Our Ancestors Who Art in Heaven: Jacqueline Bishop in conversation with Funso Aiyejina
by Funso Aiyejina
Funso Aiyejina: Congratulations on the publication of The Gymnast and Other Positions and for having been shortlisted for the OCM Prize. This book is a boundary- and genre-bending work, with panels of short short stories, essays, interviews, meditations and visual art. How would you like your readers to classify and read this book?
Jacqueline Bishop: Thanks Funso, I appreciate very much your congratulations.
I would like readers to classify the book in the ways that you have written about it in your question as a boundary- and genre-bending work though, truth be told, I did not conceive of it as such when I was putting the book together. What happened was that I had written a collection of short-short stories and sent it in to Peepal Tree Press for consideration of publication. Jeremy Poynting of Peepal Tree Press liked the book as a collection of short stories, but was a little concerned that it was such a short book because the stories are nothing but a few pages long. He asked me to consider what could be added? Over the years, I had written various personal essays and had participated in several interviews and I started thinking that I might add these to the book. It so happened that during this time, I was also made aware of someone who was doing either a master’s or doctoral degree on my work and was having difficulties getting primary source material to use. I had fielded a few other such requests for more primary source materials on my work and figured that the book would be a good place to add them. In adding the interviews and essays to the short stories, I found that I really liked the self-reflexivity of the book because I ended up laying bare the process of making the work. Readers will ultimately have their own definitions and classifications of the book, but I really liked the stumbling through that is implied in the work.
FA: What is the interplay of autobiographical details and autobiographical feelings and emotions in your work?
JB: Apart from the section with the stories, a lot of the work is autobiographical actually. Especially so in the essays and interviews where I am talking about growing up in Jamaica. But even in the stories there is this interplay of biography and autobiography as well, not so much as these are things that happened to me in my life, but I know of such things actually happening to other people. The stories “Terra Nova”, “Soliloquy”, and “Zemi” all have their start as stories that I heard told around me at some point in my life. These stories, however, went on to be transformed as the characters took over and started asserting themselves in the stories. In “Terra Nova”, I knew of family one of whose daughter died and the other daughter in the family was made to bear the weight of her sister’s death and at one point that daughter, as happened in the story, was told by her mother that she should have been the one who died and not her sister. Imagine that. She told me that years and years after her sister’s death yet she remembered her mother saying that to her out of anger and I remembered and carried around for years her recounting this to me. That story and the other two I mentioned have a similar genesis in something someone said to me that has stayed in my consciousness and the only way to exorcise those stories, for me, was to write about them. I guess the one story that has the most autobiographical details and which is a running theme throughout the book is “Flamboyant Tree” which is all about the love between a man and a tree. The genesis of that story is told in the essay, “Sailing With Wayne Brown.” Further still, Brown’s influence on me as a writer and thinker shows up in some of the interviews. In fact it is only now, as I am writing this, that I can more appreciate the interlocking and self-referencing that goes on in The Gymnast.
FA: As a multi-genre artist, how do manage the intersection of your multiple literary selves and any possible push-backs between them?
JB: I don’t struggle with this as many assume that I might. The question for me is not how I manage being a multi-genre artist but could I live with myself if I were not? What The Gymnast has helped me to appreciate, particularly between my work as a visual artist and a writer, is my obsessions and preoccupations, one of which is memory. All in all I do not feel any push-backs in being a multi-genre artist.
FA: Exploitation and the responses to exploitation are central to this work. How important is this concern to your vision as a creative intelligence?
JB: I could see how “The Gymnast”, “A Giant Blue Swallowtail Butterfly” and “Tall Tale” are examples of what one could consider exploitation pieces and even the story “Soliloquy” in which the man seems to be genuinely interested in the goodness of the woman. But, there is a sense in “Soliloquy” that the man is really only looking for a good woman to take care of him. You know, as I think about this, what comes to mind is the earth — mother earth — and how the earth, particularly in the Caribbean, is often despoiled in the name of “development” and tourism. This is the case particularly with the story “A Giant Blue Swallowtail Butterfly.” Jamaica has the largest butterfly in the Western hemisphere, some would say in the world, but this insect has been hunted to near extinction and traded on the black market for thousands of dollars. The poor butterfly has been terribly exploited. I know I was thinking about that in the story “A Giant Blue Swallowtail Butterfly.” In addition, increasingly in Jamaica, you have young and very attractive men hooking up with older women for what they can get and there is a sense of exploitation going on both ways, and I have often sat and thought about this and I guess these concerns are indeed showing up in my work. I am not sure if I have fully answered your question here Funso, but what I so appreciate about the questions you pose is that it gets me to think about my work in ways that I have not thought about it before, and it gets me to cross-reference all of what I am doing. I just finished a Master’s degree in Politics with a public policy focus and, for my thesis, I looked at the preservation of Jamaica’s Giant Swallowtail Butterfly and now, as I am answering your questions, I am amazed how all the things I had read about the exploitation and despoliation of the physical landscape and the creatures who inhabit this landscape has made it into my work.
FA: The female body as a theatre of contestations defines The Gymnast and Other Positions. But, of course, this is only a window for the exploration of more philosophical and psychological tensions. Is this a fair assessment of your approach to your writing of the female body?
JB: I think that this is a fair assessment, but as in the other questions, you are making me aware of things that operate at a very subconscious level that I am perhaps not consciously aware of when I am writing. I spoke in the question before of my preoccupation with land and landscape and how questions about that have been mapped onto the female body. And when I look at stories like “Tall Tale” and “Terra Nova”, I can see where you are going with this question of the female body being a theatre of contestations. In both stories, women are betrayed by those that they love and that betrayal forces “hard thinking” or, as your question more succinctly puts it, philosophical and psychological tensions. For what is someone, in this case, a woman, to do about a man who helped her raise her child, who indeed has acted as a father to said child, and who decides to run off with this child as a lover? How is someone to process and come to terms with the grotesque ways that this man made the woman find out about his betrayal and abandonment? The only choice this woman sees is to destroy this man, as if in doing so, this will destroy the situation that she has found herself in. This will destroy the problem. Naturally she did not count on destroying her love-object, her child, in the process of doing this but ultimately she does that too. So yes, I can see, via your question, how larger more philosophical questions are engaged in the characters that I have created.
FA: The choice of “Other Positions” in the title is an interesting one. It signalled an intension to be eclectic and wide ranging. But it is the sexual undertone that floats to the top, especially in the title piece. In Trinidad and Tobago, we would say that you have deployed the calypsonian technique of double entendre, the deployment of a word or phrase that is open to two interpretations, one of which is usually risqué or indecent. This style can be ribald and titillating and can border on the pornographic. What informed your choice of this approach to your treatment of the serious topic of grooming and sexual abuse?
JB: As an artist you have to sit and think through what you want to create, what you have created (which, for me is oftentimes different from what I want to create, which is not to say that this is a bad thing at all) and the effect you hope that you are having. It is true that a straight forward approach to tackling an issue as a creative writer is sometimes necessary, but for me, oftentimes it is not. I like very much that there could be more than one meaning to something and for me it is a total and complete compliment to be compared or thought of in the same breath as a Trinidadian Calypsonian. With the Calypsonian, for example, you can have adults and children listening to one song and getting two totally different meanings from it, and the adults laughing at the innocence of the children. You can have men and women getting two different meanings from one song, with women half-smirking at what the men don’t know in the song. I could go on and on, insiders and outsiders, race, class politics etc etc. For me, such a work is made richer and comes to “belong” to different people differently. I am hoping that similar readings go on with The Gymnast and Other Positions. With regards to grooming and sexual abuse, I figured that if it was all black and white then I would be failing to do something with my work that I really would like to do, and that is to reach as many people as possible and to get them to think.
FA: What do you mean by you can “identify with a poet in exile, because I often feel in exile myself, though I am not sure where I am exile from”, given the fact that you have consistently avowed your Jamaican-ness?
JB: Because I have avowed my Jamaican-ness does not mean that Jamaicans have necessarily avowed me. I feel in large part that I have been accepted by and in Jamaica, which is crucial, very crucial for me. But then there are some really jarring moments and I (like other writers from the Caribbean living in the United States actually) am aware of how quickly we are denied our heritage if we go against a prevailing idea in a country. Junot Diaz had awards rescinded by the Dominican Republic because he disagrees with the country’s policy of making stateless Dominicans of Haitian descent. Edwidge Danticat from time to time faces similar challenges in Haiti. And I have to admit that I have faced similar challenges in Jamaica. A friend of mine, for example, told me that once s/he had the opportunity to recommend me for something or the other national award in Jamaica and was basically told, “Well, she is American you know.” It is a constant tension. I am in fact American, but I would say I am also Jamaican. I was born on the island, I grew up there, I always go back there, and it is the primary influence on my work, but I know that my Jamaican “purity” is from time to time called into question and maybe this is why I keep avowing it over and over again.
FA: You refer to the following statement by Claude McKay: “I said I was born in the West Indies and lived in the United States and that I was an American, even though I was a British subject, but I prefer to think of myself as an internationalist.” as a garbled answer to the question of his identity. How much different is his position from that of most postcolonial writers who claim multiple/fluid identities?
JB: The thing about McKay’s response is that he was overtly dodging the question of his identity. I find Claude McKay to be the most fascinating of writers and writing personalities, in large part because our trajectories of Jamaica, USA/Harlem, France, Morocco have been so similar that it is eerie; but I am also fascinated by his contradictions. Claude McKay wrote a series of important letters while he lived in Morocco that stand in stark contrast to his autobiography in which he addresses his time in Morocco. In those letters you see that there was, in fact, no fluid identity at all, he was very clear that he was a British subject in Morocco on a British passport. In those letters too you see how precarious his position was in the United States and a lot of effort had to be extended to get him back in the United States, because he left the United States and stayed in Europe and Morocco for years and years without the benefit of American documentation i.e. without having a green card or American citizenship. Consequently it is easy to see through the mock bravado of the talk above (quoted from his autobiography) that he was dodging the question of his identity as a way of staying in Morocco and later returning to the United States rather than asserting multiple/fluid identities.
FA: I read many of the pieces in The Gymnast and Other Positions as veneration and worship pieces, offered up to your ancestors, biological and literary. What is the role of “ancestors” in your development as a literary intelligence?
JB: To be honest, this is something that I am very much struggling with right now. Ancestors. I lost my grandmother, a great love in my life, a little over two years ago. I am struggling, really struggling, to make sense of the loss, of her death. I am at a loss (literally) to understand what her death all means. But what do I mean by this? I know exactly where my grandmother’s body is, it is with the bodies of her mother and father and all our generation in the cemetery of the tiny rural district of Nonsuch in the Parish of Portland on the island of Jamaica. But my grandmother, a truly brave woman who was unafraid of death, indeed went to death singing the Christian songs she loved, said that her body was not her. That she was so much more than her body.
So I find myself asking these days, “Where are you granny? I miss you so”.
But more than that, a couple days before my grandmother died, her parents, my grandparents, who I knew quite well into my later teenage and young adult years, started showing up in dreams, preparing me, it seemed, for my grandmother’s death, because they knew that I would be devastated. Over the years my great grandmother would show up from time in my dreams, but my great grandfather who had promised not to bother a soul when he died, he did not show up at all for more than twenty years since his death until my grandmother was about to die. And they stuck around for quite a while after my grandmother died, my great grandparents, night after night I would dream them drying my tears, and trying to get me back on my feet. In those dreams they were so real, so real that I could touch and talk to them. And they showed up a week ago again right before a cousin of mine died.
What am I to make of this Funso? I have a first degree in psychology and psychologists would no doubt say that I am the one invoking my great grandparents. That I am the one in control of who comes and goes in my dreams, and, in fact, these dreams are all variations of myself anyway. In the midst of my grief a friend of mine, when I started wondering where my grandmother was, said that death means you no longer exist and I think that deep down there is a part of me that fears that this might be true, and I am terrified at the possibility of never seeing my grandmother again. (This answer is turning out longer and more garbled than I ever thought it would.)
But there is another part of me that wonders about the precision of when my great grandparents shows up, and I want to believe that they are now Ancestors and that their spirit lives on and in that way they are very important to my development as a writer and an artist and a person especially since so much of my work is dedicated to understanding them and making sense of their lives as a precursor to understanding and making sense of not only myself but how the world they were born into shapes and informs the world I was born into, and consequently the world I would like to leave behind.
FA: The Gymnast and Other Positions can be read as a book about explaining yourself to yourself, growing your consciousness with your experience and celebrating the struggle between alternative/subversive cultures and establishment cultures. How close to your literary intension is such a reading?
JB: In the essay ‘”Covering” Female Sexual Desires’, which details the response to the cover of my novel The River’s Song (Peepal Tree Press) [which has three nubile women] I was indeed engaged in a process of self-education/-re-education. That book cover and the difficulties it caused in such varied countries as Jamaica, Morocco and the United States, helped me to better understand the nuances and attitudes of societies that I have lived in the longest. In Jamaica, I was told that my book couldn’t be shown at a trade show because of the naked women on the cover. I found this interesting because you could not really “see” anything per se on the women. I guess in Morocco anything to do with the female body would be controversial, so I accepted that. The stunner was the large liberal arts college in one of the boroughs of New York that had a problem with the cover and made me realize, wait a minute here, something is definitely going on with this cover. Why would this cover cause so much controversy? I go on to answer that question in the essay in the book. The problems with the cover of The River’s Song was a real discovery for me and speaks to a general dis-ease with the female body and the female figure in quite disparate places. Consequently, I think you are right, Funso, that on a larger scale, a lot of my work seems to suggest parallel paths of my examining society and finding out things about myself that may not be self- evident at the beginning of the process. In my essays on the writers Claude McKay and Roger Mais, for example, I am simultaneously exploring these authors’ attitudes to their societies regarding race, gender, sexuality, the role of the artist, etc.as well as discovering my own evolving attitudes on these topics.
FA: Why is the theme of abandonment and the psychological impact of abandonment so pervasive in your work?
JB: Because I think that this happens more often than we want to admit in the Caribbean and I believe it to be the original sin that engenders all the others. As you know, I collected oral histories from Jamaican women in New York for a book called My Mother Who Is Me: Life Stories from Jamaican Women in New York. This book was published by Africa World Press. It is shocking the levels of abandonment by parents in that book, and as you read the oral histories you can see how having been abandoned impacts upon and carries through in all areas of these women’s lives. I really think this is an area that needs more examination, though a writer such as Jamaican Erna Brodber has been calling attention to this for a very long time. I do not share or wish to participate in the demonization that is often heaped on the heads of single mothers or female headed households, but you must ask yourself, why is it so seemingly easy for too many fathers to walk away from their children? To abandon them? How are we all caught up in perpetuating this behaviour — and I say we because I have seen justification for this behaviour time and time again by family members and relatives (male AND female), and I have seen the costs of this abandonment. Even if it is for the so-called good of the children. In Jamaica we have a term, “barrel children” which essentially means children whose mothers have left them to make a better life in the United States with the hopes, sometimes the assurance, that their children will join them once they get themselves “legal” and settled in the United States. These mothers send down barrels of “things” to make up for their absence. For the lucky children, one day, ten years later, they do indeed join their mothers in the United States where all hell breaks loose. Mother/s and child/ren do not really know each other and despite the mothers’ sending back “things” for their children, their leaving for “better” in another country is a form of abandonment in its own right and this is something we collectively need to address. Something we need to speak up about. Something that causes unbearable pain — and then there are the consequences of that pain.
FA: Many thanks for taking the time to chat with me. More thanks for the gift of a wonderful book.
Jacqueline Bishop is an award-winning photographer-painter-writer born and raised in Jamaica, who now lives and works in New York City (“Jamaica’s 15th Parish”). She has twice been awarded Fulbright Fellowships, including a year-long grant to Morocco; her work exhibits widely in North America, Europe and North Africa. She also teaches Liberal Studies at New York University; is the founding editor of Calabash: A Journal of Caribbean Art & Letters; and author of The River’s Song, a novel about growing up in Jamaica.
See: www.jacqueline-bishop.com. Besides Childhood Memories, Ms. Bishop has also completed two other collections of photographs entitled Folly and Facing Africa.