Words by Kendra Dennis
Photos by Lola Flash
It’s mid July in Brooklyn, and the weather has finally got the memo. The sun is high in the sky, and it seems everyone in Park Slope is out soaking up the comfortable breeze before Mother Nature decides to change her mind. Turning into local restaurant Bareburger, I begin to scan the faces of anyone who may look like she’s named Naomi Jackson, I approach a Black woman, her lightened locs twisted in a neat updo, adorned with gold-caged accessories. and a beer in hand. Yup, this was my girl.
A Flatbush native born to a Bajan mother and an Antiguan father, Jackson recently published her debut novel, The Star Side of Bird Hill, a coming-of-age story centered around two young sisters from Brooklyn who spend a summer with their grandmother in Barbados, after their mother falls on hard times. Almost six years in the making, the book captures the essence of Barbados, describing the island and people in ways only someone with her particular experiences could. We spoke about her writing technique, the role Obeah plays in the Caribbean, and being able to give and receive love.
LargeUp: Tell me about your background, and how you got started writing.
Naomi Jackson: I was born and raised in Flatbush, and Crown Heights; Parents are West Indian, my mother is Jamaican—well, sorry, my mother is from Barbados, my step-mother is Jamaican, and my father is Antiguan. So I kinda had a pan-Caribbean mongrel experience growing up, um, which is kinda exciting ‘cause you get the best food, the best of all worlds. Except I didn’t get a language. [laughs] I’m like, “Where’s my Creole, or my Spanish, or my Dutch.” I grew up here in New York City, worked for maybe ten or so years after college, and then I went to Iowa Writers Workshop in 2011. That was my transition from working full time to writing full time. I’ve been working on this novel for about… five and a half, six years.
LU: I could totally see the quality, and the time spent, in the writing, and the description of the scenery, because I used to live in Barbados. I was like, “This is my childhood, Oh my God!” Have you lived in Barbados?
NJ: I did for a summer, when I was working on the book.
KD: Only someone who has lived there, can describe it so keenly.
NJ: That’s a high formal compliment for me, ‘cause I was really nervous. Like I was saying, I have that sort of mongrel experience. I was nervous about getting Barbados right, about nailing the accents. When I was there for the summer, I really was trying to research, but the fun thing about researching for a book is you’re just trying to hear how people talk, and see how they live. So, a lot of my research is just hanging out, driving around the island, asking lots of questions. Not having grown up there, I think, allowed me to look at it as an outsider would look at it, and really ask questions like, “Why do you say that?” or “Tell me more about this place.” I loved experiencing it for the first time with a real lens of discovery. It’s exciting.
LU: Tell me a little bit more about the character Phaedra, because she was very interesting.
NJ: When I first began writing, it was from the perspective of a young girl, whose name was Phaedra. I was writing a completely different novel for about four years. And then I scrapped it, in part because I couldn’t write from a child’s perspective. When I changed the perspective, so that it was looking at [young sisters at the center of the book] Phaedra and Dionne and the grandmother, I felt I had a more well-rounded book. And it felt easier to write. Phaedra is amazing to me because, she’s just wide open to Barbados—she’s like, “I wanna know everything; I wanna learn everything” but she still has her, like snark, you know; She doesn’t really put up with a lot of B.S., she doesn’t like silly girls, she’s a boss at Bible verse memorization [laughs]. So, she’s a really interesting character in that she’s both wide open to Barbados but also very self possessed, even though she’s only 10 when the book opens. I really liked her, ‘cause she’s kinda feisty, but very tender at the same time.
LU: One thing that I noticed throughout the novel was, that there was a perpetual confusion of love. Everyone had a different idea of what it should look like, instead of accepting what someone else is giving them.
NJ: Yeah, that’s such a beautiful way to talk about that ‘cause I feel like this confusion about what love should look like and these discrepancies between the love we’re offered and the love we want is really deep, right? That’s like where all major conflicts in life stem from, the distance between what we think we deserve, and the love we actually get. I wanted to show that Avril was capable of both giving and receiving love even though she was kind of compromised by the things happening in her life. I wanted to show that Dionne was searching for love in all these different places but not necessarily able to find it, because of her circumstances. One of the biggest and most important things to me was not to just draw a novel about specific characters, but to draw a novel that was about a community.
LU: And you did just that. So, the building of Avril’s character, when we’re reading, we’re trying to figure out what exactly happened to her, but you never really say. Why was that?
NJ: I wanted the reader to fill in the blanks. I felt like I spent so much time filling out Phaedra and Dionne and Hyacinth’s characters. The book is actually written in third person, but it’s close at different points of the book to each one of those characters, so I felt like three people was more than enough to hang out in the heads of [readers]. If I was to introduce Avril’s character with the same level of specificity as the two kids and the grandmother, we would start to feel all over the place.
I wanted to situate the book really squarely in the summer they spend in Barbados, and have some flashbacks where we get to see the kids and Hyacinth and relationships with Avril, but never really in her point of view. And I wanted to talk about the ways we get people wrong; and the fact that Phaedra, Dionne and Hyacinth have such different understandings of who the mother is, and such different relationships with her—even different levels of grief about her passing. People have asked, “Was she depressed?” or “Can you talk more about her prognosis?” I actually think it’s more interesting to leave that. I’m not a doctor, not a therapist, but I do know what people look like when they’re struggling. I wanted to draw attention to mental illness, but not get so caught up in diagnosis and treatment and labeling that we weren’t able to see the person, and the people around her, and how they were affected by what was happening.
LU: I really like the fact that you added roots in this and Obeah– things that we’re taught are bad.
NJ: I wanted to play with that because in the Caribbean, even though there’s a stigma attached to non-Christian spiritual practices, it’s also true that a lot of people are doing both things. So a lot of people are going to church, and also going to the Obeah woman; a lot of people are getting readings, and also praying. I wanted to really portray the full spectrum of the spiritual experience as I knew it. I felt like it was important to show the complexity of our lives.
LU: And also very real—I don’t know any person from the Caribbean, who doesn’t have a tie to some sort of spiritual…
NJ: Yeah, I mean for better or worse, I’m a truth teller, so I like to look into the dark places. [laughs] And shine a light on them.