By the time Naomi Jackson, a 34-year-old writer from Brooklyn, began studying at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in 2011, she’d already made significant headway on the novel that eventually became The Star Side of Bird Hill (Penguin Press). But she shied away from sharing it with her fellow students in workshops. “It was pretty personal. It was my baby,” she says.
The Star Side of Bird Hill centers on two young sisters, Phaedra and Dionne, who, in the summer of 1989, leave behind their native Brooklyn to live with their grandmother in Barbados. Jackson, whose parents are from the West Indies, drew on her memories of visiting Barbados and Antigua as a child. “I definitely experienced that cultural dissonance where you think that you’re really Caribbean, and then you actually go home to the Caribbean, and people think you’re very American. I wanted to work with that discomfort,” she says.
Even though she kept the book largely under wraps while at Iowa, Jackson worked hard to complete a first draft. In the summer of 2012, she traveled to Barbados to reexperience the island as a writer. While there, she spent time with a filmmaker friend who was scouting for shooting locations. “That was my best education when I was there,” Jackson says. “Just driving around Barbados a lot, spending time with people.”
The summer on the island proved fruitful. In the fall of 2012, Jackson sent a draft of the novel to Julia Masnik, her agent. The book was acquired by Penguin Press the next spring, just days after Jackson’s graduation from Iowa. Ginny Smith Younce, Jackson’s editor at Penguin Press, says she was “taken with the amazing authenticity of this place [Jackson] had created.”
Jackson, who will be returning to Barbados to launch The Star Side of Bird Hill later this year, says she’s gone from thinking of the island as a place where she “might spend some vacations” to thinking of it as a place where “I make art and connect with other artists. I think writing this book really helped me complete that transition, from child to adult creative person.”