This summer, Naomi Jackson, a recipient of the Stanley Graduate Award for International Research, traveled to the island of Barbados to conduct research and continue work on her novel and MFA thesis project, which is set on the Caribbean island. In this reflection, Naomi shares her thoughts on the experience and the importance of her personal research to the final product of her first novel. (Photo, top left, credit: Sophia Wallace)
The research fellowship support through the Stanley Graduate Award for International Research was invaluable to the progress I made on my project. Over the course of the two months that I spent in Barbados, I was able to complete a first draft of my thesis project, a novel set in Barbados, Star Side of Bird Hill. The novel follows two girls, age 10 and 16 as they spend the summer in Barbados with their grandmother. The younger sister, Phaedra, is learning about her psychic inheritance from the women in her family, while her older sister, Deidre, is recklessly exploring her sexuality, seeking a tether in the wake of her mother’s absence. Their mother, who has a long history of mental illness, commits suicide back in Brooklyn, and the novel ends as the girls are faced with the choice of either staying with their grandmother or an uncertain future with their father back in the United States.
The greatest gift of the Stanley grant was uninterrupted time to write and to incorporate my ongoing learning about the culture and natural landscape of Barbados into my work. Over the course of my time there, I wrote 75 new pages of material on my project. With a rough draft of my novel completed, I am able to now work with my thesis adviser on edits. I am also planning to share the draft of the novel with literary agents who have expressed interest in my work. It was only the gift of being able to sit down at my writing desk every morning that made this possible. The time I spent in Barbados this summer was a crucial next step towards my goal of publishing my first novel.
As is often the case, I found the most valuable part of my research to be not working in the archives or reading articles and books, but getting out and talking to people.
Social interaction was particularly important on this trip, as one of the missing elements from the previous draft of my novel was the local dialect. It was in conversation with people that I was able to capture the cadence and phrasing of the way people speak, which I have in turn incorporated into my novel. I was able to attend several arts salons with contemporary writers and artists from Barbados, which gave me a connection to the local artistic community. I also connected with several scholars at the University of West Indies Cultural Studies department, including Michelle Springer and Aaron Kamugisha, who offered guidance on primary and secondary sources for my research on midwifery and obeah in Barbados. It was on an unexpected afternoon drive around Barbados there that I was able to take pictures and walk around Bird Hill, the community where my grandmother lives, and which inspired the title, landscape, and several themes in my novel.
Before I left for Barbados, I was unaware of how much work I needed to do in order to accurately see and portray the island’s physical landscape. I was fortunate enough to make friends with a local filmmaker, Lisa Harewood, who took me with her while she was location scouting for her short film project. These trips to the island’s parishes of St. Philip and St. George were crucial to my work, and directly inspired new chapters of my novel.
I am deeply grateful for the financial support provided by the Stanley Award. My project would not have been completed without it, as the funds from the program underwrote my trip, including my housing, air travel, and food expenses.
Update June 2015: Great news! Naomi Jackson is launching her debut novel, The Star Side of Bird Hill, on June 30, 2015. Star Side is featured on summer reading lists by the BBC, Huffington Post, Kirkus Reviews, Travel & Leisure, BuzzFeed Books, and in the current issue of Vanity Fair. A starred review in Library Journal concludes: "Recalling Toni Morrison's Love, this work will appeal to fans of African American and literary fiction." Naomi has also been included on a list of books by black women writers compiled by For Harriet. You can visit Naomi’s website for info about upcoming events related to the book launch, including workshops and a reading that will take place in Iowa City this July. Want the book? Here is a pre-order link.
The Stanley Graduate Awards for International Research are given annually to University of Iowa graduate students for the pursuit of international research/fieldwork and career interests. To learn more about these grants and how to apply, visit here.