Two months after the imposition of national quarantine in Italy to contain the spread of COVID-19, the food supply chain of the country started to fall apart. One of the root causes of the crisis is the lack of laborers in the field of agriculture, which heavily relies on immigrant workforce. Before the pandemic hit the peninsula, 1/3 of agriculture workers were undocumented immigrants working under despicable conditions. Worried by the lack of safety measures, unprotected by the healthcare system, and wary of the tighter police controls in the streets, a large number of immigrants stopped working the fields across the nation. This led the national government to open a discussion on granting work permits to all immigrants in Italy. The legalization of the work permits might prevent the food chain from collapsing, but it wouldn’t improve the life conditions of undocumented immigrants. No plan is being discussed about how to stop the systematic exploitation of immigrants’ work by large sectors of the Italian economy. A similar situation is happening across the U.S., especially in the most populated urban areas where undocumented immigrants have to keep working amid the health crisis to survive. Italian and American government responses to the crisis are similar as they propose contingent countermeasures that treat immigrants as assets, valued solely on their willingness to fuel the economy with their labor. These governments lean on a political consensus that capitalizes on stereotyped views of immigration and immigrants. Authors from different backgrounds have raised their voice to tackle in their books those stereotypes. In particular, Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn activates empathy within readers, to deepen their awareness of undocumented immigrants’ struggles and to invite them to integrate this consciousness in their lives.
Patsy’s story develops from a theme that was already present in the author’s previous work. In the opening scene to Here Comes the Sun, Margot, a young Jamaican woman, yearned for more: “Of course she has dreams. She has always had dreams. Her dream is to get away as far as possible from here. Maybe America, England, or someplace where she can reinvent herself. Become someone new and uninhibited; a place where she can indulge the desires she has resisted for so long.” Moved by a similar dream, Patsy leaves her family and country behind to reconnect with her secret and long lost love, Cicely, in New York. However, the disillusioning encounter with her former lover and the harsh reality of living as an undocumented immigrant in the U.S. only add to the layers to traumas and insecurities that bog her down. All the while, her daughter Tru is left fighting a solitary battle to affirm her own self in the heteronormative and sexist context she’s growing in. The two women move on parallel quests for self-discovery, fueled by a deep yearning for freedom, haunted by the consequences of their decisions.
In her books, Nicole Dennis-Benn is committed to portraying well-rounded characters that speak true to her and to those she means to represent. Following the footsteps of Toni Morrison and Audre Lorde, at the 2018 Key West Literary Seminar she stated she wants working class “Jamaicans to see themselves on the page and have others see us, because we’re virtually unseen.” In both her books, one of the ways through which she achieves this is by code switching between standard American English and patois in the dialogues. Her careful depiction of Jamaicans’ spectrum of languages follows the work of Zora Neale Hurston on the representation of African American Vernacular English in her books. Language becomes one of the key points of contact between the reader and the characters for the creation of empathy. James Baldwin wrote that language representation holds personal and political relevance because it “is the most vivid and crucial key to identify: It reveals the private identity, and connects one with, or divorces one from, the larger, public, or communal identity.” Similarly, in an interview with NYLON, Nicole Dennis-Benn explained how she firmly held the need to use patois in her books as it is “our first language, and to be told not to use it is like erasing our identity. [..] As an artist, I want to reclaim it and put it back in my dialogue.”
The author used code switching in Patsy not only to foster empathy, but also as an opportunity to open discussions about many other subjects. In a witty observation about the interactions happening at the American Embassy in Jamaica, Dennis-Benn comments on the officers’ difficulty with understanding the patois “spoken by men and women from the rural parishes.” The author then adds how “perhaps the Americans are equally frustrated, because no one can understand them either, especially when their t’s sound like d’s and their vowels are sawed in half, making simple words sound complicated or completely swallowed,” helping us reflect on the relativity of what is and isn’t considered a “broken” language.
Code switching is also central to the characterization of Cicely, who capitalized on her lighter complexion and distanced herself from her origins to acquire acceptance and security in the U.S. The first time we read her speak patois is behind the back of her husband, an abusive Jamaican who was adopted by an American-Jewish family and rose to power through aggressive real-estate gentrification of the Jamaican Brooklyn neighborhood. In his presence, and to Patsy’s dismay, Cicely refrains from showing a side of herself, in order to protect the privileged position she acquired in American society. One day, while the father’s away, Cicely enjoys a moment of comfort with her son and Patsy at the table, and slips into patois. “How odd her language must sound to him, pouring out of her, loud and free.” But as soon as her husband returns, she switches back: “No longer is Cicely a woman full of life and ease with herself – a woman who, just seconds ago, threw her head back until it trembled proudly on the stalk of her neck – but a woman reassembling the image in the tall mirror. Cicely’s eyes drop to her husband’s feet.” Although the character of Cicely could be difficult to sympathize with, through the description of her demeanor, the author again achieves activation of the reader’s empathy, helping us read between the lines of her code switching to understand her sacrifices and sense of regret.
Code switching marks also the engagement of the young Tru with the education system, similarly to what happened to Thandi in Here Comes the Sun, and reflecting on the author’s own experience with schooling in Jamaica, as she explained in the aforementioned talk at the Key West Literary Seminar. Tru’s teachers are obliged to teach in a language that is not their own: these restrictions are based on lingering ideals of respectability infused by the colonial rule in the island’s mentality and undermine the younger generation’s sense of belonging and self-worth. Patois is “a forbidden language on campus,” and only when far from the school Tru feels confident enough to use it to communicate with her love interest freely. Tru’s code switching gives the reader, yet again, another shard of insight into the oppressive conditions from which Patsy escaped.
Overall, paying attention to the reasons why code switching happens throughout the book is key to understanding many other underlying themes in Patsy. It reveals issues of classism, like in Patsy’s exchange with Beatrice, a rich woman who “likes to speak her patois to flaunt her country origins with the nannies she assumes are below her.” In other cases, it underlines how selected immigrants obtain a privilege that sets them apart from others. In an attempt to restore clients’ perception of the authenticity of a restaurant, the owner handpicks Serge, a Jamaican chef. Serge appears to be aware of the fact that without him the restaurant is bound to fail. Over-confident (or perhaps oblivious), he demonstrates his privileged position by not refraining from speaking patois “loudly, as though it never entered the speaker’s mind to be ashamed of it in America with all these white people around overhearing it.”
One example in particular focuses on code switching as a necessary act for the immigrant in the process of searching for a job. Patsy meets for an interview with Bernie, the owner of a restaurant, a white American who appropriated Jamaican cuisine during a brief vacation on the island. She quickly realizes that if she wants a job from him, she needs to play the part. “He stares at Patsy as if expecting her to speak. That’s when she says, in patois to this man who seems hungry to hear it, -Making people comfah-table is my passion, sah.- A smile spreads across Bernie’s face. -You remind me so much of Peta-Gaye,- he says. -The way you sound, your look, your mannerism.”
In this passage, Patsy is required to comply with the idea that the restaurant owner has of her. To gain the right to survive, she has to trade in her identity. She is forced to wear the mask. Once again, Nicole Dennis-Benn invites the reader to pause, and to reflect on the stories of the people she is representing in her books. As she shared in an interview with Amy Garmer, judge for the Aspen Prize, this is an especially pressing matter in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the neighborhoods that “have a lot of those immigrants are the most affected right now in New York City. [..] I thought of Patsy in those moments and, yes, she’s a fictional character, but the people who she’s based off are human beings, are real.” Nicole Dennis-Benn invites readers to acknowledge these experiences, and to let this newfound awareness direct them to take a stance in support of immigrants, and to advocate for their well-being.
Lorenzo Vanelli completed a Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology from the University of Bologna, where he studied how communities of the African Diaspora in the Mediterranean and in North America communicate their historical as well as contemporary experience with racism, gender and institutionalized violence through music production. He worked in the field of education in Italy, Spain and the U.S. as a languages instructor and translator, and as a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University.