"Once you go, you know" used to be the official slogan of Jamaica's tourism board. It is a slogan brimming with ambiguity. For example, you might come to know that some of Jamaica's tourism is sexual in nature. Or that for many years, the country had one of the highest murder rates in the world. Jamaican Nicole Dennis-Benn's debut novel, Here Comes the Sun, reveals the shadier aspect of this sunny locale.
The novel revolves around a 30-year-old woman named Margot. When Margot was young her mother rented her to a tourist for several hundred dollars. And not for sightseeing. As an adult, Margot continues the practice in her own right. She comes to manage several other women plying the skin trade. Margot is also a closeted lesbian in a country that refers to them as sodomites.
Margot justifies her work as a sacrifice to her half-sister, Thandi. Thandi is in school, speaks proper English and is destined to become a doctor outside of Jamaica. Or at any rate, that is Margot's aspiration for her sister, who prefers art and falls for a local boy. Thandi also aspires to being fair-skinned. To that end she treats her skin with a soup of unpleasant chemicals. All this to escape the "ugliness of being black and poor."
But Margot's work becomes self-justifying; the higher goals grow blurry. In Dennis-Benn's Jamaica, tourist development undermines the country's pride in itself. Driven by foreign capital, development also proves indifferent to local communities. The same story plays out almost anywhere that tourism dominates. But Dennis-Benn's portrayal gives names and faces to this externality of globalization.
From the book's opening scenes, the author conjures vivid and passionate characters. Not one is a spectator to her fate. Most speak in the island's familiar patois, and they revere and resent those who don't. Similarities to fellow Caribbean writer Edwidge Danticat, or early V.S. Naipaul, are plentiful. The novel buzzes with eroticism, even when the circumstances are compromising or sordid. And the author manages to portray her fallen characters free of judgment. The Jamaica tourism slogan wouldn't be a bad subtitle for this rich, accomplished novel.