Mention Naomi Jackson’s name to anyone who’s been on the local literary scene for a few years and you’ll elicit an excited, “Oh!” Readings she did while a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop are still talked about—the way she could quickly transport a room of listeners to a late night in a graveyard across the world.
Her debut novel, The Star Side of Bird Hill, published by Penguin Press in June, is the culmination of work she completed here and elsewhere. Set in Barbados and Brooklyn, it treats the diverse experiences of its characters with equal finesse and care—whether a teenage girl’s sexual experimentation, or her grandmother’s reflections on a life mostly lived—and moves between cultures, generations and place with captivating grace.
The recipient of a Fulbright to South Africa, Publisher’s Weekly recently named Jackson a “Writer to Watch.” She answered our questions while on her book tour, which brought her to Prairie Lights on July 20.
Your book tracks a family of women, the male members of which are not really present except in their absences. I found it thrilling to be so steeped in these female experiences. Was it a conscious choice to focus so much on women’s inner and outer lives, or did that happen organically?
I wouldn’t say that it was a conscious choice to focus on the women characters’ inner and outer lives, but this intense focus on women is certainly an outgrowth of my interests as a writer and a person. I think it’s fair to say that the book has a feminist impulse, by which I mean that I place a high value on the thoughts, feelings and experiences of women in my work.
I was also excited by the intergenerational perspectives you use. Each of the women relates to Bird Hill and its sense of home in different ways. The grandmother, Hyacinth, has lived there her whole life; her daughter Avril left for Brooklyn and remains fairly remote; and her ten- and sixteen-year-old daughters move between worlds with different attachments and ambivalences about each place. What made you tell the story this way, rather than just from one vantage point?
Establishing the best point of view for this novel was challenging. I started by writing in Phaedra’s perspective, and then I was writing the book from the perspective of the “hill women” in the community, and finally I settled on a shared point of view that allowed me to see Barbados and Brooklyn from the perspective of all the women in the family. As you confirmed, this storytelling device made the narrative truly intergenerational, and I think the book is a richer, more satisfying read because of this choice.
The book draws on many elements from your own life, including growing up in Brooklyn and spending time in Barbados in the late ‘80s. What was the work like of integrating these memoiristic aspects into the novel?
I wouldn’t characterize the book as memoiristic; it’s a work of fiction that shares some autobiographical territory with my own life but also veers significantly in other directions. I like to say that the most interesting things in the book didn’t happen to me. As with life, it’s complicated. I did grow up in Brooklyn and visit Barbados in the late 1980s, but, for example, my parents are alive, and I never got into half as much adventure and trouble as Phaedra and Dionne do in The Star Side of Bird Hill.
You worked on the book in a number of places, including Barbados, Philadelphia, and here in Iowa City during your time at the Workshop. Did that experience of relocation during the process affect a book that’s so much about place?
I did move around quite a bit while I was working on this book. I think that the world of this novel— and writing more generally—was a grounding, steady force in the midst of all the change and relocation I was experiencing. I’m reminded here of Maya Angelou’s quote, “home is between your teeth.” I can certainly relate to that, and I do think that there’s some meaning in the fact that this novel is so much about two places—Flatbush in Brooklyn and Bird Hill in Barbados—while I wasn’t anchored to a specific place.
The book deals so much with ways people speak and what that signifies about them, including where they’re from. Was it important to you to get those actual voices and accents and how they’re regarded onto the page?
You’ve touched the heart of what was important to me in the novel. Getting the accents, voices, and expressed emotions of the characters right was very important to me. I spent the summer between my two years at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop researching and writing this novel; much of this research focused on listening closely to how people spoke. I hope that the book reflects this attentiveness and care.
How does it feel now that the book’s been released into the world?
Surreal. Thrilling. Exciting. Nerve wracking. Weird. All of the above. Seriously, though, I’m really happy to have given the gift of this book to the world, and to engage with my readers about it.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 181