Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

OBT Celebrates Women's Day with Olive Senior

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OBT Celebrates Women's Day with Olive Senior

As part of the Women Authors Series, Open Book sits down to speak with renowned poet Olive Senior about artistic commitment, shells, and "groundation."

Open Book:

When did you first discover the power of words? Did you write as a child?

Olive Senior:

I started to read at four and immediately discovered the power of words both in books and in the lives of the people around me. I loved reading but I also discovered that the people in my Jamaican mountain village who had control of the verbal arts were also the most honoured or the most feared. So that cemented for me the importance of language and all it contains. I wrote as a child and continued throughout adolescence but nothing of that period has survived, perhaps just as well.

OB:

What initially prompted you to write Shell (Insomniac Press, 2008)?

OS:

I wanted to write a book that would mark the commemoration of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007 so I played around with the idea of "shell" and its various meanings and permutations for a long time.. it seemed to me that although slavery had been abolished 200 years earlier, the skeleton of that institution still remained to haunt us. So Shell proved to be a useful metaphor that enabled me to explore how the legacies of the past resonated down to the present day, including the legacy of those who were here before us, the first nations peoples who were initially displaced. The idea behind shell was crystallized by a visit I made to search for the location of what was once the grandest private house in Europe built by "England’s richest son," William Beckford Jnr. from a fortune derived from plantation slavery. The fact that I couldn’t find any trace of "Fonthill Abbey," Beckford’s grand folly in Wiltshire, England, underscored for me the wastefulness of the whole enterprise. And yet, like the shell, so much that is indestructible survives, symbolizing the resilience of the people born out of the inhuman conditions of the slave trade.

Of course, in the book Shell I am also playing on other aspects of the word "shell" starting with the fact that in the West Indies a conch shell is still used to summon a gathering. So in a sense, the book uses the shell motif to summon us all to a reasoning – what the Rastafarians call a "groundation" — to examine many things, including the beauty and resilience of nature’s perfect creation, the shell and what it symbolizes, its various manifestations as a historic relic.

OB:

Virginia Woolf once said, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” What does this quote mean to you? What does this room symbolize for you, as a writer?

OS:

I take it to refer to the importance of having enough independence to carve out the head space necessary for creative activity. I myself have always felt the need for this room of my own — representing, first of all, my own physical space over which I have total control. It is this physical space that allows me head space or room to read, to think, to contemplate and to write. It affirms for me the choice I made to live as a creative being and I have proved myself willing to make all the sacrifices necessary to attain it.

OB:

Who are your favourite women writers and why?

OS:

I am always finding new writers that I admire greatly, perhaps for one book only, and forgetting others that I dearly love. I’m not good at this type of list as I’ll have endless retro moments over the next few week and cringe and say, “Oh, how could I have omitted so-and-so!” Of poets, I would say though, Muriel Rukeyser, Elizabeth Bishop and Rita Dove always spring to mind as do May Swenson and — of late — Emily Dickinson. All Americans, I see. I am sure if I thought some more about this I’d arrive at lots in other cultures. I’d also have to list Louise Bennett of Jamaica for pioneering the use of Jamaican language or creole as an authentic means of expression. There are also lots of young writers whose work I admire: Bernadine Evaristo, Jackie Kay and Edwidge Danticat. And because I am a short story writer myself, I am a fan of both Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant. My favourite new Canadian discovery is Dianne Warren’s Cool Water.

OB:

What advice would you give to young women who want to follow in your footsteps?

OS:

Get a qualification for a day job that will give you a steady income. I wish someone had told me that. The "room of one’s own" doesn’t come out of thin air. Yet, despite everything I have just said, follow your imperative. If it is strong enough, it will force you to pursue your dream to be who you are meant to be. But nothing comes of dreaming alone, you have to prepare yourself, which begins with a commitment to learning the craft.

OB:

Are you currently at work with any new projects? Where can readers to go to find out more about your work and upcoming readings?

OS:

I am always working on projects but the gestation period seems very long. I hope to have a novel out this year, a children’s picture book out next year and I am working on a new poetry book as well as a handbook for writing poetry. I am also hoping to promote two books of mine which have recently been translated into French — Summer Lightning and Discerner of Hearts. I am also working on a new website that should be available shortly.



Olive Senior is one of Canada's most internationally recognized and acclaimed authors. Winner of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for her fiction collection Summer Lightning and a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award for her poetry collection Over the Roofs of the World, her body of published work includes four books of poetry, three collections of short stories and several award-winning non-fiction works on Caribbean culture. Her most recent poetry collection is Shell. To purchase this book, and find out more about it, please visit the Insomniac Press website here.

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