Olive Senior

Olive Senior
Born23 December 1941
Trelawny, Cockpit Country, Jamaica
Occupationpoet, novelist, short-story and non-fiction writer
Notable worksGardening 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 based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. She was awarded the Musgrave Gold Medal in 2005 by the Institute of Jamaica for her contributions to literature.[2]

Life and career

Born in rural Jamaica in Trelawny, Cockpit Country, Olive Senior was the seventh of 10 children.[1] Senior attended Montego Bay High School for Girls. At nineteen, 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] and as a Commonwealth scholar attended Carleton University School of Journalism in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

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.[5]

In 1987 Senior won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for her first collection of stories. After Hurricane Gilbert hit Jamaica in 1988, Senior moved to Europe, where she lived in Portugal, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, before settling in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in the early 1990s.

In 2019 she was awarded the Matt Cohen Award by the Writers' Trust of Canada in honour of her career as a writer.[6]

Literary works

Senior has published four collections of poems: Talking of Trees (1985), Gardening in the Tropics (1994), Over the Roofs of the World (2005) and Shell (2007). Her short story collection Summer Lightning (1986) won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize;[7] it was followed by Arrival of the Snake Woman(also includes "The Two Grandmothers" which is one of her best short stories) (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.[8]

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.[9][10]

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."[11]

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.[12] 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 Tropics in particular being used as educational textbooks.[12]


Recent translations include: ZigZag, translated into French by Christine Raguet, Geneva: Zoe, 2010;[13] Eclairs de chaleur, translated into French by Christine Raguet, Geneva: Zoe, 2011,[14] 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;[15] Das Erscheinen der Schlangenfrau (trans: Wolfgang Binder) Germany: Dipa/Verlag, 1996, and Unionsverlag, 2003; a Book Club Selection, The Berne Declaration, Switzerland, 1996.[16]

A bilingual (English and French) book of Senior's poetry, Un Pipirit M'a Dit/A Little Bird Told Me was released in 2014.[17]

Gardening in the tropics,translated into Arabic by Mamoun Zaidei ,published by NCCAL.KWAIT.2017

Selected awards and honours

  • 1987: Commonwealth Writers' Prize, for Summer Lightning and Other Stories[7]
  • 1988: Silver Musgrave Medal[2]
  • 1994: Hawthornden Fellow, Scotland[18]
  • 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[19]
  • 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[20]
  • 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[21]
  • 2015: OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, winner of non-fiction category[22]
  • 2016: OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, winner of fiction category and overall winner[23]

Selected bibliography


  • 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

  • Summer Lightning and Other Stories, Longman, 1986. ISBN 978-0582786271
  • Arrival of the Snake-Woman, Longman, 1989. (Includes The Two Grandmothers). ISBN 978-0582031708
  • Discerner of Hearts, McClelland & Stewart, 1995. ISBN 978-0771080548
  • The Pain Tree, Cormorant, 2015. ISBN 978-1-77086-434-4


  • Dancing Lessons, Cormorant Books, 2011. ISBN 978-1770860476

Children's literature

  • Birthday Suit, Annick Press, 2012
  • Anna Carries Water, Tradewind, 2013
  • Boonoonoonous Hair, Tradewind, 2019


  • 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. ^ Deborah Dundas, "Andre Alexis, Jenny Heijun Wills are big winners at Writers’ Trust Awards". Toronto Star, November 5, 2019.
  7. ^ a b "Commonwealth Book Prize", Encyclopædia Britannica.
  8. ^ "Announcing The 2016 OCM Bocas Prize Shortlist" Archived 9 May 2016 at the Wayback Machine, NGC Bocas Lit Fest, 24 March 2016.
  9. ^ "The 2015 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature shortlist" Archived 3 February 2015 at the Wayback Machine, NGC Bocas Lit Fest, 24 March 2016.
  10. ^ "Olive Senior Wins The 2016 OCM Bocas Prize" Archived 9 May 2016 at the Wayback Machine, Bocas News, Bocas Lit Fest, 2 May 2016.
  11. ^ Laura Tanna, "One-on-one with Olive Senior (Part 3)", Jamaica Gleaner, 7 November 2004.
  12. ^ a b Author bio, Olive Senior website.
  13. ^ Zigzag : Et autres nouvelles de la Jamaïque, Editions Zoé, ISBN 978-2881826658.
  14. ^ Eclairs de chaleur : Et autres nouvelles, Editions Zoé, ISBN 978-2881826924.
  15. ^ Zomerweerlicht, Ambo/Anthos Uitgevers, ISBN 978-9026311284.
  16. ^ Das Erscheinen der Schlangenfrau at Amazon.
  17. ^ Un pipiri m'a dit : A little bird told me, Le Castor Astral, ISBN 978-2859209902. Amazon.
  18. ^ Hawthornden Castle Fellowship.
  19. ^ "F. G. Bressani Literary Prize", Italian Cultural Centre.
  20. ^ "Governor-General's Literary Awards – Poetry", Canadian Books & Authors.
  21. ^ Christina Cooke and Nailah King, "Black History Month: Our Favourite Canadian Writers", Room Magazine.
  22. ^ "Top three books named for 2015 OCM Bocas Prize" Archived 5 April 2015 at the Wayback Machine, NGC Bocas Lit Fest, 31 March 2015.
  23. ^ "Toronto's Olive Senior wins overall 2016 OCM Bocas Prize", CBC Books, 2 May 2016.

Interviews in the Jamaica Gleaner:

External links

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