author – activist – faculty – mom
When I got pregnant, suddenly I saw pregnant women and babies everywhere. Similarly, now that I have a book coming out, I see debut novelists everywhere. Over the last year, I have been noticing black women debut novelists in particular. Last year, I interviewed Toni Ann Johnson about her first novel. This week, I have the pleasure of interviewing Caribbean-American novelist Naomi Jackson, whose debut The Star Side of Bird Hill was just released.
Aya de Leon: Tell us a little about yourself. What island(s) are your parents from?
Naomi Jackson: I was born and raised in Brooklyn by West Indian parents and spent several childhood summers at home in the Caribbean. I like to say that I’m a pan-Caribbean mongrel – my mother is from Barbados, my Dad is from Antigua, and my stepmother is from Jamaica. All of these places influenced my writing.
Tell us about the book. What was your inspiration, or the thought or idea that bugged you so much you had to work it out in a novel?
The Star Side of Bird Hill is a coming of age story set during the summer of 1989 in Barbados. It follows two sisters – Phaedra, 10, and Dionne, 16 as they spend the summer with their grandmother Hyacinth after their mother can no longer care for them. The characters in this novel showed up one day and demanded that I pay them attention. I worked on the novel’s opening scene for several months, and the book began to take shape over the next few years.
How long did it take for you to write it?
I started writing this book in December 2009. I finished the final draft in December 2013. So it took about four years from start to finish. The last few years have been focused on getting the book (and myself) ready for publication.
I see that it’s set in ’89. Are you an age contemporary of your characters? I have a couple books set in the 80s, and that’s my go-to decade of the past. If it’s not set today, it’s set back then. Could your book be set today? If so, why did you pick ’89? What is it about the 80s that is so compelling?
I am a child of the 80s, and the summers I spent in the Caribbean were in the 80s and 90s, so the Barbados of this book is in part the Barbados I remember visiting as a child. I don’t think that my book could be set today as so much about the island has changed over the last twenty-five years, and so many historical events that mark the time period this book is set in (for example, the AIDS crisis) have really evolved.
Can you speak to the deep and ongoing relationship between Brooklyn & the West Indies? I was in an area of Port of Spain, Trinidad & was like, OMG, this is just like being in Brooklyn! (except everyone is Trini).
There is a deep symbiotic relationship between New York City (and other diasporic outposts like London and Toronto) and the Caribbean. I affectionately refer to Flatbush, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, as being “all West Indian all the time.” Most of the kids I grew up with there had families like mine—blended, intergenerational clans that included children born in the States and people who’d recently immigrated alongside others who’d been in the States for 20 or more years. I was recently in Trinidad for the Bocas literary festival and felt at home there; there are parts of Port of Spain that feel familiar as well as some distinct differences (language, culture, landscape, music, etc.).
I’m intrigued by the inclusion of birth & your midwife character! Any comments about midwifery in the Caribbean and the US? I had my daughter at home w/ a black midwife, yet I see that this is an unusual choice these days, largely b/c it’s more expensive than a hospital birth if you have insurance…
Most of the people in my parents’ generation were born at home with midwives, and I heard lots of stories about my stepmother’s foremother who delivered babies in her country district in Jamaica. It was a vocation for her (she had other ways she made her livelihood) and she had deep networks within her community. She’d take whatever people could afford to give her to thank her for her work – food, sundries, and sometimes money. I drew inspiration from these stories when I was drawing the character of Hyacinth, the grandmother who is also a midwife. I’m not a mother myself, but while I was writing this novel, I was transformed by attending the birth of my sister’s child. I wanted to find ways to write about the truly awesome nature of that experience as well as the stories I’d heard about how people gave birth in the Caribbean before folks turned to hospital births.
I see that you’ve written about Edwidge Danticat’s work. Any comments about pan-Caribbean connections across Anglophone/Francophone/Hispanophone differences? My own Caribbean heritage is both British West Indian and Afro-Latina, so I’m always curious about other folks’ perspectives who engage more than one tradition. Obviously colonization has made arbitrary borders and lines, and each nation has its own history. Any significant ways in which non-Anglophone Caribbean traditions or writers have influenced you or your writing?
Since my native language is English and I have limited second language proficiency (I can read and speak muddled French and I know some Spanish I’ve picked up from living in New York), I’ve mostly read writers who are in English translation. I wish my language skills were stronger so that I could enjoy literature in more languages from the region. That said, I certainly have an affinity for writers outside the Anglophone Caribbean. Edwidge Danticat and Junot Diaz are two prime examples, and I’m very glad to see them speaking out about forced deportations of Haitians from the Dominican Republic. Other writers who’ve influenced me include Maryse Condé and Patrick Chamoiseau, Veronica Chambers, who I believe is Afro-Panamanian, as well as the Cuban writers Achy Obejas and Rachel Kushner, and the legendary Julia Alvarez.
Clearly your book engages a Here and There between Bklyn & Barbados. What are some of the Here and Theres of your life?
There are so many here and theres for me! I have traveled a lot in the last few years; this book was written in cities that couldn’t be more different from each other – Iowa City, where I spent two years at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; Bridgetown, Barbados, where I spent a summer researching and writing the book; Philadelphia, where I wrote the final draft; and finally, Cassis, France, where I reviewed copy edits and tied up a few loose ends. I also worked on the book at PowderKeg, a space for women writers in Brooklyn. I believe that Maya Angelou said “home is between your teeth.” That’s certainly been true for me recently and likely will be for some time to come.
It takes so much to write a book! What are your practices and support systems to make it happen?
I’m glad you asked this question. Writing is a solitary act, but completing and publishing a book require lots of support. I have a rock star crew of people who I’m in community with, including my partner, family, friends, and other writers and artists. Staying grounded by making time for the folks I’m closest to has been an important ingredient in my happiness. In the most intense stages of writing and promoting the book, I’ve learned to make time for yoga and to allow myself small luxuries like the occasional cab ride.
Because your book deals with tough stuff in families, any comments on that?
Families can be tough. I hope that my book is a balm for people struggling with relationships with their families, and perhaps even a jumping off point for reconciliation.
What have been the biggest surprises (both +&-) about being a debut author?
I didn’t expect the novel to speak to so many different kinds of readers, and to be a source of both inspiration and connection for them. I’ve received a couple notes from readers who say that they were moved by my depictions of Barbados, and I’ve also met a few writers who say that they feel inspired by my work. I’m not sure why I didn’t expect this to happen, but this has been one of the more surprising and rewarding elements of the publication process.
What are you working on now or 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 working on a screenplay adaptation of my short story, “Ladies,” with Bajan filmmaker Lisa Harewood.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Thanks for this interview! I really appreciate your thoughtful questions and your support of me and my work.