Senior, Olive (Marjorie) 1941-
SENIOR, Olive (Marjorie) 1941-
PERSONAL: Born December 23, 1941, in Jamaica; immigrated to Canada, 1991. Education: Carleton University, B.S., 1967.
ADDRESSES: Home—Kingston, Jamaica, and Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Agent—Nicole Aragi, Watkins/Loomis Agency, 133 East 35th St., Ste. 1, New York, NY 10016.
CAREER: Daily Gleaner (newspaper), Jamaica, reporter and subeditor; Jamaica Information Service, information officer, 1967-69; Jamaica Chamber of Commerce, public relations officer, 1969-71; JCC Journal, editor, 1969-71; Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of the West Indies, Jamaica, publications editor, 1972-77; Social and Economic Studies, editor, 1972-77; freelance writer and researcher, beginning 1977; worked as part-time teacher in communications, publishing consultant, and speech writer, 1977-82; Institute of Jamaica Publications, managing editor, 1982-89; Jamaica Journal, editor, 1982-89; University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, Barbados, visiting lecturer/writer-in-residence, 1990; Caribbean Writers Summer Institute, University of Miami, Florida, director of fiction workshop, 1994, 1995; St. Lawrence University, Canton, NY, Dana Visiting Professor of creative writing, 1994-95.
AWARDS, HONORS: Commonwealth Writers' prize, 1967; Gold, Silver, and Bronze medals for poetry and fiction, Jamaica Festival Literary Competitions, 1968-70; winner in two categories, Longman International Year of the Child Short Story Competition, 1978; Institute of Jamaica Centenary medal for creative writing, 1979; UNESCO award for study in the Philippines, 1987; Jamaica Press Association award for editorial excellence, 1987; Commonwealth Writers Prize: Best Novel, 1987, for Summer Lightning; United States Information Service, International Visitor award, 1988; Institute of Jamaica, Silver Musgrave medal for literature, 1989; Hawthornden fellow, Scotland, 1990; International Writer-in-Residence, Arts Council of England, 1991; F. G. Bressani Literary prize for poetry, 1994, for Gardening in the Tropics.
Talking of Trees, Calabash (Kingston, Jamaica), 1986.
Gardening in the Tropics, McClelland & Stewart (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1994.
Summer Lightning and Other Stories, Longman (London, England), 1986.
Arrival of the Snake-Woman, Longman (London, England), 1989.
(With others) Quartet, Longman (London, England), 1994.
Discerner of Hearts, McClelland & Stewart (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1995.
The Journey Prize Anthology: Short Fiction from the Best of Canada's New Writers, McClelland & Stewart (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1996.
Maria La Yacona, Jamaica: Portraits, 1955-1998, Marco Press (Marco Island, FL), 1998.
James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain: And Related Readings, McDougal Littell (Evanston, IL), 1998.
The Message Is Change: A Perspective on the 1972 General Elections, Kingston Publishers (Kingston, Jamaica), 1972.
Pop Story Gi Mi (four booklets on Jamaican heritage for schools), Ministry of Education (Kingston, Jamaica), 1973.
A-Z of Jamaican Heritage, Heinemann & Gleaner (Kingston, Jamaica), 1984.
Working Miracles: Women's Lives in the English-speaking Caribbean, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IL), 1991.
SIDELIGHTS: Olive Senior is a contemporary Caribbean writer. A journalist who has won acclaim for her poetry and short stories, she has also written several important nonfiction books about Caribbean culture, among them A-Z of Jamaican Heritage. Her fiction and poetry frequently focus on social and racial issues in Jamaica. Senior "has also played a vital role in putting women's issues on the literary agenda of her region," commented Denise deCaires Narain in the Dictionary of Literary Biography.
Senior was raised in a rural district of Jamaica, and in Narain's opinion, a sense of "rural isolation" pervades her work. She later went to live with more well-to-do relatives, which, the writer told Lisa Allen-Agostini in the Sunday Guardian, "meant a shift. I grew up in two households, sort of two different Jamaicas, not just because of material things, but also how people behaved." At Montego Bay High School she excelled at writing, and even began a magazine to showcase her own and her peers' work. After school and during vacations she worked at Jamaica's most distinguished newspaper, the Daily Gleaner. In 1967 she earned a bachelor of journalism degree at Carleton University in Toronto. While she now spends much of her time in Canada, Senior told Allen-Agostini, "I would describe myself as a conscious Caribbean person, even though I'm based somewhere else; my primary area of interest is still the Caribbean." She added: "I'm so concerned about what's happening in the Caribbean with young people and the fact that we have become so caught up in the 'satellite culture' that our true indigenous cultures—which just began to be explored at the time of independence—are being swept away or ignored. And you wonder, who are we going to be down the road if we don't have something of our own to cling to?"
Senior's first published book was the poetry collection Talking of Trees. In it, Senior presents "serious and noisy poems about the natural world while little ignoring the horrors of Jamaica's colonial history," explained Susan M. Schultz in Contemporary Woman Poets. The book's first section focuses on personal themes, while the second half is more political in nature. "Taken as a whole, the volume offers a series of lovingly detailed portraits of Jamaica, testifying to the toughness of the landscape and cityscape and to the resilience of its people," declared Narain. In Gardening in the Tropics, Senior's next poetry collection, she pays tribute to the cultural heritage of Jamaica, particularly its blend of Indian, African, and European cultures. The poems range from the region's first contact with Europeans up to the present day, with speakers from a wide variety of cultural and socioeconomic groups. "The overall effect of the volume is enchanting and liberating," stated Adele S. Newson in World Literature Today.
Summer Lightning and Other Stories confirmed Senior's standing in the literary world by winning the 1987 Commonwealth Writer's Prize. Many reviewers praised Summer Lightning for its sensitive, many-layered evocation of Jamaican culture. "The total effect is of a particular world illuminated from every angle, and by the time we turn the final page, intimately known," Evelyn O'Callaghan wrote in Journal of West Indian Literature. "There is much the reader can learn from Olive Senior's short fiction—about the rich resources of Jamaican speech varieties, about superstitions and folk beliefs and the details of daily life in rural society. . . . Summer Lightning is a slim well-crafted and beautifully packaged offering of treats to be savoured and enjoyed."
Senior's second story collection, Arrival of the Snake-Woman and Other Stories, is "more somber" than Summer Lightning, according to Narain. The title story concerns a village woman, Miss Coolie, who is viewed with suspicion by her neighbors. It "evokes a complex composite picture of rural and urban Jamaica. Although as in her first collection Senior often uses binary oppositions to structure her stories, she problematizes these to point to the inadequacy of the binary paradigm for interrogating the complex . . . reality of Caribbean culture." In Discerner of Hearts, another story collection, Senior provides "a juxtaposition of lively voices, rigid class lines and competing societies" in Jamaica, noted Maggie Barb in the New York Times Book Review. "Spotlighting the multiple marks of class and racial difference on the tiny Caribbean island, Ms. Senior offers a luminous portrait of people struggling to find their own place in a changing world." The stories in this collection cover a wide sweep of Carribean history, and according to Michael Thorpe in World Literature Today, they portray "a constricted society whose relationships are overdetermined by class and color; caste-power, or the lack of it, is constantly felt."
"Senior's short stories and poetry are the work of a creative talent of great sensitivity that expresses tremendous understanding of the human condition, particularly that of poor people both rural and urban," affirmed Velma Pollard in Callaloo. "The work is knit together by a common landscape and a recurring concern for humanity." Senior commented to Charles H. Rowell in an interview for Callaloo: "For me, writing, literature, is inextricably fused with magic. Though most of my writing is in a realistic vein, I am conscious at all times of other possibilities lurking just beyond consciousness, of the great ineffable mystery that lies at the core of each life, at the heart of every story."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Bardolph, Jacqueline, editor, Short Fiction in the New Literatures in English, Facultie des Lettres & Sciences Humaines (Nice, France), 1989.
Chamberlin, J. E., Come Back to Me My Language: Poetry and the West Indies, University of Illinois Press (Champaign, IL), 1993.
Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 37, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2003.
Contemporary Novelists, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Contemporary Poets, 7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.
Contemporary Women Poets, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1998.
Cudje, Selwyn, editor, Caribbean Women Writers, Calaloux (Wellesley, MA), 1990.
Davies, Carole Boyce, and Elaine Savory Fido, Out of the Kumbla: Caribbean Women and Literature, Africa World Press (New York, NY), 1990.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 157: Twentieth-Century Caribbean and Black African Writers, Third Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1995.
Kinnery, Malcolm, and Michael Rose, Critical Strategies, Bedford Books (Boston, MA), 1989.
Nasta, Susheila, editor, Motherlands: Black Women's Writing from Africa, the Caribbean and South Asia, Women's Press (London, England), 1991.
O'Callaghan, Evelyn, Woman Version: Theoretical Approaches to West Indian Fiction, Macmillan (London, England), 1993.
Ariel, January, 1993, pp. 13-33.
Black Collegian, March-April, 1989, Kuumba Kazi-Ferrouillet, review of Summer Lightning and Other Stories, p. 173.
Callalloo, summer, 1988, pp. 480-90, 540-51; winter, 1993, pp. 34-43.
Commonwealth Essays and Studies, spring, 1991, pp. 42-48.
Everywoman, June, 1991, pp. 19-22.
Journal of Caribbean Studies, spring, 1988, pp. 143-162.
Journal of Development Studies, October, 1992, Sally Lloyd Evans, review of Working Miracles: Women's Lives in the English-speaking Caribbean, p. 193.
Journal of West Indian Literature, October, 1986, pp. 92-94.
Kunapipi, no. 2, 1986, pp. 11-20.
Ms., November-December, 1995, p. 88.
New Voices, September, 1986, pp. 31-34.
New York Times Book Review, April 17, 1988, p. 42; October 1, 1995, p. 32.
Sunday Guardian, March 12, 2000, Lisa Allen-Agostini, "An Embodiment of Conflict," p. 19.
Third World Quarterly, April, 1988, pp. 995-998.
Times Literary Supplement, April 1, 1988, p. 364.
Women's Review of Books, November, 1987, p. 13.
World Literature Today, summer, 1990, p. 514; autumn, 1995, Adele S. Newson, review of Gardening in the Tropics, p. 852; spring, 1996, Michael Thorpe, review of Discerner of Hearts, p. 455.*