Naomi Jackson's The Star Side of Bird Hill is a lush and lyrical debut set in Barbados during the summer of 1989. Ten-year-old Phaedra and her 16-year-old sister, Dionne, are sent away from their home in Brooklyn to spend some time with their maternal grandmother, Hyacinth, in the Caribbean, but neither girl is quite prepared for what the summer holds in store. Jackson centers her tale around four women in the same family from four different generations and acutely sifts through the emotional landscapes of coming-of-age, claiming a cultural identity, grief and mental illness while including plenty of moments of brash humor and poetic insight.
We asked Jackson a few questions about her own ties to Barbados, her writing process, what she's working on next and more.
What was the initial inspiration for this novel?
I started this novel with just the opening scene of the novel, which features two sisters, Phaedra and Dionne, playing with their friends in a church cemetery in Barbados. I wrote The Star Side of Bird Hill to explore the lives and experiences of Caribbean people both at home and in the diaspora. Writing the book was also a way to answer a question that dogged me—what would happen if, like my parents sometimes joked, they sent me home to the Caribbean for the summer, and left me there for good.
I love the cover! Did you select the artwork?
I love the cover too! I met the cover artist, Sheena Rose, when I was in Barbados writing and researching my novel. A friend gifted me one of Sheena Rose’s paintings, “Too Much Makeup,” when I graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and it hung above my desk as I finished the book. I was so glad that my publisher was open to and excited about my idea of featuring the painting on the book cover. I wrote about the cover story for Lit Hub.
Much like Dionne and Phaedra, you grew up in Brooklyn with West Indian parents. Have you spent much time in the Caribbean as a child, and did you travel to Barbados during your writing process?
I grew up in a predominantly West Indian neighborhood in Brooklyn, and I spent many childhood summers in Barbados (where my mother’s from) and in Antigua (where my father’s from) with my sister and a gang of cousins. I spent the summer of 2012 in Barbados researching and writing this novel. I found spending an extended period of time in Barbados to be really helpful. I felt that there was no substitute for listening to people talk and seeing the landscape with a writer’s eye and curiosity.
Did your characters surprise you at any point during your writing process?
When I began this novel, I was telling the story from the perspective of the younger sister, Phaedra. I broke a number of rules in fiction by eventually choosing a roaming point of view that jumps between Phaedra, her sister Dionne, and their grandmother Hyacinth. I was surprised by the ways in which choosing multiple perspectives enriched the novel, and I was taken aback by how much the other characters had to say.
Depression and mental illness have large roles in this novel. Why was it important for you to openly and honestly explore this topic?
I wanted to write a book that honestly tackled mental health in black communities head on, like Bebe Moore Campbell’s 72 Hour Hold. I was inspired by Campbell’s book and related advocacy for mental health issues. 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.
As a graduate of many prestigious writing programs, what’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve received so far?
Aside from writing, do you have any other creative outlets and pursuits?
I enjoy the other creative arts—the visual arts, music, dance and theatre. I also love watching films; ideally, I get to see a few films each week.
Who are some of the authors that you turn to for inspiration?
Shay Youngblood, Marlon James, Tiphanie Yanique, Jamaica Kincaid, Sherman Alexie.
What are you working on next?
I am working on my second novel, a multigenerational family saga set in Brooklyn and the Caribbean from the 1930s to the 2000s. I am also writing a screenplay adaptation of my short story, “Ladies,” with Barbadian filmmaker Lisa Harewood.
Author photo by Lola Flash