Olive Senior

Olive Marjorie Senior was born in the parish of Trelawny on the Caribbean island of Jamaica on 23 December 1941. The seventh of ten children, she grew up in the shadow of the Cockpit Mountains and spent her formative years criss-crossing the adjoining western parishes of Westmoreland, Hanover, and St. James. As Velma Pollard points out, “[t]his environment—the topography and the people—is continually reflected in Senior’s poetry and prose” (479). Moreover, as the daughter of a small farmer and a stay-at-home mother, Senior grew up close to the land. Her vast knowledge of local plants, their history, their medicinal and culinary uses, and the rich folklore associated with them— which is evident in a number of poems in Gardening in the Tropics including “Guinep,” “Pineapple,’ “Starapple,” and “Mountain Pride”—is rooted in this early experience. So too are the intimate portraits she paints, in this collection and her other works, of the people whose survival depends on how well they navigate both the physical and social landscape.

In Senior’s immediate family, money was scarce. While not auto-biographical, the poem “My Father’s Blue Plantation” provides insight into the lives of small rural farming families like the one Senior was born in and the hard graft that defines such existence. Even though Senior, who is of mixed race heritage, was born with what Jamaicans term “light skin” and “good hair,” those usual markers of privilege did not set her, or her family, apart from their predominantly African-heritage neighbours in the village of Troy. Class, rather than race, as Senior explains in an interview with Anna Rutherford, was then and still is the main marker of difference in the complex web of Jamaica’s social hierarchy. Because they were poor like their neighbours, the Seniors “lived as a part of the village” (12-13).Troy was, like many other rural villages of the time, close knit. Everyone knew everyone else, and the Senior family was well integrated into their community. Village life was Senior’s first school. A world away from the “refinements” of the city and with no television or cinema and very little radio for distraction, members of the community found instruction and entertainment in the only likely/available source: the oral culture.

Senior has always acknowledged the oral culture—characterized by, among other things, “storytelling, ‘hot’ preaching, praying and testifying [ ], concerts, ‘tea-meetings’” (Rowell 480), work songs, gossip, verbal games and word play (Aiyejina 24; Glaser 77), duppy stories and Anancy stories (Rutherford 19)—as a shaping influence on her writing. That influence is evident in Gardening in the Tropics not only in poems that place folk knowledge at their epistemological centre but also in Senior’s practice of creating poetic personae whose voices capture the cadences of Jamaican speech across its wide linguistic spectrum. Similarly, Taino and African mythology invigorate the collection (for example in “Plants,” “The Tree of Life,” and the Mystery section); and Senior validates the oral histories of these indigenous and transplanted New World communities in a number of poems, including “Gardening on the Run” and “Meditation on Yellow.”

While Senior admits that she “didn’t grow up influenced by what you would call ‘the arts’” (Rowell 480), in her writing life she has found inspiration in the work of a number of contemporary international authors. She names among her earliest influences Flannery O’Conner, Truman Capote, and Carson Mullers (Rutherford 18) who, like Senior, show a remarkable talent for probing social hypocrisies and bringing emotions such as loneliness, alienation, and fear to life on the page. Senior’s childhood and adolescence in rural western Jamaica have proven to be fertile ground for the exercise of her talent. Her introduction to the polarities of Jamaican society and first-hand experience of some of the intense emotional states and moral conundrums she writes about came at a very early age. When she was four years old Senior was sent to live for extended periods with her maternal great aunt and uncle in Westmoreland. Materially well off, her mixed race adopted parents asserted their class and racial privilege and ordered their household in ways that were diametrically opposite to Senior’s home in Troy, including validating standard English over Jamaican creole and denying the value of cultural practices associated with the island’s African heritage. It was during this time away from Troy that Senior received formal schooling; and from elementary school until her graduation from the Montego Bay High School for Girls in St. James, she was shuttled between these two worlds.

Living in an in-between space for all those years, Senior became familiar with solitude and silence, which was exacerbated by growing up in the isolated regions of the Cockpit Mountains. Her sense of living on the outside of other people’s worlds made her an acute observer of their generosity, sometimes nobility, and other times meanness of spirit, as well as their everyday hypocrisies and the triumphs and tragedies in the lives of both rich and poor. As she told Elaine Savory, she grew up “always questioning things, especially the moral attitudes of adults.” Even as a child she “subconsciously saw through the hypocrisy,” and so in her life choices she has “never really accepted the conventional path” (Savory 109). In poems such as “All Clear,” “Hurricane Story, 1944,” “Hurricane Story, 1951,” and “Bamboo (In Five Variations)” Senior holds the choices made by her poetic personae up for scrutiny; and her probing into individual lives effectively opens up a window not only into the larger society but also into the recesses of human nature. Her examination of human nature, whatever the specific locality of the people she writes about, is always marked by clear-eyed compassion for, rather than judgment of, her subjects. It is partly for this reason—and also because of Senior’s consummate skill as a writer—that her work resonates with readers across cultures and generations.

Self-described as “racially and socially a child of mixed worlds” (Rowell 481), Senior has direct experience with hybrid states of being. Coupled with the fact that her “early years were marked by journeys, chiefly by train, from one to another location” (Pollard 497), it is not surprising that her writing demonstrates an abiding interest in experiences of hybridity, displacement, and multiple/conflicting identities. A number of her poems address these states from the point of view of the migrant and set up a balance sheet of the losses and gains—for individuals and communities—that result from (forced and voluntary) migration. Senior’s poetic imagination has extended her personal experience of border crossing into an examination of the historical (“Meditation on Yellow”), political (“Caribbean Basin Initiative” and “Illegal Immigrant”), economic (“Hurricane Story, 1951,” “All Clear,’), and personal forces (“Meditation on Red”) that have created migration into and out of the Caribbean for centuries. Travellers abound in Gardening in the Tropics, their journeys taking them across various routes from the English-speaking Caribbean to Puerto Limón, Havana, Cólon; from the ports of Europe and the coasts of West Africa to the Caribbean; from villages and towns across the Caribbean, legally and illegally, on the wings of a dream, to Miami, London, and other metropolitan centres. Senior’s adult years have followed the pattern of constant migration and multiple affiliations set when she was a child. Over the years, she has lived in a number of countries and has visited dozens of others; and although she has been resident in Toronto since 1991, she returns often to Jamaica and travels frequently to other parts of the world.

Senior’s first major move outside of western Jamaica came when she relocated to Kingston after high school to work as a reporter and sub-editor for the Daily Gleaner, Jamaica’s largest newspaper. The job was her first major step toward a career in journalism (during high school Senior had written occasional pieces for the daily), which she pursued alongside her passion for creative writing for the next three decades. Her formal training as a journalist began with a short-term scholarship to Cardiff, Wales. She then studied for a degree in print journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada on a Commonwealth Scholarship from 1964 to 1967. It was while she was at university in Canada, where she took a course in creative writing, that Senior began writing poetry and fiction seriously (she had been writing stories and poems since her school days). At the time, Senior knew very little about Caribbean literature and Caribbean writers as she had received her education in the closing days of the colonial era, although she remembers that Vic Reid’s New Day had a profound impact on her as a school girl (Rutherford 18). But since writing, and writing about the communities she knows and connects with historically and personally has always been part of her life, Senior, without any conscious intention of doing so, has become one of the pioneers of modern Caribbean literature. Not surprisingly, her achievements as a major contributor to Jamaican and Caribbean literature have been recognized with two prestigious national awards: a Musgrave Gold Medal from the Institute of Jamaica and the Norman Washington Manley Foundation Award for Excellence.

Senior was quietly publishing poems and short stories in various journals and magazines during the 1960s and 1970s, which means that the timeline of her writing career coincides with that of several other major Caribbean authors who were establishing their literary careers in London, Toronto, and New York in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. In fact, much of the material in her first short story collection Summer Lightning and Other Stories (1986), which won the inaugural Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book in 1987, and her first collection of poems, Talking of Trees (1986), was written during the 1960s and early 1970s. What is notable about Senior’s work is that while authors such as Samuel Selvon, Austin Clarke, and Paule Marshall were writing from metropolitan centres in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s about the experience of Caribbean diasporic communities, Senior was using her creative imagination to bring to life often neglected experiences centred in the Caribbean and the Americas: the origins of these societies; the centuries-old encounters and negotiations between the different peoples and cultures that now comprise the matrix of New World societies; and ongoing changes—social, cultural, economic, and political—taking place in the region. Senior’s focus on the region’s past and present—her insistence on looking in instead of out—is evident throughout Gardening in the Tropics. Hence, the collection juxtaposes a poem such as “Olokun: God of the Deep Ocean” in which the Yoruba god is called upon as witness to the traumas of Middle Passage journeys alongside “Brief Lives” where the poet tallies the human cost of various kinds of political turmoil in the “tropics,” including “donmanship” in Jamaica and the “disappearing” of political dissidents in South and Central America.

Living outside of the region for the three years she was at university no doubt opened up a space in which Senior was able to view her familiar world from a distance and so enable her creative investigation. Such distance continues to work in Senior’s favour. The poems in Gardening in the Tropics, for instance, were completed while Senior was spending a year in the UK as a visiting writer. Even though this collection (which won the F. J. Bressani Literary Prize) is her first book published by a press in her adopted country, the Canadian experience is not Senior’s focus. “My whole literary consciousness,” she says, “is still embedded in Jamaica, and that is not deliberate. That is just how it is” (Simpson 11). So, even though she currently spends most of her time outside Jamaica, Senior is probably more accurately described as a transnational writer rather than an immigrant writer.

Close proximity also facilitates keen observation and strengthens the poet’s connection to her subject material. In the 1970s and 1980s, decades in which Senior had sustained physical proximity to her birth country, she built up an impressive research arsenal that fired her creativity. After Carleton, she returned to Jamaica where she spent the 1970s working at the Institute of Social and Economic Studies at the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies. There, she was in charge of the Institute’s groundbreaking research journal, Social and Economic Studies, and book publishing program. That job, and her positions as editor of the prestigious Jamaica Journal and managing director for the Institute of Jamaica Publications in the 1980s, provided Senior with an environment in which she was surrounded by and could engage in multidisciplinary work on Jamaica and the region. This research was funneled into her non-fiction titles: The Message is Change (1972), the A-Z of Jamaican Heritage (1984), Working Miracles: Women’s Lives in the English-Speaking Caribbean (1991), and the Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage (2003), a compendium and veritable treasure trove comprising hundreds of meticulously researched, referenced, and illustrated entries on life in Jamaica. The Encyclopedia is an invaluable companion to reading Gardening in the Tropics, poetry and prose by Senior more generally as well as the work of other Caribbean writers. As Senior points out, “all [her] work feed into each other” (Aiyejina 38).

With thirteen published books to date, Senior has had, to say the least, a remarkable career. Since moving to Canada in 1991 (she lived and worked in the UK and various parts of Europe from 1988 to 1991), Senior has published a third collection of stories, Discerner of Hearts and Other Stories (1995); two more poetry collections, Over the Roofs of the World (2005)—which was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award in Canada—and Shell (2007); a novel, Dancing Lessons (2011) and an illustrated book for children, Birthday Suit (2012). She has completed, but not yet published, another collection of poems, is currently working on a second novel, and composing yet another poetry collection (Simpson Wasafiri 15). One compelling indicator of the reach and enormous impact of Senior’s writing is that her poems and stories are regularly included on high school and university syllabi internationally. Summer Lightning and Gardening in the Tropics are regularly chosen as literature textbooks in Caribbean schools, with the latter being a required text for the Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination Literatures in English syllabus. As well, her work is included in numerous anthologies and has been translated into several languages, including Dutch, German, Italian, Spanish, and Russian.

Books by Olive Senior

  • Novel:

  • Dancing Lessons (Toronto: Cormorant Press, 2011)
  • Poetry:

  • Shell (Toronto: Insomniac Press, 2007)
  • Over the Roofs of the World (Toronto: Insomniac Press, 2005)
  • Gardening in the Tropics (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1994; London: Bloodaxe Books, 1995; Toronto: Insomniac Press, 2005)
  • Talking of Trees (Kingston, Jamaica: Calabash, 1985)

  • Short Stories:
  • Discerner of Hearts (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1995; 2002)
  • Arrival of the Snake-Woman (Longman Caribbean, 1989; Toronto: TSAR, 2009)
  • Summer Lightning (Longman Caribbean, 1986)

  • Non-Fiction:
  • Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage (St. Andrew, Jamaica: Twin Guinep Publishers, 2003)
  • Working Miracles: Women’s Lives in the English-Speaking Caribbean (London: James Currey/ Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991)
  • A-Z of Jamaican Heritage (Kingston, Jamaica: Heinemann and The Gleaner Company Ltd., 1984)
  • The Message is Change (Kingston Publishers, 1972)

  • Children’s Book:
  • Birthday Suit (Annick Press, 2012)

  • Works Cited

  • Aiyejina, Funso. “Olive Senior.” Self-Portraits: Interviews with Ten West Indian
    Writers and Two Critics. St. Augustine, Trinidad: University of the West Indies Press, 2003. 23-39.
  • Glaser, Marlies. “A Shared Culture: An Interview with Olive Senior.” Caribbean
    Writers: Between Orality and Writing. Ed. Marlies Glaser and Marion Pausch. Amsterdam-Atlanta: Rodopi, 1994. 77-84.
  • Pollard, Velma. “Olive Senior: Journalist, Researcher, Poet, Fiction Writer.”
    Callaloo 11.3 (Summer 1988): 478-79.
  • Rowell, Charles H. “An Interview with Olive Senior.” Callaloo 11.3
    (Summer 2008): 480-90.
  • Rutherford, Anna. “Olive Senior: Interview.” Kunapipi 8.2 (1986): 11-20.
    Savory, Elaine. “Interview with Olive Senior.” Wadabagei 8.3 (Fall 2005): 105- 112.
  • Simpson, Hyacinth. “The In-Between Worlds of Olive Senior: An Interview.”
    Wasafiri 23.1 (March 2008): 10-15.