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The Voice

One-on-one with Olive Senior (Part 3)
published: Sunday | November 7, 2004

- File
Senior's work is taught at universities internationally and 'Summer Lightning' has been a literature textbook in the Caribbean.

Laura Tanna, Contributor

OLIVE SENIOR did the only logical thing any artist in her situation would do when she moved to Europe. Readers fortunate enough to have collected the Jamaica Journals, produced under her editorship, can understand that she had little time left for her own writing when she devoted so much of herself to seeking out and presenting to the public all of Jamaica's riches in science, literature and the arts, the mandate of the IOJ.

She used the £10,000 she invested from her 1987 Commonwealth Writing Prize money and moved to Portugal, to Villa Mora, a village on the Algarve where she wrote Discerner of Hearts. She wryly observes: "When I got there, I realised that nobody goes out in the winter because it rains. So I sat there watching the rain dripping down, nonstop. But it was good for me as a writer."


Finally able to live out her childhood dreams of travelling, she kept moving on. In Amsterdam she met a fellow writer who was not using her little thatched cottage in Suffolk so, sight unseen, Olive decided to take the 17th-century cottage in the village of Mendelsham, 'mentioned in the Doomsday Book' she notes. This is where she finished Working Miracles: Women's Lives in The English-Speaking Caribbean, which she had put aside while at IOJP. That is also when she wrote a novel, 'the novel that shall not be mentioned ever again'. Apparently it did not meet her perfectionist standards, though others said it was publishable.

Says Senior: "I have not excluded the idea of writing a novel. In fact, if I wrote novels, I'd be far more famous and richer, because people do not treat you very seriously if you write only short stories and poetry. But I just go with what feels natural. I like the short form. I feel most comfortable with it. You can spend endless time polishing a poem or short story or changing a comma, because it's short."


Having started Gardening In The Tropics in England, she continued working on it while at a writers' retreat in a Scottish castle, but after almost three years living out of suitcases, Senior felt the need to be settled and moved to Canada.

She notes: "The Canadian and British laws were changing, but at that time, as a creative artist, I could go into a particular category as long as I could demonstrate that I could support myself and so on. I applied and got through. I had lived in Canada before. It was not an entirely strange place. And I felt it was a good place for writers."

Just as The Hon. Louise Bennett-Coverley makes her home in Toronto, but leaves her heart in Jamaica, so too does Olive Senior, who reveals that many of the stories in her first collection were written when she was first in Canada, at university.

"Going away to Canada was part of that process of discovering who I was. Once you leave home you are in a different, alien environment. "It really forced me to look at Jamaica, you know? I was becoming more conscious, beginning to read books about Jamaica, beginning to read current literature. At that time we never had this at school and so all of these things came together for me, in terms of my personal identity and of course, I came of age at the time of Independence, which was very exciting because the intellectual debate was of a very high order. People were not just talking about Independence. They were talking about national identity. So my search for personal identity and the search for national identity came together. This is why I think I could do the Encyclopaedia or the things I do, because I'm not separate from Jamaica. I cannot see myself as an autonomous being outside of my country."


Despite her move to Canada, after the first three years of writing and travelling in Europe, hardly a year has passed that Senior has not returned to Jamaica to write. Her own work is taught at universities internationally and Summer Lightning has been a literature textbook in the Caribbean. Senior herself is in demand to teach creative writing courses, as well as to give readings. She was Dana International Professor in upstate New York, taught at Barnard College in New York ­ in fact, has taught creative writing in Canada, the United States, England and in both Jamaica and most recently at the UWI Trinidad campus where she was invited as the first writer in residence now that they have set up a Master's of fine arts in creative writing.

She writes intuitively from her own rural Jamaican childhood through to her becoming a global citizen, and because she writes from a searing past of aloneness and pain, her self-discovery and choice of self makes her work relevant, not only to people of the Caribbean who appreciate that she deals sensitively with race, class hierarchies and cultural oppression ­ the legacy of colonialism - but to all sensitive people of the world who respond to her quiet assertion of personal identity.

Says Olive Senior: "I've had to deal with race because of who I am and how I look. In that process, I've had to determine who I am. I do not think you can be all things to all people. As part of that process, I decided I was a Jamaican. I represent many different races and I'm not rejecting any of them to please anybody. I'm just who I am and you have to accept me or not."

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