Monday, 6 October 2014

'PANAMA' REVISITED: Journey with Olive Senior back to a storied era in the book of the moment

IF YOU BUILD IT: Senior (inset) explores the key role West Indians played in the construction of the iconic landmark.

Few Caribbean authors can skilfully navigate the tricky terrain between fiction and non-fiction and still offer their readers a compelling and deeply satisfying read. Count Jamaican-Canadian stalwart Olive Senior among those with the deftness and tenacity to get the job done — and then some.

With graceful prose and an assured voice that spirals into a captivating narrative arc, Senior's new book, Dying to Better Themselves: West Indians and the Building of the Panama Canal, wastes little time in reminding us why she's one of the region's all-time greatest literary talents. And this is no idle boast given a body of work that spans award-winning poetry (Gardening in the Tropics), short stories (Summer Lightning) and definitive culture chronicles (The Encyclopaedia of Jamaican Heritage). "When Olive Senior's A-Z of Jamaican Heritage came out, librarians thought they had died and gone to heaven," someone quipped at the Institute of Jamaica last month as Dying was being launched by the UWI Press. 

In just over 400 pages, this thick volume transports readers down memory lane to enlighten us about the pursuit of happiness, the survival struggles and the quest for a better life that inspired working-class Caribbean folks, including countless Jamaicans to embark on a mission that would culminate in the construction of the Canal — and give new meaning to the term 'Colón Man.' Overall, it's a history lesson whose timeliness can't be denied given this year's centenary of the canal's completion. 

Whole chapters are dedicated to the work the West Indians undertook in storied areas like Colón and Culebra, the lives they led with meagre resources, low wages and yellow fever outbreaks, and how the immigrants fared when the construction was over. But you won't be able to tear yourself away from the pages when Senior delves into climatic topis like how they loved, laughed and prayed — and what they ultimately brought back home. 

In the meantime, historical non-fiction may be old hat for Senior, but her poems remain arguably the most cherished reader favourites in her canon. "I haven't written poetry in years," the author fessed up to TALLAWAH. "I've been too busy with this book to get into any new poetry. But there's a consolation, she hastens to reveal. Her latest story collection, The Pain Tree (featuring new and selected works) is due out in the spring of 2015.

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