The Star Side of Bird Hill

The Star Side of Bird Hill

by Naomi Jackson


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781594205958
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/30/2015
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.20(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

NAOMI JACKSON was born and raised in Brooklyn by West Indian parents. She studied fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was awarded the Maytag Fellowship for Excellence in Fiction to complete her first novel, The Star Side of Bird Hill. Jackson traveled to South Africa on a Fulbright scholarship, where she received an MA in creative writing from the University of Cape Town. A graduate of Williams College, Jackson has had her work appear in literary journals and magazines in the United States and abroad.

Read an Excerpt

The people on the hill liked to say that God’s smile was the sun shining down on them. In the late after­noon, before scarlet ibis bloodied the view of sunset, light flooded the stained-glass windows of Bird Hill Church of God in Christ, illuminating the renderings of black saints from Jesus to Absalom Jones. When there wasn’t prayer meeting, choir rehearsal, Bible study, or Girl Guides, the church was empty except for its caretaker, Mr. Jeremiah. It was his job to chase the children away from the cem­etery that sloped down behind the church, his responsibility to shoo them from their perches on graves that dotted the backside of the hill the area was named for. Despite his best intentions, Mr. Jeremiah’s noontime and midnight devotionals at the rum shop brought on long slumbers, when children found freedom to do as they liked among the dead.

Dionne Braithwaite was two weeks fresh from Brooklyn, and Barbados’s fierce sun had already transformed her skin from its New York shade of caramel to a brick red. She was wear­ing foundation that was too light for her skin now. It came off in smears on the white handkerchiefs she stole from her grandmother’s chest of drawers, but she wore it anyway, because makeup was her tether to the life she’d left back home.

Dionne was sixteen going on a bitter, if beauti­ful, forty-five. Although she thought herself above the things the children on Bird Hill did, she liked the hiding place the graveyard behind the church provided.

Dionne’s younger sister, Phaedra, played tag among the miniature graves of children, all casual­ties of the 1955 cholera outbreak. Nineteen girls and one boy had died before the hill folks abandoned their suspicion of the world in general and doctors in particular to seek help from “outside people.” This was just one of the stories that Dionne and Phaedra’s mother sum­moned as evidence for why she left the hill the first chance she got.

Phaedra and her sister arrived from Brooklyn at the beginning of the summer. Phaedra was small for her ten years. Her skin had darkened to a deep cacao from run­ning in the sun all day in spite of her grandmother’s protests. She wore her hair in a French braid, its length tucked away from the girls who threatened her after reading about Samson and Delilah in Sunday school. Glimpses of Phaedra’s future beauty peeked out from behind her pink heart-shaped glasses, which were held together with scotch tape.

Reading Group Guide

Dear Readers,
Thank you so much for choosing The Star Side of Bird Hill for your book club!
The Star Side of Bird Hill is the story of a family torn apart by loss and pieced back together by love. It’s the summer of 1989: Phaedra Braithwaite is ten years old and her sister, Dionne, has just turned sixteen when they are both sent from Brooklyn to Barbados to live with their grandmother, Hyacinth. Their emotionally fragile mother, Avril, can no longer care for them, so their grandmother takes charge. When the girls’ father arrives in Barbados with questionable intentions to bring them back to the United States, Phaedra and Dionne confront the question of whether they will continue living in Barbados or return home.
I wrote the novel in order to explore the question that dogged me as a child. “What if my parents sent me home and never came back for me?” I grew up in New York City, but my family traveled home often to the Caribbean. Sometimes my parents would drop us off for the summer as soon as school let out and joke that they might not come back for us. Writing Star Side was a way to explore that “what if” question.
I also wanted to examine what it feels like to identify strongly with a culture or country where you might be considered an outsider. I felt this way often, the dissonance of “feeling” Caribbean, while not being Caribbean enough when I traveled home to Antigua and Barbados. A lot of the book concerns who’s on the inside and who is on the periphery of a community through descriptions of the insular Bird Hill and characters like Phaedra, Dionne, Hyacinth, and Avril’s close friends, Jean and Mrs. Loving.
In this book you’ll discover one memorable matriarchal family. I hope that you’ll find something in their relationships and experiences that resonates with you. The book confronts a lot of the questions that are still relevant for me today. What does it mean to love someone as they are? How can we make space to acknowledge and forgive people’s shortcomings, including our own? What are the challenges and drawbacks of straddling two cultures? What is the purpose and place of religion in our lives? How does mental illness affect not only the person who is sick but also the people who love them?
Writing The Star Side of Bird Hill has been a bittersweet and exhilarating process. Over the course of the last six years since I first started writing the book, I have graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and worked on Star Side in cities as different as Brooklyn, Bridgetown, Iowa City, Philadelphia, and Cassis in the South of France. I also lost my grandmother, who lived in Barbados, and whose life, home, and sense of humor deeply informed the book. The best part of working on this book was spending an entire summer in Barbados writing and learning more about the island where my mother’s family is from. I have shared some pictures from my trip here.
I hope that you enjoy the novel, and that it will spark some lively and fun discussion in your book club!

Naomi Jackson

1. What compelled you to write this book?

I grew up in a predominantly West Indian neighborhood in Brooklyn and spent summers in Barbados (where my mother’s from) and in Antigua (where my father’s from) with my sister and a gang of cousins. It was in Barbados and Antigua that I first understood the trickiness  of the hyphen between Caribbean and American, that I could be as much an outsider there as in Brooklyn. I can remember being teased mercilessly for my Yankee  accent. During those long, hot days, I became a voracious reader, the first step towards becoming a writer. I wrote The Star Side of Bird Hill to explore these experiences and to examine issues that are important to me, namely family, mental illness, sexuality, religion. Writing the book was also a way to answer a question that always dogged me: What would happen if, like my parents sometimes joked, they sent me home to the Caribbean for the summer, and left me there for good?

2. How did your childhood straddling different cultures and geographies influence the book?

I definitely struggled with feeling like an outsider, not feeling Caribbean enough when I traveled home to Antigua and Barbados. Now, I have a better understanding of the material and experiential differences of living in the Caribbean vs. in the States, for example, the privilege of being able to travel on an American passport. I used to be bothered by the discomfort, but I have come to see my status as an outsider as a gift. It certainly has helped my writing. When I traveled to Barbados to research the book, being perceived as an outsider gave me an excuse to switch into “learning mode,” asking questions as I tried to understand the rhythms of speech and culture of Barbados. Being an outsider means that there’s little I take for granted; my unique perspective straddling cultures has trained my ear and eye to listen and look for what’s truly interesting and peculiar about a particular place.

3. You describe Dionne early on as “sixteen  going on a bitter, if beautiful, forty-five.” She’s exasperated with  her new home and acts out, yet her grief and anger toward her mother and grandmother run true and deep. She’s caught right in between childhood and adulthood—a moment in one’s  young life that is both  claustrophobic in experience and universally understood by anyone even a few years past it. Can you talk about getting into  Dionne’s head? Did you revisit your teenage years when developing her character?

With Dionne, I wanted to explore all the emotions at work inside her—grieving the loss of her mother, the discomfort of being unburdened of responsibility for her younger sister, missing her friends and life in Brooklyn, and feeling out of step with Barbados and her grandmother’s rules. I was an angst-ridden teenager, so I had plenty of material to work with when I was crafting Dionne’s character. I certainly drew on that experience when I was writing Star Side, and I think that anyone who’s survived their teenage years can relate to this book.

4. Phaedra, at ten years  old, adjusts more  readily, absorbing stories from Hyacinth and eagerly exploring her new home.  How did you imagine Phaedra’s experience of Bird Hill versus her older sister?

I have an older sister to whom I am very close, and I am always struck by how different we are and how differently we experience exactly the same events. Since Phaedra is a nerd with few friends back home in Brooklyn, she doesn’t have as much to lose in coming to Barbados. In fact, she comes to love her new friends, Chris and Donna, and finds solace in her grandmother’s  company. I imagined that a younger  child would  be more open to spending time with her grandmother and seeing the beauty and intrigue in new surroundings. For Phaedra, spending time in Bird Hill, where her mother grew up, allows her to feel closer to her mother, Avril.

5. Bird Hill is a real place in Barbados. How much  of the Bird Hill in your novel is informed by the actual place, and what was created through your writing and the eyes of the girls?

The real Bird Hill is in a community called Haggatt Hall in St. Michael, Barbados. My grandmother lived there, and I visited her there when she was still alive. I can definitely see the ways that the real Bird  Hill influenced the Bird  Hill of the novel, but there are important differences. The Bird  Hill in the novel is rural, and more reflective of the less developed place that I visited in the 1980s than the Bird  Hill that exists now. (For example, there’s a printing shop where there used to be a pig shed.) There are some sweet similarities though—my granny’s house really did have the words Why Worry? written on the threshold, there is a gorgeous grove of guava trees, and my grandmother’s beloved church still stands today, at the top of a slight incline.

6. In some ways, The Star Side of Bird Hill is about the myriad ways in which  families—parents, children, siblings, grandparents—struggle, all their lives, to understand one another.  How did you approach writing about this family?

Family is tricky. There can be so many misunderstandings and so much trauma bound up with our experiences of the first people who are meant to love us and keep us safe. I wanted to write a book that illustrated the complexity of one family at one moment in time, without coming to any easy conclusions about how they overcome the circumstances they find themselves in. In my personal life, I’m both close to my family and very aware of the hard work we have done (and continue to do) to maintain both our independence and our relationships to each other. With this book, I wanted to offer up some of what I experienced and figured out about family to people who were thinking and feeling through these things for themselves.

7. Why did you choose to set the book in 1989?

I had a variety of personal, political, and historical reasons for setting the book in 1989. The summer of 1989 was an important one for me personally, as it was the year that my sister and I began living with our father and stepmother after years of being raised by our mother. It was a radical shift after which nothing in my life was ever the same. More broadly, 1989 saw the election of David Dinkins as the first black mayor of New York City, a couple years before the Crown Heights riots. It was also the height of the AIDS crisis and AIDS  activism in New York City; 100,000 AIDS  cases were reported in the United States that year. My relationship to the Caribbean changed in the wake of 1988’s Hurricane Gilbert, which wreaked havoc across the region, especially in Jamaica. Setting the book in 1989 allowed me to feed off these touchstones in my personal life and in the history of New York City and the Caribbean. Finally, I wanted to set the book in the late 1980s because that was the Barbados that I visited as a child.

8. Avril sends Dionne and Phaedra to live with Hyacinth after  she can no longer care for them. Throughout the book, we see glimpses into their past lives in Brooklyn and how Avril retreated further and further into herself and Dionne took on the responsibility of caring for her mother and sister.  Can you describe your approach to writing about mental illness and how it is experienced by Avril and those who love her?

Writing about Avril’s mental illness was one of the things that I worked hard to get right. I wanted to make sure that readers would see Avril’s tenderness as a mother, her desire to do right by her children, and witness with compassion the ways in which she falls short of her best intentions. I wanted to focus less on diagnosis, medication, episodes, etc., and more on the children’s experiences of Avril’s illness—the ways that the girls are affected by her neglect and eventually forced to parent each other and themselves. I also wanted to show Hyacinth’s helplessness and regret in the face of her daughter’s illness and the distance between them. Overall, I was determined to show how families are affected by mental illness, and to show readers that people with mental illness are both worthy and capable of love.

9.  Tell us about Jean.  Why do you introduce him to readers through Phaedra’s eyes?

Jean is one of my favorite characters in the book, and I hope that readers will come to love him as much as I did. He’s one of Avril’s close friends, and I thought that Phaedra would try to work through some of her grief about her mother’s passing by spending time with people who knew her. I introduced Jean through Phaedra’s eyes because she’s kind, and curious, and therefore the character who was least likely to be judgmental of Jean, who is gay, and the son of a sex worker.

10. Back  in Brooklyn, “Dionne had learned from her mother that if you wanted to keep a man, he should love  you at least a little bit more than you loved him.” (p. 49) Tell us about Dionne’s relationships to the boys and men she meets in the book.

Dionne’s most important relationship with a man is the strained one that she has with her father, Errol, who abandons the family when she is still a child. At the risk of sounding corny, I think that Dionne is searching for her father in her flirtations and the relationships she has with boys. She dates a lot when she first arrives in Bird  Hill – there’s the son of the local pastor, Trevor, a boy she meets at the church picnic, Chad, and then a guy she meets at the Grand Kadooment Day parade during Crop Over. It takes her the entirety of the summer, and seeing the extent of her father’s failings as a man and as a parent, for Dionne to learn to stop grasping for sexual attention from boys, and instead to meet both the boys she likes and herself on the firm ground of friendship. It’s important to me that readers experience Dionne’s sexual awakening as a natural part of her growing up, rather than judge her.

11. Hyacinth signs the girls up for Vacation Bible School upon their arrival, because she believes “idle hands were the devil’s playground.” Religion and church activities are threaded throughout the novel—how do you feel religion serves our main three characters?

I grew up in a religious family, so it’s no surprise that religion shows up in the book. I was an acolyte in my Episcopal Church in Brooklyn, and my grandmother shuttled us off to Vacation Bible School (VBS) in Antigua. For a long time, I wanted to be a priest. For Hyacinth, the church is a way for her to connect with her friends and draw strength in the face of her trials, and VBS is a way to keep her granddaughters out of her hair and out of trouble. For Phaedra, prayer and hymns and the church are a way to draw closer to her mother. Dionne finds the church confining and prescriptive, though I imagine that her relationship to church and relationship might change as she grows older.

12. At the heart of the book is this unforgettable matriarchal family. What does it mean to you to create these earnest, hardened, funny, grieving, loving—in a word, complicated—female characters on the page?

I aimed to create characters who were every bit as complex as the women who raised me and the women who I have chosen as friends. I also wanted to pay homage to the matriarchal family structure that’s common in the Caribbean but often lamented for its lack of strong male figures. I think there’s  a lot to celebrate in the ways that knowledge and love and joy are shared within these families. I believe the book will resonate with anyone who’s had a complicated relationship with their sister, mother, or grandmother, or the place that they call home.

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The Star Side of Bird Hill: A Novel 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Arnora More than 1 year ago
Naomi Jackson's debut novel is lyrical, compelling and engrossing. Her command of the craft of storytelling is masterful and wondrous. I don't typically read this genre, but after reading her book, I can't wait until this brilliant author writes another tale. Don't! Enjoy.
BrandieC More than 1 year ago
The Star Side of Bird Hill is set primarily in Barbados, with occasional flashbacks to Brooklyn. I had expected this juxtaposition to play a significant role in the book, so I was disappointed to discover that the choice of Barbados as the novel's main setting serves merely to add a little exotic color to a family drama which could have taken place anywhere. There is nothing particularly wrong with this book, other than its very abrupt ending, but there is nothing particularly great about it, either. I don't regret having read a free ARC, but I would have felt that I wasted my money if I had purchased it. I received a free copy of The Star Side of Bird Hill through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.