by Shivanee Ramlochan, 2013 NGC Bocas Lit Fest Blogger.
Nary a free seat could be scrounged at Olive Senior’s packed Old Fire Station one on one session, on April 26th, in conversation with 2013 OCM Fiction judging chair, Michael Bucknor. Senior’s life was meant to be lensed beneath the spotlight, but the veteran writer skilfully and graciously dodged the vast majority of probing, personal queries put to her. Those answers she graciously offered added to the audience’s perception of the fullness of her life in words. For instance, early on in the session, Senior remarked that she grew up a child of both the written and oral tradition. Reading deeply and voraciously, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prizewinning author said, became essential to her childhood — she read, she smiled, “almost in self-defense, because the company of adults did not please me.”
Many of the things Senior declared could be compiled into a manifesto of inspiration for determined fledgling writers (and might well be, if the starry-eyed heroine worship in the expressions of several secondary school students were to believed – Senior’s work is currently on the CAPE English Literature syllabus). Here are a few of her self-declaring gems of wisdom:
“Writing is my imperative.” – on the early realization that she had to allow her characters to speak in the language they used in real life, and on growing into the strengths and truths of a writing voice that represented her community and society.
“I’ve never written in response to commercial requirements.” – on avoiding the specific terms of “novelist”; “poet” or “short fiction writer”, which she described as being terms that tend to lend themselves to ideas of marketability. Senior refers to herself simply as a writer.
Senior read a passage from her 2011 novel, Dancing Lessons, which was shortlisted for the 2012 Commonwealth Book Prize. The protagonist of Dancing Lessons is, in Senior’s words, “a countrywoman silent most or all of her life”. In the writing of this, her inaugural novel, Senior expressed the desire to write an affirmative, positive sort of narrative, as well as to tell a story that could show the possibility of change at any age.
Her advice to young, aspiring writers was both straightforward and steadfast: “Learn your craft. Learn your tools and how to use them,” Senior advised. The best way to learn, she added, was to involve oneself deeply and rigorously in the practice of two things: writing, and reading. As for the fickleness of inspiration, Senior made reference to her beloved poet, Pablo Neruda, as an antidote against ennui:
“Never say you have nothing to write about. You can write about anything, even thread.”
Photograph by Maria Nunes, Official Festival Photographer.