Charting a Literary Journey: An Interview with Jacqueline Bishop

• December 2010

Jamaican writer and visual artist Jacqueline Bishop is the author of poetry collections Fauna and Snapshots from Istanbul; non-fiction works Writers Who Paint, Painters Who Write: Three Jamaican Artists and My Mother Who Is Me: Life Stories from Jamaican Women in New York; and the novel The River’s Song. A master teacher in New York University’s Liberal Studies Program, Bishop is also the founder of Calabash: A Journal of Caribbean Arts and Letters, which she began in 1999 as a multi-lingual forum for Caribbean writers, artists, and thinkers. This interview was conducted primarily by email in March of 2010. Bishop writes from Paris, where she was conducting research as part of her second Fulbright award.

 

Keisha-Gaye Anderson: Talk about your literary journey from Jamaica to the United States. What characterizes your unique expression of Caribbean themes in your writing?

Jacqueline Bishop: In so far as my literary journey is concerned I first boarded the bus to writing in Jamaica. I remember that when I was like ten years old I got my first poems published in a small church publication, those two poems were called “Flowers” and “Children” and so many people liked them! I still remember this publication as a bright yellow insert that had the poems and some drawings around it within the church program. Interestingly enough, at around the same time I saw an American magazine article calling for poems to be used as song lyrics and I sent my two poems off and had all but forgotten I had done this when a letter came back in the mail saying that they wanted to buy the poems for song lyrics! I was stunned. I had a great time showing this letter to people, but for some reason I never followed up on this.

As a child I used to also write poems for friends and the other day I found a notebook from when I was like fifteen years old and that notebook was filled with the most horrendous poems! I can only hope I did not hide this notebook in some place where I will never be able to find it again, because it did take me back to a person who no longer exists, and it did show me that for as long as I could remember I was writing, poems in particular.

But you must have heard the story a million times before because it is an often told tale by many writers from the Caribbean that they never felt they could make a living as a writer, as an artist, so I decided I would become a medical doctor, but the science classes were always a challenge for me, particularly as an undergraduate. By then I was living in the States and one day someone said to me, “Why don’t you, for one semester, just do the things you love?” There was no going back after that semester! Art classes and writing classes galore! I would still go on to get my degree in psychology but by the time it came to grad school, I came back home to myself as a writer and I went to grad school in creative writing. Probably I felt I could do this now because in America I saw a way I could both be a writer and make my living as a teacher. So far that has been my journey.

KA: Are there any particular questions that you find yourself continually trying to address or explore through your work?

JB: The question of place and belonging. I find myself coming back to this over and over again. I find my characters questioning their place in the world and I find my characters trying to find a place for themselves in the world. In the case of Gloria, in The River’s Song, she ends up feeling confined by the island space. She ends up feeling the need to leave the island. It is as if for her, the only way she can come to terms with herself is if she leaves and goes to find another place for herself in the world. Whereas her friend Annie, who grew up as well questioning her place on the island, is looking to be even more deeply rooted in the island space, despite the fact that she too was thinking of leaving the island for college abroad. But for Annie, there was always the sense that the move would never be a permanent one away from the island, whereas for Gloria it is unclear when she leaves if she will ever make it back to the island. There is no denying that the questioning of place, of belonging, of finding out the limits to belonging, are found in most of my works so far.

This same theme of journey, of seeking one’s place in the world, shows up also, I think, in my two poetry collections Fauna and Snapshots from Istanbul. In the case of Fauna, my first collection of poems, you can see as well the journey away from the island. The collection starts out being heavily rooted in the Caribbean, with poems of tributes to my great grandparents and others on the island and looking very closely at various aspects of life on the island. Many have commented on the section which has flowers speaking in the voice of island women and, through the flowers, detailing what it means to be a Jamaican woman, another great preoccupation in my work.

But steadily the collection moves from being grounded in the “Jamaican in Jamaica” experience out to the lives of immigrants and an exploration of what it means to be Jamaican in other parts of the world, specifically in the United States. There are literally poems of birds, birds being for me a tangible metaphor for migration. There are so many questions I now realize that I was asking in that first collection, questions about what it meant to come from the Caribbean, from the island of Jamaica in particular; what you take with you when you migrate and what you leave and how you change. I am delighted that reviewers talk about the complicated sense in the collection of coming from a place you deeply love but where you realize terrible, unspeakable things in fact can happen. About coming from a place that will, for the rest of your life and no matter where you go to live, mark you. The last poem in the collection finds the narrator of the collection coming to an acceptance of a dual Jamaican and American identity. Finding a place for herself in America as a Jamaican.

Something similar happens in my most recent collection Snapshots From Istanbul. But instead of examining what it means to be Jamaican, I found that I was examining what it means to be American as well, and coming to claim being American as part of my identity. It is significant that this exploration takes place in a far away and distant country, in Turkey, because I have come to the realization that I am the kind of writer who has to be away from the place she is writing about to begin to see that place clearly. Sometimes I wonder, truthfully, if I could ever have become a writer in Jamaica because when I am in Jamaica everything is so intense for me that I do not know where to focus my attentions. It is almost like sensory overload, the voices, the colors, everything. I need to go to a far away place to begin to make sense of it all. Of course all of that is a long way around to say explorations of a place, and of one’s identity, are central questions in my work.

KA: You recently completed a new novel. Can you tell us about it and how it is different from, or similar to, The River's Song?

JB: This novel is so new that I am reluctant to talk much about it because I might end up changing things—so much of writing is rewriting.  But, in general, this new novel and The River’s Song are both about journeys. The River’s Song is about a journey away from the island and the new novel is a journey towards the island. The River’s Song was told in one voice and one perspective; this new novel employs multiple voices and multiple perspectives. Both novels however are centered primarily around the experiences of women.

KA: How do issues surrounding womanhood--particularly Caribbean womanhood--figure in your work?

JB: Well, I did a whole book about this when I did My Mother Who Is Me: Life Stories from Jamaican Women in New York. In that book I was trying to figure out two things, namely, what it means to be a Jamaican woman, and secondly how did immigration to New York impact on the trajectory of these women’s lives. I was also interested to find out how seemingly different groups of women, namely, let’s say a Lebanese-Jamaican vis-a-vis an Afro-Jamaican, handled the whole question of womanhood growing up in Jamaican society.

What I found were that the women almost uniformly encountered the same contradictions. As Maxine says in the book, “So the system is set up with inherent conflicts where, on the one hand, girls are told you have got to be a wife and a mother … but at the same time you are pushed to achieve academically … it is all very contradictory and conflicting!” Well, these issues particular to women and to Jamaican women in particular, these conflicts and contradictions, are what I love to probe, are what I love to test. What are the limits of these contradictions? How far can you push against them? And what happens, God forbid, when you really break the rules! This gives me so much to work with!

KA: Who are some of the writers that have most influenced you and why?

JB: I read this question and I think immediately of Wayne Brown. Like someone said to me the other day, I still cannot believe that Wayne is gone. I was never a member of Wayne’s workshop, not directly anyway, but Wayne took an active interest in what I was doing and tried to help me along the way as much as he could. I know that he did the same for many other writers as well, and we miss him terribly. Wayne Brown is definitely an influence not only because he himself was an amazing writer, but because he would actually sit you down and explain to you which part of a piece was working, which was not, and why. Since I did not live in Jamaica we would do this largely by email, and when what he was saying was not getting through I could expect a phone call from Mr. Wayne Brown.

He was a serious man. Serious about writing; serious about literature. You knew better than to take him anything foolish because, it is true, he could be quite cutting. He had very strong opinions and took quite seriously the work he did in mentoring a new generation of primarily Jamaican writers. I can only imagine what the workshops must have been like! After his death I think it was someone at the University of the West Indies in Mona that said, more than anyone else, he single-handedly brought to the forefront a new generation of Jamaican writers. That is the gift that he gave to Jamaica.

So he is a real influence for me, that Wayne Brown, largely because he had such high standards. He held the bar very high and you had to jump up and reach it. My works were always better after it had passed through his hands. He had a knack of pulling out exactly what I was reaching for, exactly what I was going after. It was as if he could see more clearly into what I was trying to do, than I could do for myself. I tell you, I still miss Wayne Brown terribly.1

KA: What do you think are the major challenges facing Caribbean literature today?

JB: Publication and publication and publication. We need more access to publishing in the region and out; and we need more publishers who are willing to publish and promote our works on a regular basis. That is the greatest challenge I see facing Caribbean literature today.

What I have noticed is that Caribbean writers can fight to get their works published, and that often is a very big fight, but very little effort, if any at all, is put in promoting the work of these writers after the work is published. What is the point of that? Just to say you have published X number of writers from the region? How does this at all help the writer? Help Caribbean literature as a whole? So I think publishing and promotion of the published work are perhaps the major challenges facing Caribbean literature today.

KA: You are also an accomplished visual artist. Talk about your art and tell us how that creative process impacts or influences your written work.

JB: I started out first as a writer, but I have always been interested in the visual arts. I remember the year I spent in France as an undergraduate was spent largely in art classes. But I always seemed to forefront writing. Over time though the visual arts just did not stop tugging and eventually I started to give in. By then I had noticed that painters, paintings and other visual arts had a way of asserting itself in my poems and as characters in my fiction work. Of course you can always see these things better from a distance, but it took me a while to understand the preoccupation with the visual arts, with visual artists and with certain colors in my written work meant that I too was a visual artist. In fact, there is a kind of cross fertilization between the arts which I tried to examine in the non-fiction book Writers Who Paint, Painters Who Write: Three Jamaican Artists.

What I have noticed about my visual arts is that I seem to almost always work in a series and in that way I think that my visual art is very similar to story telling. It is almost as if I am telling little stories in the three major visual art works that I have completed to date. A cursory overview of my visual art production shows that they are really stories and there is a strong narrative element. I have to strive however to meet the artistic challenges of the visual medium that I am creating in, and work so that these works can stand on their own merit visually and do not rely solely on the story-telling element. That is one of the challenges in working in both mediums.

KA: This is your second Fulbright award. Talk about both awards and describe the work you are currently undertaking in Paris.

The first Fulbright I had was for a year in Morocco (2008-2009). In Morocco, I spent a lot of time going around and giving talks and speeches on behalf of the American Embassy. I talked a lot about African American issues, about women’s writing and about immigrant issues. I also read often from my own works. I had three exhibitions while I was there, and participated in literary festivals and in general was quite active. Apart from the lasting friendships I formed though, perhaps the most special part of that time in Morocco was bringing back to Moroccan consciousness the fact that Jamaican poet and writer Claude McKay lived and wrote in Morocco. The Moroccans were very appreciative of this and I hope to spend this summer in Morocco working on a book-length project on Claude McKay’s time in Morocco which was commissioned by a Moroccan publisher.

Following that Fulbright experience, I was selected to be the UNESCO/Fulbright Fellow to Paris, which is where I am right now. I am working on the Creative Cities Network, which seeks to connect cities within seven thematic foci: Literature, Music, Cinema, Folk Arts, Design, Gastronomy and Media Arts. Specifically I am looking to put together a proposal to encourage the participation of countries from Africa, from Latin America and the Caribbean, and from Arab states into the Network because countries from these regions are currently either unrepresented or underrepresented in the Network. It has been fascinating, in general, learning about how creative industries can be a major force of development. That gives me a whole other way of looking at and managing my own creativity.

KA: Tell us about your documentary project and what you hope to achieve by making this film.

JB: Several years ago, as a graduate student at NYU, I started documenting a group of untutored artists in Jamaica called the Intuitives. Now I have several hours of footage on them. By the time I came along and started documenting these artists several of them were elderly and frail and I felt it was urgent that I do this work.  Since then most of them have died and so the footage has become even more precious to me as a tangible manifestation of their voice and mannerisms and so on. I would very much like to obtain additional funding to get back to Jamaica to document other members of the group as well as to edit these oral history interviews into a compelling narrative about this group of artists who are integral to Modern Jamaica and Modern Jamaican art. What I hope to achieve with the film is further recognition of this amazing group of artists both inside and outside of Jamaica. Some of these artists, I am thinking now in particular of Leonard Daley and Everald Brown, both of whom I had the great fortune to interview before they passed, have work that is so revolutionary, that asks so many questions about Jamaican society, that it would be really wonderful to get their voices and visions out there. I would like more people around the world, through this film, to get to know these artists and especially to get to know their work!

KA: What projects are you planning for the future?

JB: Right now I am working on a new collection of short stories, and a new collection of poems. I have another novel percolating, but that is a longer term project for the future (I need to recover from the one I just finished!) Maybe I will have another exhibition, this time in Brussels. I also find that more and more I am thinking to go and do a doctorate.

 

Keisha-Gaye Anderson is a poet, journalist, and fiction writer whose work has appeared in two volumes of Poems on the Road to Peace; the anthology Sometimes Rhythm, Sometimes Blues; and For the Crowns of Your Heads, a chapbook to benefit the victims of the Haiti earthquake. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Anderson explores such themes as migration, relationships, and collective cultural memory her poetry chapbook Circle Unbroken. Anderson is currently pursuing an M.F.A. in Creative Writing at The City College, CUNY.

 


1 Editor’s note: Read Bishop’s tribute to Brown in “Sailing with Wayne Brown.”

 

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