You are here

Her Patchwork Aesthetic: Jaqueline Bishop’s The Gymnast and Other Positions

Jacqueline Bishop's The Gymnast and Other Stories - a literary patchwork quilt

Having traversed the genres of novel writing and poetry, writer-painter-photographer Jaqueline Bishop dips her toes into the well of short stories and essays in her collection The Gymnast and Other Positions. Bishop openly admits that The Gymnast was an attempt to find her sea legs in these new mediums. But far from evoking the frustrated patience of an amateur’s assay Bishop’s short stories delight the imagination, even as they tug at the conscience. The breadth of perspective in the eleven brief narratives is particularly commendable. Though Bishop treats primarily with issues of womanhood (particularly Caribbean femininity) she also skilfully captures these experiences with fresh masculine eyes.

The segment of essays draws largely from her personal collection: lengthy contemplations on ancestry, art and artists. Bishop wanders idly down memory lane, re-collecting and re-exploring events, people and places that have impacted significantly on her artistic productions. From the untouchable photographs at her grandmother’s home in Nonsuch to the shell-shocked campus of New York University in the aftermath of the World Trade Centre, Bishop tracks aimlessly yet determinedly through her own biography.

However it is in the interview segment where The Gymnast and all the other positions come home to roost. Here in the third act it becomes increasingly clearer that this genre-defying offering is really a self-reflexive autobiography – a meta-autobiography, if you will. Its oblique examination of the author is couched within an examination of artistry: what defines art? What defines an artist?

In posing these questions, Bishop systematically dismantles her own art and raison d'être. This meta-analysis is most effective in her interviews which dredge up unconscious connections, invisible yet integral threads which bind the whole together.

Throughout her essays and interviews Bishop returns to poet and writer Claude McKay several times, seemingly more captivated by his circumstances and exploits than by his oeuvre. This habit of reflection (on McKay) and self-reflection (on her reflections of McKay and others) is characteristic of The Gymnast and indeed, Bishop’s wider body of work.

Her visual fascination with looping stories over and through each other has spilled over to the written word, creating her own patchwork quilt of literature. This patchwork aesthetic (credit to writer Cheryl Sterling for the term) has long been a defining feature of Bishop’s studio creations and now, to come full circle, has finally found a place in her writing as well.

The Gymnast and Other Positions was awarded the OCM Bocas Prize for Non-Fiction in 2016.