“My Grandmother Was an Artist”:
An Interview with Jacqueline Bishop
About going home
Voichita Nachescu (VN): Today is May 16th, 2016, and we are at Jacqueline Bishop’s apartment, looking at her gorgeous art collection. I want to congratulate you for the recently received Bocas Prize for Non-Fiction, a very prestigious award.
You recently returned from Jamaica, you live in New York and often travel to Jamaica. In your writings, you often talk about being both at home and not quite at home in both places and in both cultures. How has your concept of home evolved?
Jacqueline Bishop (JB): It’s evolved quite a bit since living in New York. I came to New York as a teenager, as you know, and ended up going to Lehman College, in the Bronx. I really enjoyed my time there. It radically altered my sense of what home is, being in New York, in the Bronx, and at Lehman College. Lehman College is one of the City University of New York colleges. It’s what my mother could afford. I found it to be a very gorgeous college. It’s absolutely beautiful. More than that, it was the first time that I interacted with people from Grenada, with people from Antigua, from Haiti, from other parts of the Caribbean.
When I was in Jamaica, you might have a student from India here, you might have one from the US there. Here, it was fully integrated. It really forced me to confront a similar history in the Caribbean, not totally the same, but very similar. I started to get a sense then that home might be Jamaica, yes, but other places in addition to Jamaica. I started to have a sense of a Caribbean identity.
VN: How was this most recent visit to Jamaica different from previous visits?
JB: I was in Jamaica from April 23rd to the 30th. I was there working on a very specific project. The US Department of State, through the American Museums Association, offers a grant to put a US community in conversation with a foreign community. I was successful in getting the grant, and I suggest everybody else try to get it as well. I had to lead an American delegation to Jamaica. It was this strange thing, being from Jamaica, but also being the foreigner to Jamaica. I was both the American and the Jamaican in Jamaica in a very weird way.
It was quite interesting to have to be both at once. There were fifteen or so of us in the American group, and I don’t think anybody else in the group had ever been to Jamaica before. I was in this strange position of explaining aspects of Jamaica that they would not know, while being an American as well. According to the grant, you have to have a Jamaican coordinator, so it was like handing over parts of myself to the Jamaican coordinator, so that she could be in charge of that portion. It was quite interesting. For this grant, I was doing work in a small community called Nonsuch.
VN: You mention its history in interviews: “no such place.” I love the name.
“What do you see in the clouds?”
JB: Nonsuch is such a source for me. I was born in Kingston, but I would spend all my holidays in Nonsuch. My grandmother was there, and I was extraordinarily close to my grandmother. We were so caught up in each other. She died two years ago, and I have to tell you something, I don’t believe it. There are moments when I’m like, “When am I going to wake up from this nightmare?” She really encouraged me as a writer and an artist. I now think that my grandmother herself was an artist.
I don’t think she was a writer, but I think she was a visual artist based on the work that she made, some of which I can show you today. She made absolutely gorgeous patchwork quilts. When I would be drawing, she would come and draw with me, that kind of stuff. She would ask me, “What do you see in the clouds?” We were extraordinarily close.
VN: You mentioned that she encouraged you. What forms did that encouragement take?
JB: The first form I think the encouragement took was just that she allowed for my imagination. I lived with my grandmother for the first probably eight, nine, ten years of life. My mother lived elsewhere, and I would see her occasionally. The main source was my grandmother. Any little drawing or whatever, it would be her seeing it first.
But there are also very specific moments that I remember. When it was time to go to high school, I went to live with my mother. I applied for this really great high school, and passed my Common Entrance examination, which was an examination in Jamaica to get into high schools.
My grandmother took the bus from Portland, which was a very long drive away, just to see me in my school uniform that morning, which was so affirming. That evening I came home from my first day of school, and I was telling her that I needed an apron to do my school work, for cooking classes. She sat and she made that apron right there in front of me. She just cut the cloth, cut it out, and she made it. I think I started to get a sense from her that being able to make something was valuable. Prior to that, I had been drawing once, and she came and she drew with me. My little things that I would do were important to her, the little poems that I would write and whatnot.
Shortly before she died, I sat down and I read her a poem in my second collection that I’ve written for her. You could tell she was very moved by it.
There are other things I’ve found out since her death. She used to have me write her letters for her. I always thought that was weird, but I thought it was probably because I was “the one with the good handwriting” in the family. I know she could read her Bible, but she used to take literacy classes very late in her life. When she had grandchildren already, she was taking literacy classes, I found out.
I don’t know how literate she was, even though you’d never be able to see her and think she wasn’t a literate person, but she could make just about anything. I think I really got that from her, to make an apron or to make the quilts that she was making. When I decided that I was going to follow my calling to be a visual artist in addition to being a writer, I had some patch works that her mother had made. They were being exhibited all over. I was telling her about this, and she made six just like that, which was one of the last things she did for me before she died, and she sent them up for me. Those are some of the very specific ways that she encouraged what I was doing.
VN: That’s such a wonderful story.
JB: It really is, and I’m going to cry.
Patchwork quilts that cross the world
JB: What I’m struggling with now is that I don’t think that the things that women make are valued in the ways that things that men make are valued in Jamaica, per se. People threw away these patch works and did not see in them what I have thankfully come to see through the work of Alice Walker. It was reading Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Garden and Walker talking about the quilt making tradition in her family in In Search of Our Mother’s Garden that made me start to think back. We had these quilts as well when I was growing up in Jamaica. It was something to be gotten rid of. It was shameful, because you could not afford a bed sheet, and so this is what you did.
When my great grandmother died, I found these patch works, and was able to get them. Then of course my grandmother made some for me before she died. When I talk about this tradition in Jamaica, our historians are like, “Really?” I’m like, “Yes, but we have to re-conceptualize what we understand art to be.” Of course there’s a wonderful artist in Jamaica that I’m working with now, trying to sell some of his work. He is using housepaint to paint on the discarded bits of metal, and it’s absolutely beautiful. The thing is that what he does will be readily seen as art faster than what my great grandmother and grandmother did.
VN: Absolutely right, because women’s work is considered craft. You don’t need to specialize to make it. You just learn it. Of course there’s artistry involved in it, and there’s a complexity to it.
JB: Exactly, but there’s more to this history. Let’s step back for a moment. When I was writing The River’s Song, which is my first novel, I wanted to leave the US. I wanted to write in a place other than the US. A lot of The River’s Song was written here in the US. It was my thesis work at NYU. I also spent a summer in Mexico writing it, and it was finished in Morocco. What the hell was I doing in Morocco? I don’t know, except I always wanted to go there. I got on a plane. I remember a friend of mine, an older woman who was saying to me, “You’re just going to go?” I’m like, “Yeah. I’m just going to go.”
I ended up eventually applying for a Fulbright grant to spend a year in Morocco. I was successful with that. In Morocco, I had all sorts of realizations, some of them not very pleasant. I started to look very keenly at what it is that women produce. Moroccan women produce extraordinary embroidery, just extraordinary, like nothing I’ve ever seen. Their embroidery is very distinctive to the different regions. Azemmour, which is by the ocean, that embroidery is very blue and white, versus the very geometric work that you’ll find in Fez, which is in a more interior space and in the mountains.
VN: I think I should invite you to Romania.
JB: You’re the second person to say that if I love embroidery I should go to Romania. In Morocco, there’s very floral embroidery in some places. I was blown away by this. What I started to do was buy embroidery from the women, then I started to employ an African diasporic technique to it. What I mean by that is that I was using the embroidery to make patchwork quilts.
VN: This is so interesting.
JB: I now realize what I was trying to do was to test my acceptance as an African child of the diaspora within an African country. Whether Morocco wants to accept it or not, and too many Moroccans really have a problem with this, they are on the continent of Africa. Too many Moroccans do not want to be on the continent of Africa, they do not want to be associated with Africa, but that’s the reality of things. There are some Moroccans for whom this is not even a question. They embrace that. But from what I could see that was not the majority of people I interacted with. While in Morocco I started to see connections from the African-American community there, and the Caribbean and Jamaica.
I was like, “Right. You’re using textiles the way women in the small district of Nonsuch where my great grandparents and my grandmother were from, and there’s something going on here.” I think I was looking to place myself in this discussion by doing this work. Of course you don’t think all of that when you are doing the work. This is only years later, you’re like, “Oh, that’s what I was doing.” I started to take the embroidery and put patch works around it. The Fulbright program [and the US Embassy in Morocco] went, “Excuse me. Can we see what you’re doing? We like what is going on here.”
To make a long story short, I ended up having an exhibition in the gallery of a woman, Asmaa Benachir, who promotes the work of women in Morocco. She was interested in the women learning how to do patch works, because they already knew how to do embroidery. We applied for this grant. It was the US Embassy in Morocco who brought the grant to my attention and said, “I know you and Asmaa have been working at embroidery, would you like to apply for this grant? We’ll support you.” And support us they did. It was an amazing, just model, working relationship.
In that project I had NYU students collect oral histories from a group here in the United States called Quilters of Color. In Morocco, Asmaa had students collect oral histories from the women from the Au Grain de Sesame collective. Then Asmaa and I put the women and students from both countries in conversation with each other. The Americans went to Morocco, and the Moroccans came here.
VN: I’m seeing a pattern there. You’re like a cultural translator, moving between cultures and then teaching other people to recognize things from their own culture or somewhere else.
JB: I have heard that said before. It was one of the most moving things I ever did. We were able to take to Morocco women who had never left this country before, African-American women. That was quite moving. Even more moving was taking Moroccan women to the US, some of whom had to sign X to their names. A few of these are women who had never left Rabat for Tangier before, Rabat being the city that they were in. The Moroccan and American women were able to speak a language that had nothing to do with words. They formed bonds and friendships like you would never ever, ever believe. It was one of the most amazing things that I have ever seen.
These women continue to be in touch with each other. I don’t know how they talk to each other, because they don’t speak the same language, but they’re on Facebook sharing pictures, all day long. It is quite lovely. I want people from Romania to apply for the grant.
VN: I definitely like what you’re doing, creating these bonds between women.
JB: Those women became so empowered from this trip that they formed their own organization in Morocco. When we were in Morocco, we met someone who was connected to Martha Stewart Living. We got a tour of Martha’s studio. You could see the light bulbs going off in these women’s minds. I don’t want to say they were not empowered before they got on a plane and come to America. They hosted us in Morocco. They were wonderful, but I think they started to understand that in addition to that empowerment, there were other ways as well that they could be empowered.
VN: That is fantastic.
JB: And that is the same grant we got for Jamaica. We’re all excited. We’re waiting for the little ones in Jamaica to come to New York. They’ve been making films from the history of their community. Part of why that project came about in Jamaica was that . . . .I’d be interviewed and people would be ever so curious about Nonsuch, because I get so much from that place and I talk about it so much. This project, in so many ways, answers the question of what is Nonsuch and how did the community get that name.
VN: Your own voice and descriptions of Nonsuch make it such a very, very memorable place.
JB: I’m getting scared now though, because so many want to go to Nonsuch. I feel like saying, “Hey, it’s two hundred and fifty people, deeply rural. Its meanings for me might not be the meanings for you. There’s really not that much to see or to do in Nonsuch. It’s just what I create out of.” It’s mountains. It’s not the easiest place to get to, so I don’t know if it will ever become very touristic.
“And I fall incredibly in love. . .”
VN: I wanted to ask you something about what I call the Jamaican/Romanian connection. I read your poems in the collection Snapshots from Istanbul. Some of the poems there are inspired by the Roman poet Ovid, who was exiled to Tomis, which is now the city of Constanta, in Romania. How did you come by Ovid? What inspired you when you were in Istanbul? What is the Ovid/Istanbul Connection? What did you learn from Ovid about exile?
JB: Let’s take the second part first. I learned that wherever we consider to be home, if we’re not there, we long for it. There is something deeply comforting about what is familiar, even if that familiarity is not the best for us. It’s what we know. I’ll give you a good example of what I mean by that. I positively hate winter. I think that’s the last vestiges of my being Jamaican that’s just rebelling. It’s very hard for me even now. I’ve lived away from Jamaica, in places that have winter, longer than I lived in Jamaica. But it’s still hard for me to look outside and see a bright sunny day and go outside and it’s –10 degrees. There’s just something wrong (laughs).
VN: It’s like a physical reaction, physical rejection.
JB: There’s just something wrong about this! Why? That’s from living in Jamaica, from being born in Jamaica and growing up there. I find myself more and more complaining about New York. My works are getting bigger and bigger and bigger as a visual artist, I’m needing more space. In New York I do not have the space I need. But what is it that happens when I’m not in New York? I miss New York. Even though I can see a day when I no longer live [here] because I need more space. There is something deeply comforting and familiar about a place that I feel like I need to move on from. Now I’m thinking of Florida, or California.
The [other] second part of your question is, I have actually gone to Istanbul. It was another very weird story where I was dating a man and I didn’t like the politics of what was going on in the US at the time involving the war in Iraq. I needed to get away. The man I was dating knew of somebody in Istanbul who said I could come stay with them, and I got on the plane and went to go visit this person as well. As I get older I’m like, “Suppose these were serial killers who I went to stay with? People neither I nor the man I was dating knew?” (laughs)
VN: I have a few travel stories myself like that.
JB: I went there and sure enough I’m walking through the Grand Bazaar, and I see a man, and I fall incredibly in love with this man, just like that.
VN: Wonderful. During the first days of your visit?
JB: I think it was the second day. A seller in the Grand Bazaar. He was gorgeous, but it didn’t work out. It wouldn’t have worked out. I don’t know what I was thinking. Out of that came that book, Snapshots from Istanbul, out of that entire love affair. Who knows where he is these days, married? I just fell absolutely and totally in love with him, and that book came out of that experience. At the same time, I watch a lot of PBS, not a lot of television, but a lot of PBS specifically. There was a show on Ovid and one thing that they said in the PBS special was nobody knows why Ovid was exiled. I thought, “Isn’t that interesting?” and I started to read all sorts of things on Ovid. It was just a classic story of exile and wanting to go home, and all of it came together in that book.
The “now” Caribbean
VN: I have a few more questions. I know that in your essays, you often write about cultural life in Jamaica. What is interesting that’s going on right now?
JB: First, I was very happy to get the Bocas award, which is from Trinidad not Jamaica, but more and more it is feeling like a continuum. I don’t think that we should base our self-worth or what we’re doing on awards, but this one was special. This one was special in so far as from time to time in Jamaica, my Jamaica-ness gets questioned. It gets questioned in the way I speak. Here, I have a very Jamaican accent. In Jamaica of course I have a very American accent. Because I’ve lived in the US so long, I get questions. For me, the Bocas Award was an affirmation of my Caribbean-ness, and that is very, very important to me. Actually, when I found out that I got this award, I broke down in tears and cried.
It just felt very affirming to be there in Trinidad and to collect this award. I had to cut my trip to Jamaica short to go and collect [it]. My father and I went to collect this award in Trinidad. Right before I went, the little ones that I was working with in Jamaica gave me an award, which I’ll show to you. I came back to the States with two awards. I just cried, and cried, and cried, and cried. This was a total surprise. I didn’t expect it. I wasn’t born in Nonsuch. I was born in Kingston. I didn’t go to the school in Nonsuch actually, but Nonsuch is everything to me as you can tell. I felt, “Oh my God. It’s such an affirmation both ways.” It really felt wonderful. Being at Bocas though, I was able to see the various strands of Caribbean literature. There is one that is very nostalgic for the Caribbean and looking back on an older Caribbean that is beautiful and melancholic.
Then there’s another strand, which I hope I fall into, which is dealing with the Caribbean as it is right now, what I call the Now Caribbean. Within that space, I think that there are some really interesting writers and writing going on. In Jamaica, you have a writer like Sharon Leach who is so now. I mean her characters live in apartments like these. They are negotiating the world in all sorts of interesting global ways. Tanya Shirley is a wonderful, wonderful poet, as is Ann-Margaret Lim who has a new collection coming out soon, the poet Millicent Graham—just some really, really strong writers. I think women writers are being overlooked in the Caribbean now, which wasn’t the case twenty years ago. The women’s writing is so strong that it’s almost a shame that more women aren’t being venerated these days. That’s what I’m seeing in Caribbean literature these days.
VN: Thank you so much for mentioning these women writers. Actually, it seems very similar to Romania. I have good friends who recently organized a conference. It was called About Truth. They invited Romanian intellectuals to speak about truth, but there weren’t any woman involved. I’m like, “Don’t women have to say something, absolutely anything to say about—”
JB: About truth, of all things.
VN: Yes, about truth, right, which is such a general thing.
JB: It’s not about penis surgery. It’s about truth (laughs).
VN: Exactly (laughs). Now speaking of the little ones, the students who granted you this award. Sometimes in your writings and in your essays, you mentioned teaching and your relationship with students. How does teaching inspire you? Does it?
JB: Teaching is incredibly inspiring to me. For me, teaching is all about being able to over and over again touch the future. You’re just always touching the future. I love it for that reason, that I get to see what the future thinks. I do confess to getting story ideas from students all the time. I don’t know if I follow up on a lot of them, but when I’m teaching my creative writing class, I will say to them, “Well, that’s a really good idea. Somebody should. . .” There was one student who wrote these Tinder stories in class. They were hysterical, and I was thinking, “That’s right. In a couple of years those will be the stories, these social media dating stories.” I like that.
VN: I really like your formulation, “It allows me to touch the future.” I think that’s true. This is what we do as teachers.
A Carribean space: New York
VN: You often mention your identity as a New Yorker. What does your New York look like? What is your particular geography of New York?
JB: There was just a review of The Gymnast by a scholar in Puerto Rico, Loretta Collins Klobah, who talks about how I Caribbeanize New York. For example, look at my apartment. There’s a coconut plant, for Christ’s sake, growing in New York in my apartment, and a bird of paradise. My New York is highly Caribbeanized. Also, a lot of my paintings are Caribbean paintings. I bought that in Puerto Rico. I bought this in Jamaica. I think New York works for me because I can make it into a Caribbean space. If I could not have the Caribbean invade New York for me, I don’t know. As much as I made a home for a year or so in Morocco, it did not feel like home. I had a home there, but it did not feel like my home. What I was missing was that Caribbean thing.
VN: We’re approaching the end of the interview. What question would you like somebody to ask you?
JB: Well, the question that I’m struggling with now, and I think it is a positive struggle, is what is it that I am creating? What is The Gymnast? It has essays. It has fiction. There’s a poem. There’s visual art. There are interviews. In Trinidad was the first time I heard myself described as iconoclast and iconoclastic, and I had to go look up what the hell that meant. At Bocas there was also a lot of discussion about boundary breaking and form breaking, and about cross-fertilization of me as a writer of multiple genres and a visual artist, and I think that that’s where it’s at now, is trying to say, “What is it that Jacqueline Bishop is doing?”
VN: You feel like somebody else feels like they should label you.
JB: I guess label is a negative term. . . I think they’re struggling to . . .
VN: To categorize you? Is that a question that you ask yourself, or is that a question that your audience asks?
JB: I’m asking this question because it’s often times asked of me. I’ve never been able to answer it. I have a harder time trying to come to terms with what I’m doing than actually doing what I am doing. By that I mean it’s easier for me to do the work, to do the visual artwork, to do the poems, to do the essays, to do the interviews, to do all of that, than to make sense of it. I’ll give you a good example of what I mean. The National Gallery of Jamaica had an open call for digital works. I put together, in effect, something that is an homage to my grandmother. I didn’t know how to describe what the hell it was—it’s individual photographs, but together they function as a video. It’s called “Bodies of Water.” A Jamaican artist who I really admire, Oneika Russell, looked at it and she wrote to me and she said, “I know what you’re doing. It’s a visual poem.” I thought, “Thank you Oneika. I can see that now.” Another terrific artist from Barbados, Sheena Rose, asked pretty much the same question of me about what exactly the work was and there too, the two of us struggled to identify what the work was.
Whose female sexual desires?
VN: I see. Do you work in dialogue with your audience?
JB: In this latest work, The Female Sexual Desires Project, I am in dialogue. I’m in direct dialogue because I wouldn’t be able to make the work without women sending me their sexual desires. I also did two videos in which I actually talked back to people who have spoken to me in the process of doing this work. For example, I was trying to come to terms with why there was so much anger from white women about this work, just anger. Making it has been a journey and an interesting one. It hasn’t turned out in any way and shape that I thought it would, which is not to say it turned out badly.
I thought of that work as a hoorah girl moment. We girls were going to bond together. It sprung from a basic desire of trying to know what women desire sexually. It has turned out to be anything but a hoorah moment. It has turned into anger. I cannot believe what I’m about to say to you, but the greatest supporters of that work so far have been white men.
I can’t believe those words are falling out of my mouth. I almost want to push those words back into my mouth, because it was. . . I thought the exact opposite would happen. What people say to me now is, “Oh well, it conforms to male ideas about women.” I think, “No. I know these men. It’s not as though they. . . have these distorted ideas about women. They are just, from what they tell me, happy to see a woman go there.” This work sprang from me wondering, well, male sexual desires, they are on billboards. They’re all over the place. We know what male sexual desires are. What the hell are female sexual desires? Why is it that I can find small numbers, very small numbers of books in which women write about their sexual desires, women sing about their sexual desires, but in the visual arts it’s blank, like nada.
I’ve been looking. I’ve been challenged on this so many times. I tell people, “Well, show it to me.” They can’t. They mistake a vulva for female sexual desires kind of deal. I thought that this was going to be a great, big, “We girls against the world” thing. Instead, I can encapsulate what one woman said to me. She said, enraged, a white woman, “Why aren’t you doing police brutality?” I thought, “Well, why don’t you?”
VN: Exactly. Right. Yeah.
JB: Why aren’t you doing police brutality? Why do I have to. . . Not to say there’s anything wrong with doing police brutality as a visual art work. . .to have that very important discussion.
VN: Basically, you’re saying that white women should be doing the cultural work, while women of color should do the political and social justice work, right?
JB: That’s right. It took me quite a while to understand that the white women who were vociferous against this project on female sexual desires felt that this is theirs, this is mine. This is my territory. On top of that, I think that they’re pissed too, because they’re like, “Why didn’t I think of it?” You know what I mean? I think there’s some of that going on as well, and maybe, the more I think about it, they are just pissed at all the work that still needs to be done. I started to realize that, “Oh, okay. We’re supposed to occupy certain lanes here. You’re supposed to be in this lane and I’m supposed to be in that lane.” Then what happens when you cross lanes, when you start to say, “No, I’m interested in desire?” The other thing that I found interesting is I can guarantee you that these white women who have a problem with this work would not have a problem with it if it were a project on black female sexual desires. I guarantee you that. The problem is that it’s on female sexual desires. It’s having a woman of color, a black woman, talk about female sexual desires, not black female sexual desires.
VN: I think it’s interesting, because. . . can a person of color represent everybody?
JB: There you go.
VN: The same with Obama, and the same with, I don’t know, Toni Morrison.
JB: Hillary Clinton. Can a woman represent us all?
VN: That’s so wonderful. Thank you so much.
JB: It’s been wonderful. It’s been good.