Sentinel Poetry (Online) #38

The International Journal of Poetry & Graphics Monthly

ISSN 1479-425X









Exile is Not My Name

Interview with OLIVE SENIOR by Amatoritsero Ede


Amatoritsero Ede: It is great that you are taking time off from you busy schedule to give this interview. I would first like to ask you what the experience of writing from, well - shall we say exile - for want of a better term; in how far has this cosmopolitan experience influenced your writing?


Olive Senior: I reject the term ‘exile’ since my living in Toronto is by choice and I am free to go back to my homeland Jamaica- which I do quite frequently. I think the word ‘exile’ should be reserved for those who cannot return home and, worse, who have to learn a new language to function in their adopted country. I can’t say how the experience of writing from Europe and Canada has influenced my writing. I still seem to be writing out of the Caribbean experience, which is my formative experience, the one that has shaped me as a person and as a writer. I do believe though that the experience of travel and living in Canada has broadened my outlook on many things. It has certainly given me a new perspective on myself.


A.E.: We know there are examples of writers who started out as journalists: Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Gabriel Gárcia Márquez, Truman Capote and so on.  Journalism and creative writing has a thin dividing line. Has your experience as a former journalist informed some of your creativity?


O.S.: I don’t know if it has informed my creativity as such but I do think it helped me to be a better writer. I only became a journalist because I had no role models for writing in Jamaica and that seemed a good place to start. But my experiences in journalism certainly shaped my world view, developed my objectivity and honed my writing skills. I started out as a journalist at the Daily Gleaner under the greatest editor there, a man called Theodore Sealy, who influenced generations of journalists. My time at Carleton School of Journalism reinforced Sealy’s notion that the journalist should be an accurate observer rather than a participant in events. The watchword for journalists then was ‘objectivity’ – a far cry from how journalists function today. I think my ability to be both critical and involved at the same time is evident in my so-called creative work and comes partly from that training. Journalism also taught me to write for a reader, to write with clarity and to ‘write tight’ – all of which I have applied to all the forms of writing that I do.


A.E.: Writing from the margins, that is, as an immigrant in Canada must have had its challenges. How did you cope with these in your formative years as a creative writer? And what is your advice for new immigrant writers in Canada?


O.S.: I came to Canada long after my so-called ‘formative years’. I attended Carleton University in the sixties and then I went back home to Jamaica. By the time I returned to Canada in the 1990s, I had already established myself as a writer with several well-received books and the Commonwealth Writers Prize. I sort of drifted to Canada and although, yes, there were and are challenges, I tend to spend my time focusing on my writing which is the driving force in my life.


A.E.: You had the advantage of carrying your English – which I refer to as a ‘step-mother tongue’ – with you to Canada. Nevertheless there is a visible influence of patois in some of your poetry; though such influences are not as heavy as in, say, Kamau Braithwaite, Samuel Selvon  or David Dabydeen in Turner: New and Selected Poems. In what way has patois pushed your art in particular directions?


O.S.: Actually my use of patois – or ‘Creole’ as the linguists call it – is far more pronounced in my fiction than in my poetry. Like many Caribbean writers I marry English and Creole. My first collection of short fiction, ‘Summer Lightning’ was regarded as a kind of breakthrough in that direction as I used Creole not only in dialogue which is what is most frequently done, but as the language of narration. Since most of my fiction derives from the Jamaican experience my characters tend to arrive with their ‘language’ which covers a wide range from Standard English to the deepest patois. Many of my characters do what the linguists call ‘code-switching’ – that is, moving between the two languages even in the same sentence. I consider myself privileged as a writer to have such a rich linguistic pool to draw from. I use much less Creole in my poetry which tends to cover subject matter that is more universal and less rooted in the Caribbean.


A.E.: Altogether what has been your experience as an immigrant writer in Canada?


O.S.: The problem of just finding my feet, I guess, finding ways of earning a living. Of course I have since come to learn that most writers in Canada do have the problem of working at other things to support their writing. But when I first came I didn’t have a network of people who might have made that transition smoother or given me advice on directions in which to go. Like every other newcomer I didn’t have ‘Canadian experience’ and my failures in finding myself on the job market discouraged me. But I did have a track record and I was fortunate to have my first two books in Canada published by McClelland and Stewart that brought me to a wider audience. But I’m still not writing out of the ‘Canadian experience,’ which is problematic for some people. And my chosen genres – poetry and the short story – make it difficult to find publishers. As a writer I am probably spread too thinly because I write in different genres and have publishers in several different countries, which means that people in different places, including Canada, know only a small part of my work. For instance, I have non-fiction books such as the Encyclopaedia of Jamaican Heritage and Working Miracles: Women’s Lives in the English-speaking Caribbean, which have helped to establish a different kind of reputation for me in the Caribbean and internationally that Canadians wouldn’t know about. But none of this really bothers me as what interests me is the creative work that I happen to be engaged in at any moment in time. That is what keeps me going.


A.E.: Has the immigrant condition, the question of roots and place and identity ‘coloured’ your poetry.


O.S.: If by the ‘immigrant condition’ you mean my living in Canada I would say no. Because I come from a part of the world – the Caribbean – where the ‘immigrant condition’ or the condition of ‘displacement/exile’ is one of the outstanding themes of life and literature, since this is a region characterised throughout history by both immigration (including that enforced by the slave trade and indentureship) and emigration. People in the Caribbean are constantly on the move and these are the proto-typical multi-cultural societies. So I was asking questions about ‘roots’ and ‘identity’ long before I came to Canada and these questions have indeed coloured my work, though in a largely oblique way, especially in my poetry. I hardly ever engage with this experience in a direct way but through a discursive navigation of the society through proverbs, sayings, fables, folktales and so on and of course through the language of metaphor.


A.E.: You were just nominated for Canada’s Governor-General Awards for the poetry collection, Over the Roofs of the World (Insomniac Press). Could you tell us a bit about the thematic thrust of this work?


O.S.: In this book I am using the central images of ‘flight’ and ‘thread’. They come together in the final poem in the book, the long “Ode to Pablo Neruda”, which is the key poem. Here I am dealing with the craft of poetry and the requirements of the craft, taking as the starting point Neruda’s admonishment to the young poet to write about anything, even thread. So thread and its many uses in ‘craft’ (poetic and otherwise) runs through the entire book as does the notion of flight, of birds, of kites, of shamanic flight and so on. Here the birds represent themselves – they even speak directly to the reader at times – but they are also related to the winged flight of the spirit and the development of the poetic psyche, which is one of the notions that I explore.


A.E.: In what way do these depart from or cohere with the preoccupation of your earlier poetry collections.


O.S.: I seem to use the natural world as the basis for my explorations in poetry though I was not conscious of that trajectory until fairly recently. My first collection was called ‘Talking of Trees’, the next was ‘Gardening in the Tropics’ and a fourth collection that I have just completed is called ‘Shell’ as it explores all the permutations of that word. Although each book stands on its own and they were written at different periods in my life, and indeed in different places, I do think there is considerable overlap among them since in each I am using nature to explore the nexus between history and contemporary society, which is part of my engagement as a writer.


A.E.: Now, one wonders if there is a politics of gender identity informing your worldview and your work; feminism for example? I know there are ‘shades’ to this, to put it finely. 


O.S.: I suppose there is a lot of what people would identify as ‘feminist’ in my writing and I am an inner-directed woman, which means I go my own way. That of course goes against the received notion of how women ought to behave. But I prefer not to put labels on myself. My personal mandate is to explore society in its widest sense, so that includes an exploration of what is nowadays called ‘gender relations’. In other words I am interested in the interactions between men and women and how these interactions are shaped by the wider society.


A.E.:  Where you or are you ever influenced by the idea of carnival on the one hand, and the ‘carnivalesque’ in that Bakhtinian sense of   the view of carnival as participatory spectacle, a 'pageant without footlights' which erases the boundaries between spectator and performer” - as we find in Selvon’s Lonely Londoners or as African American Harlem Renaissance poetry was influenced by jazz? I am thinking of Langston Hughes particularly.


O.S.: Well, I wouldn’t put it in such post-colonial terms myself but I do think the idea of ‘performance’ infuses the lives of Caribbean people and is a profound influence on how we all write. We live interactive lives, in the same way that ‘call and response’ shapes the traditional music so there is always a chorus that responds to the singer, and there is always an audience that responds to the storyteller or the story can’t be told. The gestures of traditional music and storytelling live on in the performative aspects of contemporary culture, such as ‘dancehall’, as much as it does in carnival, and these ‘gestures’ also shape the writing.


I myself was shaped by the oral culture as much as the scribal and in my writing I have tried to erase as much as possible the boundaries between writer and reader. So many of my stories and poems are in fact ‘told’ to a listener/reader and I employ narrative techniques from the oral culture – such as su-su or gossip, the use of ‘throw words’ and ‘kas-kas’ or oblique cussing, the use of the implied chorus, etc.


These are issues I have explored in several of my essays to explain the fusion of the oral and scribal in my own work.


A.E.: Thank you for taking the time and more success in your future writing.


O.S. Thank you for giving me this opportunity. And much continued success to you and to the Sentinel Poetry family.


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