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Jacqueline Bishop Talks About Writing Across the Diaspora

03/03/2014 01:47 pm ET | Updated May 03, 2014

The River's Song is Jacqueline Bishop's first novel. She is also the author of two collections of poems, Fauna and Snapshots from Istanbul. Her non-fiction books are My Mother Who Is Me: Life Stories from Jamaican Women in New York and Writers Who Paint/Painters Who Write: Three Jamaican Artists. An accomplished visual artist with exhibitions in Belgium, Morocco, USA and Italy, Bishop was a 2008-2009 Fulbright Fellow to Morocco; the 2009-2010 UNESCO/Fulbright Fellow; and is a full time Master Teacher in the Liberal Studies Program at New York University.

Loren Kleinman (LK): You're a novelist and a poet. How do you reconcile both genres? Do you ever reconcile them? Do they live independently of one another?

Jacqueline Bishop (JB): For the moment both genres live independently of each other. I started off life as a poet and I consider myself primarily a poet. But always, deep inside of myself, I harbored the ideas of writing longer works, fictional pieces. I wanted to write short stories and novels. To do that though, to write longer fictional pieces, I went back and did an MFA in fiction writing, after I had an MA in poetry writing. That is not the only way to write fiction, but I wanted the rigor of a structured program.

I guess implicit in your questions is the question of, how do you know when you begin a piece whether it is fiction or poetry? I must confess I have not struggled as much with this idea, as I know that others have struggled. You see, for me, poetry writing is often intuitive, poems often come to me whole, in a flash so to speak, and then there is the going back and the intense crafting of the poems. Whereas, for me, in fiction writing, I almost never start from a place of having the story whole. In writing fiction I start from a place of hearing the voice of the narrator and getting to know the narrator, and then allowing the narrator to tell me his or her story. It is great detective work, but what that also means is that I am very clear, oftentimes, whether I am writing a poem or a piece of fiction.

LK: When did you decide to write a novel? What were some of the rewarding moments? Would you write another novel? What were the major challenges after only writing poetry and non-fiction?

JB: I have actually finished another novel. I finished it sometime ago and I have put it away to go back to it with fresh eyes, so to speak. The process of writing a novel for me is a very involved process and my characters become real people that walk around with me all day long. They have opinions, different from mine, and they have all these mannerisms and these opinions! For the moment I have had to shove them in the closet as I try to get on with other areas--and other people--in my life. But with your questions now they are telling me they are restless and they would like to see the light of day again!

I guess what I am trying to say is that writing a novel is an undertaking. You have to make a place for all these people in your life. They come bearing the weight of all their joys and their sorrows and their concerns. The people in my novel are real people to me. I also know that for all of its displacements that I will always be writing novels, because, frankly, it is only in the process of writing novels that I can set these characters free. It is only in writing novels that I, in turn, am free to go on with other areas of my life. There was a time I fought against this. There was a time I wondered what the people in these novels wanted from me. Now, I just get on with it. This is what I have been chosen to do and this is what I have to do.

In so far as my first published novel--The River's Song--is concerned, I started to think about the novel after I had written and published a short story called "Brown Girl in The Ring." Looking back now, in fact, I see that that short story, "Brown Girl In The Ring," was influenced by Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea. In Wide Sargasso Sea you have the delicate sensitive Antoinette, who is being hurt, at the beginning of the novel, by the very environment of the Caribbean in which she lives. A playmate is summoned for Antoinette in the form of Tia. But Tia, a black girl, is presented as unfeeling. Indeed she can walk barefoot and bare-head in the hot Jamaican sun, without feeling any pain. But I knew that this was wrong, I knew that Tia, could and did in fact feel pain and so in that short story I wanted to talk back to Jean Rhys who herself was talking back to Charlotte Bronte in the novel Jane Eyre. Like Jean Rhys I too felt the need to set the record straight about the "maligned mad woman in the attic." I wanted in fact to say to both Jean Rhys and Jane Eyre here is another side of the story, the story that neither of you are seeking to tell. And so I wrote "Brown Girl In The Ring" to tell the other half of the story, which the great poet Lorna Goodison has written, that some of us must tell.

After "Brown Girl in the Ring" fell out of me, because that was what it felt like, that the short story fell right out of me, I wondered about the two girls in that short story, and in wondering and thinking about them, that was how I came to write The River's Song.

The most rewarding moments in writing that book was the moment when I realized that both characters trusted me to tell their story. That moment meant everything to me. I guess too when I realized that I could use words to recreate a place, that meant a lot to me as well. I studied with Paule Marshall at NYU and she always talked about the power of words in making you see what is not there and as I wrote that novel I became increasingly confident with myself as a fiction writer, in using words to make people see the world of these girls, and that was highly rewarding.

I would say that writing non-fiction was more challenging for me than writing fiction and poetry, because, oftentimes, in both fiction and poetry it is not "me" so much that is on the line, as it is the characters. I see myself after-all, when I am writing poetry and fiction, as nothing more than a conduit that the characters use to tell their stories. With non-fiction though I have found that to be more difficult, more challenging, because it is me, Jacqueline, that is on the line here. It is my thoughts, my experiences, and feelings, and so I struggled more in finding my non-fiction voice that in my poetic and fictional voice. But these days I am getting more comfortable in embracing myself as an artist and a writer who creates in more than one genres and mediums. I am not totally there yet, but every day I get more comfortable with this, and so I am becoming more and more comfortable in writing non-fiction pieces.

LK: Your novel, The River's Song, explores the sexual awakening of a Jamaican girl, which you mention is "[a]typical of Caribbean literature." Can you discuss this "atypical" nature? Why did you decide to break those boundaries? Is there any connection to your own personal experiences?

JB: I was not the one who talked of The River's Song as being atypical of Caribbean literature, which was something that was written about the novel. This was said in the context of a coming of age Caribbean novel not really addressing issues of sexuality and the sexual awakening of a female narrator. I think too, hidden in that observation is the fact that one of the girls in the novel is clearly in love with the other girl and her break-down comes when her love object decides to leave her. I think this is what makes the novel atypical, because homosexual love remains so taboo in Jamaican and Caribbean literature.

A friend of mine who has taught the novel in the Caribbean says that it generates some wonderful discussions among her graduate students about what is hidden and how it is hidden in Caribbean literature, and I think that is just great. Really, quite a compliment. Her comment also made me think of another book, Roger Mais' Black Lightning that I just had the great joy of writing a new introduction to. This book was first published in 1955 and it is being reissued by Peepal Tree Press in the UK. This book too is about homosexual love, but here too, the work speaks in parables because it was the love then, as it still remains so, for the most part in Jamaica, the love that dares not speak its name. In so far as The River's Song and Black Lightning are both atypical in that they gets us to talk about what is hidden and what is difficult and charged and at times painful for us to acknowledge and speak about in society, then I am glad that I decided to, in your words Loren, 'break those boundaries' and write about this subject. Because I believe that one of the jobs of the writer, of the artist, is to get us to look at and try to face and think about things that we would rather not. And there is a lot of looking away from certain subjects in Jamaican and Caribbean literature, because, to be frank, there has already been so much collective pain in our story.

The question of whether the girls in the novel reflect me in some way is always a difficult question to answer. In so far as the main characters are young girls who came of age on the island of Jamaica, which too is my experience. I also went to an all-girls Catholic school on the island, and the love, for example, that Gloria has for her grandmother and her grandmother has for her, mirrors my own relationship with my grandmother a great deal. But I think that is where the similarities stop. To a degree our characters are our creations, in so far as they come from us, but they have a life and lived experiences outside of us. As a student of mine astutely observed in class one day, you do not have to die or have ever been pregnant to write about those things! So I would say that there is little in the novel that is overtly autobiographical.

LK: How has your mother influenced your writing (all genres)? What is your relationship like?

JB: You know, my mother, was the first audience for my work. I used to write these poems as a little girl and I would show them to her, and she would praise these terrible things and she would encourage me to keep writing. I remember once that I had two poems published on a church flier and she was oh so proud of me and the work that I had done, and I think about this often these days, how her encouragement made me actively pursue my goals.

More than anything else my mother gave me freedom. Freedom to pursue what I wanted to pursue. I remember once, when I was in college, I was having an argument with my mother about something or another related to my college career, and I said something to the effect of, "Stop controlling me! Why are you trying to control me? Why are you telling me what to do?" And my mother took a deep breath and she said, "If I were trying to control you I would tell you to study nursing, like all the other Jamaican mothers are telling, sometimes forcing, their children to do, because then I would know you will be alright for the rest of your life. You will always be taken care of and you would always have a well-paying job!"

Well, that comment stopped me in my tracks.

Here was this woman who had to shell out every single penny to pay my tuition, on a nurses' aide salary. I. Will. Never. Forget. This. And yet she was giving me free reign to study whatever I wanted to study. My mother (and my grandmother too) made all of what I am doing now possible, because more than anything else they believed in the value of an education. They prized an education, even when at times I am sure they were confused at what I was doing. I remember a time for example when I wanted to study French in Canada, in preparation for going to live in Paris for a year, and it was my grandmother who paid for that.

So yes, these women, my mother and my grandmother, have both been a huge influence on my life, on my writing, and that is why my non-fiction book, My Mother Who Is Me: Life Stories From Jamaican Women in New York, is dedicated to both of them.

These days my mother and I have a pretty good relationship. In the past it has been more difficult. But we are both grown women now, and I think she takes pride in what I have gone on to do with my life and we have a clearer lovelier relationship these days.

LK: I've always been fascinated by the idea of "the other" in literature. Do you feel that is something that is over-represented or under-represented? Why? Why not? Do you feel that all writers feel that sense of "non belonging," which is why we tap into creating a sense of belonging via the literary arts?

JB: I think that literature allows us to live vicariously the lives of others. Think about it: when you are reading a really good book, you become invisible and there is total identification with the character. I remember being a student in Paris, many moons ago, and, without the benefit of language and television, I just kept reading and reading and reading everything I could get my hands on in English. I particularly remember reading Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon because I started that book in the morning and just could not put it down, and at the end of the day when I came to the end of the book, I just turned over and cried. I mean really cried. I loved Pilate so I totally identified with her. I did not want what happened to her in the end to happen. It just broke my heart. So I think in one way or another literature is about the "other" so to speak. And this is even the case for the writer. You come to know your characters as others from yourself. They have ways of speaking, mannerisms, that are different from you. And, of course, they insist that you call them by their rightful names. Not some name you made up for them--but their rightful names.

I think that at the very least writers, and artists in general actually, are obliged to turn a critical eye on the society that they are writing about. In turning a critical eye on their characters and the society in which they live, the writer is forced to be an outsider. And to be clear, by critical, I do not mean only negative. Twice in my life as a fiction writer I have written stories that came to me in one go as a poem usually does. One of the stories, I have talked about already is, "Brown Girl in the Ring." The other story is "Love Story in Two Parts" that was published a few years back when I was in graduate school. People who have read that story have compared it a lot to Zora Neale Hurston's There Eyes Were Watching God because here too is a story of love, told in the vernacular of the Jamaican dialect. Here is a woman, in "Love Story in Two Parts," who triumphs in love not once but two times over. Maybe, as I think about it now, a little bit of Zora did find its way into that story, though I distinctly remember writing that story before I read Zora's wonderful book. The point I am trying to make though is that by critical eye you can see and acknowledge and fall in love with the things that are absolutely beautiful about the people you most identify with. This too is turning a critical eye on something. And what is more challenging and ultimately triumphant than love? What is more mysterious and confounding than the things we do in the name of love? How it stretches us, teaches us, shapes us into who we are to become. I am often surprised at much I come to care about my characters. So yes, I do believe that writers are often acutely aware of a sense of non-belonging, because we bear the burden of so many other lives, so many other stories, within ourselves, and I do believe that we use our art to create a community in our works.

LK: You are also the founding editor of Calabash: A Journal of Caribbean Arts & Letters. Do you feel the journal represents writing across the diaspora? Talk about the original intent of the journal? Who is the audience?

JB: When I look back on Calabash I must say I take pride in so much that it accomplished in the ten years that I worked on it. I want to believe that Calabash gave impetus to paying closer attention to the visual arts in the region, for example. I see more and more journals of Caribbean letters these days and they all are showcasing the visual arts and I think Calabash had something to do with this.

I also wanted a journal that made an effort to represent parts of the Caribbean that we did not usually hear from, the Dutch-speaking Caribbean areas for example, and I was also interested in hearing from voices that were often subsumed in Caribbean arts and Letters. That was very much the intent of the journal. To bring the Caribbean closer and to bring more voices into the discussion.

Time alone will tell how much we who worked on Calabash succeeded in doing all the things that we dreamed of doing. We really gave it a good faith effort in representing "writing across the diaspora." I have to say though that every time I talk about Calabash I feel a twinge of regret and I get a bit teary-eyed. It was and still is my baby. I hoped it would live on forever, and in a sense it will, because it is archived on the Internet. But as I started traveling and teaching and writing and creating more, I had to make a decision as to what to do about the journal and so we have not published in several years now, but I am loathe to give up on the idea that we will never publish anymore.

The audience for Calabash is those who love great art and literature, particularly those who love the arts and literature of the Caribbean region.

LK: Do you miss home?

JB: There is not a day that goes by that I don't think about Jamaica, even though my home is several places now, including New York and Morocco. But Jamaica is my grandmother and my great grandmother. Jamaica is the district of Nonsuch, high in the purple blue mountains of Portland. Jamaica is the food I most love to eat, the language I speak. Jamaica is the timbre of my voice. Jamaica is intimacy and love and worry and pain and understanding and misunderstanding. Yes, I miss home a lot in fact, and by that I mean that I miss Jamaica.