Short fiction writer and novelist A. Naomi Jackson is living a life many aspiring writers dream of.
Immersed in the vibrant writing community at the University of Pennsylvania for the next year, she’s working with her literary agent on edits to her first novel, Star Side of Bird Hill, and is on pace to complete a second novel, Across the Park.
The 2013-14 Penn ArtsEdge Resident, Jackson is living in a rent-free apartment in the AIRSpace artistic nexus at 40th and Chestnut streets. In exchange for the apartment and studio space, she’s teaching, sharing her love for literature and helping members of Penn and the community beyond hone their writing skills.
ArtsEdge is a collaborative project of Penn’s Facilities and Real Estate Services division and the Kelly Writers House. It is designed to boost the careers of emergent writers and enrich the West Philadelphia community by encouraging writers to live and work in the neighborhood.
In naming Jackson the ArtsEdge Resident, Al Filreis, Kelly Writers House faculty director, and Jessica Lowenthal, Kelly Writers House director, described her as the ideal choice whose application stood out from the pack of highly qualified candidates and won the selection committee’s unanimous approval.
Jackson was born and raised in Brooklyn by West Indian parents. She studied fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was awarded the 2013-2014 Maytag Fellowship for Excellence in Fiction to complete her first novel.
Prior to finishing her M.F.A. at the University of Iowa, Jackson worked for the Rockefeller Brothers Fund’s Pivotal Place program in New York City and oversaw programmatic design for the Fund’s national youth civic engagement grant making.
In 2005, she traveled to South Africa on a Fulbright scholarship, earning an M.A. in creative writing from the University of Cape Town.
With the support of a Stanley Graduate Award for International Research from the University of Iowa, she spent the summer of 2012 in Barbados researching and writing Star Side.
“I claim the English speaking Caribbean as my own,” the native New Yorker says.
A “huge fan of African and Caribbean writers,” Jackson will teach an undergraduate creative writing course at Penn during the spring semester. The syllabus includes short stories, novel excerpts and essays by Jamaica Kincaid, Edwidge Danticat, Junot Diaz, Victor LaValle and Toni Morrison, among others.
During the year Jackson is also planning a creative writing workshop for queer women of color in Philadelphia. In 2006 she co-founded an earlier iteration, Tongues Afire, at the Audre Lorde Project in Brooklyn.
Her essays, short stories and poems have appeared in literary magazines and journals in the United States, Caribbean, and the United Kingdom.
Jackson’s novel Star Side explores the impact of mental illness on families and the intergenerational transfer of trauma and reverse migration from the U.S. to the Caribbean.
“It’s a coming of age story about two Brooklyn girls who spend their summer in Barbados with their grandmother. Their father comes to rescue them, and it becomes a story of involuntary reverse migration,” she says.
Jackson is working on her second novel which follows three generations of a Caribbean family from the Great Depression to the early 21st century.
Lowenthal, the Writers House director, referenced the novel when she introduced the young writer before a Writers House reading that she gave as part of her ArtsEdge residency. Lowenthal praised Jackson’s ability to stay close and true to individual characters and their experiences and take on big themes from a human-scale perspective.
Calling the language of Jackson’s work rich, evocative and poetic, she read some of it aloud:
Despite his best intentions, Mr. Jeremiah’s noontime and midnight devotionals at the rumshop brought on long slumbers when children found freedom to do as they liked among the dead.
A video of Jackson’s Writers House reading is at http://writing.upenn.edu/wh/multimedia/tv/reruns/watch/152839.