Jacqueline Bishop is an award-winning writer and visual artist, born and raised in Jamaica, who now lives and works in New York City. Educated in psychology, creative writing and art, she writes poetry, fiction and non-fiction, as well as doing multimedia visual arts projects. She recently won the non-fiction genre prize in the 2016 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature for her 2015 book The Gymnast and Other Positions.
Bishop has twice been awarded Fulbright Fellowships and currently teaches in the Liberal Studies programme at New York University. The Bocas judges said of The Gymnast: "...Bishop's mosaic of fragmented narratives is as original as it is insightful. Modern, spontaneous and formally innovative, it blurs the boundaries between the real and the imagined in a journey of self-discovery through the arts of the imagination in the Caribbean and elsewhere."
The T&T Guardian here interviews Jacqueline Bishop about some of the ideas behind The Gymnast.
Several of the short stories in The Gymnast explore female sexuality–whether it's the sexual awakening of young women, intimate betrayals, sexual liberation, or the life-affirming, brave earthiness of your mother in the essay Stories of a Birth about her experiences as a young expectant mother. Do you find some of these themes still taboo?
I do still find some of these themes very much taboo. Even here in the United States... I often felt my writing life was very different from my visual art life, but your question shows me that it's not; because right now I'm in the midst of completing a huge visual art project on female sexual desires.
My whole thinking about female sexuality is that it is very hidden. And it tends to be quite distorted. We tend to see it through the lens of men.
I've often times wondered: what do women say and think about their own sexuality? And some of that is being explored there (in The Gymnast,) as well as in the female sexual desires art project.
I think that there's not been enough focus on what is pleasurable, joyful, and joyous. I'd like to see more of the work that is celebratory.
How closely do you think female sexuality is tied to a girl's or woman's identity?
Very much so. I have to admit that in Jamaica...this is repressed. It is certainly repressed here in the United States. When I was working on the female sexual desires project, what I did was collect 150 sexual desires from women all over the place. There were women saying: O my God, I am trembling to answer these questions on sexual desires, I am so afraid.
Was the project a visual one or a story-gathering one?
Well, apparently it's both! (laughing) It started out being a visual project...and your very question makes me realise how it was feeding over into my writing as well...Women have had to develop all sorts of strategies to deny or hide aspects of their sexuality, and I think it's time we as women reclaimed our sexuality.
Why do you think some of that hiddenness exists?
I think it's a combination of things. Speaking about Jamaica and the US, religion definitely plays a role in this. But patriarchy plays a role as well. And culture plays a role. So if you even look at Jamaican dancehall music, you might think: "O my God this is a celebration of female sexuality"–but it's always from a male lens.
Jamaica comes so alive in your book The Gymnast, whether through observed details or through indirect social commentary via characters (eg the terrible Kingston murder/hospital/morgue situation in the story Soliloquy). Would you say the Jamaican part of yourself is a touchstone in your literature?
You mentioned Soliloquy, and yes it's entirely fictionalised in my book, but that story was based in fact. I did have a friend whose father died, and nobody (in the hospital in Jamaica) could find the body, nobody had told the families that he had died. They found him hours before he was to be buried in a pauper's grave...It's sad. It's also a fact that somebody saw his obituary and wrote to my friend's mother trying to date her! (laughing) Right? So a lot of that story is based in fact.
With regard to home, I think that the definition of home has expanded for me quite a bit. Of course I was born in Jamaica and always see Jamaica as home, but I have lived in the States longer. But in New York I wasn't only Jamaican anymore–I became Caribbean, because it was the first time I interacted with a lot of people from Grenada, from Montserrat, from Trinidad, and I started a magazine called Calabash: A Journal of Caribbean Arts & Letters, and it really reinforced that Caribbean identity. Home is Jamaica, that's true, but there is a Caribbean identity forged from living in New York, and of course there's an American identity.
In the story of Effigy, you evoke the importance of rememory–memorialising a passed loved one as a form of both tribute and healing. How important is memory and personal myth-making–the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of our lives–in defining ourselves?
Your questions are making me see connections between my writing and my visual art. My first serious visual art project was called Childhood Memories, in which I looked back, trying to reinhabit a place which no longer exists. I wanted to reinhabit my childhood in Jamaica. I think that is what you're sensing in the work The Gymnast.
It so happens that last night I was watching a programme on dementia and Alzheimer's disease. What is the most confounding thing about this disease, and what we struggle with the most, is the loss of memory. It's as though we need memories to gird us, to move us forward. And how will we learn, for better or worse, if not by processing memories? So I think that memory, "rememory"... is super-important.
Can memory lie? Can memory recreate?
Memory absolutely lies. And memory absolutely recreates. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it. This is a fact. In psychology we call it denial...and so we really have to interrogate these memories that we put forward.
What is some of the best advice you ever received as a writer?
The best advice I ever received came from Paule Marshall, and she said: "Jacqueline, you have to write whether you win awards or not. You have to do it for yourself."
In what kinds of ways do you think your visual and literary imaginations influence each other?
I've realised that my art medium is "ahead" of my writing. And so I will make an art work, and I'm not sure why, but the reason will become clearer eventually...I did my first collection of poems–Fauna (2006), all about a childhood in Jamaica–without realising that I had also done this in a childhood memory art series.
I'd like to mention that we in the Caribbean have art forms that we do not pay enough attention to. My grandmother and my great-grandmother made "patchworks"–here in the US they're called quilts–but no-one paid attention to patchworks in Jamaica. Now some of these patchworks have travelled the world in art exhibits. Now I understand that in my own work as a writer and as a visual artist, I've been pulling from the tradition of patchwork making in Jamaica without realising it.
Congratulations on winning the non-fiction genre prize in the 2016 OCM Bocas Prize. How do you feel about that–was it a surprise?
It was a total surprise! (laughing)... I was at home, one Saturday night, and started getting these texts on Facebook saying "Congrats"–then I saw I was on the long list, which to me just blew my mind. ...Paule Marshall is right–we should not look to prizes to affirm us, but I have to tell you something: I cried, because I felt I was being affirmed by the place where I most wanted to be affirmed, the Caribbean.