The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson

Date Read: June 14th 2016

Published: 2015

Publisher: Penguin Press

Pages: 304

The Star Side of Bird Hill

The Blurb

After their mother can no longer care for them, young Phaedra and her older sister, Dionne, are exiled from Brooklyn to Bird Hill in Barbados to live with their grandmother Hyacinth, a midwife and practitioner of the local spiritual practice of obeah.

Dionne spends the summer in search of love, testing her grandmother’s limits, and wanting to go home. Phaedra explores Bird Hill, where her family has lived for generations, accompanies her grandmother in her role as a midwife, and investigates their mother’s mysterious life.

When the father they barely know comes to Bird Hill to reclaim his daughters, both Phaedra and Dionne must choose between the Brooklyn they once knew and loved or the Barbados of their family.

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Review – ★★★ (3 stars)

I bought The Star Side of Bird Hill late last year for 2 reasons: I absolutely adored the super chic, sassy cover art (designed by an amazing contemporary Caribbean artist from Barbados – Sheena Rose) and I just had to support Naomi Jackson, as she’s an alum of Williams College – Middlebury’s (my alma mater) sister liberal arts school!

The Star Side of Bird Hill is a decent coming-of-age story that focuses on Barbadian-American sisters – Dionne (16 years old) and Phaedra (10 years old) as they learn new things about their family, culture and even themselves during their summer vacation in Bird Hill, Barbados. I really appreciated Jackson’s easy-going and descriptive writing style in this novel. Her vivid descriptions of Barbados definitely made this a great summer read! I felt as if I was with the characters during the lively carnival and on the sandy, pristine beaches against the backdrop of the serene sunsets. I could even hear the voices of both Dionne and Phaedra during their dialogues – that’s how thorough Jackson’s descriptions were!

But I kept wondering if The Star Side of Bird Hill was considered a YA (Young Adult) novel because it was surprisingly a heavy read. Tough issues like depression, mental illness, death, divorce, suicide, homosexuality, bi-cultural upbringing, Christianity, voodoo etc are all tackled in this book. I must say, Dionne and Phaedra’s grandma – Hyacinth, is the real MVP of this novel. I was in awe of her strength, courage and emotional stability given the series of unexpected, unfortunate incidents that occur at Bird Hill. It seemed as if Naomi Jackson was paying homage to the women of Bird Hill by showcasing the amazing strength the Barbadian women possess.

While reading, I sensed some similarities in this storyline to Haitian writer,  Edwidge Danticat’s novel Breath, Eyes, Memory – even though Danticat takes the themes of mother-daughter relationships, depression, sexual assault and suicide up a notch! I wanted to gift one of my friends who is of Grenadian heritage with this book, as I initially thought she’d easily relate to Caribbean/Caribbean-American storyline, but I’ve been having second thoughts since the story becomes super depressing for a good 100 pages. I wasn’t really blown away by The Star Side of Bird Hill when I finished the book. I enjoyed how most incidents and issues were sort of resolved by the end, but The Star Side of Bird Hill is not more than 3.5 stars for me. I do look forward to whatever Naomi Jackson writes next though!

★★★ (3 stars) – Good book. I recommend it, I guess.

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Purchase The Star Side of Bird Hill on Amazon

Pig Tails ‘n Breadfruit: A Culinary Memoir by Austin Clarke

Date Read: July 22nd 2015

Published: April 2000 (was re-released in 2014)

Publisher: The New Press

Pages: 248

Austin Clarke

The Blurb

Praised as “masterful” by the New York Times and “uncommonly talented” by Publishers Weekly and winner of the 1999 Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award, Austin Clarke has a distinguished reputation as one of the preeminent Caribbean writers of our time. In Pig Tails ’n Breadfruit, he has created a tantalizing “culinary memoir” of his childhood in Barbados. Clarke describes how he learned traditional Bajan cooking—food with origins in the days of slavery, hardship, and economic grief—by listening to this mother, aunts, and cousins talking in the kitchen as they prepared each meal.

Pig Tails ’n Breadfruit is not a recipe book; rather, each chapter is devoted to a detailed description of the ritual surrounding the preparation of a particular native dish—Oxtails with Mushrooms, Smoked Ham Hocks with Lima Beans, or Breadfruit Cou-Cou with Braising Beef. Cooking here, as in Clarke’s home, is based not on precise measurements, but on trial and error, taste and touch. As a result, the process becomes utterly sensual, and the author’s exquisite language artfully translates sense into words, creating a rich and intoxicating personal memoir.

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Review – ★★★ (3 stars)

Since today is Thanksgiving Day (in the U.S) and some of you will be feasting in honor of this day of giving thanks, I thought this would be the perfect time to post my review of the culinary memoir, Pig Tails ‘n Breadfruit and talk about food!

Barbados born, scholar and writer Austin Clarke takes readers on a ride to explore different Barbadian (or Bajan) foods and aspects of Barbadian culture in Pig Tails ‘n Breadfruit. It was insightful to read about the origins of various Bajan meals from the days of slavery and how people of different socio-economic backgrounds cooked differently with different ingredients (or as Clarke says ‘ingreasements’). Austin Clarke’s mother who was known to be a superb cook, is the real MVP of this memoir and she proudly cooked all the meals Clarke enjoyed sans measuring cup and cookbook:

Cooking food is not characterized by strict attention to ounces and grams, cups and liters. A pinch of this and a pinch of that added to a pot, at first by trial and error, and then perfected through history and constant usage, from one generation to the next, is the way I remember food being cooked… It is ironical to be suggesting a book about food cooked in Barbados, because in every self-respecting Barbadian household the woman (who does most of the cooking, whether she is wife, daughter or maid) would not be caught dead with a cookbook. To read a cookbook would suggest that she has not retained what her mother taught her; that she does not know how to cook; that she does not know how to take care of her man… (page 3).

Readers go back to Clarke’s childhood when he used to watch his mother and aunts cook meals like: Oxtails with mushrooms; ‘Priviledge’ (also known as ‘slave food’; contrived from a mixture of random foodstuff. Clarke actually had the privilege of eating this popular meal with the president of Barbados and other members of his cabinet during his stay at Duke University as a professor); ‘Cou-Cou’ (a doughy mélange of cornmeal, okra, fish, peppers); ‘Pepperpot’ (a stewed meat dish, spiced with cinnamon and peppers); ‘Swank’ (a molasses & water drink) and ‘Pelau’ (rice pilaf).

Meats like mutton, lamb, beef, chicken, flying fish and pork make up a large component of Bajan foods and every part of a pig is eaten – from the snout to the tail! Once Clarke moved to Canada to further his education (as a college student), and later to teach in various universities in the United States, he grew homesick and longed for these meals as well the Caribbean sun. From the way the scrumptious meals and the atmosphere of Barbados are described in this novel, who wouldn’t be homesick?

Clarke uses a lot of dialect in his writing as he expects readers to be familiar with the meanings of some dialect words. Even though this was a light read, the heavy use of dialect required me to concentrate in order to fully understand what Austin Clarke was writing, which was not easy as he usually went off on a tangent while he discussed the origins of foods. I think this book would have been more engaging for me if Clarke included pictures of the meals he discussed and maybe even some recipes. I found myself bugging some of my Caribbean friends with questions, as well as Googling and YouTubing most of the meals mentioned in this book. Pig Tails ‘n Breadfruit is an insightful book but not as engaging as I had anticipated. This is more of a 2.75 stars rating for me.

But I have a question: do African culinary memoirs exist? If they do, please let me know of some good ones! I would absolutely love to read an engaging culinary memoir/novel on Kenyan, Malawian, Ghanaian, Eritrean, Rwandan, South African, Ivorian, Liberian, Zambian, Congolese, Moroccan… AFRICAN food! There are so many different foods available on the continent, and we all use different cooking techniques and ingredients! I wish our foods were showcased more. Maybe the more we write on our own foods, the more our foods would be recognized and cooked worldwide.

Every time I watch Top Chef, the chefs mostly cook Asian (Korean, Thai, Japanese, Chinese), Italian, Greek, French and of course various American dishes. Back in 2012, on an episode from Season 5 of Top Chef, one of the chefs (Chef Carla Hall) made fufu* and the meal turned out looking far from the fufu us West Africans know it as haha! It would be great to have our foods taken seriously. In Pig Tails ‘n Breadfruit, Austin Clarke did an admirable job at revering the foods of his native land – Barbados. Maybe one day an African culinary memoir/novel (not just a recipe book) would be published and foods from the motherland would be put on a pedestal as well. I hope so. 

fufu* – Fufu is a West African dish that consists of pounded boiled yam, cassava, plantain or coco-yam tubers; usually pounded into a dough-like consistency and eaten with soup.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Eat an extra plate for me!

★★★ (3 stars) – Good book. I recommend it, I guess.

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Purchase Pig Tails ‘n Breadfruit on Amazon