Debut Novel from Naomi Jackson

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Photo taken by Lola Flash

Naomi Jackson studied fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Jackson traveled to South Africa on a Fulbright scholarship, where she received an M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Cape Town. A graduate of Williams College, her work has appeared in literary journals and magazines in the United States and abroad. She is the recipient of residencies from the University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers House, Hedgebrook, Vermont Studio Center, and the Camargo Foundation.

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The Star Side of Bird Hill, a debut novel from Brooklyn native, Naomi Jackson, irresistibly coaxes readers into its bittersweet story. The novel follows two sisters, Dionne and Phaedra, in their first summer away from their home and their troubled mother, Avril, in Bird Hill, Barbados. While the girls’ grandmother, Hyacinth, the town’s midwife and healer, struggles to instill some discipline in the lives of her granddaughters, the girls pull farther away, particularly the oldest, Dionne. Both of the sisters are tested when their father arrives in Bird Hill to claim them.

I was interested in this book because of the stark cultural shift that the sisters are pulled into when they move to the Caribbean. I was gripped by this story, which was one of journey and of rediscovering one’s identity. The time period in which The Star Side of Bird Hill is set, the late 80s, also provides an important reminder of the 1980s AIDS epidemic in New York City. The novel also touches on the treatment (or lack thereof) of mental illness and sexual identity, all while told through the charming lens of two feisty Brooklynites out of their element. And if you’ve got a travel bug but are missing the means to escape, The Star Side of Bird Hill can be your vehicle to a tropical island.

Naomi was kind enough to answer a few questions on the book, which she will be reading from tonight at Greenlight Books with Tiphanie Yanique.

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Much of The Star Side of Bird Hill involves the two sisters attempting to figure out who their parents were/are amidst the contradictory sources of their grandmother, their father, and the people of Bird Hill. What interested you in setting the novel mostly in the point-of-view of the two sisters?

I think that the complexity of the bond between two sisters who are related by blood but have profoundly different experiences of their families and themselves is a rich starting point for a novel. I didn’t set the novel in these sisters’ point of view initially. The POV started with a much wider camera angle (on the women of Bird Hill, who I call “hill women” in the novel) and then over time it became more squarely focused on Phaedra, Dionne and their grandmother, Hyacinth.

How did you manage to “get in the head” of the younger sister, Phaedra, who is still very naive about many things?

For many years I was writing a terrible novel that was told in first-person by a little girl named Phaedra. I found writing in first person about a young child very challenging, even after studying many novels that did so successfully. I settled on a third-person close narration that helped me to get close to Phaedra, not exactly in her head, more like on her shoulder. This allowed me to get around some of the limitations of first-person as well as to spend time writing from Phaedra’s sister’s and grandmother perspectives, as I also use third-person close narration for their characters.

I thought that choosing to write about two girls’ sexual awakenings was a fitting choice for a novel set in a stricter religious culture. I thought that Dionne’s character was particularly poignant, in how she tries to take care of her baby sister and pretend as though she’s in control of her life. What drew you to this polarizing moment in two girls’ lives?

I was raised in a deeply religious family and community whose rules and values were in stark contrast to the world around me. So, I was aware of the ways in which kids who’d been accustomed to a more permissive culture in America might buck against the strictures of a tight-knit, almost fundamental community in Barbados. I wanted to write my way into that conflict through the stories of these two girls who are straddling two very different cultures.

“Phaedra was starting to understand how you could become someone else, even if you didn’t intend to at first. She never imagined she’d be milking goats every morning and throwing boomerangs in the field behind Ms. Zelma’s house with Christopher in the afternoons. The shape of her new life surprised her, and even though it had only been a little while, Phaedra already found herself becoming a girl from Bird Hill; she could feel herself shedding the armor she needed in Brooklyn.”

The Star Side of Bird Hill

What made you interested in writing about mental illness?

Members of my family struggled with mental illness. I also grew up among West Indians who were profoundly suspicious of mental health diagnoses and care. I was very frustrated by the way that cultural mores stood between the mentally ill folks in my life and the care and support that they needed. I was also outraged by the deaths of two Jamaican and Jamaican-American women who were mentally ill—Shereese Francis who was killed at the hands of NYPD officers in 2012, and Esmin Green, who died in 2008 after severe neglect at Kings County Hospital in 2008. I didn’t read any books that tackled mental health in black communities head on until Bebe Moore Campbell’s 72 Hour Hold. I was inspired by Campbell’s book and related advocacy for mental health issues before she passed in 2006. I felt that writing honestly about this issue was an important way to lift the veil on a conversation about mental health that is often hushed and avoided altogether in Caribbean communities. I felt I was uniquely equipped to change hearts and minds by telling a nuanced, complex story about mental illness and how it affects Caribbean families.

Have you witnessed much, or any, Obeah, that informed your portrayal of Hyacinth?

No. I wish I could say that I had, but my portrayal of Hyacinth is a product of research and my imagination.

Did you feel that there was a lack of representation of Caribbean voices in mainstream fiction when you were starting out as a writer? 

There’s a rich tradition of writing from the Caribbean, including writers like Jamaica Kincaid, Paule Marshall, Edwidge Danticat, Junot Diaz, Tiphanie Yanique, Marlon James, Nalo Hopkinson, Lauren Francis Sharma, and Kei Miller. There are many excellent writers who are based in the Caribbean, such as Karen Lord, a fantastic Barbadian writer of speculative fiction, and Vladimir Lucien, who won the OCM Bocas Prize for Literature for his poetry collection, Sounding Ground. I was recently at the Bocas Literary Festival in Trinidad, and was impressed by the quantity and quality of the talent showcased there; four books of poetry and fiction were launched by Trinidadian writers on the last day of the festival – Lisa Allen-Agostini, Andre Bagoo, Rhoda Bharath, and Sharon Millar. When I was starting out as a writer, I had many of these authors’ works to look to for inspiration and guidance, and I’m thrilled to be part of a renaissance in Caribbean literature that’s happening now.

Jumping off from that question, do you have any response to comments about a perceived homogeneity in MFA programs?

Too many MFA creative writing programs are characterized by a lack of diversity within their student bodies, which is a reflection of both admissions practices and the economics and politics of who is able to afford to take two or three years away from family and work obligations in order to pursue an MFA degree. Roberto Ferdman addresses this issue in his 2014 article for The Washington Post. (See also Junot Diaz’s article “MFA vs. POC,” which appeared in the introduction to Dismantle: An Anthology of Writing from the VONA/Voices Writing Workshop before going viral upon publication in The New Yorker.) 

I went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which has been decidedly more diverse under the leadership of Lan Samantha Chang. I don’t think that you could classify my novel as a “workshop” or “Iowa” novel. I’m a writer working it out sentence by sentence, and writing in a long tradition of literature by writers of color from around the world. I am certainly grateful for my MFA degree and the opportunities it has afforded me, but I’m also aware of both my privilege and the work I had to do to find my voice before I started at the Workshop.

When I was starting out as a writer, I had many of these authors’ works to look to for inspiration and guidance, and I’m thrilled to be part of a renaissance in Caribbean literature that’s happening now.

Who are some writers you draw inspiration from? 

I read many coming-of-age novels featuring girls as I was writing this book. Among them are Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John, Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, June Jordan’s Soldier: A Poet’s Childhood, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, and Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming. Reading Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? was a great boon as I was working on the mother-daughter relationship in my novel. I enjoy rereading Shay Youngblood’s Soul Kiss. I will always have a special place in my heart for some of the books I read as a child, including Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Beverly Cleary’s Ramona & Beezus, and E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web.

What was your favorite part of writing this novel?

Probably the best part of writing this novel has been hearing from a wide variety of readers who are excited about this book. After having written this novel in solitude, I’m glad to see the work find its way into the world, and to engage with people’s thoughts about it. I’m encouraged to hear from readers who find power and strength in the coming-of-age story as well as the complicated family narratives. It’s always great to hear from Caribbean-American folks and black women who see themselves and their families in this novel.

What would you like your readers to take away from this novel?

I hope that readers will relate to the characters and the story. I also hope that readers will find peace or reconciliation with the difficult things in their own lives and families.

Are there any other projects you’re working on at the moment?

I am working on a second novel, a multigenerational family saga set in Brooklyn and the Caribbean from the 1930s to the 2000s. I am also working on a screenplay adaptation of my short story, “Ladies.”

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If you would like to see Naomi read from her novel in person, you can attend her reading tonight at Greenlight Books in Brooklyn at 7:30 p.m.

You can buy The Star Side of Bird Hill from your local bookseller.

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Find more profiles of excellent feminists here.

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