The Star Side of Bird Hill: A Novel

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Discovering Ourselves: The Millions Interviews Well-Read Black Girl Glory Edim

Reading Well-Read Black Girl, an anthology of essays by Black women writers, is like finding your favorite books compiled in one place and then getting to see the radiance and sorrow and joy that went into their creation. Glory Edim’s book includes work by Jesmyn Ward, Marita Golden, Tayari Jones, Kaitlyn Greenidge, Dhonielle Clayton, Gabourey Sidibe, and Jacqueline Woodson, to name a few. Each contributor offers a personal account of her literary journey, how it felt growing up without Black characters on the page, and/or the joy of finding themselves mirrored in literature. They describe how their own reading and writing weaves into their larger community stories.

Before she published Well-Read Black Girl, Edim had developed an enthusiastic following of readers who eagerly lap up her book club recommendations and participate in her annual festival celebrating literature by Black women. I had the good fortune to catch up with her at Washington, D.C.’s Busboys and Poets. Glory had just come from visiting the elementary school where her brother teaches. The students there wanted to become writers, and sought her advice on finding literary agents (!).

Glory was appearing in conversation with acclaimed DC-based writer Marita Golden. Among a lifetime of marvelous literary contributions, Marita founded the Hurston Wright Foundation, which supports emerging and midcareer Black writers and preserves and disseminates the rich legacy of African American writing. Marita’s essay in Well-Read Black Girl, “Zora and Me,” is a poignant journey through her own literary maturation:

Like Zora I lost my mother at a young age and warred with a father I loved, it seemed, more than life. Like Zora I stepped over the ashes and debris of loss and struck out on my own, carrying grief and anger on my shoulders.Zora’s mother told her to jump at the sun. My mother told me that one day I would write a book.

Marita pointed out that book clubs are part of the Emancipation story. Following the Civil War, African-American women played a huge role in keeping books in print; books were an important social and economic force.

The Millions: Can you tell us how you got started reading and writing?

Glory Edim: My parents are Nigerian. They came here in search of a better life. I think about how life could have been completely different if they had taken a different path. I grew up in Washington, D.C., and being here is like a homecoming.

After my parents divorced, my father moved back to Nigeria, and we traveled back and forth every summer. Those travels are so much part of who I am.

My mother was a huge influence. She took us to the Smithsonian museums. She would ask us to find a painting that we would like to put on our living room wall and have us talk about it. She took us to all kinds of D.C. cultural events. D.C. was our playground. She read to me every night. Reading aloud is to witness ourselves.

I went to Howard University and was incredibly inspired to be around so much Black excellence in a space that was like love. A big part of my book is trying to recreate the feeling I had at Howard.

After Howard, I worked at the Lincoln Theatre in D.C., where I saw many wonderful plays, and began to think about dialogue in novels. That work made me think about what pulls a reader into a book. What generates an emotional response? I found that it’s important to think across art forms, and study great works of art for their structures.

TM: Tell us about the origin of Well-Read Black Girl, the persona.

GE: My partner gave me a tee shirt for my 31st birthday that said “Well-Read Black Girl.” By then I was living in New York. When I wore it, all kinds of people stopped me to talk about books they loved and ask for book recommendations. The level of interest inspired me to start a book club. More than anything, I wanted to make connections and foster relationships. I saw that people in New York were craving community.

I have a special interest in debut novels. I invited Naomi Jackson to our first book club to talk about her debut novel, The Star Side of Bird Hill. She brought along her friend Natalie Diaz, an incredible poet who just won a MacArthur Genius award. Things went from there.

I was lucky to have a job at Kickstarter, which is filled with techies who read and are engaged in other creative pursuits. I was able to use Kickstarter to launch the Well-Read Black Girl Festival in 2017, which is a cultural event, meant to promote community.

Timing is everything. My work coincided with the start of the Black Lives Matter movement, and online organizing was catching on quickly. Social media is an important part of what I do. Still, there is nothing like holding a real paper book in your hand; there’s nothing like reading a book from the library. One reason for this collection is to take the conversation offline and onto the pages of a book.

TM: Readers are always interested in process. Can you talk a little about that?

GE: I read widely and deeply. I’ve always been curious about the stories of writers. Who inspired them to write? When did they first declare themselves a writer? Beginnings have a significance. In the anthology, we discover how it began for each writer.

When I read for the book club, I read both as a facilitator and as an editor. These are two different roles. I am a lover of art; I study how people put things together.

TM: How did you decide to organize your collection?

GE: I organized it according to my personal taste. I considered my own literary memories and pulled from there. The essays are meant to feel like a conversation. As I prepared to invite contributors, I returned to the pivotal work of Toni Morrison, Cade Bambara, Zora Neale Hurston, and Audre Lorde. The essays I selected are heartfelt, precise, and genuine. Whether you are 16 or 65, I want the reader to be hit with a sense of nostalgia. My hope is that the collection encourages readers to share their own stories.

TM: How did you reach out to other writer/contributors and what was their response?

GE: I had a relationship with a majority of authors—as mentors, book club authors, or fans on social media. Each contributor was generous with their time.

TM: What’s next for you?

GE: You mean beyond growing our community?

I am working on a memoir with my mother. She was severely depressed while I was in college. The whole family came together to help her. Since this was a deeply private experience for her, she is the only one who can tell that story. But it is so much about my family’s legacy that I hope to get it on the page.

I’m always reading. Have you read Dr. Imani Perry’s Looking for Lorraine? It’s about author and playwright and activist Lorraine Hansberry. It’s a must read!

A Brief Caribbean Reading List

Among the string of islands known as the Lesser Antilles lies St. Lucia, famous for the picturesque twin volcanic peaks—Gros Piton and Petit Piton—that rise sharply from the sea. Beyond the beaches and lush rainforests that draw tourists are the simple villages and remnants of a colonial past that inspired the Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott.

Reading Walcott’s poetry is akin to walking the streets of his childhood, beneath fragrant frangipani trees, brushing up against the hybrid languages and people. Walcott’s work—an ode to the island where he was born—is intimately tied to St Lucia.

Like Walcott, these four Caribbean writers celebrate their complicated homelands. Setting aside what’s been in the news of late—flippant, dismissive comments from politicians about Africa, Haiti, and by extension, the entire African diaspora—these four Caribbean writers take you to the heart and soul of Caribbean living, while tackling big issues—from natural disasters and their aftermath to mental illness and the underbelly of tourism.

Haiti
Recent news cycle aside, Haiti today is remembered for the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck near Port-au-Prince, taking nearly 300,000 lives. Katia D. Ulysse’s Mouths Don’t Speak takes readers back to the earthquake and its aftermath. With no word from her parents following the earthquake, Jacqueline Florestant presumes her parents died and mourns their loss. She returns to Haiti, which she hasn’t visited since she left 25 years earlier. Seen through the eyes of an expatriate, the Haiti of Jacqueline’s childhood is no more.

Along with the destruction of the country of her childhood, Jacqueline struggles with her husband’s battles with post-traumatic stress disorder from his stint in the military, deception, and more deaths of the people around her.

Far from the brutal regimes of dictatorship—one of the stories we read so often about Haiti— Mouths Don’t Speak tells a story of Haiti we don’t always hear. 

Barbados
“The people on the hill liked to say that God’s smile was the sun shining down on them.” So begins Naomi Jackson’s Star Side of Bird Hill, which follows two New York girls sent to live with their grandmother in Barbados when their mother can no longer take care of them. The two sisters, age 10 and 16, experience the Bird Hill community and Barbados through the lens of their Brooklyn upbringing. And through that lens, the “sea explode[s] her sense of wonder, especially when the dense tree cover gave way to the blue-blue water lapping against the shore,” and the “sea got gobbled up by the hotels and resorts, only peeking out between openings in the concrete.”

Before their exile, the girls are virtually on their own, with Dionne, the 16-year-old, standing in as mother to her younger sister. In Barbados, the girls are under the watchful eye of their grandmother, with Dionne trying to shake her grandmother’s grip and the younger Phaedra accompanying her grandmother—a midwife—to deliver babies and trying to get at heart of the mysteries of her mother’s life.

This coming-of-age story is a window into small-town island life and the interwoven lives of the many characters who inhabit Bird Hill.

Jamaica
The Montego Bay where Nicole Dennis-Benn’s Here Comes the Sun is set isn’t your typical tourist destination. Yes, there is a glitzy resort set apart from everyday life in Montego Bay, where Margo works and carries on late-night trysts with male guests to make extra money. And there is River Bank where Margo’s sister and mother live—a different world altogether from the manicured lawns and lush gardens in the resort areas.

Here Comes the Sun is a look at what sisters, Margo and Thandie, believe it takes to break out of the societal constraints into which they were born. Margo trades her body for money, which she saves to pay for her sister’s education and save her from a life similar to her own. The younger Thandi bleaches her skin to achieve what she thinks is the epitome of beauty and success.

And it’s a study of the courage to love without restrictions, as well as the hidden lives of the many employees away from the glitz of the resorts.

Trinidad
Lauren Francis-Sharma’s ‘Till the Well Runs Dry teems with forbidden love and the secrets that undo relationships. Sixteen-year-old Marcia Garcia meets a policeman, Farouk, of East Indian descent, who, in turn, seeks the help of an obeah woman to make Marcia fall in love with him. She does, but their marriage falls apart before it even has a chance to begin. Despite Marcia and Farouk’s failed marriage, they have four children together, and the children’s voices are an integral part of this family tale.

There are secrets, lots of them. Early in the novel, two children under Marcia’s care disappear without a trace. Not only is the fate of the two boys who could not have left on their own a mystery, but so is their parentage.

From Toco to Blanchisseuse, the villages are authentic places you can visit—from your armchair or in person—on Trinidad’s north coast. ‘Till the Well Runs Dry is a great primer of life near the north coast beaches.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

You Can’t Go Wrong With Heart: The Millions Interviews Jami Attenberg

I’d been hearing about Jami Attenberg’s latest novel, All Grown Up, long before it went on sale. Early readers loved it, and their praise produced a kind of roar across the Internet, one full of joy and ferocity. People were grateful for this story and this character: Andrea Bern, a single woman who doesn’t have kids, and doesn’t want them. When I finally got my hands on a copy, I saw what everyone was talking about; Andrea is like so many women I know, and yet, she is unlike most female characters in fiction. She is also more than her demographic (as we all are). Through a series of droll but big-hearted and compassionate vignettes, Attenberg depicts a profound and authentic portrait of a woman as she moves through this beautiful yet often unjust world. In All Grown Up, there is joy, loneliness, pleasure, despair, grief, hope, frivolity, and matters of great import.

Jami Attenberg is The New York Times bestselling author of five other books, including The Middlesteins and Saint Mazie. She was kind enough to answer my questions via email.

The Millions: All Grown Up is told in a series of vignettes about Andrea’s life — there’s one terrific, pithy chapter early on, for instance, called, simply, “Andrea,” about how everyone keeps recommending the same book about being single. There are a few chapters about Andrea’s friend Indigo: in one she gets married, in another she has child, and so on. Some are about Andrea’s dating life, and others focus on her family. I’m curious about how working within this structure affected your understanding of Andrea herself, seeing as she comes into focus story by story, but not in a traditional, chronological way. I also wonder what you want the reader to feel, seeing her from these various angles, some of which overlap, while others don’t.

Jami Attenberg: I made a list — I wish I could find it now; it’s in a notebook somewhere — of all these different parts of being an adult. For example: your relationship with your family, your career, your living situation, etc. And then I created story cycles around them, and often they were spread out over decades. As an example: what Andrea’s apartment was like when she was growing up versus how she felt about her apartment as an adult in her late 20s versus her late 30s, and how those memories informed her feelings of safety and security and space. A sense of home is a universal topic. And then eventually more relevant, nuanced parts of a specifically female adulthood emerged as I wrote, and little cycles formed around those subjects. So the writing of this book in terms of structure was really an accrual of these cycles.

The goal was to tell the whole truth about this character, and why she had become the person she was — the adult she was, I guess — so that she could understand it/herself, and move on from it. The fact that it’s not linear is true to the story of our lives. The moments that inform our personalities come at us at different times. If you were to make a “What Makes Me the Way I Am” top 10 list in order of importance, there’s no way it would be in chronological order. And to me they’re all connected. I’d hope readers see some of their own life challenges in her, and if not her, in some of the other characters, even if they happen at different times. Everything keeps looping around again anyway. (We can’t escape our pasts, we are doomed to repeat ourselves, we are our parents, etc.)

TM: In my mind, and likely in the minds of others, you lead an ideal “writer’s life” — you’re pretty prolific, for one, and you also don’t teach. You now live in two places: New Orleans and New York City — which seems chic and badass to me. Plus you have a dog with the perfect under bite! Can you talk a little about your day-to-day life as an artist, and what you think it’s taken (besides, say, the stars aligning), to get there? Any advice for writers who want to be like you when they’re all grown up?

JA: It took me a long time to figure out what would make me happy, and this existence seems to be it, for a while anyway. I’m 45 now, and I started planning for this life a few years ago, but before then I had no vision except to keep writing, and that was going to be enough for me. Then, after my third winter stay in New Orleans, I realized I had truly fallen in love with the city. And then I had a dream, an actual adult goal. I had two cities I loved, and I wanted to be in both. So it has meant a lot to me to get to this place. I worked so hard to get here! I continue to work hard. No one hands it to you, I can tell you that much, unless you are born rich, which I was not, and even then that’s just money, it’s not exactly a career. And I think the career part, the getting to write and be published and be read part, is the most gratifying of all. Unless success is earned it is not success at all.

My day-to-day life is wake, read, drink coffee, walk the dog, say hi to my neighbors, come home, be extremely quiet for hours, write, read, look at the Internet, eat, walk the dog, have a drink, freak out about the state of America, and have some dinner, maybe with friends. Soon I’ll be on tour for two months, and that will be a whole different way of living, though still part of my professional life. But when I am writing, it is a quiet and simple existence in which I take my work seriously. I have no advice at all to anyone except to keep working as hard as you possibly can.

TM: I’ve always loved the sensuality of your writing. Whether the prose is describing eating, or having sex, or simply the varied textures of life in New York City, we are with your characters, inside their bodies.  What is the process for you, in terms of inhabiting a character’s physical experience? Does it happen on the sentence level, or as you enter the fictive dream, or what?

JA: Well thank you, Edan. I’m a former poet, for starters, so I’m always looking to up the language in a specific kind of way. I certainly close my eyes and try to be in the room with a character, and inside their flesh as well, I suppose. I write things to turn myself on. Even my bad sex scenes are in a strange way arousing to me, even if it’s just because they make me laugh. It’s all playtime for me.

All of this kind of thinking comes in the early stages but also in my final edits of the second draft.  Most of the lyricism of the work is done before I send the book out to my editor. Her notes to me address the nuts and bolts of plot and architecture, and often also emotions and character motivation. But the language, for the most part, she leaves to me.

TM: My favorite relationship in the novel is between Andrea and her mother. It’s loving and comforting even though there are also real tensions and conflicts between them. Can you talk about creating a nuanced, and thus realistic, portrayal of mother and daughter?

JA: It is also my favorite relationship! I could write the two of them forever. I am satisfied with the book as it stands but would still love to write a chapter where the two of them go to the Women’s March together, and Andrea’s mother knits her a pussy hat and Andrea doesn’t want to wear it because she only ever wears black. I have pages and pages of dialogue between them that I never used but wrote anyway just because they were fun together, or fun for me the author, but maybe not fun between the two of them.

Their relationship really comes from living in New York City for 18 years and watching New York mothers and daughters together out in the world and just channeling that. These characters are very much a product of eavesdropping. I try to approach these kinds of family relationships like this: everyone is always wrong and everyone is always right. Like their patterns and emotions are already so ingrained that there’s no way out of it except through, because no one will ever win. But also there is love. Always there is love. And that’s how I know they’ll make it to the other side.

TM: This novel has so many terrific female characters, who are at once immediately recognizable (sort of like tropes of contemporary womanhood, if that makes sense) and also unique. Aside from Andrea and her mother, there is Andrea’s sister-in-law, Greta, a once elegant and willowy magazine editor who is depleted (spiritually and otherwise) by her child’s illness; Indigo, ethereal yoga teacher turned rich wife and mother, and then divorcée and single mother; the actress with the great shoes who moves into Andrea’s building; Andrea’s younger and (seemingly?) self-possessed coworker Nina. They’re all magnetic — and they also all fail to hold onto that magnetism. Their cool grace, at least in Andrea’s eyes, is tarnished, often by the burdens of life itself. Did you set out to have these women orbiting Andrea, contrasting her, sometimes echoing her, or was there another motivation in mind?

JA: These women were all there from the beginning — all of them. I had to grow them and inform them, but there were no surprise appearances. I never thought — oh where did she come from? They were all just real women living and working in today’s New York City, and also they were real women who lived inside of me. I needed each of these women to be in the book or it wouldn’t have been complete. And also I certainly needed them to question Andrea. For example, her sister-in-law in particular sometimes acts as a stand-in for what I imagine the reader must be thinking, while her mother acts as a stand-in for me, both of them interrogating Andrea at various times.

And also always, always, always in my work the female characters are going to be the most interesting. Most of the chapters are named after women. I had no doubt in my mind that I wanted a collective female energy to buoy this book. We’re always steering the fucking ship, whether it’s acknowledged or not.

TM: Were there any models for this book in terms of voice, structure, tone of subject? Are there, in general, any authors and novels that are “fairy godmothers” for you and your writing?

JA: Each book is different, I have a different reading list, but Grace Paley is my mothership no matter what, because of her originality, grasp of voice and dialect, and incredible heart and compassion.

As I began writing All Grown Up, I was reading Patti Smith’s M Train and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, and when I was halfway done with the book I started reading Eileen Myles’s Chelsea Girls. I was not terribly interested in fiction for the most part. I wanted this book to feel memoiristic — not like an actual memoir, that one writes and tries to put in neat little box, perfect essays or chapters, but just genuinely like this woman was telling you every single goddamn, messy thing you needed to know about her life.

Those three books all feel like unique takes on the memoir. Patti Smith just talks about whatever the fuck she wants to talk about, and Maggie Nelson writes in those short, meticulous, highly structured bursts, where you genuinely feel like she is making her case, and in Chelsea Girls Eileen has this dreamy, meandering quality, although she knows exactly what she’s doing, she’s scooping you up and putting you in her pocket and taking you with her wherever she wants to go. So all of those books somehow connected together for me while I was establishing the feel of this book.

And when I was finishing I read Naomi Jackson’s gorgeous debut, The Star Side of Bird Hill, which is also about family and a collection of strong women and coming of age, although the people growing up in her book are much younger than my narrator. But it was just stunning, and it made me cry, and the emotions felt so real and true. So I think reading her was an excellent inspiration as I wrote those final pages. Like you can’t go wrong with heart.

TM: Since is The Millions, I must ask you: What was the last great book you read?

JA: I just judged the Pen/Bingham contest and all of the books on our shortlist were wonderful: Insurrections by Rion Amilcar Scott; We Show What We Have Learned by Clare Beams; The Mothers by Brit Bennett; Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, and Hurt People by Cote Smith.

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