Naomi Jackson launched her debut novel The Star Side of Bird Hill last week at Greenlight Bookstore. The novel explores two sisters from Brooklyn sent to live in Bird Hill, Barbados, when their mother can no longer care for them. She discussed the novel with Tiphanie Yanique, author of Land of Love and Drowning.
Yanique begins the discussion by asking Jackson about the cover of the novel. Jackson is responsible for having chosen the image, a painting by Barbadian artist Sheena Rose. While Jackson worked to complete the book, the painting hung over her her and she came to believe it would make the perfect cover. Authors of course often don’t design their covers. “I’m persistent,” she said.
The novel focuses on young people dealing with issues of coming of age leading some people along the way to refer to the novel part of the Young Adult genre. For Jackson, it was a major surprise that the book is considered to straddle the genre. She isn’t put off by the comparison. She likes Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, a young adult book that is literary. “I read a lot of coming of age books while I was working on it,” she says. She also said that young people end up experiencing very intense emotions.
Mental illness is a major part of the novel as well, something Yanique says Caribbean people something struggle to articulate the problems of. Jackson says the goal of a writer is to make the most beautiful book possible, but agrees that Caribbean people need to talk about mental illness more. She believes people need to talk about how mental illness impacts families and she hopes the book offers a way to open up opportunities to talk about those issues.
The book begins in a graveyard. The importance of the graveyard is to look at the intimate relationship of life and death. “Life and death are right next to each other,” Jackson says. “I see life and sex and death as all related to each other.”
While writing the book, Jackson struggled to keep up her momentum. “I’m someone who has a love affair with beginnings,” Jackson says. The middle took her much longer though because writing about death every day challenged her. Eventually she had to create an outline of the book and that helped her finish.
Jackson didn’t set out to write about Barbados. She did want to deal with something having to do with her own story. She describes the characters as really “Flatbush girls,” meaning the neighborhood in Brooklyn where she grew up.
While Jackson has traveled to Barbados and she has a sister, the book is a novel. The characters she says are composites of the people she knows. Really, the characters are her. “My soul is the one in every single one of these characters,” she says.