Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn
June 2019, W.W. Norton & Company
Nicole Dennis-Benn’s Patsy follows ten years in the life of its titular character, who leaves Jamaica in the late nineties to embark on life as an undocumented migrant, working first as a bathroom attendant, then a cleaner, then a nanny in New York City. This is not the vision of freedom that Patsy had for her life, and we follow her disappointments and struggles as she comes to terms not only with her new “invisible” status, but also with her guilt and shame surrounding her unwillingness—perhaps inability—to be an effective mother to her daughter Tru, whom she has left behind. Patsy cuts off all contact with her daughter until near the novel’s close, and not before Tru almost dies. We’re uncertain if these two women’s paths will ever reconverge, and if Patsy will ever resume the role of “mother” in her child’s life. The novel encourages its readers, though, to rethink our understandings of motherhood as natural and sacred.
Patsy’s motivations for migration are complex, but chief among them is not what we have come to understand as emblematic of south–north migration, nor indeed of motherhood. Patsy leaves not so much to “provide a better life” for her daughter as to follow the love of her life, her school friend Cicely. Patsy hopes to renew her relationship with Cicely, a relationship more meaningful to her than that with her mother or daughter. She wants, more than anything, to be free of the social and familial imperatives of heterosexual femininity and motherhood. These needs, at least in the immediate term, supercede those of her daughter. However, having left Jamaica in order to rid herself of the constraints of poverty, duty, and “respectability,” Patsy ends up alone and vulnerable in an alien country. There, she must wrestle with the knowledge that she has left all of her ties behind for an illusion. We see her come to terms, in this narrative, with the “sin” she has committed against her daughter: abandoning her motherhood for the fool’s promise of freedom in exile.
Dennis-Benn’s second novel explores the tensions inherent in imposing motherhood onto a body that is queer, female, and Black—simultaneously hypersexualised and undesirable—and poor. These tensions (and their effects on Patsy’s family) are not resolved by her migration but compounded by her further marginalised position in the shadow economy of the so-called “free world.” Alongside Patsy’s refusal to mother is her daughter’s refusal to perform her gender: Tru, a tomboy, matures into a body that frustrates her desires. She struggles—and fails—to find examples of womanhood with which she can identify, that she can recognise and be recognised by in return. While Tru’s sexuality and gender expression are not the direct result of her mother’s struggles—of which the young girl, then young woman, is unaware—by queering this relationship between estranged mother and daughter, Patsy provides us with parallel complications for thinking about gender, family, sexuality, and motherhood in and around the Caribbean through the matrix of late capitalist migration.
Patsy had little if any choice in becoming a mother—abortion remains illegal in Jamaica—and she does not see her baby as a blessing. She is forced to carry Tru to term after her first pregnancy (the result of having been raped by her stepfather as a child) ended in stillbirth. Patsy’s own mother turns a blind eye to her daughter’s trauma, and Patsy, ill-equipped for motherhood and bereft of a supportive community, can only bring herself to care for her child temporarily until she can flee to the United States to be with Cicely forever. The US, for Patsy, represents freedom from what Adrienne Rich has identified as “institutionalised motherhood” and “compulsory heterosexuality,” imperatives that not only deny Patsy her girlhood, but stifle her womanhood under “the frozen glance of female elders.”
On the outside, Patsy performs her “compulsory heterosexuality” as second nature—she has a child for whom she provides; she has a “good” job despite not having a university degree; and she appears to not have many boyfriends. No one knows about her and Cicely, and Patsy’s sexual relations, until quite late in her life, are matters of urgency; they obey imperatives (whether hers or others) rather than fulfil desires. This perversion of her sexuality further obstructs her love for herself, for her child, and for other women. In exchange for this so-called “freedom,” Patsy is chastised, indeed cast out, for hoping to be more than a mother, even before she has the chance to act on her desires. In her community, sexuality—much less same-gender sexuality—is taboo. Patsy must suppress in order to survive, and when she chooses to stop pretending, she is rejected again, this time by the love of her life who, now a wealthy, kept woman, is more invested in maintaining the “good life” than she is in rekindling the flame that Patsy alone seems to have been carrying. Patsy must reckon with the realisation that her dream of a life with Cicely, “the one private thing that has kept her alive for years,” is dead. Cicely has sublimated her dreams (to be a nurse, to be with Patsy) in service to her husband and son, a choice of which she is ashamed, but which she defends (to the point of shoving Patsy away from her husband, while he is beating her). Patsy pays another great price—this time, the (albeit false) promise of real love—for refusing to surrender her dreams of complete personhood.
With great irony, Patsy, after refusing motherhood for several years, becomes a better mother to strangers’ children than she ever was to her own child. This alien atmosphere allows her to renegotiate an alternative motherhood: undocumented, Black, and unqualified, Patsy becomes the type of “mother-in-training” that she could not be at home. Through her eventual relationship with her partner Claudette, she learns to forgive herself and reconnect with Tru; as Claudette tells her, “you won’t be able to earn yuh dawta’s forgiveness by jus’ trying to do what people expec’ you to do.” It is not until she almost loses her child that Patsy can attempt to tell her daughter that she sacrificed so much because she loved her; that it is “more selfish when you don’t consider what’s best for the person you love.” Patsy, who had been too ashamed to meet her daughter’s eyes, takes ten years to admit to her that as “a young woman on the brink of defeat” she “owns nothing. Not her dreams. Not her life. Not herself.” Patsy had been ashamed of what she understood about motherhood; had she stayed at home, she would have only been able to offer her child a motherhood, a womanhood, of “repression and resentment.” Having refused to measure her worth by external rubrics of femininity and motherhood, Patsy believed that she was an aberration, and as such could not be an effective mother. As a poor Black working woman who did not have a choice in her motherhood, Patsy still struggles with and for a freedom that she does not quite attain. However, she slowly comes to reject—if even as the result of tragedy—her final words to her daughter, “be a good girl,” as a prison sentence, an unrealistic ideal that perverts the personhood of all the women in this narrative.
Like her mother before her, Patsy chose not to see her daughter as an individual, but instead to reinforce the same oppressive femininity she gave up so much to escape. When she broke the news to Tru—particularly that she would not be bringing Tru with her to the United States—her fears about her motherhood had come true; the last time Patsy sees her daughter Tru’s face is closed, “as though she has already figured out that promises are merely sweet lies.” Mother and daughter come to a resolution of sorts, and Patsy is provisionally brought back into the fold from afar, but the severity of the damage that results from their ten-year separation is difficult to overestimate. Patsy may become a better mother, and there is hope that Tru will be allowed the space to become herself, but the narrative leaves these as questions, not conclusions—it does not provide any kind of manual for motherhood.
With all this speculation, however, what Dennis-Benn’s narrative provides is a complex exploration, without a tidy solution, of the restraints of motherhood on those who are not equipped to assume this responsibility—indeed, it leaves readers to wonder what this equipment may look like. Moreover, Patsy questions whether motherhood, as we understand and practise it now, is always healthy for those of whom it’s expected. This mother and daughter—who are differently queer, differently “suspect”—highlight the limits of modern motherhood, the directions in which it can grow, and the entry points into its destruction as an institution.
Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn
JANELLE RODRIQUES is an assistant professor of English, at Auburn University, Alabama, where she teaches courses on Caribbean and Black Atlantic fiction. She has recently published a book on Obeah and West Indian literature with Routledge. When not working, she can be found asleep or in a coffee shop. Alas, she does not like cats.