Notes From Class is a series in which instructors of Catapult’s writing classes chronicle their experiences as writers and teachers. More information about Nicole Dennis-Benn and her workshop is available here.
I was afraid to write her, Margot, the main protagonist in Here Comes the Sun. I come from a culture that contains a duality: People are polite and discreet about topics of sex and sexuality, but at the same time sexuality is woven seamlessly into our music, and glitters and sparks in every innuendo, every sway of the hips, every stroke of the chin. The frozen glance of the church holds enormous power over Jamaica. Expressions of sexuality that defy the norms are discouraged. There’s still a rampant fear of homosexuality, Jamaica’s biggest taboo.
Although I know I shouldn’t write for approval’s sake, the reason a huge part of me struggled with bringing Margot to life in my novel was that she’s a primary lesbian character. My apprehension went beyond fears of breaking a taboo. I was afraid of my book being shunned. Since I have a strong connection to my home country, I wanted my work to be welcomed by all Jamaicans. Would they reject me the same way I’ve been rejected by most of my family? Would Margot’s sexuality overshadow the important messages of race, class, love, and identity in the novel?
My resistance forced me to face my most inner truths. It was relatively easy for me to take risks in my everyday personal life, so why was taking such risks in my writing completely different? I felt that I could be out as a lesbian in real life, but not in my work. Writing Margot felt like coming out all over again, making me realize just how much homophobia I had internalized in my life.
I anguished and toiled over this character. She challenged me to write far outside of my comfort zone. I deleted and rewrote whole chapters. It soon became evident that I was judging her throughout my writing process—chastising her the way a mother does a misbehaving child—but at the same time not wanting the public to pass judgment on her.
For guidance, I turned to Toni Morrison and Jamaica Kincaid. Their beautiful literary work documenting sexuality, especially female sexuality, gradually gave me permission to write my own. In The Autobiography of My Mother , Jamaica Kincaid gives us Xuela, a young girl whose burgeoning sexuality both parallels and intersects with her heightened social awareness of race and class. In Sula , Toni Morrison gives us an unapologetic protagonist who defies gendered norms and revels in her sexual freedom. I realized something vital when I read Morrison and Kincaid: The very fact that Margot was difficult to write meant that I might be doing something right. I was pushing through my own insecurities and pain and fears.
Slowly I began to trust my character, and Margot began to make unpopular, even disastrous decisions. Her story became one of great sacrifice, giving up her body so that her younger sister can thrive and do better: one of villainy, commodifying the bodies of other young girls; and one of hope, taking the risk to express her desire for another woman.
A key part of Margot’s identity, which isn’t revealed until much later in the book, is her past as a survivor of sexual abuse—abuse that was negotiated by her own mother. It took a lot of care and effort to write with this history in mind, capturing the undercurrent of rage that allows Margot, through her yearning for ownership of her own body, and through her desperate determination for upward mobility in her own country, to wield her sexuality like a weapon.
Ultimately, my drive to tell an important story trumped my fear. In writing Margot, I have tried to crack open the hard shells of taboos and to access secrets in a complex Jamaica—a world outsiders often view as a paradise. I faced my apprehension head on—seeing it for what it was, owning it, then letting it go. What I would’ve previously considered a suicidal leap has now become something more like pride, a triumph. Margot became my heroine.
Nicole Dennis-Benn’s fiction-writing workshop begins on September 8. Apply now.