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The Voice

One-on-one with Olive Senior (Pt. II)
published: Sunday | October 31, 2004


Laura Tanna, Contributor

Part 1 of the interview with Olive Senior ended as...

"I DIDN'T want to go to university because to me that was just another form of restricting me - like a strait jacket, although I could have. I did well in school. When I was a teenager, because of what I wrote that was published in The Gleaner, I was approached by this man on the street, the head of The Gleaner Western Bureau. He said: "Would you like to come and work for us?" And I said: "Sure!" So I had a part-time job with The Gleaner Western Bureau.

"Montego Bay was a tourist resort for the rich and famous. It wasn't like it is now. This was the late fifties/early sixties. As a reporter, if other people weren't available, I'd be sent to the airport or to the hotel or wherever to interview all kinds of famous people. I was in high school and sort of blasé about it. I did some interesting reporting."

Among the celebrities she interviewed was the movie star, Elizabeth Taylor, accompanied by her husband. Says Senior: They were in a light plane, flying from Montego Bay to Port Antonio. She had a sprained foot and couldn't come out of this plane. I went in to sit beside her. So there I am, gazing at the most beautiful face in the world. It was the kind of experience where you were exposed to all these people. But I don't know that it meant that much to me. I took it in my stride."


After completing 'A' levels, she joined The Gleaner in Kingston at age 19.

"Sealy was editor. Barbara Gloudon was my first boss and it was a good training ground because the standards were very high. I thought I was so sophisticated. I was going to be a journalist so you just assumed certain airs. I had a great time. Because I was so naive, a lot of people took me under their wing. What The Gleaner gave me was a world I would not otherwise have seen. The Gleaner was on Harbour Street and if you were a reporter everybody on the docks or down in the area knew you. I could walk along the streets and talk to people. It was a very democratic kind of life and exposed me to all kinds of Jamaicans.

"I did just about everything atThe Gleaner," she said. "I was Aunt Suzie, editor of the Children's Own, worked on the teacher's desk, and wrote features. I had a well-rounded exposure to all aspects of journalism, including production, like putting your pages to bed and working as a sub-editor. I was there up to independence. It was exciting. I was witnessing history being made from within, because in those days The Gleaner was really a centre of power. When they had their Christmas party, both Bustamante and Norman Manley came."


Olive Senior left when she got a scholarship to attend a training course for journalists in Cardiff, Wales. "It was cold and miserable but I had a good time with people from all over the world. While I was there I got a scholarship to study journalism in Canada so I came back and left for a three-year course at Carlton University. Once I was on my own, and able to make my own decisions, that was fine."

She attended the school of journalism, accompanied with liberal arts courses, and says: "I started to write short stories when I was in Canada. Some of those actually became the stories in my first book Summer Lightning. I was also writing poetry and some became incorporated in my first book [of poetry] Talking Trees. But the first things I got published were when I came back to Jamaica. I submitted things in festival, which won prizes and were published in Jamaica Journal when Shirley Maynard Burke was editor. John Hearne had arts review or something at UWI and I had a few things in there."

After graduating from Carlton "I was with JIS [Jamaica Information Service] for a couple of years and then got a job as public relations officer for the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce when Carlton Alexander was head of it. I edited their journal. Then at various times in my life I've quit my job and done freelance writing."

As writers are notoriously badly paid, I wondered how she had managed financially.

"It's been a struggle all my life but I believe in paying my bills first and getting on with it. I don't really want a lot. I've never felt I must have all the things that other people want, like the big house, the big car, and the jewellery. As long as I have my books and one room, I'm happy. My personal space can be very small. It's still not easy but I've always managed."


Once again her reputation as a writer brought work her way. She explains, "I've never been politically active, though I would describe myself as a political person because I've grown up in Jamaica and being a conscious person I have to be political. But I've never been affiliated as such with any party but my first book was about politics, called The Message Is Change, about the victory of Michael Manley in 1972, which was a very astonishing time in Jamaica. I was freelancing and Mike Henry of Kingston Publishers approached me and said: "Would you like to do this book?" That couple years leading up to 1972 was an extraordinary time in Jamaican history because it wasn't just politics, it was a time of great intellectual and social ferment and debate. It was very exciting and I said: "Sure." I keep saying this is how I did the Encyclopaedia. I never stopped to think: "This is going to be hard. How can I do it?" I said: "Sure, I'll do it." And I did The Message Is Change in maybe six months and it was out."

The book appeared as Olive started working at the Institute of Social and Economic Research [ISER] at University of the West Indies in late 1972 or early 1973 where she was editor of Social and Economic Studies. It was a decade before her own creative writing began to be published in earnest, virtually coinciding with her move to The Institute of Jamaica (IOJ) where her first accomplishment was Vol. 46, 1982, special Independence issue of the Jamaica Journal.

Says Senior: "I left ISER without knowing what I was going to do. I stay with something for a certain length of time and then it's time to go. So I went. I was freelancing and then this Jamaica Journal came up."


Editing Jamaica Journal led to even greater things when she became managing director of the Institute of Jamaica Publications (IOJP). Remembers Senior: "It was a challenge from Mr. Seaga, who was then Prime Minister and Minister of Culture. One day he challenged us to come up with ideas of what we wanted. Based on that I wrote up the proposal for a publishing company. I would say we were quite successful. I had a fantastic board made up of business people, headed by Dhiru Tanna, and their standards were very high. If they were not so demanding, I probably would not have accomplished what I did. Part of being demanding was being accountable. We were very accountable as a company, financially and otherwise. I had an excellent staff: Maxine McDonough, Faith Myers and some youngsters who did all kinds of things. It was a very small staff."

Between early 1984 and 1989 IOJP produced a number of valuable books on Jamaican heritage, everything from Charlie Hyatt's humorous When Me Was a Boy to Barry Higman's Jamaica Surveyed, enabling the National Library to have copied irreplaceable plantation maps and plans from the 17th and 18th century which were deteriorating. Says Senior: "It's one of the things I did in life that I feel happy about, what we did at IOJP and the fact that we were able to get out four issues of Jamaica Journal a year. It was very difficult."

Professor and poet Edward Baugh took over the chairmanship in her last year but conditions after 1988's Hurricane Gilbert in Gordon Town where she lived for months without electricity, water and telephones finally led to her resignation.

"Between that and the pressures of work, I just woke up one day and said: 'You know what? You deserve better. I just felt totally oppressed by my life and part of that was I had to carry water every day!"

See the final part next Sunday.

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