Imagine my delight when I received an email invitation to a book party for Nicole Dennis-Benn, author of the highly acclaimed Here Comes the Sun. Here was a chance to meet her, and talk to her in person. There was no way I’d miss that opportunity. Not only is Dennis-Benn a fellow Jamaican, but she and I attended the same high school.
On arriving at Bookophilia, an independent bookstore in Kingston, I spotted Diana McCaulay, an award-winning Jamaican author, just one of the local authors and poets who came to welcome Nicole home to her roots and hear her read from her début novel.
I wasted no time in purchasing my copy of Nicole’s book. Soon, the cozy room started to fill up with new arrivals. In no time, copies of Here Comes the Sun sold out.
Laughter announced Nicole’s arrival, with her wife, Emma, by her side. Here comes the sun, indeed! Like sunflowers, our eyes followed Nicole as she weaved her way to the front of the room to greet Latoya West-Blackwood, CEO of iPublish Consultancy, also the creative genius behind the book party. Since following Nicole on social media, I’ve admired her Afrocentric-Boho style. Her maxi dress, in Caribbean hues, complemented and mirrored those on her book’s jacket cover. Emma’s gorgeous romper, in an eye-catching African print, was a show-stopper.
After Latoya’s introduction, and David’s (the Manager of Bookophilia) welcome, Nicole whetted our appetite with three readings. Each one introduced us to the main characters in her book: Thandi, Margot, and Delores. Hearing her Jamaican voice bringing our dialect, culture, issues, and authentic Jamaican women to life made me proud to be Jamaican. I glanced around at the faces of the captive audience, and saw that they echoed my sentiments.
The readings segued to the Q & A segment, which Latoya ably moderated. Unsurprisingly, a question about the book’s title popped up. Laughing, Nicole explained that it had nothing to do with the Beatles’ 1969 hit song. “As children, we were taught to fear the sun,” she said, “but as a symbol, it’s an illuminating factor. It reveals secrets and brings everything to the forefront by shining a light on things.”
In answer to a question about her use of the Jamaican dialect, Dennis-Benn revealed that her current agent didn’t have a problem with it, unlike the first one. She credited the works of Marlon James and Zora Neale Hurston for giving her permission to use dialect. In addition, James told her to “stick to her guns”, since she wanted to maintain the authenticity of the Jamaican language in her book.
For Aspiring Authors
The Literary Agent
Nicole provided a helpful picture of her journey, when someone asked about the publishing process. Her agent, Julie Barer, acquired Here Comes the Sun. Next, the literary agent will sell the acquired book to a major publisher. Every publishing house has a team of designers, publicists, and editors. The latter buys the books. If they love an author’s book, they’ll present it to the rest of their publishing house. If the house loves the book, they will provide the author with an advance and all the resources (publicist, designer, etc.) for the effective marketing and support of the book. At this point, your agent will negotiate the advance.
“You have the power to say no and walk away,” she added, “if you don’t like the editors’ suggested changes, and feel that they will change your book into something entirely different. But, if you like what they’re saying, then they’ll provide you with a publicist.”
She recounted receiving an email from her new publicist, mentioning that she never had one before. We chuckled when she said she told him that she had no contacts, upon his request for this list. Her publicist, who has worked with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Zadie Smith, then provided her with a list of his contacts that included important sources, such as book sellers and magazine editors. Nicole elevated booksellers like Bookophilia over magazine editors and those of the New York Times, because they do the groundwork, and can recommend your book to potential buyers.
On the matter of her book’s design, Nicole admitted that she had no authority. The publishing house has the final say. She said, “You choose which cover you like. If you don’t like something, they might tweak it a bit.”
Dennis-Benn’s points on the writing craft are worth framing:
“Write often. You can teach technique, but voice can’t be taught. Voice is your signature, and your independent style as a writer. It’s your heart. Ask yourself these questions: Why are you telling the story? Who are you writing for? Why are you qualified to tell your story?”
A Bright Future Ahead
What’s next for Nicole? She’s working on her next book, which will tackle some of the same issues in Here Comes the Sun, and more.
Mix and Mingle, Wine and Sign
The main segment of the book party over, everyone either started mingling, or securing plated hors d’oeuvres and glasses of wine. Others of us made a beeline to Nicole to get our copies of Here Comes the Sun signed. Somehow, I found myself first in line without any effort on my part. When I told Nicole that I attended the same high school as her, her eyes lit up. After mentioning that mentorship was high on my list for this year, I sought her advice on that topic. “Choose someone you trust,” was one of her salient points. Among other things, a writing mentor is a reliable guide for developing one’s authentic voice.
Before I moved on, clutching my signed book like the One Ring (my precious), Nicole told me about her creative writing workshop. We’ve been in contact about it since. Consequently, I can hardly wait to attend a session this year.
Just when I thought the evening couldn’t get any better, Nicole agreed to take a few photos with me. Thanks to Emma, who graciously offered to be our photographer.
It was clear that the book party was a tremendous success. Kudos to Latoya West-Blackwood, who never disappoints. Props to Bookophilia for partnering with Deaf Can Coffee. The two young men from that organisation served us with the utmost professionalism.
I love meeting online pals in person, so it was a lovely treat to chat with Emma Lewis of Petchary’s Blog and Chantel DaCosta of My Jamaican Vignettes. Stroll over to their blogs. They are great reads.
Another favourite moment was approaching the inimitable, literary powerhouse, Professor Dr. Carolyn Cooper, who sported a bright turquoise mohawk with shaved sides.
“Dr. Cooper,” I began.
“Carolyn,” she said, with a mock-disapproving look.
If it were possible, Mary Poppins would’ve told me, “Close your mouth. You’re not a codfish.”
So I told Carolyn that she looked fierce, which led to a nice little chat.
The sun had long set when I left, feeling charged and hopeful. Nicole Dennis-Benn was the creative spark I needed to get my groove back after my writing slump. She embodies all my girlish dreams of touching and enriching people’s lives with my stories. She surmounted every obstacle and banished all doubts to become a stunning success. My life and the literary world are so much brighter now because of her words and presence.