Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn
Nicole Dennis-Benn dedicates her second novel to the ‘memory of the untold stories of undocumented immigrants’. We first meet Patsy in 1998 in Jamaica; she is standing in the hot sun in a long queue at the U.S. Embassy. She is waiting for an interview to gain a tourist visa and knows she must convince the American behind the glass partition that she will return to Jamaica. Patsy has a five-year-old daughter, and what mother would leave their child with no intention to come home? But life is not so simple for Patsy and many others like her who dream of a different life but whose options are limited.
Patsy’s childhood friend and lover, Cicely, lives in New York City and she is the one person who really understands who Patsy is and who she wants to be. Patsy arrives in Brooklyn, but Cicely has made a new life for herself and there is no place for Patsy in it. We then follow Patsy over a ten-year period as she experiences the poverty and racism that undocumented workers are relentlessly subjected to.
Dennis-Benn’s debut novel, Here Comes the Sun, is set entirely in Jamaica and received widespread praise for its thoughtful examination of sexuality, class and race. This second novel shifts between Jamaica and New York City as Patsy’s story alternates with the story of her daughter Tru, who must fit in with her father’s family and navigate her own conflicting experiences with sexuality and gender.
This is a rich novel that challenges cultural expectations of motherhood, gender, race and class. It is a sharply observed story and, in the acknowledgments, Dennis-Benn thanks her homeland of Jamaica ‘for the lush, but mostly untold stories’. We don’t hear enough stories about women like Patsy and I would urge everyone to read this one.