Arrival of the Snake Woman
by Olive Senior
Toronto, ON: TSAR, 2009
176 pp. $20.95
Arrival of the Snake Woman is Senior's most recent in a long line of accomplishments, including many awards, like the Norman Washington Manley Foundation Award for Excellence for preserving Jamaican cultural heritage. These stories do share a Jamaican setting, but otherwise showcase Senior's masterful range as a storyteller. Characters vary in age, race, class, gender and even era, but each story is rich and economical, tangible with the heat, sweat, and life of the Jamaican landscape, and never without a the gentle bite of subtle social commentary.
A Toronto-based author, Senior turns to her memory and imagination to return to her birthplace, choosing always to show rather than tell. This edition of the book features an afterword by scholar H. Nigel Thomas, and includes excerpts from interviews with Senior. Thomas addresses Senior's use of “nation language,” or writing the local dialect of a place (in this case Jamaican Creole) into an English language story as a form of reclaiming the sound or language of a colonial place. When asked about her political motives, Senior responds: “I took the decision to allow my characters to speak as they did in real life. It's a choice that came to me intuitively rather than ideologically. Of course, I've come to learn how significant that choice was, as I became acquainted with the debate of language as a political issue.” As a result, the political bent of her stories rises out of their authenticity, and never through preaching.
One of the recurring themes in the collection is race and difference. The title story, for example, tells of the first foreigner the small Jamaican town of Mount Rose has ever seen. They are fascinated and threatened by this “Miss Coolie,” sure she is at once an exotic and sexy temptress, a child of the devil, a caring mother, and a successful businesswoman. Her presence is a challenge to the tradition and stasis of the small town, and her young friend, the narrator, begins to see his home, its authorities, and his own future in a new light. In this story, she is revealed as neither a saviour nor a devil, and neither is anyone else, including the cruel white priest who refuses her sick child medicine. Each character is written compassionately, and we learn not about human intolerance or cruelty but about the complex shifts that are catalysed by the Other.
The priest is not the only villain forgiven in these stories. Discrimination arises in these communities because of a fault endemic in the culture, rather than in the people themselves. Senior prefers to look at what happens between black and white, literally and figuratively. Many of these characters are obsessed with the exact shade of another's skin. In one story, the narrator comments, “All in all Lily has inherited the best features of both parents but one thing people cannot understand is how Mr and Mrs DaSilva are so dark (they really are, when you think of it, but money whitens is the motto today) and Lily has come out almost white (white, you would say if you didn't know any better).” In another story, a little girl writes to her mother of her experiences with her two grandmothers, one black, one white. She encounters such scrutiny about the colour of her skin and texture of her hair that when someone calls her beautiful, she writes: “Mummy, how can I be beautiful my skin is so dark darker than yours and Maureen's and Jason's and Auntie Rita's and my hair is so coarse not like yours or Maureen's but then Maureen's father is white. Is that why Maureen called me a nigger?”
Children like this recur in the collection, and their innocent perspectives only throw the sickness of the world around them into sharp relief. Senior says her own childhood was quite lonely, and her stories “reflected the fact that I felt like an isolated, lonely child.” With issues of race, class, sexism and even child abuse, Senior is identifying the younger generation as those who must be saved, given strength and the ability to change things, while pleading with the older generation to provide guidance in a confusing world. The final story of the collection, “Lily, Lily,” has a young girl impregnanted, hidden, and abused, only to return years later empowered as a mother who can protect her daughter from the same suffering. Senior identifies more than a few social problems in her collection of stories, but ultimately leaves us with hope and confidence in the little girls who eventually grow up.
In all, the collection is smart, richly imagined, never preachy, and a genuine pleasure to read. Add another accomplishment to Senior's long list.
J.C. Peters is a writer, reader, radio host, spoken word performer, and part-time yogi living in Vancouver. She recieved a Master's degree from McGill University in 2008 with a specialization in Canadian Literature, and now hosts and produces a radio show devoted to Canadian writing caled AudioText, on CITR 101.9. You can keep up with her at www.jcpeters.ca