Colonialism and Imperialism in Olive Senior’s “Summer Lightning”
Olive Marjorie Senior, born in 1941 in Trelawny, Jamaica, is a Jamaican poet and short story writer currently living in Canada. She is regarded as a distinctive voice in West Indian literature, having explored issues as cultural nationalism, identity, class stratification, and the oppressive impact of religion on women and the poor. Her portraits of the lives of Jamaican children and women struggling to transcend ethnic, class, and gender roles are viewed as notable literary achievements of West Indian fiction. I have chosen this writer because many of Senior's stories are concerned with issues of ethnicity and identity. Very important is the fact that Senior denounces the role of Christianity in Jamaica as a pillar of colonial culture, in that it has influenced the education of the people. Before emancipation, African slaves were denied education; being religious people, they looked for comfort in their native cults such as Myalism, Voodoo, Shango etc. These religious practices were soon suppressed by the missionaries who arrived to convert the heathens to Christianity; although on the one hand this process brought some relief because the word of God taught them that they were not the only ones who had been oppressed, they could not deny the fact that the Jesus in the religious pictures was white. So, if whites were His children on earth, God also perpetuated the social inferiority of blacks. In her book on Jamaican culture, A-Z of Jamaican Heritage (1984), Senior claims that «the Church of England was the church of the ruling class and planters and therefore supported the institution of slavery». Consequently, they began to search back to the African roots, for instance to Kumina. The Revivalist and Kumina cults, together with Rastafarianism, remain, however, minor religions, and in the post-emancipation era Christianity has been embraced by an overwhelming majority. Religion has always been of considerable importance in educational processes. I also consider that Senior uses language in order to critiques the imperialism past and present by escaping from the “literary imprisonment” of Standard English, the language of the colonizer. Olive Senior’s use of Jamaican Creole proves that she has always maintained a special relation with her homeland. She has often used Creole in her narratives, not only for comic purposes, but also to draw a realistic portrait of rural Jamaican society and to question the supremacy of British culture and values in favour of an indigenous mode of expression with strong links with Africa. Code-switching between Jamaican Creole – although transformed in order to be understood by readers – and Standard English reflects the shift between the two households where Senior spent her childhood: her parents’ house in Trelawny Parish, a rural area near Montego Bay, and her well-off relatives’ house in Kingston. This language shift is common in Jamaica – as in all the other islands in the Caribbean – where Standard English is the official language in schools, media and public administration, while people switch to Creole in all informal situations. The fact that in Senior’s Summer Lightning (1986) the Creole-speaking characters are of humble origins and that the Creole-speaking Narrator is often a child could reinforce the notion of the vernacular as a lower linguistic medium, used by speakers who cannot master Standard English. Summer Lightning and Other Stories (1986), Senior's first collection of short fiction, won the Commonwealth Writers Prize; it consists of ten short stories set in rural Jamaican communities, utilizes Jamaican Creole, and has as focus the perspective of poor, rural children. What I consider very interesting in what concerns this collection of short stories is that Senior uses child protagonists in order to highlight and criticize some aspects of the society they grow in, and the destructive quality these have on...
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