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The grass is greener

"A woman can't survive without a man anywhere". 

This is what Patsy has been told all her life. Her best friend Cicely tells her that sometimes sacrifice is necessary. But, is sacrifice quantifiable? Once we reach our quota, does it give us permission to live our lives freely?

Living in a community of Pennyfield, Jamaica, shackled in a mindset that dictates how you should live and whom you can love, Patsy is determined to find a new life for herself, even if it's a million miles from home. And even, if that means leaving behind everything, including her five-year-old daughter Tru. 

Letters from her childhood friend, Cicely, paint a picture of America the great. Cicely left Jamaica on a visa and has never returned; and from the likes of it, has done well to craft a new life for herself with a man named Marcus, who she supposedly married for a green card. Seeing Cicely have the freedom to love, on her terms, is a catalyst driving change in Patsy's life. 

Years after pursing a visa, Patsy finally gets what she wants; she is filled with a renewed hope that a visa would be a panacea erasing her past. One stamp on her passport will guarantee her a new life, new happiness, new memories to quash the old bitter ones. 

But then reality sets in. As an undocumented woman in New York City, Patsy struggles to find her identity and earn a decent wage. It's a sacrifice she, like a lot of naive people searching for the American dream, fall victim to. The only jobs she can get at first is cleaning toilets or as a nanny. Cleaning toilets even in Jamaica is the lowest of the low jobs one could get, and whether she really did the right thing leaving her country is a decision she grapples with. Being a nanny for someone else's child, is another slap in the face. Here was a woman who didn't want to be burdened by the constraints of motherhood, left her own daughter behind, and now faces the irony of having to spend her life caring for someone else's children. 

For the reader, there are a lot of topics to think about. Discrimination is just one of them, and that in itself is not black and white. Shape-shifting in various forms, discrimination weaves in an out of the the novel. 

Prejudice manifests most obviously with skin colour, but not where you may think. Patsy doesn't just sense the difference when she arrives in New York, but even in Jamaica. Nicole Dennis-Benn writes of a discrimination in Jamaica, where pale-skinned people living in mansions on the hills got preferential treatment in comparison to the dark-skinned people. As a kid, Patsy chose to rationalize this as she wondered if Jesus loved the people up in the hills more because they were already closer to heaven. 

Gender discrimination is another topic that Nicole Dennis-Benn touches on in  Patsy. Even at the young tender age of twelve, Patsy realized that her voice didn't hold as much weight as a man's. And, when as an adult she eventually arrives in a land where she supposedly assumed she could be free to be who she wants, she's advised that she should find a man to marry. 

As a reader, you begin to question whether your life is yours. Do you have exclusive rights to it? Do your wants take away from the wants of anyone else? As humans we don't live in isolation. Our lives are a tapestry that weave along with members, friends. In Patsy's case, she has a child. 

So Nicole Dennis-Benn's novel is a narrative beyond Patsy. It's also the story of five-year-old Tru, who is left behind. How does that impact her life? She suddenly has to leave the home and family she's known her whole life, and move in with her dad and stepmother and their sons. 

Tru believes that her mother will come back for her, and that they both will have a wonderful life in America. But as years pass by, and there is not as much as a phone call or a letter from her mother, it's hard for the reader not to despise Patsy's choices. For Tru, being teased at school and at home, we question how that is at all fair. This was not a life that she chose for herself. It was a life that was inflicted upon her and she had to adapt the best she could. 

But that's what life is about, isn't is? We all have to adapt to the cards that are dealt for us. As Nicole Dennis-Benn suggests life is indeed messy, and perhaps labelling it right or wrong, is an oversimplification that should only be reserved for the naive. 

Nicole Dennis-Benn's Patsy boasts some wonderful prose. She's able to draw you into different worlds and situations seamlessly, and make you feel empathy for that moment. 

There is a beautiful juxtaposition of storytelling. While you want to feel hopeful for Patsy as she pursues her dream, you are transfixed with the situation going horribly wrong for Tru. She cannot escape. She is stuck in a home with her stepmother and dad Roy, and their three sons. As the only girl and an outsider, she faces her own challenges and struggles to cope. 

In one scene, we are made starkly aware of the truth of her situation at home, when her stepmother Marva, on a typical Saturday morning is mopping the floors with Pine-Sol:

"Tru and her brothers are not allowed inside until she's done, and mostly because Roy must not be disturbed. Tru and her brothers are slapped when they disturb him. He's the man of the house and must be treated as such -- with respect and attention. His opinions are regarded as important and must be met immediately, even if Marva has to drop whatever she is doing. Morning and nights, she brings him his dinner and massages his shoulders with one of the oils she concocts herself."

Dennis-Benn addresses the right of a woman to want. To choose how she should live and love. And to not be held accountable for the choices that society has forced upon her. 

"Maybe you should start looking for an American gentleman to marry too." 
"What if I don't want to do dat?"
"Then, you'll always be illegal, genius."
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 may take a while to achieve them.

There are consequences to every action. Each one of our choices inevitably impacts someone else's choice. Who gets to decide how you live your life? How can we say it is selfish, when we also advocate for the freedom to choose. These are the dilemmas that Nicole Dennis-Benn ultimately wants us to decide for ourselves. Who are we to judge what's right and wrong. And if we ultimately sacrifice our wants, how is that right in helping a society progress forward. Patsy is a book that makes you angry, and sheds a hopeful lens towards things in society that also need to change.