Jacqueline Bishop

portrait Jacqueline Bishop

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 175 ~ December, 2011

Jacqueline Bishop was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, before coming to the United States to attend college.  She is the author of two poetry collections, Snapshots From Istanbul and Fauna, as well as a novel, The River’s Song.

Bishop is also the author of the non-fiction books, My Mother Who Is Me: Life Stories From Jamaican Women in New York, and Writers Who Paint/Painters Who Write: Three Jamaican Artists.

A graduate of New York University with an MA in English & American Literature, and an MFA in Fiction Writing, Bishop was awarded a UNESCO/Fulbright Fellow, Paris, France in 2009/10 and a Fulbright Fellow in 2008/09, Rabat, Morocco. While still a graduate student at NYU, Bishop founded and is the current editor of the literary magazine, Calabash: A Journal of Caribbean Arts and Letters.

For several years, Bishop taught literature at Medgar Evers College, taught creative writing at The Borough of Manhattan Community College, Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, and served as a facilitator for Women in Literature and Letters, a collective dedicated to social change and action by women through the written word.  She currently lives in New York City and teaches writing at New York University.
Derek Alger: So you’re back in New York after an extended stay abroad.

Jacqueline Bishop: Yes, I am back in New York after traveling about a bit.  I was on a Fulbright to Morocco (2008-2009) and then I was selected as the UNESCO/Fulbright Fellow (2009-2010) and placed in the Creative Cities Program at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. The goal of the Creative Cities Network is to connect cities which want to share experiences, ideas and the best practices for cultural, social and economic development. However, I noticed while working at the Creative Cities Network that there was a need to help less developed cities become part of the network; and working with the U.S. Mission to UNESCO, I submitted a project proposal that was awarded $75,000 in funding to support the participation of less developed cities in the Network. I was really delighted about this and that became a highlight of my time away. Other highlights included traveling around Morocco and talking to groups of mainly students about what it means to be an immigrant to the United States. This really gave me the chance to get out and see the country. While I was in Paris, I had exhibitions in Belgium and Italy and those were certainly highlights as well.

DA: I see you were productive while away, completing Snapshots from Istanbul.

JB: Snapshots from Istanbul explores the lives of the exiled Roman poet Ovid and the journeying painter Gauguin. However, within the stories of these men I explore my own notions of what exile means to me. At the center of the collection is a doomed relationship that takes place in Istanbul between a Turkish man and a Jamaican/American woman. On one hand, I believe that the collection was inspired by trips to Istanbul. But, perhaps more than that, I guess the collection started coming together following a program I watched on television about the Roman Empire and particularly about Ovid, once a famed poet, but who eventually was exiled from his beloved homeland. I could identify with a poet in exile, because I often feel in exile myself, though I am not sure where I am in exile from. By this I mean that the Jamaica I left more than twenty years ago is not the Jamaica that is there today, and I often wonder if I return “home” to Jamaica, how well I would fit into and function in the society, even as Jamaica and Jamaican is the identity I am most sure of, the place I am most engaged with and the space from which I create within myself. So when I came upon this poet, Ovid, writing letter after letter, begging to be allowed back home, that really spoke to me. In some ways, though, I feel that Ovid’s fate was much more cruel than mine, because no one is banishing me from Jamaica, and I get there as often as I can.

DA: Discovering Ovid helped prompt your freedom of expression.

JB: What I learnt in putting together the book is that there is not much information as to why Ovid was banished. At first this was a huge disappointment to me, before I came to appreciate the artistic license this gave to me in trying to make sense of Ovid’s story and what might have caused him to be banished. This freedom also allowed me to flesh out the thoughts of the people around him, and this freedom also allowed me to insert my story of exile within Ovid’s. I like the description of the book that says “inevitably, [the poet] is forced to think about her Americaness and her Jamaicaness in different ways” and that “there is one constant: Bishop’s insistence that the drive to rearrange words is inextricably linked to the act of the rearranging of self” because, believe me, not only was I seeking to understand Ovid’s predicament in this book, but the predicament of many different people, including several artists, who feel the need to create and create things that might not be acceptable to their society. And, ultimately, I guess I was trying to understand my own predicament as a creator who is creating far from home.

DA: Your grandmother was a huge influence on you. Tell us about your grandmother.

JB: Thanks very much for this question. I really appreciate the opportunity to talk about my grandmother. The first female figure I remember in my life is my grandmother. I lived with her from the time I was a baby until she decided to move from Kingston back to Portland and my mother refused to let me go with her because it was getting time for me to take what was then the Common Entrance Examination, so I could secure a place in one of the high schools on the island. I remember very clearly that my grandmother did not want to let me go, that she wanted me to come and live with her in the country, but eventually my mother won out. I would go every summer and spend my holidays with my grandmother, and those holidays were some of the best days of my life, and, indeed, some of those summer days found there way into my novel. Not as autobiography but as feelings. There are many things I remember about being with my grandmother, but one incident more than all others stands out in a shimmering bright light. I remember a day when I was busy drawing something. It was a beautiful Portland day, the sun kept streaming in through the window. Now, years later, colors stand out for me, red, yellow, green. I was sitting around the table at my grandmother’s house. My grandmother came up to me, wanting to know what I was drawing. Fruits in a basket. I think that was what I was drawing. Or maybe it could have been flowers, for even then the flower as image and icon was very important to me. My grandmother asked for the slim yellow pencil I had in my hand and she used that same pencil to draw a stunningly beautiful picture that I have always wished I had kept. “Listen,” my grandmother said to me that far ago day, “when I was a child at school, not much older than you, drawing was what I did best. I loved to draw.” She then lay the slim yellow pencil down next to the picture she had drawn, went off back to what she was doing, and ever since that day what my grandmother has done has both thrilled and haunted me. Thrilled me, because she seemed to validate what I was doing. Haunted me, because the drawing was full of so much potential. But more than anything else, what happened that day was that my grandmother gave me permission to be creative and she validated my creativity.

DA: Obviously, she gave you a great gift.

JB: Another iconic moment I had with my grandmother occurred my first day of high school. My mother was right in keeping me in Kingston because I was able to secure a place in the high school I hoped to attend. That day, as we were walking to school, we met my grandmother on the way. She had come all the way .from Portland, a drive hours and hours away, just to see me in my uniform that first morning. Later, she would sit by the light of a lamp and make me a white cotton apron for cooking classes at my new all-girl’s high school. So being with my grandmother was very important.

Other women of my family were similarly creative. My mother could crotchet everything in sight and my great grandmother would stitch together old discarded pieces of cloth to make quilts so beautiful that some have since gone on to be exhibited. I learnt from these women’s example that creativity and beauty was somehow important. Necessary.

DA: Any other special moments from your childhood?

JB:  I remember that when I was like ten years old, two poems I had written appeared on bright yellow inserts in a church publication. My mother was particularly pleased about this. One day I was flipping through a magazine and read of someone in the States wanting poems as lyrics and I sent my poems off and got a letter back that the people were interested in my poems as song lyrics. Naturally I never followed up with any of this but I got quite a thrill showing my friends the letter I got back!

DA: What was it like for you when your mother left Jamaica for the United States?

JB: To be truthful, I had no clear idea of what my mother leaving Jamaica actually meant. The breakup it would cause in our family, the years I would go without seeing my mother, the heartbreak and tears. For that day at the airport when my mother was leaving, I was actually quite excited. My mother was going off to a far off magical place, America, and she would send for us soon-soon to join her in that magical place, and we would fly in that equally magical apparatus, an airplane, to meet her in that place America. These days I think of Aladdin and the flying carpet. I had no clear sense of what life as an immigrant in the United States actually meant. I cover a lot of this information in my book, My Mother Who Is Me: Life Stories from Jamaican Women in New York. Consequently, the happiest day of my life was the day I was reunited with my mother at Kennedy Airport in New York. Goodness, I was never so happy to see anyone in my life, because all along I had been secretly afraid that I would never see my mother again. I kept touching my mother, my baby sister, and myself just to make sure it was all real. That my mother was right there in front of me and not just a voice I heard over the telephone. My mother and I talked into the wee hours of the night. Years later, I came to realize that immigration and separation are intrinsic to my family and my mother and I were following in so many footsteps before ours. The collection of poems that I am working on right now seeks to understand these geographic displacements and I will share with you one of the poems from the new collection to better explain what I mean.

HAGIOGRAPHY

Somebody was always going somewhere;
that’s the story of our family.

My mother left me a six-week old
to work as a domestic in Kingston, to work
for a family where the boys would always touch her,

You have such pretty legs Emma—

As for my father, he made the journey beyond
the shores of the island to England. When he was leaving
he took with him a woman, who used to be friends
with my mother, all of them living in the same yard.

Remember I tell you this as your grandmother:
Man cubbitch like star apple leaf.

Your great grandfather, he came all the way from
the other side of the island, from Hanover,
came following two sisters who were pretty enough,
and brown enough, to get work with foreigners.

He spent sometime in the sugarcane fields in Cuba,
your great grandfather.

In Portland of course, Ferdinand, your great grandfather,
met Celeste, your great grandmother, who was from same-place-there
in Portland, only higher up in the mountains.

I tell you all of this so that you know:

No, it wasn’t that hard for me to leave you children
behind and come by myself to America.

 

DA: One could say you’ve had multiple identities from early on.

JB: I guess one could say so. Though my primary identity is Jamaican. But I would be lying if I did not say that being American is not a part of my identity as well: Indeed I have lived in the United States longer than I have lived in Jamaica. I find though that my identities are more a problem for others than it is for myself. This is not to say it is easy to go around living in a superimposed world, for that is how I live, one identity, one country, superimposed over another, but I find that I, and people like myself, just get on with it. That is our lives and our reality and we live with it. It is the people that have various ideas about what an American or a Jamaican is or is not, that can make life difficult. When I was in Morocco, no one could believe that I was American because for them all Americans are white. And recently, at a reading at The New School, it was my Jamaican identity that was challenged. Indeed a woman was pretty upset with me at that reading, and she said to me in the question and answer session, “You are so educated, you are so polished, you sound like a broadcaster!” Somewhere in there she said that she had come for a “Jamaican” reading and clearly that was not what she was getting. Let me tell you that comment caused all sorts of ripple effects and discussions about who is a Jamaican and what they should sound like. Very interesting. It reminded me of a story a friend of mine, a Haitian writer, told me about feeling a little ill and being on a radio show, and the interviewer saying to her, “Haitians are supposed to be so happy! So full of life! And look at you!” Or some such thing. What I know is this: When I am in America, I am very sure of my Jamaican identity, but when I am in Jamaica, I am aware of the fact that I have lived away for a long time. That I have changed and that Jamaica has changed. Neither myself nor the country is static. To keep up with Jamaica, I have to go there, especially if I want to represent the “now” Jamaica in my writings and my visual arts. It is true that with the Internet and Facebook, it is much easier to keep up with what is going on, on the island, but for me, it is very important to actually go to Jamaica. In addition, I think that the people who live in America and say that they remain fully or only Jamaican are not quite honest. You change and become as the island changes and becomes. So I am clear when I am in Jamaica that I have become something else in addition to being Jamaican, and in America I am something else than American. As a visual artist I have been able to create an image that best gives a sense of the world as I live in it and that is a world of superimposed maps, the United States over Jamaica.

DA: When you came to the United States you went right to college?

JB: By the time I came to the U.S., I had finished high school in Jamaica and I went right to Lehman College in the Bronx. I LOVED Lehman College. I found it a pretty supportive environment and think that one of the best ways to integrate into a society is to attend school. At Lehman I started to have an understanding of myself as not only Jamaican but also Caribbean because they were people from so many of the various islands there. Lehman was also a good place to try and figure out myself and figure out the new society that I was in. I would end up majoring in Psychology, but tentatively I started taking creative writing and visual arts classes. By then I had moved far away from writing and painting, and instead, was focused on becoming the medical doctor that I knew my mother wanted me to become. This was a pretty confusing time, because I did not want to let my mother down and I did not want to let down all the people that I had told I was going to become a doctor. Teenage angst, believe me, is very real for the teenager involved. But I was not good in the sciences, and in pursuing the sciences, I was not pursuing the other things that I was most attracted to. As the universe would have it, I remember talking to someone about what I should do with myself, do with my life, and this person, a nun as it turned out, suggested that I try for one semester only doing classes that I love and that I really wanted to do. That was the end of medical school. I moved right back into painting and writing. And funny enough, my mother was not that upset by this, as I had feared that she would be.

DA: You also spent a year studying in France.

JB: My year in France was a pivotal year for me. It was my junior year in college when I headed off to a place I had never been before. I knew absolutely no one in the City. In addition, the few dollars my mother gave me was either stolen or lost the first few days I arrived in the City. But Paris would be the place where I came into myself. In no time whatsoever I found two jobs, one as an au pair and another in an office. And all the time my French was encore malade. Pretty soon after I arrived in Paris, I happened upon an English language bookstore and started reading many of the classics that I had heard of before, but never  had the chance to read. From the classics I ended up somehow at Toni Morrison and from Toni Morrison and Alice Walker I ended up at the Caribbean women Audre Lorde and Olive Senior. It seemed I just read and read and read in Paris, in addition to taking painting classes. Eventually I ended up becoming what is called a “demi au pair” to the Flammarion family, which is one of the biggest publishing houses in France. I sometimes fantasize that my books will be translated and published by Flammarion one day and that story will come full circle. The Flammarion’s encouraged my reading, my writing, my painting.  That year in France changed my life. I came back and finished up my degree in psychology at Lehman but I knew then that my life would be in arts and letters. That was the great gift that Paris gave to me.

DA: And then it was off to graduate school?

JB: After Lehman I took a year off working before I enrolled in a master’s degree program at City College. My time at City College was useful in that I took a feminism class with Jane Marcus and in trying to find out a subject for the paper I had to write, Professor Marcus turned my attention to the life of Jamaican women in New York and it was in that moment that the book “My Mother Who is Me: Life Stories From Jamaican Women in New York” was born. This is a collection of oral histories from different types of Jamaican women explaining how they ended up in New York. That book helped me to understand the immigration process and how that experience is gendered. This work was also facilitated by a scholarship to the Oral History Program at Columbia University where I worked with Mary Marshall Clark. Despite working with Jane Marcus at City College however, I knew I wanted to focus more on my own creative writing and there were people at New York University, such as Paule Marshall, who I wanted to work with, so I left City for NYU, and I have pretty much been at NYU ever since.

DA: You found a home at New York University?

JB: For several years now NYU has pretty much been home. I first earned an MA in English there, specializing in poetry writing. I later received an MFA in fiction writing from NYU as well. Following my first MA at NYU, I started teaching and I have been doing that ever since. Now I am a Master Teacher in the Liberal Studies Program at NYU.

DA: How autobiographical is your novel, The River’s Song which has been called “engaging coming of age novel” about a Jamaican girlhood.

JB: Whenever I have been asked how autobiographical The River’s Song is I say that the feelings in the book are more autobiographical than the book itself. Many of the feelings that particularly Gloria has in the novel are feelings that I have had. The sense of feeling confined on the island. Of wanting to go away, stretch one’s wings. Those are feelings that I can definitely identify with. One of the great joys in my life as a child, as I indicated before, was to go and spend time with my grandmother, great grandparents, and other relatives in Portland every summer. Who knew that those green days by the river would end up in a novel. One of my aunts has a daughter who is still a teenager who read the novel and she said to me, “all these places that you describe in the place you call Lluidas Vale are really Nonsuch!” Which is really where my family is from, Nonsuch, high in the purple-blue Portland mountains. This lovely girl started naming different places in the novel that are really in the district and that was when I realized how much of the district I had infused in the novel, even if I called it by another name. Certainly the love that Gloria has for her grandmother is the love I still have for my grandmother. But unlike Gloria, I did not have the good fortune of moving into a big house in the hills and I don’t remember a friend as rich as Annie at school. So, more than anything else, it is the feelings in the novel more than anything else that are autobiographical. I know that reviews have talked about the freshness of the voice in the novel, the liveliness of particularly the female characters, and for this I am thankful. For me, The River’s Song was a novel I had to write, before I could go on to write other novels. I still flip through the book and fall in love with the characters, and these days I still wonder to myself, how exactly all those people are doing and if the yard that Gloria and her mother fled from, is still standing. That novel also gave me the great joy of seeing that I could bring characters to life; that characters would trust me enough to let me into their life and to tell their stories.

DA: The River’s Song was also considered atypical of Caribbean literature because of your description of a young girl’s sexual awakening.

JB: I know that the sexual awakening of Gloria has been talked about, but what I did not know was that this was atypical. It seemed obvious to me that someone who is eighteen would have sexual feelings, but I guess this is a leftover from our days as being part of the great British Empire and a leftover of Victorian ideals and protocol of behavior, although that certainly is not the case in too much of our music where sexuality is, in too many cases, overemphasized.

DA: A recent book of yours deals with writers who also paint.

JB: For several years now I have been intrigued with the fact that so many writers from the Caribbean are also visual artists and vice versa. I started keeping a list of people from the region who were creative in both mediums. When I was invited to have an exhibition by the Brooklyn-based Caribbean Literary and Cultural Center I decided to invite along two writer/painters from Jamaica to be part of the exhibition and my wonderful publisher in the UK, Peepal Tree Press, decided to publish a book of the exhibition, since we were all Peepal Tree Press authors. It is a small darling book that I have come to love a lot. At the time I was putting the book and exhibition together, my dear friend, Wayne Brown, who has since died recommended Earl McKenzie and Ralph Thompson’s work to me. Earl I had known of before, because he is well known as a writer, but Ralph’s work I was being introduced to. Our styles are all different but we are unified in our exploration of the natural world around us and the colors of the Caribbean.

DA: How long have you been painting?

JB: I would say I started painting seriously about ten years ago. That was when I went back to school to study painting. But in terms of the visual arts I not only paint, but I also do some photography (or what I call photo-collage) as is indicated in the image of the two superimposed maps that I mentioned earlier in the interview. In terms of my paintings and photography, however, I find that I engage pretty much the same themes as I do mainly in my poetry. There is, for example, a lot of engagement with the environment and there is some storytelling and engagement with the folklore of the island. Some of my paintings are abstract, others are not. I tend to work in series when I am creating visual arts pieces, and this I see as a major carry-over from being a writer. It is as if one painting or one photograph cannot contain the entire story.

My most recent series of paintings is entitled “View from Afar.” In June 2010 the island of Jamaica erupted in unrest following attempts by the Jamaican authorities to arrest a reputed drug dealer, wanted in the United States. Members of Christopher Coke’s west Kingston neighborhood barricaded themselves and fought back against authorities. At the end of the unrest more than 70 people were dead. At the time this happened I was traveling around a bit and as I travelled I was desperately trying to make sense of what was going on, on the island. I had no choice but to rely on newspaper articles, emails, information on Facebook and the Internet. This all resulted in a series of paintings where I am trying to piece together a coherent narrative. Some of the images in the paintings are clearer than others; indeed some of the images are grainy, unfocused and unclear — this being what happens when someone is hearing about something from a distance. Yet the colorfulness and beauty of the Caribbean is suffused throughout. Maps have been used in some of the paintings indicating that the viewer of these events is not on the island, but rather is quite far away.  This is the most recent group of paintings that I have worked on.

DA: In closing, any major plans for the future?

JB: Well I only just finished a new book tentatively titled “Soliloquy” which is a strange hybrid of a book with stories, essays, and visual arts. This is a book in which I was trying to find my sea legs in writing essays and short-short stories, I feel as though I was working to establish my voice in genres that I had not really tried before. In addition, I have been painting a lot lately. Next year I am looking forward to an exhibition in New York.

  • Kathleenjgraves

    I wish to hear about those collaged photographs you’re making ! The honeyed tones of your voice are unlike any broadcaster. I await your newest book.