Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : May 10th 2015 Contents B45
May 10, 2015 www.guardian.co.tt Sunday Guardian
If it weren't such a cliché, it
might be tempting to call Olive Sen-
ior a grande dame of Caribbean lit-
erature, except that she isn't.
Like many of the best regional
writers who come to the Bocas Lit
Fest---her fellow Jamaican and poet,
Prof Edward Baugh, is another---
she's also among the most modest.
Senior photographed other writers
and posted their pictures on social
media, as though she were just a fan
and not a star of the festival.
Introducing Senior at Bocas, his-
torian Bridget Brereton described
her as one of the best known and
loved Caribbean writers. That was
borne out by the crowd that packed
the Old Fire Station to hear them
discuss Senior's latest book.
Last time Senior came to the fes-
tival, she got wild applause when
she read her anthemic Meditation
on Yellow, a painfully funny and
profound poem about the waves of
colonists who have invaded the
Caribbean, from the Conquistadors
to today's jetloads of tourists.
Migration, both into and out of
the region, is a theme that runs
through Senior's work: "That's the
real narrative of the Caribbean: peo-
ple being forced to leave in order to
make a living."
So it is with her book Dying to
Better Themselves: West Indians and
the Building of the Panama Canal,
which Brereton summed up as "mar-
vellous," and which won this year's
Bocas non-fiction prize.
The backstory of how Senior came
to write it goes back to when she
was four---"All my stories do," she
told her audience, with her typical
mixture of mystery and apparent
Senior was born in rural Jamaica,
the seventh of ten children, and what
happened when she was four was
that she was sent to stay with elderly,
better-off relatives on vacation, and
never really went home. "They
wanted a child around, and I was
spare," she explained in an interview
The great-uncle and great-aunts
who informally adopted her had gone
to Panama and the United States,
and prospered there. Panama was a
presence in their house, in books
and photos, and talk with visitors,
and to the child overhearing the con-
versations and seeing the pictures,
it acquired a romantic air.
Like many of her contemporaries
and elders among Caribbean writers,
Senior came to writing through jour-
nalism. She worked for the Gleaner,
studied journalism in Canada, and
later edited the scholarly Jamaica
Journal. Her books began to be pub-
lished in the 1980s, and she has
always written non-fiction as well
as poetry and fiction. (Her next book,
due out next month, is a collection
of short stories.)
She's written about Panama in
stories as well, but deciding what
form to use for which material isn't
an issue: "It comes to me as poetry
or prose...I don't have a lot of control
over that. It will come in the form
it's meant to come."
This book began a decade before
she published her first story collec-
tion, Summer Lightning: in the 1970s
she became curious about why her
relatives and other Jamaicans had
gone to Panama. She went there too
and researched the story of the canal,
from the 1880s French-led attempt
to build it to the American initiative
that began in 1904. She taped inter-
views with people who had worked
on it, wrote articles about it, and
produced a first draft of the book.
But then she moved on to other
projects; and her interview tapes
were stolen. Eventually, about three
years ago she realised 2014 would
be the centenary of the opening of
the canal, and she returned to her
manuscript and research material.
Many books, old and new, have
been written about the Panama
Canal, but Senior's is written from
a West Indian perspective. "The early
books either ignored the majority of
the workforce or denigrated them---
they were shockingly racist."
Reading back her own manuscript,
though, she found it boring. "I'm a
storyteller," she told her Bocas audi-
ence, "regardless of what I write."
Her book needed a narrative arc.
And its real topic, she came to see,
was not the building of the canal,
though that was an incredible engi-
neering feat---as part of which, men
who had been cane-cutters became
skilled industrial workers, welding
the rivets on the 60-foot-high lock
gates, while perched on rickety
wooden platforms that sometimes
toppled over, with fatal results.
They were the real story, she felt:
"Who were the people going, and
why, and how did they change the
world back home."
From journalism she took the
technique of an opening that grabs
the reader's attention; from fiction,
the idea that it should be a book of
stories: "And stories are about peo-
Researching in the Canal Zone
Library, she found vast photographic
archives: "It was a huge engineering
journey, and I looked at them to help
me understand it. I wanted to do
the same for readers."
So her book has over 200 illus-
trations: photos, drawings, ads, maps,
newspaper clippings. She couldn't
have produced it if not for free online
sources of images: she had no fund-
ing, and UWI Press, she says, was
the only publisher to share her vision
for the book and its huge number
of pictures, which push up printing
Senior isn't an academic historian,
but she turned that to advantage,
mining popular culture to evoke life
in the canal zone and make the book
more appealing. Though her oral
histories were gone, she found a
cache of letters from canal workers
to their families. She drew on novels,
work songs, and the folk songs that
celebrated those who returned as
wealthy men (nicknamed "Colón
Man," after a town in the Panama
Isthmus)---and that made fun of
those who came home empty-hand-
ed.People of all classes and races went
from all over the Caribbean, but not
all came back. Many died, in terrible
accidents, or of yellow fever and
malaria; others stayed.
"The West Indians went not just
to build the Panama Canal for the
Americans. They built the Atlantic
coastal societies of Central America,
where there was nothing. They built
it physically---roads, railways; and
they built it culturally: they took
their culture, their churches, their
In turn, Panama gave something
to the West Indians who came home.
"These islands would have
remained colonial backwaters, but
what moved them forward was the
people who'd left and returned,"
"We know the seminal dates in
our history: the riots, the protests
against colonial rule that led to polit-
ical changes: adult suffrage, political
parties, trade unions." And that, Sen-
ior argues, was because: "The lead-
ership at every level, in every island,
had travelled to Panama."
Marcus Garvey lived there briefly,
"Travel enabled them to bring
home not just a gold watch and
money, but ideas. It's the most sig-
nificant event of the 20th century,
to me: that migration involving peo-
ple coming back home."
Senior knows about that journey
first-hand: she's lived overseas since
1989, mostly in Canada.
"I live in different worlds. I feel
privileged," she says. "But once
you've lived here beyond a certain
stage, you're rooted here."
So Senior spends time in the
Caribbean every year, and for her,
as for the migrants whose travels
she has traced, those trips are still
"coming back home."
Jamaican writer Olive Senior's book Dying to Better
Themselves won the 2015 OCM Bocas Prize for best
Caribbean non-fiction. JUDY RAYMOND tells us why.
Olive Senior at the 2015 NGC Bocas Lit Fest in Port-of-Spain. PHOTO COURTESY NGC BOCAS LIT FEST/ MARLON JAMES
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