By Gabrielle Bellot
The Star Side of Bird Hill, by Naomi Jackson
(The Penguin Press, ISBN 9781594205958, 304 pp)
Too Much Makeup, from the Sweet Gossip series, by Sheena Rose
From the moment Naomi Jackson’s beautiful but restrained debut novel begins, we enter a space of uncertain transnational identity: a place where the questions of what it means to be from the Caribbean, what it means to be American, and what it means to trace your roots come together. Here is a novel about that essential but abstract notion of Caribbeanness, a story about growing up as girls in Flatbush, Brooklyn, versus being raised in the community of Bird Hill in Barbados, as well as a commentary on queer masculinity in Barbados. Through these themes, Jackson’s novel joins a long tradition of other transnational Caribbean texts about women who visit or move to or from the West Indies and learn something about themselves: Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow, Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory, Andrea Levy’s Small Island. But whereas a text like Marshall’s can succumb at moments to a kind of mysticism that risks creating tropes of the Other, Jackson’s novel feels real, feels like a text in which two girls from New York and their Bajan grandmother, all of whom one might very well encounter outside the novel, are learning the reality of learning about others.
The Star Side of Bird Hill opens two weeks into a journey. Dionne and her younger sister Phaedra have travelled from New York to Barbados to visit their grandmother Hyacinth, whom the girls know almost entirely from their mother Avril’s stories. When the book begins, Dionne, who for much of the novel is a rebellious, self-searching teenager — Jackson describes her as “sixteen going on a bitter, if beautiful, forty-five” — has already undergone a change in how she looks. Her foundation is now “too light for her skin” because “Barbados’s fierce sun had already transformed her skin from its New York shade of caramel to brick red,” a reference to makeup that echoes the novel’s unforgettable cover image by the Barbadian artist Sheena Rose, Too Much Makeup.
For Dionne, through a large portion of the book, appearance is almost everything. She wishes to fit into the new community of girls she finds in Bird Hill, she wants boys to desire her, and she wants to be a standout, a leader. Her grandmother Hyacinth is more conservative, rebuking Dionne for what she wears, where she goes at night, and the language she uses. Phaedra, who also wants to fit in, but learns earlier than her sister what group she thinks she belongs with, often argues with Dionne and is closer to Hyacinth’s model for a proper young lady — but Phaedra, too, is learning about what it means to be attracted to boys, what it means in turn to be attractive, and how it feels to be the American in a Bajan community.
Meanwhile, Hyacinth, who has rarely seen or heard from her daughter Avril since she left for New York, feels a kind of additional maternal responsibility to raise the girls and teach them about where their mother came from, about family. Avril’s distance — she herself has not come to visit — is, of course, what spurs on Dionne’s sense of rebelliousness. While some of these tensions are commonplace in coming-of-age narratives, they are an almost constant source of interesting conflict between the sisters and Hyacinth and the wider communities of girls and boys Dionne and Phaedra try to connect with.
When the sisters learn dramatic news about Avril, what was supposed to be a summer trip becomes a relocation of homes and identities. Dionne, who alternated between dismissing Bird Hill and wanting recognition from other Bajan teenagers, suddenly finds herself less certain of who she is, and Hyacinth, despite her anger and sorrow at Avril’s distance from her family, begins blurring the line between being the girls’ grandmother and a kind of surrogate maternal figure. The tension is ratcheted up when the girls’ absent father, Errol, suddenly comes to Bird Hill, offering to take the girls back to America with him. Dionne and Phaedra differ in their initial responses to Errol and his offer, while Hyacinth is furious with him. The girls must finally make a big decision about who they are and who they wish to be closest to as family members. Each of our protagonists, in her own way, has a sort of coming-of-age arc.
Although the novel’s pacing can be a little slow at times, there is a lot of straightforward but engaging conflict here. The main characters, generally, are complex, attempting to find their identities and changing their views over time. But while, as the critic James Wood argues in How Fiction Works, “flat” characters are not necessarily worse or less humanlike than “round” ones, the flatness of Errol troubled me. I could see the trajectory the novel seemed to be setting up for him as a “bad” person, and it is difficult to find much to sympathise with in a character who seems to function primarily as a kind of villain. The novel’s later events do, ultimately, give the girls a new degree of distance from their past in America, but they also remove some potential conflict. And it is possible to make villainous, somewhat flat characters still ultimately come off with a bit of uncertainty about the contours of their identities and desires; I think here of the schoolmaster in Earl Lovelace’s novel of the same name, who is largely also a “bad” character, yet Lovelace briefly invests him with “roundness” by having him worry, almost childishly, what the people around him think of him. Still, there is much to enjoy and admire in Jackson’s novel, and these are minor considerations.
The language is generally spare and clear. At a few points, Jackson cuts a bit looser, and gives us a beautiful, sudden image or metaphor. The generally minimalist prose works well here, reflecting some of the text’s themes: the power of what is not said, the weight of contemplation, the quiet yet painful distance between the girls and the American world they grew up in. Caribbean literature, and especially explicitly transnational Caribbean writing, will always be polyphonic, open to many voices: the hyper-referentiality of Junot Díaz’s Yunior in The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the musicality and widely alternating lengths of Earl Lovelace’s sentences, the shifts between vernacular and standard English of Robert Antoni’s As Flies to Whatless Boys, the quiet, dreamlike imagery of Danticat’s Krik, Krak! Jackson’s debut novel, while more restrained than Danticat, seems to follow in the latter’s footsteps stylistically.
The Star Side of Bird Hill also contains a sympathetic and needed — if at times a bit on-the-nose — depiction of a queer individual. “Buller Man Jean,” Jackson writes, “was the one to whom most of the hill women turned to get their clothes sewn and, in a pinch, their hair done.” In much of the Caribbean, depictions of gay or gender-non-conforming individuals have a long history of resorting to crass stereotypes. While there is a growing literature of explicit queer representation in Caribbean fiction — Shani Mootoo’s Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab, for instance, features a transgender Trinidadian man, who identified prior to transition as a lesbian, as one of its protagonists; and Kei Miller’s Fear of Stones and Other Stories features “This Dance”, a short story about accepting oneself as a gay Jamaican — there is still a long way to go towards making such representations less marginal, more entwined into the multicoloured fabric of what it means to be Caribbean. As a queer transgender woman of colour, I was intrigued by Jean. It is an open secret that he is likely gay or bisexual; at the same time, the cognitive dissonance so common in many islands appears here, as Hyacinth refuses to allow Jean to be called a “buller man,” rejecting the idea that he is gay, even as it is a commonplace rumour. Jean is simply a member of the Bird Hill community for much of the novel, and Dionne, who is initially homophobic, learns to become more accepting as she realises that he is not the Other, but rather just another person.
At the same time, the novel turns Jean, by the end, into a foil for another character we are supposed to dislike. Jean is beaten while this character yells a homophobic slur; we are meant to feel sorry for Jean and angrier at the other character, who is largely irredeemable. Still, despite this predictable deployment, we see a terrible attack on a queer man, whose assailant justifies the beating with his homophobia. These depictions, harsh and humane, are important. Jackson has here begun to do what the Nigerian writer Chinelo Okparanta has done in her own recent debut novel, Under the Udala Trees — which is to write a text that, at least in part, casts a humanising gaze upon the LGBTQIA community of a place where same-sex intimacy and gender-non-conformity are still so often things that must not openly speak their names.
Although there are some flaws here and there, The Star Side of Bird Hill is a promising and enjoyable debut, as full of colour and curiosity as its gorgeous, unforgettable cover. Jackson’s next novel will be one to look out for.
The Caribbean Review of Books, November 2015
Gabrielle Bellot grew up in the Commonwealth of Dominica. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Guernica, Autostraddle, the blogs of Prairie Schooner and The Missouri Review, and elsewhere, and she was featured on The Butter’s “This Writer’s On Fire” column. She is a doctoral candidate in creative writing at Florida State University, and is working on her first novel.