Monday, October 3, 2016

Book Review - Here Comes the Sun

For those whose only experiences with Jamaica are at all-inclusive resorts, Here Comes the Sun is a shocking, eye-opening book.  While resorts feature heavily in the story, the contrived paradise they offer is lampooned heavily by the author.  A native Jamaican, who moved to the USA after high school, Nicole Dennis-Benn uses this book to explore post-colonial ideas of class, beauty, sexuality, family, tourism - Jamaica itself.

The main characters are three generations in the same family - Merle (grandmother), Delores (mother), Margot (elder daughter, 30 years old), and Thandi (younger daughter by 15 years).  There is a noticeable lack of masculine characters throughout the story, whether they are fathers, siblings, or lovers.  Although their physical presence is non-existent, their impressions on the women are lasting.  The men's absence takes the form of leaving for another woman, leaving for another country, leaving for prison, or leaving for the afterlife.

Thandi is finishing her last year at a prestigious, Catholic high school.  Because education is not free in Jamaica, her sister and mother both very hard to earn enough money to pay the school fees, leaving very little for rent, food, or other essentials.  So little, in fact that they live in a shack in a poor community away from any major town.  All of her family's hopes and dreams for a better life are essentially on Thandi's shoulders, whether she wants the responsibility or not.

Margot is employed as a housekeeping staff supervisor at one of the resorts, but she earns her real money after-hours as a prostitute for the guests.  One of her clients was the previous hotel owner, and his son Alphonso is a current client.  He offers Margot the chance to earn more money as a pimp, recruiting other young girls to work for her, who would service his high-profile resort clients and friends.  As she becomes more successful, and acquires more material wealth, she also becomes more ruthless and conniving, isolating herself from her family, coworkers, and her lover Verdeen.  Ambition blinds her to the ways she is losing herself.

Delores sells clothing, food, trinkets, and other souvenirs to sell at markets near cruise ship ports and other tourist areas.  Delores' life straddles the time before and after Jamaica obtained its independence from the UK, and she is really representative of the lasting effects that colonization left on Jamaica.  She is so abused, defeated, and damaged throughout her life, both by her own family and by society as a whole, and she passes that down to her daughters.  Her specific abuses, as seen in a vacuum, are horrifically cruel.  However, when you take Delores' words and actions in the context of her own life, you can almost understand why she does what she does.  It certainly doesn't make her behavior okay, but you can see the underlying assumptions and experiences.

Grandma Merle, as she is known, is an elderly woman who is mute and does little except sit and observe the world around her.  She sits in a kind of unvoiced judgment over the other women in the household.  Ostensibly, she is mute because her beloved son (Delores' brother) ran away to America; the day he left, without a word to anyone, she stopped talking.  Her silence is also symbolic of all the horrors and trauma that Jamaica experienced during colonialism.  She has seen and heard and lived through things so atrocious that words are inadequate.

Many of the other girls in Thandi's school are lighter-skinned than her, and the beauty standards in the culture implicitly tell girls that dark skin is ugly.  She is encouraged to chemically lighten her skin by a neighbor woman, who applies a painful hydrogen peroxide solution to Thandi's body and wraps her in cellophane to help the mixture work.  As her skin begins to lighten, she feels more attractive but encounters harsh criticism from other women who see her as having something wrong with herself.  As with beauty standards, sexuality is a complicated part of Jamaican culture.  Christianity is very prevalent, and with it comes a rigid heteronormativity.  A side character, widely-known to be a lesbian, only wants to be able to live in peace in her home.  Her neighbors and other villagers regard her as an evil witch because of her sexual orientation.  They refuse to talk to her or do business with her in the markets, and take every opportunity to insult, harass, intimidate, and physically assault her.  Despite this religiousness, prostitution is rampant throughout Jamaica.  For many women, especially in the lower classes, the sex industry is seen as their best chance to earn money. 

There are also quite a few pedophiles and sexual predators who live amongst the characters in this book.  Most of the women are victims of sexual violence.  Thandi's first sexual experience is rape, as a very young girl, by an alcoholic who live in her village.  Margot, as a child, was repeatedly raped by the man who would become Thandi's biological father.  Margot is the product of Delores' rape.  Despite their prevalence, there are no occasions where these pedophiles are punished for their crimes.  The characters seem to regard sexual violence with tolerance because the act is habitually committed.  It's just the way of life for lower-class females.  They are so disenfranchised that they no power or faculty to protect themselves in society.

Here Comes the Sun is a challenging story, because it speaks a truth that is difficult to hear.  Travelers who vacation in Jamaican resorts want to have a happy and relaxing experience.  Because of their money, and how/where they choose to spend it, they are able to enjoy a kind of cultural ignorance.  However, it's their money that keeps the government and society perpetuating class divides and many other detrimental patterns.  This is very awareness-making and eye-opening read.

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