Olive Senior’s work has been broadcast on both sides of the Atlantic, including the BBC Book at Bedtime and the CBC Festival of Fiction. Her work has been included in the Best Poems on the Underground published by London Transport, and she is a featured poet on The Poetry Archive. Senior’s work often addresses questions of Caribbean identity in terms of gender and ethnicity. She has said: “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.”
The Caribbean remains the focus of her work, starting with her prize-winning collection of stories, Summer Lightning (1986) which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize and has been a literature textbook in Caribbean schools. This was followed by Arrival of the Snake Woman (1989, 2009) and Discerner of Hearts (1995). Her first novel, Dancing Lessons (Cormorant Books, 2011), was shortlisted for the 2012 Commonwealth Book Prize in the Canada.
Her most recent collection of stories, The Pain Tree (2015), is a collection of stories wide-ranging in scope, time period, theme, locale, and voice. There is, along with her characteristic “gossipy voice,” reverence, wit and wisdom, satire, humor, and even farce. The stories range over, at most a hundred years, from around the time of the second world war to the present. It was the overall winner of the 2016 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature. Like her earlier stories, Jamaica is the setting, but the range of characters presented are universally recognizable as people in crisis or on the cusp of transformation.
Olive’s work has been widely taught in schools and universities internationally, is represented in numerous anthologies worldwide, and has been translated into several languages.
Her poetry books include Shell (2007), Over the Roofs of the World (2005), Gardening in the Tropics (1994), and Talking of Trees (1985). Her illustrated children’s books are Birthday Suit (Annick Press, 2012) and Anna Carries Water (Tradewind Books, 2013).
Olive Senior’s non-fiction works on Caribbean culture include Dying to Better Themselves: West Indians and the Building of the Panama Canal (2015 OCM Bocas Literary Prize for Non-Fiction), the A-Z of Jamaican Heritage, Working Miracles: Women’s Lives in the English-Speaking Caribbean and The Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage.
The Back Story
Born in rural Jamaica in Trelawny, Cockpit Country, the seventh of 10 children, Olive attended Montego Bay High School For Girls. At the age of 19 she joined the staff of the Jamaica Gleaner in Kingston and later worked with the Jamaica Information Service. Senior later won a scholarship to study journalism at the Thomson Foundation in Cardiff, Wales. As a Commonwealth scholar she attended Carleton University School of Journalism in Ottawa, Canada, where she earned a degree in 1967.
While at university she began writing fiction and poetry. On her return to Jamaica, she worked as a freelancer in public relations, publishing and speech writing before joining the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of the West Indies, where she edited the journal Social and Economic Studies (1972–77). In 1982 she joined the Institute of Jamaica as editor of the Jamaica Journal. As the managing director of Institute of Jamaica Publications, Senior oversaw the publication of a number of books on Jamaican history and culture.
In 1987 Senior won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for her first collection of stories, and after Hurricane Gilbert hit Jamaica in 1988, she moved to Europe, where she lived for short periods in Portugal, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, before settling in Toronto, Canada, in the early 1990s.
Credits: Caroline Forbes and Olive Senior