Wed | Sep 20, 2017

Olive Senior’s The Pain Tree

Published:Sunday | March 6, 2016 | 3:00 AM
Olive Senior
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Olive Senior's The Pain Tree, her 17th book, is her best! That's right, 17 books this Jamaican writer has authored and I still encounter Jamaicans who have never heard of her. Maybe they missed when she won the Commonwealth Writer's Prize in 1987, or was honoured in 2003 with the Norman Washington Manley Foundation Award for Excellence, or in 2004 with the Gold Medal of the Institute of Jamaica. That was after already receiving the Centenary Medal and the Silver Medal of the Institute of Jamaica for contributions to literature. The University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, Barbados named her Humanities Scholar 2005 not to mention the grants she has received from the Ontario Arts Council, Canada Council and the list continues.

I thought the title story from Arrival of the Snake-Woman (1989), drawing on the intimacy of a Trelawny childhood, was her most sensitive work of fiction until I read Discerner of Hearts (1995) where the local science man stole my heart. I'm not much for poetry but her four works of poetry - Talking of Trees (1986), Gardening In The Tropics (1995), Over The Roofs of the World (2005) and Shell (2007) have won numerous international prizes and led to a bilingual French/English collection Un Pipiri m'a dit/A Little Bird Told Me (2014).

In describing The Pain Tree, Senior said: "Unlike my three previous collections where the stories were written one after the other within a fairly compressed period of time, these stories were written over many years and are collected here for the first time." Three collections of short stories? Oh my gosh, how could I have forgotten Summer Lightning (1986), her very first collection in which "The Boy Who Loved Ice Cream" in one paragraph captures the anguish of childhood disappointment and the searing pain of adultery, actual or imagined. Maybe it's impossible to say one of Senior's books is better than another, because they're all so relevant, whether to evoke emotional perception or preserve and interpret history.

She said that most of the stories in The Pain Tree are set in Jamaica and notes: "Several have child protagonists and the ones about adults are set in an earlier time period from, say, the Second World War to the 1970s. In these latter stories, I am particularly interested in exploring the impact of historic events on individual lives and the tensions created by the clash between traditional ways and modernity. One story for instance examines the impact on the psyche of a person encountering television for the first time."

No wonder these narratives deal with the impact of historic events since so much of Senior's non-fiction work has taken YEARS of research to create a repertoire of documentaries. Dying to Better Themselves: West Indians and the Building of the Panama Canal (2014) contains such vivid scenes of men knee-deep in snake-infested swamps or running from dynamite charges that you know one day those characters will emerge into her fiction. Her 1984 A-Z of Jamaican Heritage after decades more research morphed into the incredibly valuable Encyclopaedia of Jamaican Heritage in 2004. As far back as 1991 her Working Miracles: Women's Lives in the English-Speaking Caribbean gave her an intimate knowledge of her gender's experiences, infused with the traditional culture in which Senior was raised. Take "The Pain Tree," her latest volume's lead narrative, how many would comprehend and be able to convey the intimacy yet simultaneous distance which prevails between classes who live and grow together or understand what lies behind the creation of a "pain tree"?

In the author's mind a moment of revelation runs through each of these stories. Senior reflects: "What seems to link the stories is that all of them focus on people on the cusp of transformation - that moment or incident that will change their lives." In what one reviewer called "a Cinderella story," the longest story in the book, "The Country Cousin," Senior perfectly captures the prejudice which underlies so much of Jamaican life with the daughter's opening lines: "Are you giving her the same towels we use?" The author's command of her storyline and character delineation achieve an enormously satisfying conclusion, perhaps because over the years of teaching creative writing at the Humber School for Writers in Toronto, and in programmes and workshops in New York, Miami, the Caribbean, the UK and France as well as a stint in Australia, Senior knows that often less is more.

The ten stories included in The Pain Tree were all previously broadcast or published in various places between the years 1998 and 2010. Senior explained: "Once I decided with the help of my publisher Marc Cote on which stories would be selected for this book, then it became a question of editing and revision rather than making major changes in the stories." She told me: "I didn't rewrite the stories, the revisions were mainly to cut here and there to tighten them and perhaps smooth out some awkward phrases."

What I found fascinating was something Senior shared on the publisher's website in which she discussed her method of literary creation: "The most important thing for me is time - or what I prefer to call 'head space'. I don't usually start writing until I have done a considerable amount of thinking about a story - and that might take years! I don't have to have the words or the full picture in my head when I start to write - indeed I'm often surprised - but the characters must be fully living and embodied in my imagination. I can carry the characters around from place to place but once I am ready to write, I do need to shut myself off from everyone and everything to get that first draft down."

In The Pain Tree we have Olive Senior's enduring works, distilled through an author's seasoned psyche.