Jacqueline Bishop is a writer, visual artist and photographer, from Jamaica who now lives in New York City, where she is a professor at the School of Liberal Studies at New York University (NYU). She is the founder of Calabash, an online journal of Caribbean art and letters, housed at NYU, and also writes for the Huffington Post and the Observer Arts Magazine.
She granted us an exclusive interview where she talked about her art, books and her story in the bestselling New Daughters of Africa anthology. Enjoy.
You are a writer, visual artist and photographer. As a multi-genre creative, what is your creative flow process for each of your genre?
It used to be that I could sit down and write a fiction piece and a poem I had to wait for but I am finding more and more though, that I can be more intentional in my writing of poetry though I still find that poetry comes in bundles. Non-fiction writing still frightens me, because I feel I am committing so much of myself to paper in non-fiction writing in ways that I am not doing in fiction or poetry, but I am hoping to slowly overcome this fear as well. I enjoy enormously conducting interviews, I really love reading a good interview by an artist, and I have had the opportunity over the last few years of conducting interviews for the Bookends section of the Jamaica Observer.
About a year ago I came down with a terrible case of frozen shoulder so have been limited in my work as a visual artist, though I am beginning to regain full use of my arm and beginning to think through some artistic projects that I had to put aside as I slowly recovered. I find that photography and photomontages, fiber and drawing works come more naturally to me than say painting naturalistically, though I seem to be moving away from the need to want to paint naturalistically which preoccupied me for quite a long time.
In so far as process is concerned, I tend to work on something for which I either have a deadline, or I work on a genre that I feel has too long been neglected in my work. Consequently, I find that I have not, for example, tackled successfully a novel in quite a long time now, and so I am thinking to try and do that over the next year.
How was your thought process writing “The Vanishing Woman” in the NEW DAUGHTERS OF AFRICA anthology?
“The Vanishing Woman” came out of several different parts of my life as a writer, artist and latterly scholar. Perhaps this story is the most representative of who I am and where I find myself right now in my life. In the story, a PhD candidate is trying to unearth and tell the untold story of the vernacular textile traditions from her island home of Jamaica. Interestingly enough, she gets assistance in doing so in the most unorthodox and un-scholarly of ways, from a woman who comes to visit her in her sleep at night. Despite resistance and derision, both women succeed. And where is it that I, the writer of this story, find myself these days? As a PhD candidate writing a history on the vernacular textile traditions on Jamaican women. The story then came right out of my life, and writing it felt absolutely effortless. I remember, for example, my absolute elation in finding and purchasing the very piece of embroidery described in that story. When I step back from and look at this story, I realize that maybe, in fact, all the women in that story are variations on the self. I am filled with so much gratitude in being able to the tell the story of an enslaved visual artist and I can relate fully with the frustrations of a doctoral student. In a sense that story encapsulates all the parts of myself, as writer, visual artist, and scholar, that are in play at this moment in my life.
Writers and all creatives draw influence from everyday living, societal happenings and even the socio-political states of their home countries. What influences your art?
The women and men I grew up with play an outsized role in my creative production. I grew up with a great grandmother and grandmother who made museum quality patchworks, a mother who made fantastic crochet and was always supportive of my creative impulses. My uncles are great carpenters and builders of houses and to this day can still make things from scratch. Their creative and vernacular impulse is very much embedded in my own work, never mind all the highfalutin degrees I might have and all the colleges that I might attend. I remember when I was getting my MFA in studio art the one question that would always floor me, was who, as an artist, was I in dialogue with? Who were my artistic influences? The unstated implication on the question was of course, who in the canon of great Artists (with a “Capital A”) was I in conversation with? I couldn’t really think of any one of those “Capital A” artists that I was consciously in dialogue with, but I knew that on some level I was speaking to and with the people in my family, the women especially, who made patchworks, embroidery and crochet, that untold and unsung culture that I grew up with all around me.
We believe all writers are readers. Kindly share with us a few of your favorite works of fiction.
Peepal Tree Press just published the collected short stories of Hazel Campbell entitled “Jamaica On My Mind” which I think are some of the best short fiction ever produced thus far in the region, and that is saying a lot, for the Caribbean is a region that has excelled in the short fiction form. I am thinking everyone should be reading this author, Hazel Campbell, who we just lost a few months ago. There is also a novel by Denise Harris, “In Remembrance of Her”, which I have never seen its equal, I return to it again and again, this book, it is so magical and mesmerizing and engaging. Finally, Jean Buffong out of Grenada has produced two books that I think are some of the best of their form, a novella, “Jump Up and Kiss Me” and a coming of age novel “Under the Silk Cotton Tree” that I never tire of reading.
What are some of the social themes you tend to explore in your work and what are your readers and audiences’ reaction to them?
I have been told that I tend to explore the untold story. I am always interested in something that has been overlooked or somehow not brought to the forefront before. I don’t think this is at all the easiest path to choose as a writer or even a visual artist, because it does always mean that you are writing or creating against the grain or writing or creating against people’s expectations, which can provoke discomfort for the reader or the viewer. I remember for example, when my book “My Mother Who Is Me: Life Stories from Jamaican Women in New York” was published that reviewers were literally searching for a language to describe this work because it explored gay and lesbian subjectivities and identities as well as the faces of Jamaica — Jewish, Lebanese, Indian and Chinese — that are not often put forward as representative of the country, unless we are talking about beauty competitions. In my collection of poems “Snapshots from Istanbul” there was a similar searching around and almost confusion in reviewing the book because the narrator in that collection, a Jamaican woman living for years in the United States, found herself in a love affair with a Turkish man in Istanbul where, “There are so many layers of difference between us/ Though our bodies are not one of them.” For all its difficulties and at times wonderful surprises, the untold story gives my imagination scope to move around and really explore and so I love digging into and trying to tell the untold story.
You spent your pre-college years and childhood in Jamaica before moving to the United States. How do these two countries you now call home shape your writing and art?
I seem to be the kind of writer who can write best about a place when she is not living there. Consequently, when I am living in the United States, I write about Jamaica, and when I am in France I can write about America. I think that Jamaica and Jamaicans are often the subject of my writing and that the United States taught me how to be a writer including how to look at and draw from the vernacular practices of my island home.
Your first novel, The River’s Song, explores female friendship. How important do you think it is for women to collaborate using the New Daughters of Africa anthology as a case study.
It is incredibly important, especially given the political climate within the United States and much of Europe that we have found ourselves in these days where there are assaults on women, women’s rights, freedoms, and autonomy. Sad to say, some of these assaults are aided by groups of women who feel that racial or other forms of privilege will protect them somehow. A majority of white American women voted for the current president of the United States knowing full well his misogyny! I am so tired of the many people, men in particular, who sing wonderful songs and platitudes to women on Mother’s Day or International Women’s day while keeping their feet firmly planted on our backs. What I am seeing in Jamaica, for example, is astonishing misogyny in some of the writing and some women cheering this on. It is all quite bizarre. All the more reason for an anthology like New Daughters of Africa, which insists on a plurality of Black Women’s writing experiences and black women’s right to speak for ourselves and our right to be heard! Margaret Busby and the publishers should be lauded for this bold audacious anthology!
How familiar are you with the Nigerian literary scene? Which is your favorite Nigerian work?
I have to confess that I am more aware of Nigerian writers published in the United States and Britain than I am of the Nigerian literary scene writ large per se. I am assuming that the Nigerian literary scene within Nigeria is much more fascinating and diverse in Nigeria than what is published and becomes known outside of the country. Though I have read many more books by Nigerian authors, “Things Fall Apart” remains an enduring favorite. The thing about “Things Fall Apart” is that it helped and still helps me to understand so many issues outside of one country — Nigeria — which I have not had the opportunity as of yet to visit.
Recommend one book you think everyone should read!
“The Gymnast & Other Positions” by Jacqueline Bishop. Here is what one reviewer said of this book, “Having traversed the genres of novel writing and poetry, writer-painter-photographer Jaqueline Bishop dips her toes into the well of short stories and essays in her collection The Gymnast and Other Positions. Bishop openly admits that The Gymnast was an attempt to find her sea legs in these new mediums. But far from evoking the frustrated patience of an amateur’s assay Bishop’s short stories delight the imagination, even as they tug at the conscience. The breadth of perspective in the eleven brief narratives is particularly commendable. Though Bishop treats primarily with issues of womanhood (particularly Caribbean femininity) she also skillfully captures these experiences with fresh masculine eyes.
Her visual fascination with looping stories over and through each other has spilled over to the written word, creating her own patchwork quilt of literature. This patchwork aesthetic (credit to writer Cheryl Sterling for the term) has long been a defining feature of Bishop’s studio creations and now, to come full circle, has finally found a place in her writing as well.”
I appreciate this so much! Because it places me quite squarely in the inherited traditions of the women in my family! The Gymnast & Other Positions was the 2016 Bocas Prize winner, Non-Fiction.
Are there times you felt you could not create?
When I am physically ill, like when I had
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