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A Review of Olive Senior’s “Gardening in the Tropics”

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Literatures in English Unit 2.

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A Review of Olive Senior’s “Gardening in the Tropics”

  1. 1. A Review of Olive Senior’s “Gardening in the Tropics” Olive Marjorie Senior was born December 23, 1941 in Troy, Trelawny, deep in the interior, on the border with Manchester; she spent part of her childhood in Haddoe, on the Westmoreland/Hanover border. Olive was seventh of ten children born to Edna Peart and Reginald Senior who were peasant farmers. She is a complex mixture of cultures. Both her parents are of mixed ancestry, British and black and in her father’s family there is some Jewish ancestry. Her mother was a Seventh-Day Adventist and her family were amongst the very first people in Jamaica to be converted, whilst her father was an Anglican. However, she was born an Adventist shortly after the Adventists came to Jamaica. Her personal biography started at the age of four when she left home to live with her great uncle and great aunt Peart who were better-off than her parents. These were people who had gone to Panama, at the time of the construction of the Canal. They then went to New York, USA. When it was time for her to attend school there was no school near enough so she came back to Jamaica. She started schooling at Troy Primary where she had to walk about a mile to get there. She had friends but was always very conscious of being an only child, of being a child alone, even when she was among others. Although she came from a big family, in Westmoreland she was an only child in the household. She learnt to read at four, and at that age decided she wanted to be a writer or a creative artist. She didn’t have many children’s book so she read everything. She learnt to read out of self-defence because reading made people thought she wouldn’t get into trouble. Reading opened the door for Olive Senior. Senior attended Montego Bay High School for Girls. She arrived in an elitist establishment typical of Jamaican secondary schools of the time which naturally embraced the privileged. Here was a place which strove to socialise its girls into being 1
  2. 2. English, and Senior frequently rebelled and expressed her individualism; but she did well in her studies, and even founded a school literary magazine. After graduating at the age of 19, she was hired by The Jamaica Gleaner. Two years later Senior travelled to Cardiff, Wales to take part in a journalism course with the Thompson Foundation and then at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. She eventually migrated to Canada to earn her degree in journalism from the university in 1967. While in university she began writing fiction and poetry. Returning home, Senior found a job as an information officer with the Jamaica Information Service, and moved to a post as a public relations officer for the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce in 1969. She edited its ‘Journal’, and then became the publications editor for the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica in 1972. During her five-year participation there, she also edited another journal called ‘Social and Economic Studies’. After 1977 she worked as a freelance writer and researcher, and taught for a time as well. Her first published work was titled ‘The Message Is Change: A Perspective on the 1972 General Elections’. She also oversaw the publication of a number of books on Jamaican history and culture. In 1986, while working as a freelance writer and researcher she published her first collection of fiction, ‘Summer Lightning and Other Stories’, which received widespread praise, winning the Commonwealth Writers Prize. Turning to Oliver Senior’s poetry, she had many themes overlapping with those in her fiction. ‘Talking of Trees’ (1986) was her first collection, and ‘Gardening in the Tropics’ followed in 1994. ‘Over the Roofs of the World’, (2005) was nominated for Canada’s Governor-General Award, and ‘Shell’ was published in 2007. Her Encyclopedia of ‘Jamaican Heritage’ (1993) remains an exuberant work of reference much greater than the sum of its many parts. 2
  3. 3. Senior's interest in literature was sparked by the stories she heard from older people and the cultures she was exposed to. Her early stories were written to disburden her pain of all her early difficult childhood experiences and they influenced her to create her characters. In Trelawny, she was mostly exposed to African culture and that is how she was able to understand the Afro-Jamaican culture. There was no social life outside of school so Anansi stories were told every night. Storytelling was a tradition and a part of her life. There was no electricity. People grew bananas which threw dense and dark shadows onto the house windows. Duppy (ghost) stories were told to frighten her. Storey telling did much to form her early experiences. Senior learnt a lot through socialization within the village she grew up in. In the village everybody had contributed something to her own personal font of wisdom and knowledge. Whereas at Montego Bay High School it was a different kind of life. She wasn’t supposed to indulge in folk law because she now lived in a more privileged background. However, she grew up respecting all Jamaicans even if they were barefoot and illiterate. Olive Senior’s ‘Gardening in the Tropics’ is her second collection of poems published in 1994. It contains a rich Caribbean world of poems. It employs verse to capture the essence of large issues of reality of Caribbean history and present social conditions while remaining faithful to the principles of simplicity and restraint; characteristic of her works. There are several influences to her poetry collection, ‘Gardening in the Tropics’. One is that she had a classical English education where she was exposed to great English classics when she went to school. The second is that she grew up on the bible and storey telling traditions which also played an important part in shaping her work. It was not the content alone from spoken traditions which helped to shape her work but it was also the rhythms from the clapping games in 3
  4. 4. school and her physical dexterity. Additionally, in an interview with Kwame Dawes, Senior admits that no specific research was done for the writing of this poetry collection. However, she did research to become engaged with her history, both personal and ancestral to answer fundamental questions about herself. She then said “so because I’ve spent a lot of time doing all kinds of research, when I come to write creatively, I think all of that knowledge that I have which is the knowledge of all my years, comes out in the work”.1 The poetry collection is divided into four sections entitled ‘Travellers’ Tales,’ ‘Nature Studies,’ ‘Gardening in the Tropics,’ and ‘Mystery,’ each containing twelve poems. In ‘Travellers' Tales’ Senior thematically explores issues of migration and the diaspora, and specifically focuses on the reflection of women affect by this phenomenon. Despite the frustrations of failed relationships and disloyalty there is a strong evocation of family and pride in local culture. The experiences referred to are strongly located in Jamaican culture, particularly its language, flora, fauna and folk lores. In the poem ‘Meditation on Yellow,’ for example, the persona demonstrates the hardship of his ancestries and himself serving the tourists that arrive in the country and wishes for a break from them: ‘I want to feel mellow in that three o’clock yellow. I want to feel though you own the silver service, the communion plate you don’t own the tropics anymore’.2 The formal devices and techniques used in this section of poems include: magical realism, free verse, the elegy and predominant third-person point of view. These poems have an organic life onto which the absurdity of class prejudice, determination and materialism overlap. In ‘Nature Studies’ Senior highlights the central metaphor of gardening. Myths concerning various plants and fruits are used as metaphors of cross-cultural 1 Kwame Dawes, Talk Yuh Talk: Interviews with Anglophone Caribbean Poets, (University Press of Virginia, 2001) : 75 - 76 2 Olive Senior, Gardening in the Tropics. (Canada, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1994.) : 16 4
  5. 5. mixing, the stability of rootedness and the vehicle for commentary on the colonial and neo-colonial experience within the Caribbean and the Americas. In the poem ‘Pawpaw,’ for example, the persona speaks of superstitious beliefs associated with the pawpaw plant: ‘I know for a fact that tree will sap you strength waste your muscle draw you down to skin and bone’. 3 The formal devices and techniques used in this section of poems include: free verse, the quatrain and meditative lyric. The poems in ‘Gardening in the Tropics’ highlight the central motif of gardening a trope for interpreting the socio-historical, geo-political and personal reality associated with living in Jamaica and the Caribbean today. Senior illustrates how the historic past of colonialism impacts on the present. In the poem ‘The Knot Garden’, for example, the persona speaks of the breaking of the knot garden (which represents the government trying to marginalize him) since blacks are now living in upscale communities with the whites, so there’s not much they can do to stop it now: ‘…he ordered the hacking out of paths and ditches, the cutting of swaths to separate our flowers from weeds, woods from trees’.4 The formal devices and techniques used in this section of poems include: tercet and couplet stanzas, meditative lyric, free verse and Jamaican and Caribbean mythology. In ‘Mystery’, subtitled ‘African Gods in the New World’ the collection’s last section, explores issues of African survival and cultural retention in Caribbean life today. This section evokes the representations of deities of the Yoruba religion of Africa in New World religious expressions. These deities are depicted as impacting on various aspects of Caribbean life from the Middle passage crossing in the historical past to the relationships between genders at present. Senior uses these poems to highlight the set of ideas about the original history and structure of the universe and 3 4 Senior, Gardening in the Tropics, 78 Senior, Gardening in the Tropics, 88 5
  6. 6. give a contemporary new world application. In the poem ‘Ogun: God of Iron’, for example the poem is based on the motion of duality for the iron that the Yoruba God, Ogun represents both beneficial and potentially destructive: ‘Iron in the blood feeds your red-hot energy’ 5 even as it ‘shape our potential for death or -if you choose- life’.6 Another example is ‘Babalu: Lord of the Earth’. Babalu is believed to inflict diseases of small pox and even AIDs as punishment for human overindulgence: ‘Spare us this time from visible sign of our excess’. 7 Senior uses this poem to bring Babalu into modern society to highlight humility of humans. The formal devices and techniques used in this section of poems include: repetition and imagery replete with significance in African cosmology. In ‘Gardening in the Tropics’ Senior explores the Caribbean region from the first contact with Europe through the present day with simplicity and restraint that mark her work. Her reproduction of authentic Jamaican Creole in her work, as well as her insightful exploration of such issues as identity, cultural nationalism, class stratification, a realistic portrayal of migration from the diaspora and the oppressive impact of the European colonization on the Caribbean has helped to educate her readers. Her portraits of the lives of Caribbean people trying to surpass ethnic, class, and gender roles are notable achievements of Caribbean people. The manner of using plants as metaphors and replete use of Caribbean myths has helped to comply this poetry collection. Senior uses techniques of free verse and a predominant third-person which makes her poems conversational. Her speakers hail from various socioeconomic and cultural groups. These styles, concerns and techniques of Senior have given the overall effect to capture issues of Caribbean history and present social conditions and portray them in her poetry collection. Inter alia these styles, concerns 5 Senior, Gardening in the Tropics, 121 Senior, Gardening in the Tropics, 121 7 Senior, Gardening in the Tropics, 127 6 6
  7. 7. and techniques have helped to give Senior her distinctive voice in West Indian Literature. According to Senior, “Poetry matters because it is a tool for helping us to discover who we are. As individuals, as Caribbean peoples, as citizens of the world”. 8 She has used her years of research of finding herself, both personal and ancestral history along with the love for her creative writing to express herself and portray issues of migration, colonial history, neo-colonial and social history faced by Caribbean people to make her ‘Gardening in the Tropics’ a success. 8 The Poetry Achieve. 2005-2010. Insomniac Press and Cormorant Books. Web. 8 March. 2013 <http://www.poetryarchive.org>. 7
  8. 8. Bibliography • Dawes, Kwame. Talk Yuh Talk: Interviews with Anglophone Caribbean Poets. University Press of Virginia, 2001. • Senior, Olive. Gardening in the Tropics. Canada, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1994. • Senior, Olive. Olive Senior. Olive Senior. 2012. Web. 8 March. 2013. <http://www.olivesenior.com>. • Tanna, Laura. One-on-one with Olive Senior. The Jamaica Gleaner, 2004 • The Poetry Achieve. 2005-2010. Insomniac Press and Cormorant Books. Web. 8 March. 2013 <http://www.poetryarchive.org>. 8

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