Olive Senior Critical Essays


(Short Story Criticism)

Olive Senior 1941-

(Full name Olive Marjorie Senior) Jamaican short story writer, poet, and nonfiction writer.

Senior is regarded as a distinctive voice in West Indian literature. Critics have praised her reproduction of authentic Jamaican Creole in her written work, as well as her insightful exploration of such issues as identity, cultural nationalism, class stratification, and the oppressive impact of religion on women and the poor. Her portraits of the lives of Jamaican children and women struggling to transcend ethnic, class, and gender roles are viewed as notable literary achievements of West Indian fiction.

Biographical Information

Senior was born December 23, 1941, in western Jamaica, in an isolated area known for its hilly, limestone terrain. This early environment figures prominently in her poetry and fiction. As a child she attended Montego Bay High School for Girls, where she excelled in her studies and founded a school literary magazine. During this time she also began to contribute articles for The Daily Gleaner, the major newspaper on the island. After high school Senior traveled to Wales briefly to study journalism, and then she attended Carleton University, in Ottawa, Canada. She received her B.A. degree in journalism from Carleton in 1967. Around this time she began to write her first short stories. In 1980 several of her poems appeared in the influential poetry collection Jamaica Women. She worked as a freelance writer and researcher as well as an editor of the influential periodical Jamaica Journal from 1982 to 1989. Senior has been a guest lecturer and writer-in-residence in both the Caribbean and North America. She has received several prestigious awards for her work, including the Institute of Jamaica Centenary Medal in 1980, the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 1987, the Silver Musgrave Medal for Literature in 1989, and the F. G. Bressani Literary Prize for poetry in 1994. She makes her home in Toronto, Canada, but spends much of her time in Kingston, Jamaica.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Many of Senior's stories are concerned with issues of ethnicity and identity. Summer Lightning and Other Stories (1986), Senior's first collection of short fiction, is comprised of ten short stories set in rural Jamaican communities, utilizes Jamaican Creole, and focuses on the perspective of poor, rural children. In “Ballad,” a young schoolgirl, Lenora, is reproached by her teacher for writing a eulogy on the local harlot, Miss Rilla. Told Miss Rilla is not an appropriate subject for her admiration, Lenora disagrees and describes her identification with Miss Rilla's alienation from the community and refusal to submit to oppressive societal expectations. Several stories, such as “Bright Thursdays,” concern the alienation that results from moving children from home to home, usually in search of financial security and social mobility. Senior's second collection, Arrival of the Snake-Woman and Other Stories (1989), is viewed as a more expansive book that switches the focus of the stories to more urban, middle-class settings. Reviewers note that she also experiments with the stories in the collection and utilizes standard English more than Jamaican Creole. In the title story, a mysterious, exotic Indian woman causes much disruption among the women of a small Jamaican village. Over time the woman overcomes the alienation of being the outsider and gains the trust and friendship of the other women. Reviewers argue that the story signifies the resistance to change and the fear of outsiders and nonconformity in isolated West Indian communities. In “Two Grandmothers,” a young girl juxtaposes the worlds of her two grandmothers through a series of monologues: Grandmother Del lives in rural poverty but is blessed with a generous and caring community; Grandmother Elaine lives in affluence in the city but lacks the camaraderie of a close community of friends and neighbors. Senior's most recent collection, Discerner of Hearts (1995), includes nine stories that once again focus on female characters who struggle to transcend a rigid hierarchal class structure. These stories are set in Jamaica and in various times from the colonial period to the present day.

Critical Reception

Critics commend Senior's short fiction as insightful and humorous and identify the strength of her writing as the creation of richly detailed portrayals of Jamaican community life. Some view these depictions as a form of cultural nationalism and an affirmation of the value of the rural, small-town experience. Senior's use of language is a recurring topic of critical interest; reviewers consider her utilization of Jamaican Creole and oral storytelling traditions as powerful narrative devices. In particular, her well-crafted use of Standard English and Jamaican Creole denotes issues of hierarchy and class stratification in Jamaican society. Senior's stories are also noted for their interplay between tradition and modernity as well as their sensitive representations of the female experience from a woman's perspective. Themes of alienation, displacement, child abuse, racial discrimination, colonial victimization, and the search for personal and cultural identities have been named as the key motifs of Senior's short fiction. Lauded for her rich depiction of Jamaican culture and her insight into the human condition, Senior is regarded as a major figure in the development of Jamaican literature.