Senior, Olive 1941–
Olive Senior 1941–
Jamaican-born journalist, poet, and short story writer Olive Senior is one of Caribbean literature’s leading feminist voices. Her works, though written in English, remain heavily influenced by the region’s patois, and draw heavily upon its oral storytelling traditions. In both her verse and fiction, Senior critiques the political and cultural ties that continue to bind Jamaica to its British colonial past. Her protagonists often find themselves divided between the resulting two worlds of assimilation and preservation, and she gives their speech and inner dialogues a corresponding tone. “In Jamaica, much as in England, diction has traditionally signified place of birth, level of education, pedigree,” noted a Maclean’s writer on Senior’s use of language. “But for Senior’s class-conscious islanders, accent indicates something more: it reveals the cultural distance between the speaker and a discarded African legacy.” The Canadian journal also liked the way that “Senior writes of characters endlessly concerned with their prospects, an attitude that keeps them in perpetual motion.”
Born in 1941 Senior came from a part of rural Jamaica known as “Cockpit country.” There, her parents were struggling farmers, and many of the homes in the area—isolated from the main roads—lacked electricity and running water. Her parents, hoping to improve her economic prospects, sent her to live with wealthier relatives elsewhere on the island for her formal schooling. In her work, Senior’s characters straddle these two black Jamaican worlds: a rural one that maintains strong cultural links to its African heritage, and a more middle-class milieu with closer ties to the English colonial presence.
Senior’s interest in literature was sparked by the stories she heard from older people in Cockpit country as well as those who had come to the more urban areas to find jobs. She attended Montego Bay High School, where she launched her own literary magazine, and after graduating she was hired by one of Jamaica’s leading newspapers, the Daily Gleaner. Jamaica was granted full independence from Britain in 1962 but close cultural ties remained, and two years later Senior traveled to Wales to take part in a journalism course. She eventually emigrated to Canada, earning a degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University in 1967.
At a Glance…
Born Olive Marjorie Senior on December 23, 1941, in Jamaica; immigrated to Canada, 1991. Education: Carleton University (Ottawa, Canada), B.S., journalism, 1967.
Career: Daily Gleaner newspaper, Jamaica, reporter and sub-editor; 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, part-time teacher in communications, publishing consultant, and speech writer, Jamaica, 1977-82; Institute of Jamaica Publications, managing editor, 1982*89; Jamaica Journal, editor, 1982-89; freelance teacher, writer, lecturer, 1989-; University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, Barbados, visiting lecturer/wri?er-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; University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada/writer-in-residence, 1998-99.
Awards: Commonwealth Writers’ prize, 1967; Gold, Silver, and Bronze medals for poetry and fiction, Jamaica Festival Literary Competitions, 1968-70; Institute of Jamaica Centenary medal for creative writing, 1979; Commonwealth Writers Prize, 1987, for Summer Lightning; United States Information Service, International Visitor award, 1988; Institute of Jamaica, Silver Musgrave medal for literature, 1989; Haw-thornden 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.
Address: Agent —Nicole Aragi, Watkins/Loomis Agency, 133 East 35th St., Suite 1, New York, NY 10016.
Returning home, Senior found a job as an information officer with the Jamaica Information Service, and moved to a post as a public relations officer for the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce in 1969. She edited its Journal, and then became the publications editor for the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica in 1972. During her five-year stint there, she also edited another journal called Social and Economic Studies. After 1977 she worked as a freelance writer and researcher, and taught for a time as well. Her first published work was titled The Message Is Change: A Perspective on the 1972 General Elections, and she also penned a series of educational booklets on Jamaican heritage for school children.
Senior was also writing poetry during this time, and her efforts began to appear in print. She gained an impressive measure of recognition with seven poems which were included in a seminal 1980 volume, Jamaica Woman: An Anthology of Poems, the first such survey of Caribbean women poets. While employed as managing editor for the Institute of Jamaica Publications, she published her first collection of verse, Talking of Trees. The 1986 work showed many of the hallmarks of Senior’s later literary style, blending the personal and the political in a language that retained a strong Caribbean flavor. “Senior’s poems are often elegant and spare, eschewing heavy rhythmic stresses or rhyme schemes,” noted Denise deCaires Narain in an essay for the Dictionary of Literary Biography. “Her touch is always sure when the speakers in her poems, as is often the case, use the speech rhythms and idiom of Jamaican creole.”
In one of the poems in Talking of Trees, “Colonial Girls School,” she describes a curriculum of Latin and Shakespeare, one that “told us nothing about ourselves …/There was nothing of our landscape there/Nothing about us at all.” Senior also wrote of the island and its natural riches in “Meditation on Yellow.” Commodities, according to Senior, become a dividing line between Jamaica’s black and white populace: sugar, coffee, bananas, and aluminum are harvested or mined by blacks, and served to or exported by whites. Narain noted that “while many of the poems stress the beauty of the landscape, Senior seldom, as many earlier Caribbean writers have done, romanticizes the land.”
Summer Lightning and Other Stories, published in 1986, took the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, a top literary award. Many of its ten stories are set in the Jamaican countryside, and feature young women who leave the area, or long to do so. In “Ballad,” Lenora, assigned to write an essay for class on an “unforgettable” person, chooses Miss Rulla, the colorful local woman whom some view as mad. Angered, Lenora’s teacher rips it up, telling her that Miss Rulla is an inappropriate topic, but Lenora tells the woman’s story anyway, in ballad form, and displays her own noncon formist tendencies along the way. “Senior’s willingness to point to the limitations of closely knit rural communities while at the same time acknowledging their vitality and warmth is testimony to her ability to combine accurate observation with subtle compassion,” remarked Narain.
Senior’s 1989 short-story volume, Arrival of the Snake-Woman also garnered critical accolades. The title story centers on a village Indian woman, Miss Coolie, whose neighbors view her with suspicion. Yet “Senior effectively utilizes the woman as a way of examining the villagers’ fear of change,” explained Narain, “so that Miss Coolie operates as a kind of floating signifier into which all kinds of doubts and superstitions are posited.” In the end, Miss Coolie is an agent for positive change.
Senior’s next collection of verse, Gardening in the Tropics, again paid homage to Jamaica’s cultural heritage, particularly the island’s melange of three cultures: African, Indian, and European. “The overall effect of the volume is enchanting and liberating,” declared World Literature Today critic Adele S. Newson. A third collection of short stories, Discerner of Hearts, was published in 1995. The tales are again set in Jamaica, with some using a child narrator, a literary device that was praised by critics. The title tale focuses on a little girl, Theresa, who comes from an affluent family but is fascinated by Cissy, her rural-born nanny, and the tales that Cissy tells her about the ghosts and spirits that roam the countryside. In another, “The Case Against the Queen,” a child is bewildered when an uncle returns from England and begins to exhibit signs of mental illness. The volume earned a mixed assessment from a Quill & Quire critic, but the story “You Think I Mad, Miss?” was commended as exemplary of Senior’s talents as a writer. Here, a homeless woman asks people for handouts, while recounting the events in her life that propelled her to vagrancy. The Quill & Quire review called it a tale “not just skilled but entrancing: compressed, complex, ambiguous, it is all that a story should be.”
Since the late 1980s, Senior has divided her time between Kingston, Jamaica’s capital city, and Toronto, Canada. She is also the author of Working Miracles: Women’s Lives in the English-Speaking Caribbean, a 1991 nonfiction work based on findings from a series of studies done in the early 1980s about women, children, and socio-economic concerns in the Caribbean world. Her editorial credits include The Journey Prize Anthology: Short Fiction from the Best of Canada’s New Writers.
The Message Is Change: A Perspective on the 1972 General Elections, Kingston Publishers, 1972.
Pop Story Gi Mi (four booklets on Jamaican heritage for schools), Ministry of Education (Kingston, Jamaica), 1973.
A-Z of Jamaican Heritage, Heinemann and Gleaner Company Ltd., 1984.
Talking of Trees (poetry), Calabash, 1986.
Summer Lightning and Other Stories, Longman, 1986.
Arrival of the Snake-Woman (short stories), Longman, 1989.
Working Miracles: Women’s Lives in the English-Speaking Caribbean, Indiana University Press, 1991.
Gardening in the Tropics (poetry), McClelland & Stewart, 1994.
Discerner of Hearts (short stories), McClelland & Stewart, 1995.
Contributor to Jamaica Woman: An Anthology of Poems, edited by Pamela Mordecai and Mervyn Morris, Heinemann, 1980), pp. 75-83.
(Editor) The Journey Prize Anthology: Short Fiction from the Best of Canada’s New Writers, McClelland and Stewart, 1996.
(Editor) LaYacona, Maria, Jamaica: Portraits, 1955-1998, Marco Press, 1998.
(Editor) Baldwin, James, Go Tell It on the Mountain: And Related Readings, McDougal Littell, 1998.
Contemporary Poets, 7th edition, St. James Press, 2001.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 157, Twentieth-Century Caribbean and Black African Writers, edited by Bernth Lindfors and Reinhard Sander, Gale, 1996, pp. 340-348.
Maclean’s, April 24, 1995, pp. T6-T7.
MAN, December 1992, p. 890.
Quill & Quire, May 1995, p. 33.
World Literature Today, Autumn 1995, p. 852; Spring 1996, p. 455.
Olive Senior: An Embodiment of Conflict, http://www.nalis.gov.tt/Biography/bio (September 5, 2002).
Commonwealth Resource Center, http://www.commonwealth.org.uk/ (September 5, 2002).
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