Novel Niche: A Place for Books

Shakirah Bourne’s Thoughts on Summer Lightning, by Olive Senior

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Published in 1986 by Longman Books.

Winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, 1987.

A good piece of literary fiction focuses on style, psychological depth and deep, powerful characters. It often tackles important issues that are usually controversial and complex, and the writing not only entertains the reader, but allows for some introspection on society, and perception of self. Olive Senior’s Summer Lightning and Other Stories encompasses all of the aforementioned elements, highlighting several social issues in Jamaica, through the eyes of naive and engaging characters.

Olive Senior’s writing style is very simple and conversational, although it addresses deep issues. It is entertaining, with sharp details, often ironic and filled with humorous dialogue. For instance, when a protagonist Beccka innocently asks the Archdeacon “Please Sir, do angels wear brassieres?” or when Beccka is told to pray for her Aunt Mary and responds, “No. Not praying for nobody that tek weh mi best glassy eye marble”. One of the more outstanding qualities of her work is Senior’s ability to combine dialect and Standard English, reflecting the rhythmic language and slang of Jamaica without the general reader losing any understandability of the plot and story. For example, a quote from the story “Real Old Time T’ing”,

“Nuh the one-eye Doris he still have a look after him and she so busy dropping pickney year after year that what she know bout keeping house could write on postage stamp.”

Without the use of dialect, some of the words would be less impactful on the reader. Moreover, her use of dialect and Standard English not only differentiates characters, setting natives and foreigners apart, but symbolizes themes such as social class and acceptance/rejection of culture. This is seen in the story, “Ascot”, where the narrator and Ascot grew up in the same village. The narrator stayed in the village and continued to speak Jamaican English and Patois, as opposed to Ascot who left for America to improve his life, which meant disregarding Jamaican Creole and speaking in Standard English with an American accent.

Style and language are just a few ways Olive Senior illustrate themes in her stories, enriching their psychological depth. One seemingly simple narrative is filled with multilayered issues with societal contradictions and social perceptions. The story “Summer Lightning” tells of a young boy living with his aunt and uncle, who is given a small garden room to play in. It is his secret and private room until an old man who stays with his family a few weeks every year “for nerves” arrives, and as the story evolves we learn that the old man has vulgar intentions for the boy. This simple story explores religion; the perception of Rastafarianism in particular, as the aunt both feared and respected one of the characters, Bro. Justice. Bro. Justice approached the boy’s aunt out of concern for the boy’s safety and she “took it as an occasion to lecture him about his appearance, his manners, his attitude…and heard nothing of his mutterings of “Sodom” and “sin”. Bro. Justice’s warnings could have also been ignored because the old man was probably a wealthy, white man, thus exploring the theme of status, and how injustices are ignored depending on a person’s colour, wealth and class. Senior uses a powerful use of symbolism in this story; the only character that has a name, Bro. Justice is used as a representation of Rastafarian culture, as well as justice.

Senior also makes good use of symbolism in “The Boy Who Loved Ice Cream” where the ice cream represented the loss of an object. Throughout the entire story Benjy’s aching love for ice cream, which he had never tasted, was described in vivid detail, “you didn’t chew it, but if you held it in your tongue long enough it vanished, leaving an after-trace that lingered and lingered like a beautiful dream”. Alas, with such beautiful description, the reader empathized with the Benjy’s thirst for the unknown, and is devastated when his dream to taste ice cream is tragically destroyed because of the suspicious and jealous nature of his father:

Benjy is crying Papa Papa and everything is happening so quickly he doesn’t know the point at which he loses the ice cream…and he cannot understand why Papa has let go of his hand and shouting and why Mama isn’t laughing with the man anymore…”.

Senior illustrates the theme of relationships through Benjy’s eyes, allowing the message to be so much more powerful, as it is a clear glimpse of the society, seeing all the irrationalities and inequalities without bias. All of her characters are unique, and the reader becomes easily attached, cheering when they are victorious and sharing in every loss and pain.

Overall, Senior’s work is the full Caribbean package; full of life and excitement, explores many societal issues and themes, history, and culture, all the while being simple to read and humourous. For these reasons, I believe that it is an excellent portrayal of an example of valuable literary fiction.

Shakirah Bourne is an award winning short story writer from Barbados who is not afraid to voice what others try to keep secret.

As a fellow participant in The Cropper Writers’ Residential Workshop for 2010, I was honoured and pleased to interact with Shakirah and her distinctive writing style! Check out her Twitter and Facebook Fan Page, both dedicated to providing resources and advice for struggling up-and-coming writers.

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