“Inside I Always Knew I was a Writer”: An Interview with Jaqueline Bishop

Jacqueline Bishop, born in Kingston, Jamaica, considers herself primarily a writer and a visual artist. She has published poetry, fiction, and non-fiction works, and her books are: Snapshots From Istanbul (poetry, 2009), Writers Who Paint, Painters Who Write: 3 Jamaican Artist (2008), Fauna, (poetry, 2006), The River’s Song (novel 2006), My Mother Who is Me: Life Stories of Jamaican Women in New York (2006). As a visual artist, she paints, draws, works in textile and also shoots photography.

Currently, a Master teacher at New York University, Bishop has earned many honors including: UNESCO/Fulbright Fellow, Paris, France, 2009-2010; Fulbright Fellow, Rabat, Morocco, 2008-2009; Travel Grant, Air Jamaica, Film: ‘I Came Here By A Dream: The Jamaican Intuitive’, 2000; The Arthur Schomburg Award for Excellence in the Humanities, New York University, 2000; Fellowship in Creative Writing, New York University, 1999; Oral History Association Fellowship, New Orleans, Louisiana, 1998; Jamaica Cultural Development Commission Awards (five awards in fiction and poetry), and James Michener Creative Writing Fellowship, The Caribbean Writers Summer Institute, University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida, 1994.

Bishop graduated from Holy Childhood High School, Kingston, Jamaica, 1987; earned a B.A., Psychology, Lehman College, City University of New York, 1995, M.A., English & American Literature (Poetry Writing), New York University, NY. 1998 and  M.F.A., Fiction Writing, New York University, NY, 2000.  Bishop also studied at L’Université de Paris, Paris, France  and Concordia University, Montrèal, Canada.

Jacqueline Bishop’s works explore issues of home, ancestry, family, connectivity and belonging. As an immigrant, she is also intimately aware of insider/outsider perspective, an underlying thread that runs through her work.



Opal Palmer Adisa: When did you know you were a writer or wanted to be a writer?

Jacqueline Bishop: As contradictory as it might sound, I think I knew that I was a writer before I knew that I wanted to be a writer. Being a writer — being an artist — for me is instinctive. I am fully convinced that I was just born this way. Being an artist for me was never a condition that I struggled with or against. It was this thing that was thrust onto me, like my gender, like where I was born, like my skin color and I just had to get on with it. Wanting to be a writer though is a whole different matter, to take on that title, to professionalize my art and to be somehow compensated for the work that I do; getting my work out there into the world – that is where I struggled. But deep down inside I always knew that I was a writer –from a very young age actually.

OPA: How do you think being Jamaican or Caribbean has and continues to shape your writing and what you write about?

JB: Being a Jamaican is definitive to what I write about. It is true that I have written characters and poems about people and places that is not Jamaica(n) or Caribbean, but what shapes my writing, that primary Jamaican identity, is like the tiny district of Nonsuch, high in the purple blue mountains of Jamaica where my family is from.  Being Jamaican is always the place I come back to in one way or another in everything that I create. So even stories and poems and writings in which the island does not feature, my particular experience as a Jamaican immigrant woman still informs that work. So when I look at my second collection of poems for example, Snapshots from Istanbul, even though many of the poems are about Ovid, it is also about the condition of being in exile and being sent away to an unfamiliar landscape while all the while missing one’s home. In other words, the book is all about my engagement with Jamaica, even though most of the book is set in New York, Turkey and ancient Rome.

OPA: Is Caribbean writing relevant today and if so why?

JB: I think Caribbean writing remains incredibly relevant and important today. Every generation is handed a set of issues that it is forced to confront and to try and solve. Artists are often at the forefront of those discussions. When I look at the Caribbean, and see for example, the recent ruling by the High Court of the Dominican Republic making stateless Dominicans of Haitian descent, many of whom were born and have lived in the Dominican Republic for decades and know no other home, I am reminded anew of the relevance of Caribbean writing. News reports, sociologists, anthropologists and historians can only tell us so much about the lives that are being touched by issues such as the people now made stateless in the Dominican Republic, it is up to the artists, to the writers of the region, to make those lives real and genuine and palpable for readers. The gift and burden of being a writer is the ability to breathe life into characters and make a reader empathize and understand the issue before this character and its relevance to one’s self. Lately, for example, I have become incredibly politicized about the issue of climate change. Because I am convinced that the way the world is going with climate change, we in the Caribbean may very well loose much of our biodiversity within our own life times, I have taken to photographing the flowers of the island of Jamaica. My flower portraits are an attempt to hold onto these images of beauty for myself, yes, but also maybe for others into the future. This is what I as an artist can do. Literature can help us to understand and hold onto and make sense of a Caribbean world that in may ways is rapidly receding; as such Caribbean writing is not decreasing but rather it is increasing in relevance.

OPA: Your novel, The River’s Song, is a rites-of-passage work that seems appropriate for adolescents. How did this book come about?

JB: This book was my thesis when I was graduating from the MFA program in creative writing at New York University.

OPA: Do you remember when you had the initial idea to write it and where you were?

JB: I wrote this book primarily in the United States, Mexico and Morocco; though I cannot remember what the initial impetus was. In any case I believe that as a writer I am simply a conduit to the stories of others and so I am unsure if there was an initial idea to tell this story so much as the characters latched onto me and insisted that I tell their story.

OPA:  Select a character from this work and discuss what you wanted to say, or are saying through this character?

JB: Understanding friendships among young girls and women was very important to me in this book. The friendship that stands out the most for me in the book is that of the main characters, Annie and Gloria. Through both these characters I wanted to explore two of the many Jamaicans that exist on the island. Annie comes from money and has had a more privileged life than Gloria, yet, their high school becomes the place for them to meet on somewhat of an equal ground. I was intrigued by how their friendship developed, how close indeed they became. And I was saddened when the relationship fell apart. In a sense, I guess that I was looking at what would bring two girls, from such different socioeconomic backgrounds, together and what would ultimately tear them apart.

OPA: What were some of the feelings/emotions you experienced  in writing this book?

JB: I went through many, many emotions, especially since I felt that I had to let the characters lead and tell me their story. For me characters are real people somewhere out there in the world and they tap the shoulders of those who they want to tell their stories. At first there was the getting to know these characters, the initial curiosity – what did they look like and what were their names? After I got a sense of them there was the families that they came from and how they ended up at the place they were at in their lives.

Sometimes I absolutely fell in love with the characters as I did when Annie visited her grandmother in the country and she and a group of girls went bathing in the river. And then there was the shock when one of the girls almost dies at the river. Also, I  wondered whether Annie and Gloria would be able to be friends when they first met at school, and was gratified when they managed to sustain their friendship through so many difficulties. Still, in the end, when they separated I was crying as I wrote that section.

Oftentimes, teenage girls will ask me, “Why did you do that? Why did you let them part? Why couldn’t they be friends forever! They have been through so much together!” You can hear the hurt and accusations in the young adults voices, as if I have dome something that they would never do. That they would never abandon or betray a friend. I smile at this, because I see so much of myself in them. Indeed I can identify with their sense of outrage.
But it is here that I have to say no to my outraged and hurt readers, and explain that I did not do that, that was the characters’ story, I was just chosen to tell Annie and Gloria’s story. I try to get my readers to understand that I am as saddened about the separation of two characters I love as much as they are. Sometimes I can still see the accusation in their faces, but it is the truth: Characters take over the telling of their story at a certain point and you simply cannot force this.
Lastly I will just say one thing that I struggled particularly with the title of the novel. The title went through several incarnations before it became The River’s Song, at which time the characters stopped rebelling, settled down and said, yes, that is the title of our story.

OPA:  How does it feel to have work out into the world that will live on long after you?

JB: I am thrilled about this. What could be better? To have a work that lives on long, long after you do? It is like having a child that will live forever. That is just beautiful.

OPA: Finally, what projects are you currently pursuing?

JB: Presently I am working on a collection of short stories and a collection of poems. My most recent work as a visual artist is a series of “Babylon” and “Zion” paintings. These are about the Rastafarian ideas of Babylon being a place of captivity and oppression while Zion symbolizes a utopian place of unity and peace. In the Babylon series I write the lyrics from songs and poems to create text-based drip paintings leading up to the “Hanging Gardens of Babylon,” in which I use popular dancehall posters to evoke the inner-city Babylonian “walls” of Kingston. The Zion series is comprised largely of monochrome paintings to delineate this symbolic paradise. Glitter is present in these works not only as a representation of the paradise that Rastafarians seek in the Biblical homeland of Zion but also as a commentary on the ‘bling and glitter’ culture that has enveloped much of Jamaican society.



Opal Palmer Adisa is a Jamaican-born writer with seven books to her credit.  Her book of poetry, Tamarind and Mango Women, won the 1992 American Book Award. Adisa is also a renowned educator in the area of diversity work, and her workshops examine racism, sexism, homophobia and internalized oppression using literature as a springboard to explore and probe these learned behaviors.  Dr. Adisa has two masters degrees from San Francisco State University and a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley. She has previously taught undergraduate and graduate courses at California College of the Arts, Stanford University, University of California at Berkeley, San Francisco State University, and The University of the Virgin Islands, where she also served as editor of The Caribbean Writer.


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