Ask Oliver Senior what keeps her consistently churning out books in her advancing years and she will tell you it’s her imperative.
The prize-winning author’s 13th book and first novel – Dancing Lessons – was launched last Sunday at the University of the West Indies Mona Campus in Jamaica.
“I just have to do it,” the Jamaican-born writer, who turned 70 this year, told Share after reading from the book at the Arts & Culture Jamaica (ACJAM) scholarship presentation last Thursday night at the Jamaica Consulate. “Of course, the reward comes from seeing the finished product, sharing your work with people and getting feedback. I can’t stop doing it. It’s what I do.”
Senior’s most recent book is a journal kept by a Jamaican woman, Gertrude Samphire, who goes to live with her estranged daughter after her countryside home is destroyed by a hurricane. Unimpressed with her new neighbours in the upscale community, Samphire spends most of her time alone.
Through writing, she finds her voice and starts to record in a notebook her life, which includes memories of a gothic childhood, an impetuous marriage and struggles with raising a family. As a result, she slowly emerges from her shell to establish and mend relationships.
“The novel consists of entries and it goes back and forth between the present and the past,” the author says.
Senior, who has also produced non-fiction works on Caribbean culture, including The A-Z of Jamaican Heritage and The Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage, said she did not plan to pen a novel.
“I thought I was going to write a collection of short stories, but this woman just colonized my head,” she said.
Senior has compiled a children’s picture book, Bathing Suit, which will be launched early next year.
“It’s illustrated with pictures and it tells the story of a four-year-old boy who doesn’t like to wear clothes and is eventually persuaded by his parents to do so,” she said.
The former Jamaica Gleaner reporter won scholarships to study journalism in Cardiff, Wales and at Ottawa’s Carleton University. She started writing fiction and poetry in university and returned to Jamaica to work as a journalist before joining the UWI’s Institute of Social & Economic Research where she edited the Social and Economics Studies journal.
She also worked at the Institute of Jamaica and oversaw the publication of several books on Jamaica’ s history and culture before moving to Europe after Hurricane Gilbert in 1988. She settled in Canada in the early 1990s and now divides her time between the Greater Toronto Area and Jamaica.
Her critically acclaimed first collection of stories, Summer Lightning, won the inaugural Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book and her poetry collection, Over the Roofs of the World, was shortlisted for the 2005 Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry and Cuba’s Casa de las Americas Prize. Shell, published four years ago, was a finalist for the Pat Lowther Award.
A Writer-in-Residence at the University of Adelaide, the University of Alberta, Banff International Writing Studio and the UWI campuses in Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago, Senior is a member of the Humber School for Writers and a highly sought after creative writing teacher in Caribbean Literature and culture.
On Sunday, she will conduct a writers’ workshop at the UWI Mona campus, focusing on developing poetic techniques for dealing with complicated, controversial, difficult and painful subject material.