Olive Senior

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Olive Senior
Born 23 December 1941
Trelawny, Cockpit Country, Jamaica
Occupation poet, novelist, short-story and non-fiction writer
Nationality Jamaican
Period 910932
Notable works Gardening in the Tropics, Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage, Summer Lightning, Over The Roofs

Olive Marjorie Senior (born 23 December 1941)[1] is a Jamaican poet, novelist, short story and non-fiction writer currently living in Toronto, Canada. Honours she has received include, among others, a Musgrave Gold Medal awarded in 2005 by the Institute of Jamaica for her contributions to literature.[2]

Life and career[edit]

Born in rural Jamaica in Trelawny, Cockpit Country, the seventh of 10 children,[1] she attended to Montego Bay High School For Girls. At the age of 19 she joined the staff of the Jamaica Gleaner in Kingston and later worked with the Jamaica Information Service.[3] Senior later won a scholarship to study journalism at the Thomson Foundation in Cardiff, Wales.[4] As a Commonwealth scholar she attended Carleton University School of Journalism in Ottawa, Canada, where she earned a degree in 1967.

While at university she began writing fiction and poetry. On her return to Jamaica, she worked as a freelancer in public relations, publishing and speech writing before joining the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of the West Indies, where she edited the journal Social and Economic Studies (1972–77). In 1982 she joined the Institute of Jamaica as editor of the Jamaica Journal. As the managing director of Institute of Jamaica Publications, Senior oversaw the publication of a number of books on Jamaican history and culture.[5]

In 1987 Senior won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for her first collection of stories, and after Hurricane Gilbert hit Jamaica in 1988, she moved to Europe, where she lived for short periods in Portugal, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, before settling in Toronto, Canada, in the early 1990s. Senior returns to Jamaica and the wider Caribbean frequently, while the region remains a central theme to her work. She writes, lectures and provides workshops around the world.

Literary works[edit]

Senior has published three collections of poems: Talking of Trees (1985), Gardening in the Tropics (1994), and Over the Roofs of the World (2005). Her short story collection Summer Lightning (1986) won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize;[6] it was followed by Arrival of the Snake Woman (1989, 2009) and Discerner of Hearts (1995). Her most recent collection of stories, The Pain Tree (2015), was the overall winner of the 2016 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, having won the fiction category.[7]

Her first novel, Dancing Lessons (Cormorant Books, 2011), was shortlisted for the 2012 Commonwealth Book Prize in the Canada region.

Her non-fiction works include The Message Is Change (1972), about Michael Manley's first election victory; A-Z of Jamaican Heritage (1984, expanded and republished as Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage in 2004); and Working Miracles: Women's Lives in the English-Speaking Caribbean (1991).

Senior's most recent non-fiction book, Dying To Better Themselves: West Indians and the Building of the Panama Canal, was published in September 2014 – 100 years after the opening of the Panama Canal, 15 August 1914. On 1 April 2015 the book was shortlisted for the 2015 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, winning the non-fiction category.[8][9]

An extended critical evaluation of Senior's work can be found in Olive Senior by Denise deCaires Narain (2011), published by Northcote House Publishers (UK) in collaboration with the British Council as part of the Writers and Their Work series.

Senior's work often addresses questions of Caribbean identity in terms of gender and ethnicity. She has said: "I've had to deal with race because of who I am and how I look. In that process, I've had to determine who I am. I do not think you can be all things to all people. As part of that process, I decided I was a Jamaican. I represent many different races and I'm not rejecting any of them to please anybody. I'm just who I am and you have to accept me or not."[10]

Her work has been adapted as drama and broadcast by the BBC and CBC, and she also wrote the radio play Window for the CBC.[11] Her writing features in a wide range of anthologies including Her True-True Name (eds Elizabeth Wilson and Pamela Mordecai, 1989), Daughters of Africa (ed. Margaret Busby, 1992), The Heinemann Book of Caribbean Poetry (eds Ian McDonald and Stewart Brown, 1992), Concert of Voices: An Anthology of World Writing in English (ed. Victor J. Ramraj, 1994), The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror Tenth Annual Collection (eds Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, 1997), The Wadsworth Anthology of Poetry (ed. Jay Parini, 2005), Best Poems on the Underground (eds Gerard Benson, Judith Chernaik and Cicely Herbert, 2010), So Much Things to Say: 100 Calabash Poets (2010), and numerous others.

Her work is taught in schools and universities internationally, with Summer Lightning and Gardening in the Tropicsin particular being used as educational textbooks.[11]


Recent translations include: ZigZag, translated into French by Christine Raguet, Geneva: Zoe, 2010;[12] Eclairs de chaleur, translated into French by Christine Raguet, Geneva: Zoe, 2011,[13] Depuis la Terrasse et autres nouvelles (translated into French by Marie-Annick Montout), special edition, Mauritius: L'Atelier d'écriture, 2011; Zomerweerlicht (trans. Marie Luyten), Netherlands: Ambo/Novib, 1991;[14] Das Erscheinen der Schlangenfrau (trans: Wolfgang Binder) Germany: Dipa/Verlag, 1996, and Unionsverlag, 2003; a Book Club Selection, The Berne Declaration, Switzerland, 1996.[15]

A bilingual (English and French) book of Senior's poetry, Un Pipirit M'a Dit/A Little Bird Told Me was released in 2014.[16]

Selected awards and honours[edit]

  • 1987: Commonwealth Writers' Prize, for Summer Lightning and Other Stories[6]
  • 1988: Silver Musgrave Medal[2]
  • 1994: Hawthornden Fellow, Scotland[17]
  • 1994–95: Dana Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing and International Education, St. Lawrence University, Canton, NY
  • 1995: F.G. Bressani Literary Prize for Gardening in the Tropics[18]
  • 2003: Norman Washington Manley Foundation Award for Excellence (preservation of cultural heritage – Jamaica)
  • 2004: Gold Musgrave Medal of the Institute of Jamaica[2]
  • 2005: Humanities Scholar, University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, Barbados
  • 2005: Over the Roofs of the World shortlisted for the Governor-General's Literary Award for Poetry[19]
  • 2005: Runner-up for the Casa de las Américas Prize
  • 2006: Shell shortlisted for the Pat Lowther Award
  • 2006: Ontario Arts Council and Canada Council works-in-progress grants
  • 2011: Dancing Lessons shortlisted for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award, the Commonwealth Book Prize
  • 2011: Isabel Sissons Canadian Children’s Story Award[20]
  • 2015: OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, winner of non-fiction category[21]
  • 2016: OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, winner of fiction category and overall winner[22]

Selected bibliography[edit]


  • Talking of Trees, Calabash, 1986.
  • Gardening in the Tropics, McClelland & Stewart, 1994.
  • Over the Roofs of the World, Insomniac Press, 2005
  • Shell, Insomniac Press, 2007

Short stories


Children's literature

  • Birthday Suit, Annick Press, 2012
  • Anna Carries Water, Tradewind, 2013


  • The Message Is Change: A Perspective on the 1972 General Elections, Kingston Publishers, 1972.
  • Pop Story Gi Mi (four booklets on Jamaican heritage for schools), Ministry of Education (Kingston, Jamaica), 1973.
  • A-Z of Jamaican Heritage, Heinemann and Gleaner Company Ltd, 1984.
  • Working Miracles: Women's Lives in the English-Speaking Caribbean, Indiana University Press, 1991.
  • Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage, Twin Guinep, 2004.
  • Dying To Better Themselves: West Indians and the Building of the Panama Canal, University of the West Indies Press, 2014. ISBN 978-9766404574


  1. ^ a b Hyacinth M. Simpson, "Olive Senior's Gardening in the Tropics", Ryerson University.
  2. ^ a b c "Olive Senior Awarded Musgrave Gold Medal", Jamaica Information Service, 15 December 2005.
  3. ^ Laura Tanna, "One-on-one with Olive Senior (Pt. II)", Jamaica Gleaner, 31 October 2004.
  4. ^ "Olive Senior" at AALBC.
  5. ^ Olive Senior Extended Bio, November 2013.
  6. ^ a b "Commonwealth Book Prize", Encyclopædia Britannica.
  7. ^ "Announcing The 2016 OCM Bocas Prize Shortlist", NGC Bocas Lit Fest, 24 March 2016.
  8. ^ "The 2015 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature shortlist", NGC Bocas Lit Fest, 24 March 2016.
  9. ^ "Olive Senior Wins The 2016 OCM Bocas Prize", Bocas News, Bocas Lit Fest, 2 May 2016.
  10. ^ Laura Tanna, "One-on-one with Olive Senior (Part 3)", Jamaica Gleaner, 7 November 2004.
  11. ^ a b Author bio, Olive Senior website.
  12. ^ Zigzag : Et autres nouvelles de la Jamaïque, Editions Zoé, ISBN 978-2881826658.
  13. ^ Eclairs de chaleur : Et autres nouvelles, Editions Zoé, ISBN 978-2881826924.
  14. ^ Zomerweerlicht, Ambo/Anthos Uitgevers, ISBN 978-9026311284.
  15. ^ Das Erscheinen der Schlangenfrau at Amazon.
  16. ^ Un pipiri m'a dit : A little bird told me, Le Castor Astral, ISBN 978-2859209902. Amazon.
  17. ^ Hawthornden Castle Fellowship.
  18. ^ "F. G. Bressani Literary Prize", Italian Cultural Centre.
  19. ^ "Governor-General's Literary Awards – Poetry", Canadian Books & Authors.
  20. ^ Christina Cooke and Nailah King, "Black History Month: Our Favourite Canadian Writers", Room Magazine.
  21. ^ "Top three books named for 2015 OCM Bocas Prize", NGC Bocas Lit Fest, 31 March 2015.
  22. ^ "Toronto's Olive Senior wins overall 2016 OCM Bocas Prize", CBC Books, 2 May 2016.

Interviews in the Jamaica Gleaner:

External links[edit]