Olive Senior Criticism - Essay

Evelyn O'Callaghan (essay date spring 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: O'Callaghan, Evelyn. “Feminist Consciousness: European/American Theory, Jamaican Stories.” Journal of Caribbean Studies 6, no. 2 (spring 1988): 143-62.

[In the following essay, O'Callaghan considers the political orientation of contemporary West Indian women's fiction through an examination of four short story collections written by Jamaican female authors, including Senior's Summer Lightning.]

The impetus for this paper was a desire to explore the political orientation of contemporary West Indian women's fiction. Four recently published collections of short stories by Jamaican women seemed a manageable starting point for a preliminary investigation: Olive Senior's Summer Lightning;1 Hazel Campbell's Woman's Tongue;2 The Sistren Collective's Lionheart Gal;3 and Opal Palmer Adisa's Bake Face and Other Guava Stories.4 Inevitably, a theoretical “clearing the decks” has made comprehensive textual analysis impossible given the restrictions of such an essay, so I'd like to start by briefly generalizing about the scope and content of each book.

Summer Lightning's ten stories of rural Jamaican community life are, in my opinion, the finest of the collections. The majority of tales feature a female character, but the dominant perspective is that of the child, and it is evocation of the child's world, an often mysterious jumble of magic and horror, that is Senior's main achievement. The stories deal with threats from the external world, whether physical or emotional, and the half-understood and painful conflicts within.

Each story is fitted with a narrative language integrated into the dominant point of view; often, narrative language is the speaker's language and spans the Jamaican creole continuum, stretching its resources to the full. The first two pages alone utilize Biblical pronouncement, modern technological jargon, Rastafarian apocalyptic imagery and the proverbial style of folk wisdom, in the utterance of Bro. Justice. In addition, the sociolinguistic patterning of speech events is accurately observed—the “double conversation” (8) is one example. No concessions are made to the foreign reader in the way of parenthesized explanations or glosses.

Senior subtly exposes the repressiveness and self-sacrifice at the core of conventional morality as it has been applied to women, and the spiritual and emotional deformities which result. Only Bekkah, in “Do Angels Wear Brassieres,” has the inner resources to challenge the stultifying restrictions imposed by authority on the girl-child; Ma Bell, in “Country of the One Eye God,” representing the final phase of life, emerges as a victim whose complicity in her oppression is largely the result of a false value system inculcated by traditional religion.

Most of the stories, then, at once portray an almost idyllic community organically connected to the Jamaican landscape and reveal the frightening inadequacies in the society for the nurturing of the maturing individual.

Woman's Tongue contains eight stories, two of which are not up to the overall standard: the attempt to invoke a mysterious extra-physical force at work in the love affair of “The Painting” seems to me rather strained, and the final political allegory/fairy tale works on the didactic level at the expense of the literary—although this may well be the author's intention. The other well-written stories work together to form a medley of women's voices, telling their stories of artistic creation, spiritual renewal or disillusionment, the breakup of marriage and the pain of exploitative relationships.

Like Senior, Hazel Campbell has an unfaltering ear for Jamaican speech and, since her scope is wider (urban and rural; middle class and poor; the suburb, the slum and the seaside resort are all depicted), she has ample scope for capturing its rich variety, unimpeded by irritating translations or embedded information. By and large, the narrative employs West Indian English reportage, but even her “best ‘pop-style’ language” (1) is uniquely Jamaican, and in the excellent “Miss Girlie” creole and standard are woven into a seamless medium.

As in Lionheart Gal, women's reality in the contemporary Jamaica of supermarket shortages, the “parallel economy” and constant financial hardship is not a pleasant one. Without hectoring, Campbell reiterates the point that a social philosophy which stresses only material advancement has a negative effect on personal relationships. A quiet irony at Ivan's expense (“Miss Girlie”) indicts his warped values and the insensitive logic by which he proposes to make Girlie “proud so till!” by using the money he gains from prostituting her to “set her up” in a comfortable life-style.

A straitlaced Christianity—one in which the merit of salvation “had probably less to do with a concern for her soul and more for the protection of her virginity” (23)—is partly responsible for the instillation of submissiveness in these women, all “dutiful wives.” But the unhealthy relationship between the sexes more often comes down to a failure of communication and an inability to question stereotypical roles. A hint, however, that this is not an unalterable state of affairs occurs at the end of “The Thursday Wife” where “patient Mary” thinks that perhaps she will no longer be able to “accommodate” her husband's behaviour (42).

Opal Palmer Adisa's collection of “Guava Stories” (so-called, I presume, because they are to be like the Black peasant women who form their subject matter—“smooth outside and sweeter inside”) consists of four stories set in rural and village Jamaica. They are told in matter-of-fact standard English with occasional lyrical splashes, and some intrusive explanation for the foreign reader (the constitution of Solomon Gundy, 98), but the dialogue is for the most part a credible representation of Jamaican Creole.

At times, the author attempts to make a story carry more weight than it is able to: “Widows Walk,” for example, where the motif of rivalry between human woman and West African sea-goddess is the ground for several incidences of supernatural vision and premonition which aren't fully integrated into the protagonist's emotional dilemma, and which lead to anticipation of a resolution very different from the rather flat ending we get.

However, most of the stories, particularly “Bake Face,” skilfully expose the social and emotional perplexities faced by these women and their strategies for coping (or not) with their men, children and earning a livelihood. As Barbara Christian asserts in her salutory introduction, the web of female relationships is a vital force in this coping process, and the stories are all from the woman's viewpoint.

Lionheart Gal is, as Honour Ford Smith introduces it, a collection of fifteen accounts of ways in which the women of the Sistren Theatre Collective have “come to terms with difficulties in their personal lives” as they move “from girlhood to adulthood, country to city, isolated individual experiences to a more politicised collective awareness” (xiii). The “plot” then isn't so different from the other books: what is striking, however, is the way the raw (and I use this adjective deliberately) material comes across in the women's own testimonies, in the nearest scribal equivalent to orature I have read for a while. Of course, the uncompromising use of Jamaican Creole as the reader's only access to a direct encounter with these characters and their self-perceptions is a major factor in this immediacy.

There are more stories here, rounded out by a wealth of incidental detail which cumulatively reflects Jamaica, now and in the recent past, and what it means to working-class women, in this case brought together by the emergency employment (crash) programme of the 1970s. Barbara Christian's observation about Adisa's female characters being neither overt rebels nor content earth mothers (x) applies here, too, despite Ford Smith's initial attempt to fit the testimonies into a neat double-legacy paradigm of Nanny/nanny role models (xiv).

The dominant impression is of the “toughness” of these women's lives, and like Defoe's Moll Flanders, there is little energy left over from “hustling” for the basics in an exploitative system to devote to romantic illusions. Indeed, as Ford Smith puts it, “sexual relationships between men and women are often characterised by the tedious playing out of a power struggle ritualised by trade-offs of money and sex” (xvii).

Yet these testimonies are so animated, so dramatic, so filled with humour and “spunks” that it is pure condescension to react with pity; over and over, one senses the aptness of the title, Lionheart Gal.

I have used the Sistren stories largely as a control, to test the applicability of political ideology as it informs the more “crafted” fictions. However, a brief digression is necessary here to rebut the anticipated complaints that Lionheart Gal is “merely” autobiography.

Conventionally, it is almost a given that women's writing (cross-culturally) contains autobiographical/confessional elements, and criticism has paid close attention to these—often with unpleasant consequences for the writer.5 Lorna Goodison, another Jamaican writer, has acknowledged the autobiographical charge: “I have had people telling me that they [her poems] were too private. Somebody actually said that reading my work is like looking through a keyhole. …”6 However, she claims, the truth of a particular feeling in a poem is more than an individual response, but speaks to (and for) the reader's experience also. Since the experiences of the Sistren women do likewise, and have been shaped and transformed in the text—by the editor, by the Collective, and by individual story-tellers (a process clearly delineated in the Introduction, xxvi-xxx), I felt justified in writing about Lionheart Gal as I read it: a collection of fascinating stories.

In any case, critical resistance to autobiography as literature is minimal in studies of Black and Third World writing: according to Selwyn Cudjoe, the genre has a long history in Afro-American writing. Since the objective accounts of much diasporic narrative were patently untrue, it was left to personal accounts to convey the reality.7 However, he distinguishes between the personal in the sense of egotistic subjectivity, and the collective personal: autobiography “is presumed generally to be of service to the group. It is never meant to glorify the exploits of the individual, and the concerns of the collective predominate. One's personal experiences are assumed to be an authentic expression of the society …” (10).

Finally, Mark McWatt convincingly argues that the tradition of the autobiographical novel is well-established in West Indian literature, and that the critic must come to terms with the “ultrafictional” experience (the truth behind the fiction) as part of the reading experience.8 In addition, he suggests, “reality, the truth of actual experience, aspires to the shape and condition of fiction in order to be rescued from irrelevance and to participate in the power and permanence of art” (10). In that the long-unheard women of the Sistren Collective have chosen to articulate their (selected, edited, rewritten, “fictionalized”) realities in a relatively permanent published form, they are making a political statement of intent to be heard in the public forum, and the collection of stories is thus extremely relevant to the topic under discussion.

One feature common to the collections is the sounding of the personal note, the attention to emotional response, particularly in close relationships. Perhaps this is a specifically female concern; certainly, several of the contributors to Black Women Writers at Work are of this opinion.9 Not that male writers do not treat relationships as complex and significant, but these tend to be confrontational ones outside the male-female/domestic/community context in which women writers set their fiction; further, as Toni Cade Bambara puts it, Black women writers “are less likely to skirt the feeling place, to finesse with language, to camouflage emotions” (19).

Feminist theory, however, maintains the integral and necessary relation of the private and the public, the personal and the economic. According to Terry Eagleton, feminism does not recognise a distinction between questions of the human subject and questions of political struggle.10 The clarification of this vital issue is one of the achievements of the Sistren Collective, as we hear in “Foxy and di Macca Palace War”: “After we done talk ah get to feel dat di little day-to-day tings dat happen to we as women, is politics too. For instance, if yuh tek yuh pickney to hospital and it die in yuh hand—dat is politics. … If yuh man box yuh down, dat is politics. But plenty politicians don't tink dose tings have anyting to do wid politics” (Lionheart Gal, 253). Indeed Cornelia Butler Flora makes the case for female participation in the political process necessitating bringing “the female world … into public view—[and] that the public arena be expanded to include ‘private’ issues.”11 The achievement of this, she feels, is in fact a radical move since “the role of the state changes, male privilege within and outside the home is challenged, and the contradictions of patriarchy and capitalism are heightened” (557).

So, if one accepts the above, these stories in bringing the personal (private, emotional issues) into the public arena (literature) are making a contribution to feminist politics and are thus best analyzed by feminist literary criticism.

Which feminist literary theory, though? Well, a preliminary survey of recent American and European approaches seems to me to reveal five general orientations, although I am greatly simplifying here and, obviously, several approaches may be used in textual application.

The first focuses on images of women as they appear in literature, usually by men, and tries to ascertain whether such images take women's social and individual reality into account. I would include here aesthetic representations of women by female writers in what Showalter calls the “feminine stage”:12 that is, the phase in literary production where women internalize standards of the dominant (male) tradition in their work, including traditional views on social roles.

Generally, this approach seeks to explain the ideological bases which inform the (largely negative) images of women, and to illuminate the power conflict, largely resolved in favour of male dominance, that has led to the promotion of such stereotypes. Its methodology subordinates “literary” to political concerns and as such relates to Elaine Fido's definition of feminist (as opposed to womanist) criticism which deals with the writers' “understanding of the power relations in their experiential world.”13 Of course, it also explains their lack of understanding of such power relations where they uncritically adopt male stereotypes.

Since these Caribbean writers are not in the “feminine stage,” such an orientation does not apply, although one can find stereotypical or limited presentations of women in West Indian literature by men.14 But since sociological studies15 have indicated that cross-cultural self-conceptions of men and women appear to be more dramatic than contrasts between those who share the same socio-cultural system, is it, in fact, possible to decide which stereotypes of women are negative?

For example, the “clinging mother” in Adisa's story, “Me Man Angel,” who “after nine children … still felt hollow, unfulfilled” (61) and who channels all her devouring and possessive love into an almost sexual relationship with her sickly nephew, could indeed be perceived as a negative stereotype. But this would ignore the equally extraordinary responses of her husband, children and community to the angel-child, because of his vulnerability and singular (androgynous?) ability to demonstrate affection towards all sexes and age-groups.

Full motherhood, in the Jamaican context, is almost sacred.16 And since Perry, in Adisa's story, is clearly portrayed as the community's child, drawing out “motherly” virtues of tenderness, generosity and unselfishness in everyone, then Denise's “excessive” devotion is no more than he deserves.

Another approach, which focuses on the woman writer, attempts to recuperate a female tradition, to prove, as in Showalter's title, that female authors have “a literature of their own.” Usually, an exhaustive historical survey of women writers is used to demonstrate the existence of a hidden literary tradition. This is seen as a preferable alternative to the assimilation of women's art, like other minority art, into the canon—which, as Joanna Russ points out, “will thereby be more complete, but fundamentally unchanged.”17

Instead, it attempts to define the consequences of the patriarchal order for female literary production (or to explain the lack of it) in the specific contexts (social, legal and so on) of woman's status in her society, and involves analysis of the psychological and imaginative strategies of female creativity. This means re-examining existing critical evaluation of women writers which ignore such factors since, as Cheri Register has shown, critics have tended to take the normative viewpoint as masculine and so judge female authors in terms of their conformity to sub-category status—hence generalizations about “the lady novelist” and the narrow/peripheral range of her experience.18 Feminist critics question the supposed objectivity of such a tradition, and elaborate the contexts in which women actually wrote.

Attempts to discover early West Indian women writers are still in progress, so it is difficult to identify a female literary tradition into which these stories can be fitted. Indeed, they can be seen as part of the ongoing development of such a tradition. Perhaps this critical approach may help to illuminate why a female literary tradition has only recently emerged. However, since British and White American women writers, at least up to the 1950s, were primarily middle-class and university educated, it may not be feasible to take generalizations about their conditions and their strategies as bases for analyzing the emergence of a Caribbean “literature of their own.”

Further, in the West Indian situation, admission of women writers into such a canon as exists has not been problematic since this canon is not an attempt to shore up the status quo, eschewing any deviant or subversive minority art. In fact, a large proportion of Caribbean fiction actively critiques the exclusivist establishment of Western literary tradition. Indeed, it might be asked whether Caribbean or women writers desire assimilation into the traditional canon.

A third direction in feminist literary theory, which concentrates on female characteristics in language and form, is that of the New French Feminists. As far as I can make out, these critics build on existing psychoanalytic theory, especially Jacques Lacan's model of the symbolic order as that of “the Law,” the male order of culture and civilization and, of course, language.19

Since this symbolic order is in fact the patriarchal sexual and social order of society, feminist criticism views assimilation into it as induction into oppression. However, for the girl-child the entry is only partial, and she retains easier access to the pre-Oedipal patterns which are repressed in the symbolic order. These patterns (what Julia Kristeva calls the semiotic, the other side of language, and what I take to mean the underpinnings of language which correspond to the unruly, unhindered flow of bodily drives in the infant) are bound up with the child's contact with the mother's body and thus closely connected with femininity.

The French Feminists develop from this semiotic a theory of woman's language—écriture féminine—which is vitally linked to female sexuality. As a force within normal discourse concerned with the bodily and material qualities of language, with creative excess rather than precise meaning, with fluidity, plurality, diffusion, sensuousness and open-endedness, such impulses serve as a means of undermining normal discourse, and thus, the symbolic order.

So feminist writers are seen to be protesting their marginalization by phallocentric culture and language,...

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Liz Gerschel (review date April 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Gerschel, Liz. “Caribbean Childhoods.” Third World Quarterly 10, no. 2 (April 1988): 995-98.

[In the following review, Gerschel praises the well-crafted stories in Summer Lightning, concluding that it is “an outstanding collection by an extremely talented writer.”]

One of the best books published in 1987 was undoubtedly Olive Senior's Summer Lightning and Other Stories. Told in dynamic and powerful language, this perceptive, humorous and poignant first collection reflects the author's own experience of life in rural Jamaica, and the inter-related and often conflicting worlds of children and adults. Although over the last few years there...

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Olive Senior and Charles H. Rowell (interview date summer 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Senior, Olive, and Charles H. Rowell. “An Interview with Olive Senior.” Callaloo 11, no. 3 (summer 1988): 480-90.

[In the following interview, Senior discusses the major influences on her writing, the function of her creative work, and the implications of being a Jamaican writer.]

The following interview was conducted through the mails during the period of March-May, 1988, between Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S.A., and Kingston, Jamaica, West Indies, two months following my meeting and talking with Olive Senior in Jamaica.

—C. H. R.

[Rowell]: If you had to assess your past...

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Velma Pollard (essay date summer 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Pollard, Velma. “An Introduction to the Poetry and Fiction of Olive Senior.” Callaloo 11, no. 3 (summer 1988): 540-45.

[In the following essay, Pollard surveys the key thematic concerns in Senior's short stories and poetry.]

Short stories and poems by Olive Senior have been appearing in journals and anthologies in Jamaica and overseas for more than a decade. It was not however till December 1985 that the first complete volume reached the bookstands—a collection of poems, Talking of Trees, published by Calabash Press, Jamaica. A few months later (early 1986), a collection of short stories, Summer Lightning and other stories, now in its second...

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Velma Pollard (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Pollard, Velma. “Mothertongue Voices in the Writing of Olive Senior and Lorna Goodison.” In Motherlands: Black Women's Writing from Africa, the Caribbean and South Asia, edited by Susheila Nasta, pp. 238-53. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Pollard analyzes the language of Senior's stories and Lorna Goodison's verse in order to investigate how the two authors “use the complex language situation” of the West Indies “to their advantage in the act of creating, particularly in terms of character identification.”]

Jean D'Costa, Jamaican linguist and foremost Caribbean writer of children's novels, contends that...

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Ameena Gafoor (essay date winter 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Gafoor, Ameena. “The Image of the Indo-Caribbean Woman in Olive Senior's ‘The Arrival of the Snake-Woman.’” Callaloo 16, no. 1 (winter 1993): 34-43.

[In the following essay, Gafoor elucidates Senior's depiction of the Caribbean female experience in her story “The Arrival of the Snake-Woman,” contending that the story “seems to present a culmination of all the phases of readjustment and accommodation inherent in migration and displacement.”]

This paper looks at the portrayal of the Indian woman in the contemporary literature of the anglophone Caribbean. It attempts to examine the processes of readjustment and accommodation, acculturation,...

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Richard F. Patteson (essay date January 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Patteson, Richard F. “The Fiction of Olive Senior: Traditional Society and the Wider World.” ARIEL 24, no. 1 (January 1993): 13-33.

[In the following essay, Patteson regards Senior as a dominant voice in the development of a postcolonial West Indian literature and delineates the defining characteristics of the stories comprising Summer Lightning and The Arrival of the Snake-Woman.]

In his foreword to Michel de Certeau's Heterologies, Wlad Godzich points out that in many parts of the world the old colonial order has been supplanted by a “neo-colonialism of center and periphery” in which the “former colonial powers together with other...

(The entire section is 7680 words.)

John Thieme (essay date 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Thieme, John. “‘Mixed Worlds’: Olive Senior's Summer Lightning.Kunapipi 16, no. 2 (1994): 90-5.

[In the following essay, Thieme finds several of the stories in Summer Lightning to be autobiographical in nature and focused on the issue of identity.]

Superficially the bulk of the stories in Olive Senior's Summer Lightning (1986) are primarily naturalistic accounts of a particular experience of growing up in rural Jamaica in the 1940's and 1950's. The stories repeatedly construct a situation in which a child-protagonist, usually a girl, has been displaced from the peasant home of her early youth and relocated in a middle-class...

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Michael Thorpe (review date spring 1996)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Thorpe, Michael. Review of Discerner of Hearts, by Olive Senior. World Literature Today 70, no. 2 (spring 1996): 455.

[In the following review, Thorpe provides a favorable evaluation of Discerner of Hearts.]

The nine stories in Olive Senior's collection Discerner of Hearts are set in Jamaica, from the colonial period to the present day. Unfortunately, they are not chronologically arranged, so that “Zig Zag,” which clearly, like the opening title story, is pre-Independence, comes at the end, after “The Cho Choo Vine,” which glances at Rastafarianism. In most, black is not yet beautiful and white is the index of social advantage. Taken...

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Barbara Lalla (essay date 1996)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Lalla, Barbara. “Leavings.” In Defining Jamaican Fiction: Marronage and the Discourse of Survival, pp. 104-14. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996.

[In the following excerpt, Lalla views “Country of the One-Eyed God” as “a study in marronage because it is a tale of leaving and being left and consequently of the cold logic behind seemingly irrational violence.”]

Marronage results from fragmentation internal to the Jamaican setting and from a tension between local and imperial cultures.1 The growth of a national consciousness sensitizes local writers to separation of communities within the island and to the consequences of...

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Miki Flockemann (essay date May 1998)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Flockemann, Miki. “Asian Diasporas, Contending Identities and New Configurations: Stories by Agnes Sam and Olive Senior.” English in Africa 25, no. 1 (May 1998): 71-86.

[In the following essay, Flockemann compares the treatment of ethnic and cultural identity in Senior's “Arrival of the Snake-Woman” and Agnes Sam's “Jesus is Indian.”]

Her arrival represented a loosening of the bonds that had previously bound her, that bind all of us to our homes. Cut free from her past, she was thus free of the duties and obligations that tie us so tightly to one another, sometimes in a stranglehold.


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Barbara Lalla (essay date October 1998)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Lalla, Barbara. “Registering Woman: Senior's Zig-zag Discourse and Code-Switching in Jamaican Narrative.” ARIEL 29, no. 4 (October 1998): 83-98.

[In the following essay, Lalla traces the changing language in Senior's story “Zig-zag,” arguing that “the shifting experiences and perspectives of the child protagonist emerge through a multifaceted and shifting discourse.”]

The traumatic process of becoming a woman, in the setting of a brown, rural, middle-class Jamaican family, is a dominant factor in shaping the language of Olive Senior's short story “Zig-zag,” in Discerner of Hearts. Jamaican Creole, Standard English, and intermediate...

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Velma Pollard (essay date 1998)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Pollard, Velma. “Images of Women in the Short Stories of Olive Senior.” In The Woman, the Writer and Caribbean Society, edited by Helen Pyne-Timothy, pp. 118-25. Los Angeles: Center for Afro-American Studies Publications, 1998.

[In the following essay, Pollard considers the depiction of women in Senior's short stories.]

At a time when our societies are fighting silent and not so silent battles for recognition of women's efforts inside and outside of the family milieu, this [essay] looks at some modern Caribbean writing and discusses the image of women portrayed there. I believe that the discussion will support the argument that Caribbean fiction, inspired...

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Kathleen J. Renk (essay date 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Renk, Kathleen J. “Reinscribing the Garden: Female Tricksters at the Crossroads.” In Caribbean Shadows and Victorian Ghosts: Woman's Writing and Decolonization, pp. 121-50. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999.

[In the following excerpt, Renk discusses the protagonist of “Arrival of the Snake-Woman” as a trickster figure.]

According to Ramabai Espinet, Mama Glo is a “benign and powerful” figure in Trinidadian folklore represented as a combination of a woman and a watersnake (48). In Espinet's poem “Mama Glo,” this figure is presented as the harbinger of the “womanvoice” that “breaks the ascendancy darkness with crystal...

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