Are We Out of the Woods?

  • What: Patsy
  • Who: Nicole Dennis-Benn
  • Pages: 425 pages
  • Genre: Contemporary fiction
  • Published: 2019
  • The lit: 1463390917-2400px1463390917-2400px1463390917-2400px1463390917-2400px of 5 flames

Immigration is a political and social issue whose solutions have always seemed nebulous to me. It’s immensely complex, and I admit I’ve done little research to understand its intricacies. But from the surface and from a few immigrant friends, I know a few, very general things. First, it’s very hard to obtain citizenship in the U.S. Second, and contradictory to my first point, it’s just as hard to maintain any type of visa. Lastly, and most importantly, the way we treat immigrants — be that through policy or social interaction — is incredibly inhumane, leading to the “othering” effect with unhealthy stereotypes.

The odd thing is that people who set and maintain devastating policies or who speak such harmful words about immigrants likely have never talked to an immigrant — documented or undocumented — to understand their struggle and the heartbreak that led them to pursue the illusive American Dream. This point illustrates how storytelling — or qualitative data if you will — is just as or even more important than statistics and how storytelling can shape our morals and beliefs. Stories like Patsy are integral for our society to progress and for us becoming a little more compassionate.

Patsy tells a story that few of us probably know but one that exists all too frequently, that of the undocumented immigrant. The eponymous main character gives up her heartbreaking and unfair life in Jamaica for love and freedom in the States only to be deceived by those who promised her so much — including Americans and their precious ideals.

“It’s the nothing that gets her — the fact that she was content with nothing. Knowing that she is fully capable of feeling such visceral disgust for herself fills her with purpose, a drive to get on with it, gather the scattered pieces inside herself, and get her life back.”

Patsy

Just like her debut novel, Here Comes the Sun, Nicole Dennis-Benn paints her second tale in a very bleak light. The difference in Patsy, though, is that the bleakness doesn’t present itself at the beginning; in fact, you can almost feel hope in the book’s first few pages thanks to Patsy herself receiving her long-awaited visa to visit the U.S. Growing up in Pennyfield, Jamaica, Patsy has had few choices and few opportunities. She was sexualized at a very young age yet didn’t have the ability to choose herself when motherhood came knocking. She has an unfulfilling — both financially and mentally — job where she cannot progress. And her best friend, Cicely, who she loved more than anything or anyone in the world disappeared to America at a young age, leaving Patsy alone and depressed.

So when Patsy finally receives her visa, she feels hope for things to come and that her life can finally begin, and you share that feeling with her. But Patsy doesn’t just leave behind a life of poverty and poor prospects; she also leaves behind her five-year-old daughter, Tru, who can’t possibly understand why her mother would leave her. What kid could?

That hope — no matter how complicated or complex — does not last long. When Patsy arrives in Brooklyn, she quickly learns that the promises of America aren’t meant for people like her, and she struggles to live in a country that insists on keeping her down and keeping her undocumented. Even Cicely has made false promises about their love blossoming, about school and work, and about freedom. Patsy finally finds a job as a bathroom attendant and then a nanny where she feels guilt and irony for loving and caring for a child who’s not even hers; yet, this job doesn’t equate to the life of freedom she anticipated. Meanwhile, back in Jamaica, Tru struggles with the loss of her mother, feeling both dejected and rejected, and questions her identity and sexuality. She only wants answers from her mother, who only wants to know if and when her life as an undocumented immigrant will ever improve.

“‘Love? … We can’t afford to love in dis country. We not at dat place yet as immigrants where we can choose love. Like evert’ing else, we tek what we can get — grab on to any lifeboat so we don’t drown in dis place call America. Love? Love won’t get we papers.'”

Patsy

As I said in the intro, my personal experience with undocumented immigrants is extremely limited, and Patsy shed immense light on the plight of someone choosing to live undocumented in this country. Of course, I could never understand why someone would make the choices Patsy does, but that’s because I could never understand where she’s come from and the pain she’s felt. And that pain stems from racism, sexism, trauma, poverty, religious fanaticism, colonialism, colorism, and so much more, which all translate into the novel’s themes. To really enunciate these themes, which may sound like a lot but all intersect very well, Dennis-Benn has littered her characters’ conversations with microaggressions that make you cringe. And you do this mainly because they feel so real and accurate, especially once Patsy is living in Brooklyn among ignorant white people.

The themes really set the somber and hopeless tone, but the characters themselves — who speak in their native Patois and who all yearn for so much more — provide a vibrant and quick pace in a book that feels like an epic.

The most fascinating thing about Dennis-Benn’s characters is that none of them are necessarily good, but even the “antagonists” aren’t inherently bad. She’s created such a vast and diverse world of characters in which everyone has struggled, and these struggles have clearly tarnished their decision-making abilities. Unfortunately, the gray in which her characters live is so pronounced that the neat ending she’s written feels very jarring. The various plots all tie up too simply for a book that takes its time exploring complex themes and really giving the plots and characters time to develop. They deserve a more complicated ending even if it that means more sadness.

This one critique is heavily outweighed, though, by Dennis-Benn’s extraordinary use of literary devices, of which there are many and which really provide color and evoke the senses. Notably, this woman is the queen of the simile. Never have I read an author that illustrates things so clearly with the most interesting descriptions and comparisons that make perfect sense. Here are some examples:

“… As a blood cell that spends its whole life providing oxygen to a tissue.”

“… The reality of her decision not to consult with him sooner descending like crows to feed on every bit of joy she had earlier.”

“… the Yankee who made Cicely’s life as easy as the sliding doors Patsy had just walked through.”

“The color seems to drain from Cicely’s face as though Patsy’s words are a thread capable of strangling her right there in the street.”

Patsy

She also utilizes abstract writing, imagery, and personification, especially to represent the depression that has invaded Patsy’s life — and later Tru’s — from a very young age. She writes of a dark presence that nearly has a physical shape and that constantly follows Patsy; even in her happiest moments, she can sense it lurking in the dark, waiting to take over Patsy’s moods and actions. As the reader, you can almost see the shape in your peripherals.

On its own, Dennis-Benn’s writing deserves applause. Mix in the themes she explores and ties together and the characters she’s created, and you have a powerful novel that proves the importance and necessity of the #ownvoices movement. These types of books tell the stories of those who have long been silenced and misunderstood and play an important role in furthering our acceptance of one another. That may sound like a lot of pressure to put on any author, but Dennis-Benn easily surpasses that challenge.

Michael Schaub from NPR writes, “Admirers of Here Comes the Sun have waited three years for Dennis-Benn’s followup, and anyone who was enchanted by her gorgeous writing are in for a happy surprise: Patsy isn’t just as good as its predecessor, it’s somehow even better.”

As a fan of Dennis-Benn’s debut novel, I could not agree more.

“[The stranger] went crazy in America, her mind halting in the loneliness, anxiety, and the soundlessness of things falling apart: a sweet surrender. What a relief it must be, Patsy thinks, to stare into the eyes of sorrow and break without the pretense of holding it together.”

Patsy

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