By Zach Berg, Iowa City Press-Citizen
Naomi Jackson knows better than anyone that Iowa City and Barbados don’t have a lot in common.
Born to West Indian parents and graduating from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Jackson has spent a great deal of time in both locations. Despite a disparity in similarity, the confluence of the two led to Jackson’s Barbados-based debut novel, “The Star Side of Bird Hill.”
Released on June 30, the book has been receiving praise from the likes of NPR and Entertainment Weekly. The Center for Fiction, the New York non-profit that has been promoting American fiction since 1820, nominated the novel for its 2015 First Novel Prize.
But as a newer writer, Jackson can’t yet rest on her laurels. She’s on a book tour, promoting the Caribbean coming of age story at bookstores across the country. On Monday she’ll read at Prairie Lights Books, in the city that helped shape her as a writer.
“It’s a very surreal experience to have something you worked on privately for years to have a public life,” Jackson said during a phone interview from Williamstown, Mass. “People talk to me about my work and see my work in a completely different way.”
Set during the summer of 1989, “The Star Side of Bird Hill” features sister duo Dionne, 16, and Phaedra, 10, as they spend a summer in Barbados with their grandmother, Hyacinth.
While the book is filled with lyrical depictions of beautiful beaches and vignettes of growing up, Jackson wraps her novel around tropes of mental illness and depression.
The real reason Dionne and Phaedra are in Barbados is because their mother, a nurse who works with Brooklyn-based AIDs patients, can no longer balance work, her mental illness and raising her children.
Naomi Jackson will read from her debut novel, "The Star Side of Bird Hill" at 7:00 p.m. on Monday, July 20 at Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City.
“I’ve spoken to some writers and we felt many are stepping up to edge and no one is going anywhere with mental illness in fiction,” Jackson said. “Writing this book, it felt like jumping off the cliff.”
While there are seismic events in the lives of the two young sisters in the latter pages of the book, Jackson said she felt the best way to give an honest reflection of the rippling effects of mental illness was to “show the every day impact of mental illness” on her characters.
Early in Jackson’s novel, when the sisters hear their mother, Avril, could be headed to Barbados, there’s no celebration, just a hug and silent tears. Jackson said that while she’s quite close to people who do suffer from mental illnesses, her first novel remains a work of fiction.
“The most interesting thing in this book didn’t happen to me,” Jackson said.
Still, Jackson has led an interesting and far-flung life herself. Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Jackson spent summers in Barbados as a kid. She graduated from Williams College and then got a M.A. in Creative Writing in South Africa from the University of Cape Town after accepting a Fulbright scholarship
After working in non-profit world for nearly a decade, she came to Iowa City and studied fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop from 2011 to 2013.
“Iowa City just loves writers. I’d go to the co-op and people wouldn’t ask me if I was a writer, they’d ask what genre did I write,” Jackson said. “It’s such a supportive literary community.”
Work on “The Star Side of Bird Hill” started years before her stint at the Writers’ Workshop, in December of 2009. After receiving the Stanley Graduate Award for International Research grant from UI, Jackson was able to take a summer off from studies at the workshop return to Barbados for the summer to research and write.*
“Iowa and Barbados have very little in common,” Jackson said with a laugh. “But seeing the difference helped me recognized what made Barbados special: the dialect, the colors, the heat, the food.”
By December 2013, her first novel was complete, but her connection and loyalty to UI and the Writers’ Workshop was not.
During the spring semester, Jackson taught a distance-learning course for UI’s International Writing Program that included 20 females from Bahrain and Jordan via online video conferencing.
For the class, titled “A Room of One’s Own: Developing the Authorial Voice,” Jackson taught young female writers how to establish their own voice.
“It’s the miracle of the Internet that we were able to speak, teach and learn halfway across the globe like that,” Jackson said. “I can tell you this: American writers are going to have a run for their money if those women are any indicator of what’s going to come from the Middle East literary-wise.”
In the midst of her summer book tour, Jackson will return to Iowa City to teach. As part of the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, she will teach two classes both centered around helping adults finish their long-gestating works.
“I really like teaching adults. They generally are taking a risk emotionally just by being there. Some have traveled very far, taken time off, arranged someone to watch their kids,” she said.
While in Iowa City, Jackson knows she’ll see many of the people that helped shape her voice as an author. While it will be nothing like spending a summer in Barbados, she said she will enjoy a week back in Iowa City.
“There’s a lot of enthusiasm for literature in Iowa City,” Jackson said. “I love being in a city that loves the written word as much as I do.”
Read Naomi's reflections written for UI International Programs on her experience conducting research in Barbados on her Stanley Graduate Award for International Research.