennis-Benn’s setting is not the slave-owning South of the 19th century U.S. but a black nation, the island of Jamaica, specifically, circa mid-1990s.
In seventh grade, your friend Megan invites you to go raiding, which means sneaking around in dark clothes and throwing feed corn on other people’s houses. This is rural Pennsylvania, a small town of rolling fields and old steel mills. It’s fall, cold. The point is trespassing, minor vandalism, the fact that you are twelve and living in a place where nothing ever happens.
You start at Megan’s house in a damp wooded valley not far from the river and walk toward the highway. It’s dark out, though probably not any later than seven or eight o’clock. Back here, in her neighborhood, there are steep hills, one after another, and the houses are set too far back from the road for an easy escape, and so for a while, the three of you—Megan, you, her neighbor-friend Derek—just walk.
When the storm’s coming, you can feel it. The atmosphere’s tense, quivering the leaves, hot, damp air close up to your face, the cloud doubling and darkening, metallic grey, sucking in the light. There’s a portent in the frenzy of birds and the cat’s retreat into the bottom of the clothes cupboard. Sometimes night falls and everything is still on edge, pending. The child loves to hear the thunder sneak up in the dark with a low growl. She counts the seconds after each cannonade. When the rain finally falls, you can’t hear much else, even when there’s shouting. She likes to climb out of bed into her window and get gooseflesh in the wind, then to jump back, shivering, under the covers to get warm. Then she does it again. Once there were hailstones, thrashing the asbestos roof. The noise obliterated everything, like a drug; she slept.
By ELIZABETH POLINER
That summer, even before she took up mowing, Suzanne was doubting herself, an uncertainty that set in when her husband began to notice the Mandlebrauns’ oldest daughter, Alison, soon to finish college. Alison, who lived in the only other house on their riverside lane, was home in Middle Haddam for the summer and came by to play tennis on their court with their daughter, Michelle, also soon to finish college. The girls, never close friends to begin with, had drifted further apart during their time away at school. It was surprising, then, to see them suddenly pair up, even if only for tennis.
When the radiators overheat we try to turn the knobs wearing oven mitts. At night it’s too hot to sleep, and we open the windows to the cold December air. My nose bleeds intermittently, suddenly, all winter long. I wake in the night to the hot rushing smell of iron, or, elbow-deep in dishwater suds, feel the blood coming too quick to stop.
I first went to London as an undergrad, on a yearlong study abroad program in University College London’s intimidating English department. When I returned very reluctantly to the US, I often dreamed about London, but in those dreams I would find familiar places moved, distorted, and the people I missed not where I looked for them. After graduation, I moved again to the UK for a master’s program, but mainly to get back to London. I had discovered, after a few panicky weeks of foreign disorientation, that the city suited me—and also that my quiet home in Massachusetts no longer did. At 22, one seemed to preclude the other; London felt strange and exotic in a way that had become a daily necessity.