Nicole Dennis-Benn’s “Patsy” is no patsy – Thulani Angoma-Mzini

Title:                Patsy

Author:           Nicole Dennis-Benn

Publisher:       Liveright Publishing Corporation

Pages:             423

Genre:             Fiction

Nicole Dennis-Benn’s second novel Patsy tells the story of a woman raised in the dusty streets of Pennyfield in Kingston Jamaica who struggles, amongst other things, with her role as mother to her five-year-old daughter, Tru. Dennis-Benn introduces us to Patsy at a time where she has decided to immigrate to the US with no intention of returning, leaving Tru with an estranged father. In the parting scene at the airport, Patsy reflects on the dissonance she feels towards maternal instincts:

She thinks to herself, a good mother would have snapped a photograph of a baby girl not quite six with a mouth fixed like her father’s and eyes that seem to contain many moons that threaten to eclipse the sun. A good mother would have taken the time to use the very last second to inhale her daughter’s scent of Blue Magic hair oil mixed with baby powder. But she’s late to catch her flight. (p.63)  

Patsy is frustrated with a tough childhood and adult life and so she applies for a US Visa in order to spring to the eternal arms of Cecily, her high school sweetheart who left Jamaica abruptly. Letters from Cecily, describing a life without restrictions within the US borders keep Patsy going until she leaves:

Patsy always imagines…walking hand in hand [with Cecily] in America, trying on clothes in boutiques and zipping up each other’s dresses like they did as girls and shopping for household items together, like real couples do (p. 33)

On leaving the dusty streets however she finds that the green grass on the other side is just an illusion. Cecily is married with a child. Cecily’s husband does not like Patsy and kicks her out of the house with few options for a roof in the foreign land. Patsy is forced to hustle through the streets of Brooklyn, living from one small bedroom to another at the mercy of abusive landlords. She finds herself engaging in activities she would not have dreamed of back home; cleaning toilets at a faux Jamaican restaurant; taking care of white children as a nanny; buying second hand clothes at cheap markets. The promises of the foreign land successively break as ten years pass and Patsy fully tethers from the love of her daughter Tru whom she left behind and the love she thought she had in Cecily.

The story is also about Tru, who is a girl growing up in a society that wants her to lose her tomboyish ways and be more feminine so that she can appeal to the often-paedophilic male gaze. She’s a tough one, but her abandonment by her mother chips away at her sense of home and love. As the years roll by she finds comfort in a father who loves her like a son, teaching her the skill of soccer. The innocence and purity of Tru’s natural inclinations to be herself are corrupted by a society that judges her by biological monikers. This forces her, for example, to tape her breasts flat on her chest to make herself invisible in androgyny.

While the stories of the two women are neatly packed in a happy ending at the end, the journey there takes the reader through a variety of the complexities that create these two characters. The story of the black immigrant’s experience is loaded by Dennis-Benn with more than just the hopes and dreams of a ‘better life’ that you find in nearly all such stories. With courage Patsy lugs the extra baggage of classism, sexuality, rape and poverty from her native Kingston to the boroughs of New York City, proving that she’s no patsy.  

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