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Senior, Olive (Marjorie)

SENIOR, Olive (Marjorie)

Nationality: Jamaican (immigrated to Canada in 1991). Born: Jamaica, 23 December 1941. Education: Carleton University, Ottawa, 1963-67, B.S. 1967. Career: Reporter and sub-editor, Daily Gleaner newspaper, Jamaica; information officer, Jamaica Information Service, 1967-69; public relations officer, Jamaica Chamber of Commerce and editor, JCC Journal, 1969-71; publications editor, Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of the West Indies, Jamaica, and editor, Social and Economic Studies, 1972-77; freelance writer and researcher, part-time teacher in communications, publishing consultant, and speech writer, Jamaica, 1977-82; managing editor, Institute of Jamaica Publications, and editor, Jamaica Journal, 1982-89; international writer-in-residence, Arts Council of Great Britian, 1990; writer-in-residence, University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica, 1993; director of fiction workshop, Caribbean Writers Summer Institute, University of Miami, Florida, 1994-95; Dana Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing and International Education, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York, 1994-95; faculty, Humber School for Writers, 1996-; writer-in-residence, Banff International Writing Studio, Alberta, 1997; visiting faculty, University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica. Awards: 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, 1967; United States Information Service, International Visitor award, 1988; Institute of Jamaica, Silver Musgrave medal for literature, 1989; Hawthornden fellow, Scotland, 1990; F. G. Bressani Literary prize for poetry, 1994, for Gardening in the Tropics. Member: Writers Union of Canada.

Publications

Short Stories

Summer Lightning and Other Stories. 1987.

Arrival of the Snake-Woman. 1989.

Quartet, with others. 1994.

Discerner of Hearts. 1995.

Poetry

Talking of Trees. 1986.

Gardening in the Tropics. 1994.

Other

The Message Is Change. 1972.

Pop Story Gi Mi (four booklets on Jamaican heritage for schools). 1973.

A-Z of Jamaican Heritage. 1983.

Working Miracles: Women's Lives in the English-Speaking Caribbean. 1991.

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Critical Studies:

Olive Senior issue of Callaloo (Baltimore), 11(3), Summer 1988; in Critical Strategies by Malcolm Kinnery and Michael Rose, Boston, Bedford Books/St. Martin's Press, 1989; in Out of the Kumbla: Caribbean Women and Literature, edited by Carole Boyce Davies and Elaine Savory Fido, New York, Africa World Press, 1990; in Caribbean Women Writers, edited by Selwyn Cudje, Wellesley, Massachusetts, Calaloux Publications, 1990; in Motherlands: Black Women's Writing from Africa, theCaribbean and South Asia, edited by Susheila Nasta, London, The Women's Press, 1991; in Come Back to Me My Language: Poetry and the West Indies by J. E. Chamberlin, Champaign, University of Illinois Press, 1993; in Woman Version: Theoretical Approaches to West Indian Fiction by Women by Evelyn O'Callaghan, London, Macmillan, 1993; "The Fiction of Olive Senior" by Richard F. Patteson, in Ariel, A Review of International English Literature (Calgary, Alberta), 24(1), January 1993; "The East Indian Presence in Jamaican literature" by Velma Pollard in Encountering the Other(s), edited by Giseia Brinker-Gabler, Albany, State University of New York Press, 1995; "Hybrid Bodies" in Journal of the Short Story in English (D'Angers, France), Spring 1996.

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Known primarily as a short story writer—for Summer Lightning (1987), Arrival of the Snake-Woman (1989), and Discerner of Hearts (1995)—Olive Senior also has published two volumes of poetry—Talking of Trees (1986) and Gardening in the Tropics (1994). She is also an editor, freelance writer, researcher, and academic. Her interest in Jamaican life and culture has resulted in the publication of books on the Jamaican heritage for schools, and she has recounted the lives of Caribbean women in Working Miracles: Women's Lives in the English-Speaking Caribbean (1991).

Senior attempts to tell her stories in an authentic Caribbean voice and to convey her cultural identity. Like her fellow Caribbean writers, she has had to resist the strong nostalgic pull of the colonial past of British traditions and language. While she consciously uses Standard English, she frequently incorporates the demotic language, Jamaican creole, in dialogue. Her choice of Standard English and creole produces a unique Jamaican voice that is reminiscent of that of Louise Bennett, who popularized the native voice in her poems. Senior's stories also follow in the tradition of writers like John Hearne, Roger Mais, V. S. Reid, and Samuel Selvon, who use the demotic language successfully in their short stories and novels.

Senior's use of different registers of Jamaican English in Summer Lightning gives her text a distinctive character. In "The Boy Who Loved Ice Cream," for example, she juxtaposes Standard English and demotic language, moving with ease from one to the other.

She held him and firmly scrubbed him down with a "strainer" covered in soap. Then she had stuck the long-handled dipper into the drum of rain water and poured it over him from head to foot.

"Stan still yu jumbo-headed bwoy or a knok yu till yu fenny," she hissed at him…. "Awright. Doan have yu bath and see what happen. See if yu get no ice cream."

The third-person narrative voice blends in naturally with the demotic language in the dialogue and conveys convincingly the feel and flow, the lilt and cadence, of the rural characters.

The stories in Senior's three collections re-create the world of her childhood in Jamaica in the 1950s, a time and place she conveys authentically. Whether set in rural Jamaica or in such urban centers as Kingston, her texts analyze age-old problems. Because her stories focus on the vital role of women in their families and community, the residue of colonial attitudes, and the economic distress that many of the rural characters face, the texts lend themselves to feminist, postcolonial, and Marxist interpretations and readings. Senior explores family crises, with parents abandoning children through death or the deliberate decision to forsake a child and children alienating themselves from parents. She describes the loneliness of those who face poverty, despair, and selfishness. Her characters appear as vital human beings who, despite their faults, try to come to terms with their problems. In recounting their struggles so realistically, Senior commands the sympathy of the reader for even the most despicable characters.

In her stories Senior employs two recurring motifs: first, the negative impact of the outside world on the village when people who have left their rural birthplaces and become corrupted then return; and, second, the dire consequences that result from the breakdown of the traditional family unit. "Ascot," in Summer Lightning, describes the upheavals that can occur when the outside world makes inroads into a rural district and causes undesirable changes in people. Ascot, a fair-skinned man who is ashamed of his dark-skinned mother, has been drifting aimlessly in the United States, to which he has immigrated. When he returns to Jamaica with his American wife, it becomes clear that he has abandoned the moral values of the village. He is still a lazy, ostentatious man who stays at his mother's home and "never even leave a farthing" for her when he leaves. Yet his mother is proud of him, overlooking his racist, selfish, materialistic attitude. In "Country of the One-Eye God" Senior conveys the pathos in the betrayal of Ma Bell by her grandson. Forgetting the morals she tried to instill in him, he has become a thief and murderer. Escaping from jail, he returns to the village and holds a gun to her head, demanding her money and mocking the "One-Eye God" whom she calls on for help. Although Senior censures many of the characters, including Ascot and Ma Bell's grandson, she is tolerant of their failures, and her tone, which for the most part is mildly ironic, is seldom satiric and condemnatory.

The stories in Senior's later collections, Arrival of the Snake-Woman and Discerner of Hearts, are more varied and exhibit a more complex Jamaican society. She stresses the role of women in unifying communities, healing old wounds, and opposing their marginalization and oppression. She juxtaposes the ideals of the Old World with those of the New, pointing to the erosion of class divisions and the dissolving of racial boundaries. In these stories she describes both the wealthy and the poor and does not confine herself to rural Jamaica. She focuses more on how the arrival of people from different parts of the world—England, the United States, and India, for example—have affected the texture of Jamaican life and society.

In the title story of Arrival of the Snake-Woman, Senior criticizes the race and class prejudices that permeated the old colonial Jamaica. She exposes the xenophobia and intolerance of the villagers toward the "Heathen-woman from the banks of the Ganges." The narrator describes but is ashamed of the prejudicial attitudes of the mainly black villagers, the white parson, and his own mother. The villagers ostracize Miss Coolie, and her children are not allowed to attend the Christian school until she converts to Christianity and adopts the dress of the villagers, giving up her saris and her bangles. The term "coolie" is a derogatory term for the people of East Indian origin, just as "nigger" or "nayga-man" is for the people of African ancestry. In giving the protagonist this name, Senior clearly is drawing ironical attention to the stereotype, and she goes on to show how Miss Coolie integrates herself into the society and becomes "a businesswoman and matriarch" in the village, "living in the Top House where the old-time white people… used to live." Having attained this prestigious position, she is now free to resume wearing saris and bangles, to be both Indian and Jamaican. The text clearly reveals a shift in the power structure of Jamaican society among people of European, African, and Indian ancestry and points to the formation of a modern Caribbean society.

In Senior's collection Discerner of Hearts she turns her attention once more to the complex problem of racial and cultural identity. In "Zig-Zag" the young Sadie perceives herself to be an ugly duckling, for her sister is light complexioned, while Sadie has dark skin and coarse, "natty" hair. She finds solace in the company of the black maid's children, but she fears that, though she would like to be a part of the mainstream, she will never be able to fit into world of the "better-off girls" and will become as invisible as the servants. The story ends ambivalently, with Sadie's recurring dream of being abandoned and not being able to find her way home. Her place in society is insecure, and she has a long way to go before she can attain the stability and acceptance that Miss Coolie finds.

In her short fiction Senior brings to the fore the problems and difficulties faced by many in postcolonial societies who are trying to find their own voice and identity. In describing the situations that many ordinary people face, Senior allows the reader to engage with the texts and to empathize with the characters, whether they are scurrilous or virtuous. Her fictional world is a microcosm of the larger world in which similar problems exist. In the end her protagonists, whether children or adults, Sadie or Ma Bell, are survivors who face the events of their lives with equanimity and honesty and whose sadness and joys remain with the reader.

—Ruby S. Ramraj

See the essay on "Arrival of the Snake-Woman."

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