“Women, too, are universal.” – A Conversation with Jacqueline Bishop & Jamaica Creates

Ashly Cork
March 8, 2021

Cover Page of ‘The Gift of Music and Song’ by Jacqueline Bishop

AC: Jacqueline, it’s lovely to meet you and thank you for taking the time to talk with me. So, I want to talk about your most recent publication, ‘The Gift of Music and Song’ which, of course, is a compilation of interviews you’ve done over the years with Jamaican women writers. I really enjoyed getting to hear the backstory of these writers and getting a little sneak peek into what inspires them not just in their daily life but what inspires them in their literature. So my first question is, in the midst of issues facing women locally and globally, such as gender-based violence, abortion dialogues, the #MeToo Movement, the Black Lives Matter Movement – and all these things happening within the broader context of this global pandemic – why do you think it was important to create this book and highlight the experience and work of Jamaican women writers?

JB: Well firstly, I want to thank you Ashly for having me on your programme. I think that the work that you’re doing is very important and I want to salute you for doing this, one Jamaican woman to another. I think you might be slightly, slightly.. just ever so slightly younger than me [laughs] and so it fills my heart with a great deal of joy and love to see a younger generation doing the work that you’re doing so thank you.

AC: Thank you.

JB: I think that all the movements that you named and touched upon, one way or another, intersect the lives of women. Certainly Black Lives Matter intersect our lives and calls to the movement of #SayHerName, definitely the #MeToo Movement. All these issues and movements move through and impact the lives of women and I think that in one way or another the women that are in The Gift of Music and Song speak to, speak through, and speak about these movements. So, even when they do not name them as such, they’re speaking about the issues that generate these movements. I believe one of the main issues that Jamaica and certainly Jamaican women face is the whole issue of misogyny; and misogyny takes various forms – the numbers of girls and women in Jamaica being impacted by violence, you know, at the hands of men and at the hands of other women. We are very good at touting the female managers and whatnot that the island has produced – and we should rightfully tout that – but violence, misogyny, sexism and the willingness to uphold males who uphold those behaviours and to promote males that are doing whatever behaviour impacts directly on women’s lives and all the women in the book talked about this.

AC: In this book you make reference to how “submerged women’s voices actually are in Caribbean Literature.” It is interesting the common thread of migration and that definition of ‘home’ when you were speaking to these writers of which many are a part of the diaspora. Do you think in compiling these stories of these writers within the diaspora you’re sending a message that to be taken seriously as a woman writer in the Caribbean you must leave to another country? And what would you say to women writers, or writers in general, who may feel discouraged by that? 

JB: I think it’s a very important dialogue to have, whether to have a life as a writer you need to leave [laughs]. You know, to have a life as any kind of artist you need to leave Jamaica. I think that’s a critical and important dialogue to have. And I know of writers who have decided to stay and there is also a dialogue to be had with how do they then make their lives in Jamaica as people who’ve decided to stay. Your question brings up several issues, a multitude of issues but I want to talk about two or three of them because I know we don’t have all day to talk.
One is that I would hope that it doesn’t discourage anyone but it leads to more conversations like you and I are having about why it is that so many women writers feel the need to leave, right? Why is it that more of us do not feel supported enough on the island to stay? I would hope that it brings up discussions as to then what would be needed to support those of us who decide to stay. I would hope that it brings up discussions about the relationship between us who have decided to leave and those of us who have decided to stay. And by that I mean the book, in so many ways, is a collaboration between a writer who decided to leave (myself) and a writer who decided to stay (Sharon Leach) and this book would not be in existence were it not for the work of Sharon Leach, who is the editor of the Bookends section in the Jamaica Observer in Kingston. She made a space for all these women’s voices and continues to make a space for these women’s voices; we start a new series this Sunday with Curdella Forbes, and we will be doing it all throughout this month. So, there are ways in which both groups can anchor each other and have productive conversations. But yes, this is more of a dialogue that we need to have.

AC: It is very clear that many of these women writers have inspired each other as well as have been an inspiration to you. Do you find yourself more drawn to engaging in Caribbean Literature written by women as opposed to men? And if yes or no, why?

JB: Absolutely! I am more drawn to Caribbean literature written by women without question [laughs]. In fact, I am more drawn to literature written by women period, not just Caribbean women. But I have to say that I came to literature… I think I was just born a writer, I think it was something that was always within me. I think before writers publish their first thing they know. They know inside of them… they have an urge, a feeling inside of them… They know. But once you begin to put those marks on the paper, one of the main ways of growing and being and becoming as a writer is looking around the world and seeing who are my people who have done this before? And who are my models? You consciously or unconsciously begin to seek for models. I don’t think your model has to be a Caribbean writer or a Jamaican writer if you’re Jamaican or Caribbean, but I think it helps to bolster you if you know you’re not the first or the only. It did help enormously that there was a Lorna Goodison, for example. It meant everything to me… And just to have people writing about streets that I knew and using sayings that I knew. I oftentimes say my audience is my grandmother and my great grandmother hearing a discussion. You know like, they’d hear me and you talking, Ashly, and they can understand every word… They are my audience, right? And so to get to the place where you feel confident enough as a writer to write for them to understand, it helped enormously that Hazel Campbell existed and did the work that she did.

AC: One of the chapters in your book is called ‘Explaining Ourselves to Ourselves’  and in a climate where people are deeply seeking to self identify, particularly when it comes to notions of gender, what do you think your book has to offer to men or even gender non-conforming individuals?

JB: In the same ways that women were expected and didn’t slip in high school in reading Shakespeare and be expected to get all sorts of things from Shakespeare and from Walcott and from Brathwaite – men can get enormous things from this book and from reading these women as well and that’s what I’ll say to that. There is a stance that, “oh we have to think about the men’s feelings here, and whatnot,” but we don’t think about that when it comes to women reading male writers, right? Male writers, they have achieved, it seems, a kind of universality that “women have not”… Bullshit. I cry bullshit to that. Women, too, are universal. Right? So if you want good writing, if you want good interviews, if you want all of that, women can provide it as well. So male writers will get the exact same things and male readers will get the exact same things here that they would get from any good book.

AC: My last question is, what advice do you have to give aspiring women writers in Jamaica and the Caribbean today?

JB: I would say to them, “Write and write and write and write! The future depends on you writing. There cannot be too much of us or too many of us. Don’t buy that story. We need your voices. We need your story. The future depends on you writing.” We only, each of us, have a finite number of time here on this earth, and so each generation will bring forth, hopefully, new writers. So I want every woman writer, every young female in Jamaica who wants to write… to write! This only adds to the complexity, the abundance, the generosity of the Jamaican story. This frees us, I want the young writers to hear me very very clearly… This frees us to tell our individual story. The worst thing that can happen is one or two voices predominate, this is a terrible terrible situation… So we need more writers from Jamaica. We need more women writers from Jamaica, we don’t need less. 

AC: I love that, thank you.

Jacqueline Bishop is a writer, visual artist, photographer and professor. Her other publications include My Mother Who is Me (2006), The River’s Song: A Novel (2007) and The Gymnast and Other Positions: Stories, Essays and Interviews (2015)