Writer Naomi Jackson worked on her debut novel, The Star Side of Bird Hill, across years and continents—bringing the story from city, to island, to graduate school in Iowa.
Thirty-five-year-old Jackson has always “dipped in and dipped out” from the Caribbean islands that she considers second home to Brooklyn, where she was raised by West Indian parents. Bird Hill is set in both the borough and Barbados, where sisters Phaedra, ten, and Dionne, sixteen, are annexed for the summer to stay in a small village with their grandmother, Hyacinth. The unnamed mental illness of Avril, the girl’s mother, has taken grasp of all three women, and her suicide guides the book’s formative summer. Perspectives seamlessly shift between the three female protagonists, from Phaedra’s tweendom to Dionne’s teendom and into Hyacinth’s old age as she reflects on her life as a midwife and practitioner of obeah, a specifically West Indian kind of folk magic. Each moment of girl and womanhood is captured lyrically, with critical realism, humor, and pangs of pain.
Bird Hill’s vibrant details took inspiration from the “incredibly powerful” Caribbean women in Jackson’s family whose lives laid the foundation to her understanding of the world. “I feel like that only my name is on the cover of the novel seems a bit disingenuous,” she said. “All these women’s stories helped write the book.”
The novel, originally released in June 2015, was longlisted for NBCC John Leonard Prize and the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. Its cover, featuring artwork by Sheena Rose, made Bird Hill an NAACP Image Award Finalist.
The Rumpus: “Women’s fearsome power” rules this book—why were two sisters chosen as characters?
Naomi Jackson: What’s really exciting and interesting about family—sisters in particular—is the ways that love and cruelty rub up against each other. You can have two family members experiencing exactly the same thing and they have completely different impressions of what’s happening: different reactions, or different ways that they draw strength or power, or deplete it, different ways of coping.
Two sisters at two different life stages, ten and sixteen, allowed me to explore a lot of different viewpoints, rather than just having one child’s relationship to the experience, the mother and the grandmother, and all of the things that get thrown at them over the course of one summer. I have an older sister, but I wouldn’t say the sisters in this book are me and [her].
Rumpus: It’s a formative summer for three different women in three different stages of their lives—four really, if you count Avril’s middle-aged depression. You address womanhood from so many angles. How did your characters derive from real people?
Jackson: My blessing and my curse is that I’m an empath. I’m really interested in other people’s stories. If I were just relying on the room upstairs in my head and my own experiences, I wouldn’t have finished this book. It came out of the experience of talking to lots of women—my mom, my grandmother, my sister, other women my age. Really, just having a keen eye to the way women carry themselves in the world.
One of the most formative things, for me, is my relationship with one of my grandmothers here in New York. She’d had a car accident, and so was kind of down for the count, but interested in telling her stories. I found myself compelled by thinking about, in your eighties, what are the stories that you always want to tell, that you always come back to? What are the things you regret? I’m not sure that those stories showed up in the novel, per se, but there was a certain kind of worldview that I felt like I was able to sink my teeth into by spending as much time with her as I did.
Rumpus: Hyacinth, especially, moved me. She’s still charged with memories of hot sex in her marriage and at one point, doubts her faith in God. Did you fear she’d slip into “wise old lady” territory? How did you keep her from going there?
Jackson: I didn’t want her to be that! I grew up with my stepmother and my mother, I have three grandmas and they’re all really different. I knew that this whole thing—older women being completely de-sexed, always faithful and perfect and kind of innocent—was not true.
The older women I knew were kind of raucous, badass, and interesting, and occasionally really whiny and troublesome. There are no older women in my life who are doormats in any way. And the entirety of their life was never always focused on their children, either. Even as Hyacinth is accepting the second round of parenting with her grandchildren, I still wanted to dig into her memory and imagine a life for her beyond just being the mother of her daughter and then grandmother of her grandchildren. I wanted a 360-degree perspective of this woman. Looking at her from the inside, not looking at an older woman from the outside.
Rumpus: And you use Hyacinth’s voice to break news of Avril’s death—we never meet her. In your drafts, was she ever alive and in the present?
Jackson: It took me three years into writing the novel to write that scene where Hyacinth speaks of her daughter’s death because I was so scared to write it. Something about writing that particular scene freaked me out. I can’t tell you the point at which I decided Avril “had to die,” but it was a really tough decision because I had so much compassion for her. It felt important to the arc of the story that she wasn’t an option to take care of them anymore, and Hyacinth was really going to be the last woman standing, in terms of having a relationship to these children.
Rumpus: Throughout the book there’s a running reminder of the power of destiny—at the start of the book, when Phaedra finds out that Avril tried to abort her, Hyacinth says, “What must be born, will be born.” Did this idea drive your writing process?
Jackson: I’m interested in the ways that destiny and fate sometimes seem to control our lives, and then the places where we have choices in spite of that, to direct the flow. I toy with all kinds of things [like] astrology—I just had a palm reading last night—and I wouldn’t say I’m obsessed with the occult but I am really interested in this question of fate and destiny, and whether or not we can move away from things that are meant for us. Can we destroy a destiny that is meant for us?
Phaedra was born over the odds of her mother trying to get rid of her, but also Hyacinth tries to disengage from the long legacy of women in her family who have been midwives and obeah women. There are moments in the book where you see characters who seem like they’re hurling towards a certain kind of destiny and then they step to the left. Dionne seems like she’s going to end up a teenage mom, or strung out, but she has the opportunity to redeem herself and move in another direction.
Rumpus: We carry what we’re born into, too—heritage, and its importance, is omnipresent. Dionne resists it fully for the majority of the book, before Hyacinth gives a strong monologue about their ancestors, who were enslaved.
Jackson: In the workshop in Iowa, we read an excerpt of the novel when I believe I was trying to skirt the destiny and everyone said, you can’t do that. That scene came out all in one rush out of frustration with the novel. In a way, I was writing that scene to affirm myself of my own strength as a writer, and I had Hyacinth tell the reader the story that I needed to hear in that moment: I could persevere and finish this damn thing. There were certainly moments, because there were so many drafts, that I was unsure of that.
I had the luxury of having lots of incredible readers along the way for this novel and there were moments when people said, each one of these girls needs the opportunity to be stronger and to be reminded of their strength and resilience. When Phaedra has that schoolyard fight and beats up Simone with mangos—that was one moment where a good friend of mine, an editor, said, Phaedra needs a moment of strength.
Rumpus: And for Dionne, it takes a deep wound—actual bleeding—to feel that.
Jackson: You know, I think I believe that. Some people learn by watching other people get wounded, and it’s enough to see people up on the road ahead fall down and say, okay, I’ll take a different path. Other people who are super headstrong—myself included—need to be deeply wounded before they move in another direction. I felt for Dionne, because that’s the way I tend to learn. I wanted to write a scene were we can feel the wound, then the attempt to repair it.
Rumpus: Avril’s mental illness shapes her daughters’ personalities—their anxieties, especially. You switch perspectives from character to character and it’s so effectively done through language. Dionne is resigned, Phaedra is very much the younger sibling. Why was it important to serve these dual perspectives?
Jackson: It goes back to wanting to write these women—young women, some of them—from the inside out. In Dionne’s case, she’s way more bitter than a teenager should be in terms of her relationship to love. Her expectations are extremely low and if anything, she expects pleasure, but not on the solid ground of true understanding and depth. It would be impossible to show that from the outside and by the end of the novel, I wanted the reader to feel that they knew them very intimately: they’d sat and had a drink on the gallery with Hyacinth, they’ve been in the back of the bus with Dionne on the way to the church field trip, that they’d run across Bird Hill with Phaedra and her love interest.
The most effective way to see a richer perspective of the world that they were in is to write from each one of their perspectives. The truth of the matter is, most people say you can’t do that. One perspective, or [people say] you have to write these chapters where you have a character’s name and you know that they’re speaking. I eschewed all of that because I had confidence in my own ability to write these characters really strongly and my reader’s ability to follow the emotional texture. I followed my own way of thinking, figured it out as I went along. If it feels subconscious for the reader, it certainly was that way for me. It was a very intuitive process.
Rumpus: For a book that is centered on a suicide, I’d still describe it as charming.
Jackson: It’s funny, for a book centered on mental illness and family dysfunction. I think there’s both rain and sun inside of it, which I think is how life is lived. It’s never all bad. I knew readers would not hang on if I was like, everything sucks.
Rumpus: More than just suicide, there’s heaviness from AIDs, homophobia, child rape—those are big turns in the book. Did these emerge as part of the progress of building full lives for your characters? Did the year, 1989, drive these?
Jackson: I was trying to understand Avril’s relationship to her friend Jean and I wanted to make the most of the year, so I thought [about] the social issues of the time. I knew that Avril was a nurse, but I hadn’t imagined her as a nurse during the AIDs crisis. When I made that choice, something turned on—kind of in the same way that happened when the older kids showed up to rescue Phaedra. When the question of AIDs and the work of Caribbean caregivers during the crisis showed up, it gave a level of dimension to Avril and her relationship with Jean and her relationship with New York City. It wove itself into the fabric of the book.
Rumpus: It works as a touch point to show the vast differences between Barbados and New York City, and how far away they must’ve felt for Phaedra and Dionne.
Jackson: Sheena Rose, who did the cover art, said that she knew I’d really nailed what Barbados was like in that period of time because there’s a small detail where I say that the television screen turned blue after a certain hour and the programs went off. I wanted to match that some of those details—the Guess jeans Dionne is wearing that she has on layaway—to make it feel like 1989 was rendered with detail on both sides of the water.
Rumpus: Dionne’s hair is especially representative of how much can change in a short period time, too.
Jackson: By the end of the book, to have her hair literally falling out in clumps… it’s a really far fall from the beginning, when she was obsessed with having her makeup correct and her clothes were tight. Presentation had to be just so. By the end of the novel, I felt it was important to chart some of her evolution through her body and through the distance from the girl that she was when she came to Barbados. I don’t think it’s a great thing to have one’s hair falling out, but to have her ease up on some of that pressure on herself is not necessarily bad.
That Hyacinth is still here—she’s still alive, she’s still available to mother this new set of grandchildren is a beacon of hope. We have hope that she’ll be able to impart some of her wisdom on Dionne especially, because she’s in such desperate need of it.
Rumpus: Was writing Avril’s unnamed mental illness—and its effects on her family—intimidating in any way? Have you gotten feedback from others about your portrayal?
Jackson: I wanted the reader to focus not on her diagnosis but on the way that her illness was ricocheting within the family. Part of what’s so difficult in a culture where people are so uncomfortable talking about mental illness—not just Barbados, but in America—it’s so easy to think that you’re the only person whose family has ever dealt with this. Specifically, the people who were the children of mentally ill folks who had to take on roles of surrogate parents, they tell me this book spoke to their experience in a way they’d never seen before. Lots of different people—interviewers, book club organizers—have said, I had a schizophrenic mom, or a bipolar dad, or a grandfather whose mental illness we never talked about, and reading your book made me feel like I was a little less crazy. That feels gratifying, that it was worth the hard work.
The book came to life in December 2009 in Brooklyn. It came alive at home; Brooklyn’s home for me. I claim the Caribbean—not just Barbados, but also Antigua and Jamaica—but those are kind of second homes that I get to dip in and dip out of. The heart of home for me is Brooklyn. I started that novel in December ’09 and within a year I got really obsessed with it and went to Hedgebrook and I was working on it in the summer of 2010 when I decided to apply to grad school. I did this crazy thing and moved from Brooklyn to Iowa to do the Writer’s Workshop, then Philly, then I don’t even know. France. Barbados. I spent the summer in Barbados in between my two years in Iowa, so I guess the only constant has been me.
There’s a great Maya Angelou quote—and I hope I’m not misquoting, like that horrible stamp debacle—and I think she said “home is between your teeth” and I certainly learned that across the journey of writing this novel.
Author photograph © Lola Flash.