Novelist Naomi Jackson leads a hyphenated life: Caribbean-American. She was born in Brooklyn, New York, and raised by West Indian parents—mom from Barbados, dad from Antigua, stepmom from Jamaica—in the predominantly West Indian neighborhoods of Flatbush and Crown Heights. And yet, frequent trips to visit the Caribbean were considered “going home.”
“This question of home is one that’s haunted Caribbean people for a long time, since so many have had to seek their fortunes outside of where they first grew up,” says Jackson. “The experience of migration and displacement is one that really defines the diaspora, and I think all of them struggle at some point with who am I, where do I belong, and where’s home? For me, growing up in the States but not really feeling Caribbean enough when I went back home to the Caribbean—I definitely felt the trickiness of the hyphen between ‘Caribbean’ and ‘American,’ and I still do, to a certain extent.”
In her bighearted debut, The Star Side of Bird Hill (June 30), Jackson explores the dichotomous nature of home through the lives of her characters. It’s the summer of 1989 when sisters Dionne and Phaedra Braithwaite arrive from Brooklyn at Bird Hill, St. John, Barbados, for a holiday with their grandmother, Hyacinth. The indeterminate visit is intended to give their single mother, Avril, a nurse, the time and space needed to recover from severe depression.
Getting to know Bird Hill and their grandmother, a midwife and obeah woman who heals neighbors’ ills with potent roots, is a wildly divergent experience for Dionne, 16, and Phaedra, 10.
“I think of Phaedra as really a seeker and supercurious about the world around her. Inquisitive might be another word I’d use to describe her,” Jackson says. “Her heart and her mind are wide open to Bird Hill: what can this place show me, and where do I belong? Whereas Dionne shows up with a serious side-eye for her surroundings. She’s over it before she’s even stepped off the plane in Barbados—surly is probably a good word—though she’s actually one of those people who’s prickly on the outside but quite tender beneath.”
Dionne seems poised for flight, flouting Hyacinth’s rules, running around with boys, and staying out all night. Meanwhile, her younger sister effortlessly puts down roots, milking the goat and accompanying their grandmother on house calls: “The shape of her new life surprised her, and even though it had only been a little while, Phaedra already felt herself becoming a girl from Bird Hill; she could feel the protective layer she needed in Brooklyn molting with each passing day,” Jackson writes.
When cataclysm threatens to make the move permanent, they’ll both need Hyacinth’s help to cope. She’ll show her granddaughters that they’re not solely a product of place but of a people—a long line of fierce, resourceful women. “That is the people you come from, child. Not a sad-sack kind of people that does sit down and let life blow all the air out they chest,” Jackson writes.
“[Dionne and Phaedra] are incredibly resilient,” Jackson says, “but I also think there’s magic and prayer that make it possible for them to be still standing at the end of this book, still looking forward to the future with some hope and optimism.”
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York.