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The Gift of Music and Song

Jacqueline Bishop

Peepal Tree Press 2021

Review by Emily Zobel Marshall


In this rich collection of eighteen interviews, Jacqueline Bishop, an award-winning writer and visual artist born and raised in Jamaica, celebrates Jamaican women’s writing. These are beautifully crafted interviews, both probing and sensitive, which reveal each writer’s passions, motivations and the process of their craft. They include the voices of Jean D’Costa, Hazel Campbell, Velma Pollard, Christine Craig, Olive Senior, Marcia Douglas, Millicent A. A. Graham, Keisha-Gaye Anderson, Kerry Young, Pamela Mordecai, Sharon Leach, Tanya Shirley, Opal Palmer Adisa, Patricia Powell, Shara McCallum, Ann-Margaret Lim, Michela Calderaro and Lorna Goodison. Central to each interview is the examination of the role Jamaica plays in the writer’s work – how the island can be a source of both pride and pain; a home to be celebrated but also critiqued for its misogyny, sexism and persistent racial and political tensions. Bishop explains to author Sharon Leach that ‘one of the main things these interviews have in common is all our engagement with the island of Jamaica, no matter where we are writing from’. The writers navigate their stories back to the island of their birth: their nostalgia for home, the task of representing Jamaica in writing and the challenges faced by women writing from within the island. Crucially, not enough attention is paid to Caribbean women writers and visual artists; their work is far too absent from the literary and artistic narratives of the region. Bishop’s interviews span from 2003 to the present day and address this gap.

Bishop, a formidable interviewer, is able to straddle the fine line between being friendly  and penetrating; she asks tough questions, testing her interviewees and often helping them to reveal something about their work that they hadn’t even noticed. Bishop is interested in exploring what drives people’s actions, in life and in writing, and in the state of Jamaican society. She talks to Marcia Douglas about her non-linear experimental novel Notes From a Writer’s Book of Cures and Spells (2005) and insightfully asks if the acts of storytelling and writing become their own characters in her story. Douglas explains that for her, writing develops compassion and understanding for others as it ‘invites the sort of interrogation that taps into the true root of human angst’. Bishop questions poet Tanya Shirley about the violence and ‘intense’ homophobia in Jamaican society; Shirley reveals that a ‘paradox of beauty and tragedy’ make Jamaica a hard place to live. On the issue of homophobia, Shirley claims that she can’t understand it, but that, ‘as a writer, I want to remind my readers of our common humanity. I am also interested in this fascination that we have as a society with policing people’s bodies and sexualities when there are often far more pressing concerns that we neglect’.

I interviewed Bishop in May 2021 about her work. She highlighted the importance of women with the privilege of a platform to ‘name drop’ other women.  Male writers always ‘name drop’ other men, she explained, and it was vital to make sure women writers amplify the voices of other women. The book started out as a discussion with Leach about the lack of women’s voices in the Jamaican literary world; ‘we can’t hear Jamaican women’s voices and writers’ voices.’ This book of interviews is Bishop taking direct action and doing something about a persistent problem.

The Gift of Music and Song has enjoyed a glowingly positive response across the diaspora and Bishop has revealed that she has already collated enough interviews to create a second book. She’s also said that she would like to see someone from within each Caribbean island do the same as she has done for Jamaica – and she would be ready to train them. Let us hope writers in other Caribbean islands take Bishop up on her offer, and we await the sequel to her gift to Caribbean women’s writing with great anticipation.