STORYTELLER: “I don’t say I’m a novelist or a poet. I’m a writer.”
Olive Senior has planted herself in the shade of a gigantic deciduous tree, sitting right beneath its red-and-white sign marked Silence Zone. So on this warm Saturday afternoon in Treasure Beach it’s easy to locate her among the large Calabash crowd. About an hour from now, the celebrated Jamaican writer will be reading passages from her delightful debut novel, Dancing Lessons, published earlier this year to immediate acclaim and a handful of award nominations, including the Amazon.ca First Novel Award and the Commonwealth Book Prize.
“The response from people, particularly those who know the culture, has been terrific,” Senior tells TALLAWAH of Dancing’s success. “People see aspects of their lives in the book, and they tell me this. And it is sort of the greatest gift to a writer when readers say the writing is real and is about real people. I’m really thrilled by the feedback I’ve been getting.”
At the same time, Senior admits that she had reservations about putting the book out there. After all, she was wading into uncharted waters. “It’s my first novel and I was unsure of what I’d done and how it would be received. I feel much more confident about my short stories and poetry because I’m more experienced there,” says the Canada-based author, whose 1986 collection Summer Lightning won her the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize. “So the novel was a new experience for me. I felt like a new writer, and to be honest I wasn’t sure how it was going to be received.”
Even so, Senior pointedly refuses to put any limits on her craft. To wit, she recently published Birthday Suit (Annick Press), which marks her foray into kiddie lit. “I write in all genres,” she says. What about plays? I ask her. “I’ve been trying to write a play, but I haven’t been successful at it. It’s different, so I don’t know if I’ll get anywhere with it,” she says. “But I want to explore all forms of writing. I’m a writer. I don’t say I’m a novelist or a poet. I’m a writer.”
And like many others in her profession, writing is seriously a fundamental part of who Olive Senior has always been. “It’s my imperative,” she tells me. “I’ve always written. It’s what I do. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do. It’s how I define myself.”