The Star Side of Bird Hill: A reading by Naomi Jackson

Naomi Jackson, photo by Tyler Joe
Naomi Jackson, photo by Tyler Joe

By Sara Johnson Allen

Author Naomi Jackson, who was named one of Publishers Weekly’s “Writers to Watch,” told the audience gathered for her Saturday afternoon reading that the Key West Literary Seminar provided her with a unique opportunity to ­be with both her peers and her heroes. “It’s like my heroes got up off the bookshelf and are walking around,” she said.

Jackson read from her book The Star Side of Bird Hill, which was longlisted for the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize and the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, along with several others.

The book’s adolescent protagonist Dionne and her sister Phaedra are spending the summer at their grandmother’s house in Barbados where their mother has sent them from New York City. Jackson read a scene from Dionne’s 16th birthday party in Barbados.

Setting up the excerpt, she said, “These kids spend a lot of time in the graveyard, which is not that unusual for the Caribbean.” It recently occurred to her that this was likely influenced by Jamaica Kincaid’s novel Annie John during a scene when a girl walks along a grave in a cemetery.

Jackson’s reading simultaneously illustrated the pain and humor of adolescence and the romantic expectations and desires of different female characters. The audience laughed at the description of growing-up-fast Dionne in a conservative “frock” made by her grandmother, one of many moments which encapsulated the in-between moments of adolescence.

In Jackson’s reading, her rich descriptions included “lenses as thick as breadfruit,” “gold thread in the shape of a question mark,” and a sign in the church that reads, “Happy Birthday, You Children of Christ,” all of which brought to life the world the two sisters find themselves.

The reading was also punctuated by powerful lines and revelations: “Attachment is a precursor to disappointment;” “It was like the earth remembered them.”

Jackson concluded her talk with a short essay she published in Tin House in 2016, entitled, Minding The Gap: On Sex & Love & the In-Between. In it, she shares an honest look at casual sex and relationships and how it feels to not be “cut out for this sort of thing” when you are in your “30s, 40s and 50s” living alone. “We have sex and reconsider the old school term lover. . . We hold out for something necessary.”

Jackson is currently working on her next novel, a multi-generational Caribbean-American saga beginning in the 1930s entitled, Behind God’s Back.

Sara Johnson Allen is a writer and professor who lives in Ipswich, Massachusetts. When she is not grading papers or chasing after her three kids, she likes to write about ‘place’ and how it shapes us.

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