Olive Senior recognized by UWI with honourary degree
November 23, 2017
‘Do Angels wear brassieres?’
In the riveting story in Olive Senior’s humorous short story collection, ‘Summer Lightning and Other Stories’, which won the inaugural Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1987 and is a literature textbook in Caribbean schools, the Archdeacon is required to solve this ‘riddle’ when he visits Aunt Mary’s home and has a conversation with Beccka who the adults claim is ‘force-ripe’ and ‘hard ears’.
Senior, who has a liking for riddles, puns, rhymes and word puzzles, was recently conferred with a University of the West Indies (UWI) honourary degree at its Mona campus in Jamaica.
In her children stories, she writes about them wanting to be themselves and finding creative ways of challenging the world.
“This is the kind of mind we encourage at this institution and one which our honourary graduate celebrates in her creative work,” said public orator Dr. Michael Bucknor in the citation. “That child-like inquisitiveness, that probing and questioning for knowledge, that wrestling with perplexity, that elastic imagination are all facets of the creative genius of our honourary graduate. As demur as she looks, underneath that calm exterior is that bickerest restlessness, the rebel intellectual and the creative artist who pushes at boundaries. Long before Chronixx put out his genius lyrics, our special guest – in her creative endeavour – always do it for the love, nah do it for the likes, always producing substance over hype.”
Senior, who turns 76 next month, has published five books of poetry, four short story collections, two illustrated children books, six non-fiction books and a novel.
His first collection of poems is titled ‘Talking About Trees’.
“Long before political urgency became a mantra for environmental issues, including climate change, Senior has been tuning her voice in poetic melodies about the maladies of human interaction with nature,” Bucknor pointed out. “From her first poetry collection talking of trees, she has used her country life heritage to suggest how keeping her creative ears to the ground can provide a different way of thinking about the legacy of the natural world bequeath to us in the Caribbean. She is one of the few writers to use poetry to map a pre-colonial encounter in the Caribbean and to revisit the philosophical world of the Taino people as a way of reminding us of our ancestral relationship with the land.”
Graduating from Montego Bay High School, Senior was an intern at the Jamaica Gleaner before accepting a Commonwealth scholarship to attend Carleton University where she graduated with a print journalism degree in 1967. She also studied journalism as a Thomson Scholar at the Thomson Foundation in Cardiff and book publication at the Institute of Mass Communication at the University of the Philippines.
After several years as a freelancing in public relations, publishing and speechwriting, Senior edited UWI’s Social & Economic Studies journal and the ‘Jamaica Journal’ for seven years, rising to the post of managing director in that role. She also edited ‘Savacou’, a journal published by poet and historian Kamau Braithwaite who was teaching then at the Mona campus.
She left Jamaica in 1989 and resided in Europe for four years before settling in the Greater Toronto Area in 1993.
“Over perhaps six decades of dedication to her craft, Olive Senior has emerged as one of the Caribbean’s best loved writers who has established a remarkable reputation with an extraordinary versatility in several genres,” added Bucknor.
In her convocation address, Senior acknowledged the role that UWI has played in developing indigenous literature and encouraging writers like her.
“Although I am not a UWI graduate, I have benefitted greatly from the work of UWI scholars and the support and encouragement of many for whom I am very grateful,” she said.
Senior, who is on the faculty of the Humber School for Writers, told the graduates she has one gift – unabated curiosity since childhood – which has driven her life.
“I have always had the ability to accept anything as given,” the 2005 Humanities Scholar at the UWI Cave Hill campus in Barbados, said. “I have to ask questions and seek answers and I must have been a really annoying child though nobody has told me that. It is this urge to discover that has led me to create works in poetry and fiction and also an Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage. I didn’t start out saying I want to create an encyclopedia.
“I started off simply wanting to know and the encyclopedia really represents my life’s efforts to find things out for myself, things about the place that I come from and things about Jamaica because as a child growing up in the country, I wanted to know what is the name of this tree, how you make bammy (a traditional Jamaican cassava flatbread) and why is the carpenter putting the board this way and not that way. I wanted to find out about myself which meant knowing something about my ancestry, but which led me to start asking questions about who are we as a people.”
In their bid to claim space, she encouraged the graduates to seek out information.
“It seems to me this is what we all should be striving to do because only by continuing with the quest to know and feed our imagination and our knowledge can we change the world and create a life that’s more just, equitable and humane for everyone,” added Senior whose book of poems, ‘Over the Roofs of the World’, was shortlisted for Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Award. “The job market of the future will increasingly be based on technology and its demands which include a thirst for novelty and innovation. The leaders in this new world are the very people that are the most curious, the ones most likely to explore and investigate, and the ones who use their imagination. The most valued workers are going to be those that are willing to examine problems from all angles and are imaginative in their approach, continuously asking questions.
“Without curiosity and all its attributes, you will be stuck behind a keyboard for life or as soon as you can be replaced by a robot…You are on the edge of a new world. The university has equipped you with the tools to acquire knowledge and I hope that among your tools will be a re-awakening of that child in you, the child who was eternally curious.”