Olive Senior: speaking back to home

Jamaican Olive Senior is one of the most celebrated and beloved Caribbean writers working today. Martin Mordecai profiles the “country girl”

“My pleasure comes from the doing’. Photograph by Martin MordecaiOlive Senior. Photograph by Martin MordecaiPhotograph courtesy Olive SeniorSenior (centre) with Guyanese poet A.J. Seymour, Trinidadian Earl Lovelace, Jamaican poet Mervyn Morris, and Austin Clarke. Photograph courtesy Olive SeniorSenior in her high school uniform with a friend. Photograph courtesy Olive SeniorSenior on the balcony of her apartment in Toronto. Photograph by Martin MordecaiThe “country girl” with her older sister Maxine. Photograph courtesy Olive Senior

The very first poem, “Homescape”, in Olive Senior’s first collection of poetry, Talking of Trees, begins: “I was born with the knowledge / of mountains and solitaires”.

Those two lines are as good an entrée as any into Senior’s work. It is knitted closely to the place in which she grew up, within the mountains of Trelawny and Westmoreland in rural Jamaica, but also has a bird’s sharp view of that world: its natural and human splendour, but also its meanness and its limitations, human and natural. Mountains, in Senior’s work, nurture life and dreams, but they also restrain and constrict. Birds are a symbol of freedom across cultures, and an abiding presence in much of Senior’s writing; the solitaire, a member of the thrush family, is found in the mountains of Jamaica and has a distinctive and very beautiful song. It is not difficult to see also a play on the word: the solitary singer of tales.

That singular voice has carried through a lifetime of writing that has produced some of the most memorable and evocative stories and poems in Caribbean literature, as well as significant works of non-fiction, one of which is possibly unique in any literature. Her witty, tragi-comic tales of peasants and pretentious “gentry” in mortal combat for the hearts and minds of children, her plangent “storypoems” that question our old nostrums, continue to delight and engage readers in the Caribbean and further afield.

But although Olive Senior has lived in several countries, travelled to dozens of others, and been feted in most of them, she still unabashedly, and without false modesty, calls herself “a country girl”. Her navel string is buried under a tree in Trelawny.

Senior embodies in her physical person many of the histories she writes about so eloquently, and their contradictions. She is light-skinned, with “good” hair, in a country (and a region) that places an automatic and very high value on skin shade and hair length. A reflexive assumption would be: child of privilege. Not so. Senior’s mother “deeply breathed country air / when she laboured me” (“Ancestral Poem”, Talking of Trees), but it was not the air of entitlement. Olive was seventh of ten children born into very humble circumstances, her parents small farmers in Trelawny’s isolated Cockpit Country for whom, in the words of the Jamaican saying, “water more than flour”.

Senior was sent to live for extended periods, and eventually to elementary school, with a better-off aunt and uncle on her mother’s side in Westmoreland — not that far from her native ground, as the solitaire might fly, but a hemisphere away in social culture and expectation. There, the focus of her affluent family’s attention — and control — she was “a lump of clay which held every promise of being moulded into something satisfactory” (“Bright Thursdays”, Summer Lightning).

Satisfactory in that context meant, above all else, growing into the “proper” attitudes: to her elders (“Bright Thursdays”), to God (“Do Angels Wear Brassieres?”, “Confirmation Day”, Summer Lightning), and especially to the surrounding black peasantry, whose blackness and poverty were the solid foundation of the little world over which the lighter-skinned and better off were born to preside; the relationship was to be one of patronising distance. At her parents’ home, on the other hand, the family was, despite their colour, no better off than other scrabbling farmers around (“Window”, Discerner of Hearts).

The two rural worlds of her growing, which represented what Senior later described as “the polarities of colonial society”, were nonetheless alike in some respects: in their social rigidity, intellectual narrowness, an unceasing aspiration for correct observance — and, for the growing girl-child, their male adult-dominated milieu. “I was always in silent rebellion against the conformity and authoritarianism of the world I was born in,” Senior says.

The dichotomous worlds in which she grew would be the seedbed of Senior the writer. The narrator in one of her first published (and prize-winning) stories, “Love Orange” (later collected in Summer Lightning), could be speaking for the author: “When strangers came or lightning flashed I would lie in the dust under my grandfather’s vast bed and hug the dog, whispering, ‘our worlds lie outside’ and be happy.” Outside lay first in the high school of western Jamaica, Montego Bay High School for Girls, where she distinguished herself in “book learning”, art, dance, and other things, eventually becoming head girl.

But there, too, the disjuncture between worlds was omnipresent. “Borrowed images / willed our skins pale” she wrote later (“Colonial Girl’s School”, Talking of Trees).

Months, years, a childhood memorising
Latin declensions
(For our language
— “bad talking” —
detentions)

Throughout that poem runs a refrain — “There was nothing about us at all” — that could be a requiem for a whole side of her life that was ignored and devalued in the wider world for which she was being prepared.

Thirty years later, in 1999, no less a voice than the Barbados Advocate cited Summer Lightning — by then a much-used CXC English literature text — in a thundering Jeremiad against “a monster (of illiteracy) growing in our midst . . . which feeds as well upon garbage masquerading as literature.” That book, and others unnamed, “even contain grammatical howlers and expressions unfit for polite company, whether juvenile or adult.” (There is, for the record, not a single obscenity in Senior’s stories.) Still, to great fanfare, Senior was feted as 2005 Humanities Scholar by the Cave Hill, Barbados, campus of the University of the West Indies.

After high school, the question was: what to do? The expectation must have been the traditional path for the “scholarship pickney” in the Caribbean: university (UWI was well established at Mona in Kingston) and then training to be doctor, lawyer, Indian chief.

But Senior had other ideas. An inquisitive, reclusive child, she was an omnivorous reader from early on, devouring what she could get her hands on in her different isolations: a polyglot mixture of romance novels, religious tracts, Alice in Wonderland, and that foundation text of Anglophone Caribbean writers, the King James Bible. At high school, her reading menu had widened considerably to include modern American writers, particularly from the south, like Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, and Truman Capote, and poets such as Rainer Maria Rilke and Muriel Rukeyser.

Senior herself had started writing “as a very small child, and as a teenager wrote a lot of poetry.” More practically, she had been writing occasional pieces for the Daily Gleaner while still at school. “I was always going to be an artist or a writer,” Senior remembers, “because I was talented in those areas, but also, I now think, because they held out the seductive whiff of freedom.” She went to live in Kingston to work at the Gleaner as a reporter and sub-editor, the two activities by which she would make her living for much of the next three decades.

It was in that period, the early 60s, that Senior began writing what she would rework, while at Carleton University in Canada from 1964 to 1967, into “the real stories and poems” that were eventually published in Summer Lightning and Talking of Trees. They began to appear in the late 60s and 70s in, among other periodicals, Jamaica Journal, which Senior herself would edit for seven landmark years during the 1980s, and Savacou, the influential journal published by Kamau Brathwaite, the groundbreaking poet and historian then teaching at UWI’s Mona campus. They were noticed abroad, too, winning in two categories of the International Year of the Child story competition in 1978.

Senior spent much of the 70s at UWI, in charge of publications for the Institute of Social and Economic Studies — both its prestigious journal, Social and Economic Studies, and its growing book programme.

With the publication in 1983 of The A-Z of Jamaican Heritage, Senior addressed a need that most Jamaicans didn’t even know they suffered from. Originally conceived for a government tourism agency as a project to provide Jamaicans and visitors with micro-essays on interesting and little-known aspects of Jamaican life, culture, and history, the book — 174 pages, several hundred entries — became an instant classic, used and cited by everyone from schoolchildren to academics. (It was so obvious and successful a construct that it spawned imitators in other islands.)

Almost every reader of the A–Z knew of things that were not there and should be. So did Senior. So a new edition was planned, and begun. “But then,” as Senior herself says, “it grew, and pretty soon took on a separate existence.” In 2003 there appeared the Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage, 534 double-columned pages of text, with almost a thousand entries referenced to an exhaustive bibliography, some of the entries essays of several pages, many of them illustrated. One probably has to go back to the 18th century, the great age of dictionary- and encyclopedia-making, to find a work of this size and scope being the work of a single author. Helped by many hands, scrupulously acknowledged even back to the genesis of the A–Z, but still the work of one mind and heart. It is, as Senior wishes it regarded, “an entity in its own right, quite separate from that earlier book.”

The publication dates of the two reference works bracket the fiction and poetry for which Senior is best known to lovers, teachers, and students of writing in many parts of the world. The poetry collection Talking of Trees came first, in 1985, and the next year saw Senior’s first book of stories, Summer Lightning, which won the inaugural Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. In a literary world less obsessed than it is today with fame and marketing points, Summer Lightning was nonetheless something of a sensation, selected as it was over works by far better-known authors, including Canadian Margaret Atwood, then as now a star in the firmament of writing in English. The book has been in print since first publication.

Arrival of the Snake Woman, another book of stories, followed in 1989. Though not as widely acclaimed as Summer Lightning (second books seldom are), the stories here are as varied and as strong. The seventeen stories in the two books, taken together, represent the process of arrival at a “voice” for Senior, one that is still in many ways unique in West Indian literature. “I didn’t find my own writer’s voice until I allowed my characters to speak in their own voices,” Senior says, citing “Ballad” in Summer Lightning as an early instance of allowing her character to speak. “Once the character is allowed to speak, then everything else . . . will automatically fall into place, for speakers . . . bring their entire worlds with them.”

In “Ballad”, the voice is that of Lenora, “a little country girl”, as Senior herself describes her narrator, telling the story of Miss Rilla, Lenora’s grown-up special friend whom she is celebrating, while the undercurrents of village gossip disparage and condemn her. The story is told in the Jamaican vernacular, and with all the awkward aggressiveness of the young person who knows she doesn’t fully understand “big people business” but is loyal to her friend who was loyal to her.

In “The View from the Terrace”, from Arrival of the Snake Woman, the voice is an elderly man’s, middle-class and affluent, his lifestyle in the hills resting comfortably and blindly on the faithful service of his man-of-business (son of his former housekeeper); when he finally makes the connection between the view from his terrace and his own household, it kills him.

In the two books, the multiple voices straddle the continuum between Standard Jamaican English and deep Creole effortlessly. The mastery of Senior is that across a huge number and range of characters from all socio-economic groups and ages there is scarcely one for whom she does not evoke in the reader, at the very least, understanding and sympathy. She treats all her subjects with affection and deep respect.

As in “Ballad”, several stories are about or in the voice of a young child, often a girl, bright, full of chat, relentlessly inquisitive, and restless, very restless. It is tempting to see a composite self-portrait there. “To be honest, I don’t know,” says Senior. “One of the things I have discovered is that the image that I have of myself as a child is quite different from the one that other people remember. Let us just say that the bright and chatty and inquisitive girl is obviously one I admired greatly, since even today she keeps cropping up in my work. So perhaps she represents my psychic self.” In those stories, adults generally come off badly. “I early on recognised the hypocrisy of adults. I think the feelings expressed by many of my characters represent my own feelings as a child.”

Caribbean people often mark out their lives by hurricanes. Gilbert, in September 1988, was a watershed in Senior’s. Gordon Town, where she lived, a village suburb in the mountains behind Kingston, was among the last places in the island to be re-connected to the multiple grids that make modern life livable. Perhaps thrown back into the isolation of the remote Trelawny village where she was born, but now with more control over her own life, Senior left Jamaica abruptly in 1989. For the next four years she lived in Europe, Portugal and Britain mainly, working as a freelance writer, doing her own creative writing, and beginning to teach the craft of writing. Working Miracles: Women’s Lives in the English-speaking Caribbean, a sociological survey that is an essential textbook on the subject, came out in 1991 in the UK and the US.

In 1992 she went to live in Toronto. There, her next two books appeared: Gardening in the Tropics, a collection of poems, in 1994, and Discerner of Hearts, a book of stories, the following year. Gardening is the point at which Senior’s poetic and narrative voices come together for the first time in what are essentially “storypoems”. In this collection familiar “voices” are given new, piquant utterance, as in a series of “Hurricane Stories” of disruption and change that are not necessarily about the physical phenomenon, and in twelve wide-ranging cautionary tales that are the heart of the book, each of which begins “Gardening in the Tropics . . .”, and wherein, as in “The Knot Garden”, “you’ll find things that don’t / belong together often intertwine / all mixed up in this amazing fecundity.”

We also hear throughout this book a set of almost-new voices: Amerindian. “I think I got interested in the ‘Arawaks’” — the Taino — “at an early age because of their ‘absence’. You know, the books that made out that they were here and then vanished soon after Columbus arrived.” Senior felt strongly that “somehow they hadn’t vanished at all, but were waiting to be rediscovered.” In several of these poems, the pre-Columbian voice is very present, and often morphs seamlessly into more modern voices of other ignored or absented groups: slaves, manual labourers, women. (The Taino are also very present in the Encyclopedia, with several entries, some lengthy, dealing with their religion, lifestyle, agriculture, etc.)

After Discerner of Hearts, which was well received in the Caribbean and on both sides of the Atlantic, Senior appeared to go silent. In fact, she was working on completing the Encyclopedia — and on making a living. She has done that mainly by teaching, through visiting professorships or writing residencies at universities in Canada and the United States as well as the University of the West Indies. Since 1998, she has also been on the faculty of the innovative correspondence programme in creative writing at Humber College in Toronto. That latter task she carries with her wherever in the world she goes, and she enjoys being a mentor to younger writers.

Of late, at least, Senior has been a prophet with honour in her own land. In Jamaica, in the year of the Encyclopedia’s publication, she was the recipient of the Norman Washington Manley Foundation’s Award for Excellence and, the following year, the Institute of Jamaica’s Gold Musgrave Medal for contributions to cultural heritage. Gardening in the Tropics, reissued in 2005, is now a textbook on the CAPE syllabus. The Jamaica Library Service organised two “Olive Senior tours” last year, when she read at libraries across the island.

She has begun to receive “official” attention in Canada too. A new book of poems, Over the Roofs of the World, published in 2005, was shortlisted for the Governor-General’s award, that country’s most prestigious literary prize. (It was also a runner-up for the 2006 Casa de las Américas prize for Caribbean literature in English.) The organising theme of the collection is the life of birds, with the correlative extension of travelling, and the poems traverse continents and centuries. They are, with the exception of “Ode to Pablo Neruda”, a poem about poetry that ends the collection, generally shorter than those in Gardening, some of them almost epigrammatic.

Wild Parrot can be tamed
By gently blowing Tobacco smoke
Over its beak
And laughing

is one complete poem. But the storyteller’s voice is there still, sardonic, witty, sly, tender.

Senior has also written a novel, her first. “I find my characters are demanding more and more of me,” she says, “or perhaps just a bigger canvas to display themselves.” New volumes of short stories and poetry are also completed, and at some point she would like to collect the essays she’s published and talks she’s given on Caribbean literature and the craft of writing.

Now a citizen of Canada, Senior travels widely, for readings, conferences, and, when time and place allow, to write. A fair amount of time is also spent in Jamaica, which, in perhaps the most crucial respect for the writer, is still home. Home she defined once, speaking of the importance of a “grounded” voice, as “a place where you speak and someone answers . . . that is, a place where you speak to a community and it speaks back to you.”

“I HAD NO REAL IDEA WHAT BEING A WRITER MEANT”: A Q&A WITH OLIVE SENIOR

In the popular imagination, the “bright pickney” who wins a scholarship and goes to “the city” (and eventually to “foreign”) becomes a lawyer or a doctor, a member of a “respectable” profession. Why a writer? And what did “being a writer” mean to you in those days?

I had no real models for anything, so I didn’t know what I was supposed to be. Or maybe the conventional models didn’t interest me. I’ve never wanted to conform. I was always going to be an artist or a writer, because I was talented in those areas, but also, I now think, because they held out the seductive whiff of freedom. I was always in silent rebellion against the conformity and authoritarianism of the world I was born in. Still, I had no real idea what being an artist or a writer meant and it took me an awfully long time to find out.

When you started writing, to have ambitions to be a writer was scarcely credited, and slightly suspicious even. Now we have wider literacy and education, universities, greater interaction with and exposure to the world, two recent Nobel laureates from the West Indies, etc. From your reading of the Jamaican and West Indian societies today, has anything changed for the aspiring writer in how his or her society is likely to view his ambition? What about opportunities?

Yes, I think a lot has changed. Certainly young people today have many models of West Indian writers that many of us didn’t have. So I think the aspiring writer can feel that his or her aspirations are legitimate and to some extent can be realised. The opportunities too are much greater than they were, at least in Jamaica, if you are to judge by the frequency of readings, the Calabash Literary Festival, the financial support from the CHASE Fund, the existence of a poetry society which has been going for some time, the opportunities to attend writers’ workshops, and so on. So things are vastly better compared to when I started out. But the opportunities are still limited — the audience is still too small, it is difficult for the Caribbean writer to get published, mainly because there is no real publishing house catering to this small (literary) market, and the societal supports for a thriving literary culture are lacking. And while the attitudes to “writer” are perhaps changing, I’m not sure that people regard writing as a legitimate occupation.

For the vast majority of people who try to, making a living by writing is a precarious business at best. What, for you, have been the rewards? Do you sometimes wish that you had followed the more conventional path of the “scholarship pickney”?

Categorically, no, to the last. It’s been a precarious path, but one that I chose to follow. The effort is never matched by financial rewards, but my pleasure comes from the doing. I really like the feeling of accomplishment when I have completed a poem or a story or, yes, a novel. It’s rewarding to meet people who have enjoyed my work or to read before an appreciative audience or field questions from a bunch of schoolchildren. Writing has also given me the opportunity to travel the world and live and work in different places and to be “free” in ways that I could not possibly be had I chosen a more conventional profession. In recent years I have also been rewarded by the honours I have received, such as the Musgrave Gold Medal.