Olive Senior as a bridesmaid, with flower girls, at a family wedding in Westmoreland circa 1959.
Laura Tanna, Contributor
OLIVE SENIOR'S story 'The Boy Who Loved Ice Cream', in Focus 1983, An Anthology of Contemporary Jamaican Writing, edited by Mervyn Morris moved me to write Ms. Senior a simple message: "That story is literature!"
I've followed her career ever since with A-Z of Jamaican Heritage (1984), an invaluable introduction to Jamaican culture, Talking of Trees (1985) a first collection of poetry, and Summer Lightning (1986) a first collection of short stories, including the Focus tale.
Arrival of the Snake-Woman (1989) confirmed her brilliance as a writer who reveals the souls of rural Jamaicans. Working Miracles: Women's Lives in the English-speaking Caribbean (1991) continued her documenting Caribbean culture while simultaneously capturing it in her own fiction. Gardening in the Tropics (1994), a second volume of poetry, was followed by Discerner of Hearts (1995) her third collection of short stories. Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage (2003), a lifetime of knowledge which took five years of her life to write, celebrates for all the world to see what makes Jamaica, Jamaica!
Along the way she won the 1987 Commonwealth Writer's Prize for Summer Lightning. Now the Institute of Jamaica is bestowing a Musgrave Gold Medal upon her. After the third time I mentioned her name and people responded: "You mean Olive Lewin", I decided this Jamaican treasure named Olive Senior should be interviewed for posterity's sake!
Born December 23, 1941 in Troy, Trelawny, deep in the interior, on the border with Manchester, she spent part of her childhood in Haddoe, on the Westmoreland/Hanover border.
Says Senior: "I'm one of 10 children. My father was a small farmer so my parents (Edna Peart and Reginald Senior) were quite poor. I'm the seventh child and at the age of four I went to spend a vacation with relatives who lived in Westmoreland and never went back home...I say I'm Heinz 57 varieties because I think I'm a mixture of a whole lot of things but I can't say I'm a quarter this or a half this. Both my parents are of mixed ancestry, British and black and in my father's family there is some Jewish ancestry.
"Not that they were practising Jews but there is some of that element. (My parents) share a common ancestry. They were cousins, not first cousins. My mother was a Seventh-day Adventist and her family were among the very first people in Jamaica to be converted. This is in the bush so how they came to be there I don't know. But she was born an Adventist, (in the Troy area( shortly after the Adventists came to Jamaica. My father was Anglican, from St. Paul's in Manchester, near Balaclava, also on that sort of border."
Senior relates that her personal mythology starts at the age of four when she left to live with her great uncle and great aunt Peart: "These were people who had gone to Panama, at the time of the construction of the Canal. Then they had gone to New York, in the USA, so they were part of that early migration. By the time they came back they were quite old. They just liked having me around, and I stayed until it was time for me to go to school. There was no school near enough so I went back home for a year or two. I started my schooling at Troy Primary School. I had to walk to go to school, about a mile. It was great because there was Hector's River, which is the head-waters of the Black River. The school was just across the bridge. Whenever it rained, there were floods, so we didn't go to school.
"Or it was exciting because men would have to come and carry us across. That's one of my memories. Then I left and went back to Westmoreland, to Mt. Ward Primary School, a very small school in Hanover, about two miles across the border.
"I had friends but I was always very conscious of being an only child, of being a child alone, even when I was among others. Although I come from a big family, in Westmoreland I was an only child in the household. I recall being by myself, reading and doing things by myself, more than anything else.
"I tell everybody that at the age of four I decided I was going to be a writer or a creative artist of some kind. I just knew that. I was interested in drawing. At one point I was going to be an artist. I learned to read at four and I think that is why it is significant to me. I didn't have many children's books so I read everything. I used to read the newspaper for people because they thought: 'Wow, there's this little child doing all of this'. But I learned to read out of self-defence because if I was reading, people thought I wouldn't get into trouble. And all I ever wanted was for people to leave me along. Especially adults. So reading opened the door for me.
"In Trelawny, I was more exposed to African culture. I knew all the people and had much more freedom to explore the world around me. That's when I got into the world of Afro-Jamaican culture. I didn't think of it as that at the time but things like wakes, baptisms in the river or we knew the balm lady.
"Of course we took part in community activities, like pleasant Sunday afternoons, concerts in school, because there was no social life outside of school. We had Anansi stories every night. Storytelling was a part of our lives, with my own family, people who were helpers, or people in the community. Every night we had storytelling sessions. That was what happened in those days to everybody. All of that, playing games and telling stories to each other, was very much a part of my life.
"There was no electricity. People grew bananas which are very dense and dark at night outside your window, so we had duppy stories and were scared to death. We believed in River Maid. You'd go down to the river and you'd expect to see River Maid. Those things were very real.
"The oral culture was very much a part of my formation. I learned so much from the people in the village I grew up with. I grew up respecting all Jamaicans. The fact that some of them were barefoot and weren't literate meant nothing.
"In the village where I grew up everybody had something to contribute to my own personal fount of wisdom and knowledge. In Westmoreland I had a different kind of life. Because then I wasn't supposed to we lived in a more privileged background. And so I had both worlds, really..."
She explains: "I don't feel that I write autobiographically but certainly it's impossible to write about emotions you haven't experienced and so a lot of my stories, especially my early stories, were a way of getting rid of my pain. You know all my early childhood experiences that were difficult for me I just created these characters to carry the pain and I think this is what all artists do. So I find it difficult to talk about myself. My way of talking about myself is to write.
"Growing up, I wasn't sure where I belonged. Or who I was, because I was moving between these worlds. And I felt nobody loved me, which was totally untrue, because I realised that I had two families. You know it's how children perceive the world and I just felt that nobody wanted me, nobody loved me. But looking back objectively that was totally untrue. I was very loved."
DISCOVERING THE SEA
She returned to visit her family at least once a year but grew up with her great uncle and great aunt who had lived abroad. "I got interested in Panama but you have to understand at that time everybody had gone to Panama.
"Every village in Jamaica when I was growing up had a number of people, especially men, who had travelled. They came back and had a certain style. You knew who they were. Although we didn't travel, we were enthused with the whole romantic notion of travel.
"We didn't really know much about what these people had gone and done, which is why I spent so much of my time researching about Panama, that migration experience, and writing about it. My connections were Panama, Costa Rica and the United States."
She continues: "This might sound strange as a Jamaican, I can distinctly remember the first time I ever saw the sea because I grew up in the mountains, both in Trelawny and in Westmoreland. I distinctly remember being driven to Montego Bay and there's a place called Long Hill, if you're coming from Anchovy, there was a point at which you suddenly saw the sea and what was then the Bogue Islands and this incredible turquoise. It's one of those things that stuck in my mind, because I'd NEVER seen the sea. I must have been five or six.
"Eventually I went off to Montego Bay High School and boarded with friends. I really hated school. I always wanted to be my own person, even as a small child. All I wanted in life was to be rid of all these people telling me what to do and making my own decisions. I rebelled against everybody, in a way. I just wanted to get through this part of my life." A part of life where high school students were being socialised into being English.
Nonetheless, it was this part of her life that set on the path of being recognised as a writer. She remembers: "The first thing I had published was something that came out in The Gleaner when I was a teenager at high school.
"The Gleaner had a competition for students to write about what you did over your summer holidays. Your piece was published and they'd print how much they paid you, which suggested the value of the piece. I got the highest, or among the