The Cost of Liberation: Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn

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A woman leaving her young daughter to seek out a life for herself in another country seems reprehensible. Shocking? Bold? Or perhaps, brave? When a woman is willing to separate herself from her child because she feels shackled, trapped in a gratuitous cycle of hardship she can no longer bear, and to live in another country where she believes she will find the freedom to be with the woman she loves, she challenges many of the archetypes of what a woman and mother should be, especially a Caribbean woman and mother. She upends ideas about women and mothers as compliant and passive, as natural caretakers.

In a novel that is bold, brave, and beautifully written, Nicole Dennis-Benn dares to challenge those archetypes by giving us her titular character Patsy, who is determined to escape the life she was born into and create a life she truly desires. Patsy, Dennis-Benn’s second novel, introduces us to a young woman with big dreams who was dealt a hand in life she refuses to accept. Patsy is a single mother living in a small town called Pennyfield in Jamaica with her five-year-old daughter and her pension-aged, ultra-religious mother. She is smart, gifted in math, but can only achieve so much as a dark-skinned woman from a poor community, thanks to the remnants of colonialism that still permeate her country. She works as a civil servant, earning wages that are barely enough to send her daughter to school and take care of the household’s needs, her needs, and her the needs of her mother, “whom Jesus has called to testify full-time and therefore makes no money for the house.”

Patsy is a story about defiance and survival, eschewing much of the typical tropes one would expect in a novel about immigrants. Patsy secretly makes the decision to move to America, to make a better life for herself and her child. It’s a move many immigrants have made, and many for these same reasons. This is what Patsy tells herself and her family. However, her most prominent motivation for moving is to rekindle her relationship with her high school sweetheart, Cicely.

When a visa interviewer asks Patsy why she’s visiting the US, Dennis-Benn writes, “Aside from her wanting more out of life, and more resources to take care of her daughter, the possibility of her and Cicely together again in America looms so large in Patsy’s heart that she almost trembles.” Before Patsy leaves Jamaica, she promises her daughter Tru that she will return. But both Patsy and, somehow, young Tru, know this to be a lie.

The author exposes the way a woman’s identity is wrapped up tightly in traditional notions of womanhood, something that many Caribbean people still strongly hold on to. Early in the novel, Patsy attempts to explain to both her mother and her daughter’s father Roy why she has to leave Jamaica, and their responses focus on her responsibility as a woman and as a mother rather than on her needs as a human. “A girl-pickney need har mother. How else she gwan learn fi be a woman,” Roy says in an effort to make Patsy see reason. Her own mother, Mama G, prefers the method of guilt when Patsy expresses a desire for wanting more out of her life as a good reason to leave Jamaica, and her daughter, for America: “How many woman yuh hear talk ‘bout dem want more an’ lef’ dem pickney? Is we carry di belly fah nine months. Suppose I did leave yuh saying ah want more?”

As the novel progresses, it is impossible not to relate to Patsy’s plight. She wants choices, something she never had in her life, especially not as a queer woman living in Jamaica. Determined to break the endless cycle of privation and find happiness of her own, she holds onto the American dream tightly and goes for it.

The novel also illuminates the trials immigrant women face when they arrive in America and find that it is not as advertised. Patsy’s imagined freedom in America, she discovers almost immediately, was an illusion. Dennis-Benn’s starry-eyed protagonist soon realizes that nothing in America is really free and that liberty comes at a price she was not expecting to pay. When she arrives, Patsy reconnects with Cicely, the woman she was in love with for many years, the one she moved to America to be with, only to be shut out of her life when Cicely chooses to maintain an abusive but financially secure marriage rather than rekindle a childhood romance with Patsy. Cicely “can’t accept the burden of being in America without the advantage of living the dream, regardless of the abuse.” She informs Patsy: “A woman can’t survive without a man anywhere, Patsy. Not even in America. A man like Marcus mek all dis possible.”

Patsy begins to understand that many relationships and marriages in her circle of immigrant acquaintances have little to do with love and more to do with survival. She befriends a woman named Fiona who cleans bathrooms with her at a restaurant, and Fiona confides in Patsy that she was in the process of paying an American man to marry her to get her papers. “People die to get into dis country. Yuh t’ink we have di luxury of choosing how to stay?” she says to Patsy, making her case for this small sacrifice. Liberty for many immigrants comes at a cost.

Dennis-Benn bravely tackles the narrative around what it means to be an immigrant, pulling apart a reference that has been an increasingly prevalent topic of conversation in the United States in the past three years. “There’s that word again that Patsy hates—illegal. She’s no longer a person, but an illegal. An alien. She can’t understand why she’s deemed a criminal for wanting more, for being in a place where she can live out her dreams—even if it might take a while to achieve them.” These lines, sharp and poignant, are the apotheosis of this novel, where the struggle to keep one’s dignity in another’s country can be felt and seen through Patsy’s eyes.

Not only does Dennis-Benn address topics often swept under the rug, but she brings compassion to a complicated woman who does her best to forge a fulfilling life for herself. Patsy’s desire to shirk motherhood is a complicated dance between her own agency and traditional ideas of womanhood. Patsy ceases all contact with Tru after arriving in the US, an act she regrets but does not quite know how to remediate. She has a difficult time verbalizing the fact that she didn’t want her child at all for fear of judgment until her girlfriend, Claudette, coaxes it out of her: “I tried to love my baby, but I couldn’t. She wasn’t enough because I wasn’t enough…”

The relationship between Patsy and Tru moves invisibly but in tandem throughout the entire novel, even though their lives are lived oceans apart. By writing both the mother’s and daughter’s perspectives in alternating chapters, Dennis-Benn demonstrates that in many ways, Tru’s life mirrors her mother’s: she too finds herself unable to live and love as freely as she would like to because of traditional expectations of young women in the Caribbean. As Patsy navigates finding herself in the grueling Big Apple, Tru navigates finding herself in the trenches of Jamaica as she grows up a queer tomboy in the town her mother fled. Tru “has acquired movements and habits that seem boyish to others, but are natural to her…” She uses bandages to wrap her breasts, which gives her some degree of freedom when she plays football with the boys in the evening after school. But “the next day she must return to her all-girls high school, to the pettiness of teenage girls, to the loneliness of feeling different from them, and to the curious faces of her teachers.” Tru never finds out that during high school her mother was once attacked when caught in an intimate position with Cicely, or even that her mother is gay.

Living with her father and stepmother and siblings, without anyone to compare her nascent lifestyle to, Tru begins suffering from depression and develops a habit of cutting herself. She continuously questions her worth as a person, especially since her mother doesn’t communicate with her. When Patsy left for America, she told Tru to “be a good obedient girl,” which Tru tells herself she needs to be in order for her mother to return. In depicting this simple but common act, Dennis-Benn reveals the distress migration can cause in a family. Tru spends a great deal of time debating whether or not she’s a good person because her mother refuses to contact her or to return to Jamaica.

This novel touches on a little-explored side effect of parents migrating and leaving their children behind. When Patsy leaves, Tru becomes a barrel child—a term used to describe children whose absent parents send them barrels filled with compensatory items such as clothes, toys, candy, and foreign food as a form of communication and a demonstration of love (although during the ten years Patsy is away Tru only receives a barrel from her once). Tru dislikes the girls at her high school who are barrel children but ironically become a barrel child herself. After years of silence, urged by her girlfriend Claudette, Patsy’s attempt to reconnect with her daughter by sending her a barrel does not go well. Tru is angry with her mother for abandoning her and views the barrel as a feeble attempt to make amends. As a result, Tru tries to take her own life. “Ten years, Birdie. Ten years,” Roy tells Patsy when he calls to inform her of the situation. “An’ fah those ten years yuh neva t’ink of picking a phone to call or a pen to write yuh dawta. Yuh really t’ink one barrel could erase dat fact?” One of the highest costs Patsy pays for pursuing the life she wants is almost losing her daughter, and she’s forced to take a look at the result of her choice to migrate and leave her child behind, however well-intentioned she may have been.

Patsy’s character is a flawed woman, well-presented on the pages of this novel. Dennis-Benn pens a beautiful narrative that encapsulates the converging joy and pain of many Caribbean immigrants in search of a better life. Her work sheds light on the realities of chasing the elusive American dream that many Caribbean people still hold today. Patsy will be part of the literary canon that opens the window to a multifaceted Caribbean life.

Keishel Williams is an SPJ Mark of Excellence Award winner. Her work can also be found in LitHub, BET Digital, Trinidad & Tobago Guardian, NL Times, Atlas Obscura, and more. She recently earned a Master’s degree in journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. More from this author →